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Right-wing politics

In politics, the Right, right-wing and rightist has been defined as the support or acceptance of social hierarchy.[1][2][3] Inequality is viewed by the Right as either inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable,[1] whether it arises through traditional social differences[4] or from competition in market economies.[5][6]

The political terms Right and Left were coined during the French Revolution, and were a reference to where people sat in the French parliament. Those who sat to the right of the president's chair were broadly supportive of the institutions of Ancien R gime[7][8][9][10] The original right in France was composed of those supporting hierarchy, tradition, and clericalism.[11] The Right invoked natural law and divine law to explain the normality of social inequalities.[1] Use of the expression le droit (the right) became more prominent in France after the restoration of its monarchy in 1815, when it was applied to the Ultra-royalists.[12] In English speaking countries it was not until the 20th century that the term "right" and "left" were generally applied to their own political affairs.[13] The meaning of right-wing thus "varies across societies, historical epochs, and political systems and ideologies."[14]

Although the term originally designated traditional conservatives and reactionaries, its usage has been extended to apply to liberal conservatives, classical liberals, libertarian conservatives, Christian democrats and certain types of nationalists.[10]


History and usage of the term

5 May 1789: Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles

The political term right-wing originates from the French Revolution, when liberal deputies from the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president's chair, a habit which began in the Estates General of 1789. The nobility, members of the Second Estate, generally sat to the right. In the successive legislative assemblies, monarchists who supported the Ancien R gime were commonly referred to as rightists, because they sat on the right side. A major figure on the right was Joseph de Maistre, who argued for an authoritarian form of conservatism. Throughout the 19th century, the main line dividing Left and Right in France was between supporters of the Republic and supporters of the Monarchy.[10] On the right, the Legitimists and Ultra-royalists held counter-revolutionary views, while the Orl anists hoped to create a constitutional monarchy under their preferred branch of the royal family, a brief reality after the 1830 July Revolution.

The left, right, and center are often associated with socialism, conservatism, and liberalism respectively[15]. Some historians and social scientists seek to reduce political beliefs to class, with left, right, and center politicians representing the working, upper or middle classes.[15] Seymour Martin Lipset for example describes modern political parties as a consequence of "democratic class struggle".[16] Others draw attention to the role which religious, ethnic, and regional differences play in democratic politics.[17]

According to The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, the Right has gone through five distinct historical stages: the reactionary right, which sought a return to aristocracy and established religion; the moderate right, whose watchwords were limited government and distrust of intellectuals; the radical right, which favored a romantic and aggressive nationalism; the extreme right, associated with anti-immigration and implicit racism; and the neo-liberal right, which combined a belief in a market economy and deregulation with the traditional Right's beliefs in patriotism, elitism and law and order.[18][19]

Louis Hartz argues that in early United States there were two main opposing political groups, representing industrialists and agriculturalists, the Whigs and Democrats, and since both accepted liberal principles, they were both essentially centrist.[20] Russell Kirk claims that the American War of Independence was a conservative reaction, which sought to uphold traditional English liberties against what they took to be an abuse of power by the monarch.[21] In 1955, Seymour Martin Lipset coined the term radical right to describe those who opposed statist social reforms and foreign interventionism.[22]

Friedrich Hayek suggests that it is incorrect to view the political spectrum as a line, with socialists on the left, conservatives on the right, and liberals in the middle; instead, each group pulls at the corner of a triangle. Hayek argues that in the early Twentieth Century, socialists pulled harder, and so the entire political spectrum shifted to the left. Hayek claimed that explaining American politics in terms of European politics creates confusion, because radicals and socialists in America frequently call themselves liberals.[23]

William F. Buckley Jr., who has been called the "intellectual godfather" of the modern conservative movement in America, and who wrote the long-time column On the Right, maintained that conservatism, especially in Anglophone countries, supports individual liberty, free markets, limited government, strong national defense, and traditional moral values.[24][25][26] In the first issue of the magazine National Review in 1955, Buckley outlined his political beliefs:

Libertarians often reject being described as left or right. Leonard Read claimed that these terms were "authoritarian".[27] According to Harry Browne, "We should never define Libertarian positions in terms coined by liberals or conservatives, nor as some variant of their positions."[28] Walter Block also rejects these labels.[29]

Stephen Fisher, in his The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, asserts that in liberal democracies, the political right opposes socialism and social democracy, and that right-wing parties include philosophies of conservatism, Christian democracy, liberalism, libertarianism and nationalism. He claims that "extreme right parties (have included) elements of racism and fascism"[30]

Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell argues that the Right is made up of many different elements that have almost nothing to do with each other besides opposition to the Left: "Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the left and the right is that only the former has even a rough definition. What is called "the right" are simply the various and disparate opponents of the left. These opponents of the left may share no particular principle, much less a common agenda, and they can range from free-market libertarians to advocates of monarchy, theocracy, military dictatorship or innumerable other principles, systems and agendas."[31]


Eatwell and O'Sullivan divide the Right into five types: 'reactionary', 'radical', 'moderate', 'extreme' and 'new'. [32] Each of these "styles of thought" are seen as "responses to the left", including both liberalism and socialism, that have arisen since the French Revolution of 1789.[33]

The 'reactionary right' looks toward the past and is "aristocratic, religious and authoritarian".[34]

The 'moderate right' is typified by the writings of Edmund Burke. It is tolerant of change, provided it is gradual, and accepts some aspects of liberalism, including the rule of law and captialism, although it sees racial laissez-faire and individualism as harmful to society. Often it promotes nationalism and social welfare policies.[35]

The spectrum of right-wing politics ranges from centre-right to far right. By the late 19th century, the French political spectrum classified the center-right as Constitutional Monarchists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists, and the far right as Ultra-Royalists and Legitimists. The centre-right Gaullists in post-World War II France advocated considerable social spending on education and infrastructure development, as well as extensive economic regulation but a limited amount of the wealth redistribution measures more characteristic of social democracy.

A definition of the term "centre-right" is necessarily broad and approximate because political terms have varying meanings in different countries. Parties of the centre-right generally support liberal democracy, capitalism, the market economy (albeit with some limited government regulation), private property rights, the existence of the welfare state in some limited form, and opposition to socialism and communism. Such definitions generally include political parties that base their ideology and policies upon conservatism and economic liberalism.

The terms far right and radical right have been used by different people in conflicting ways.[36] The term far right is most often used to describe extreme nationalism, religious fundamentalism and socio-politically "reactionary" groups, as well as the less readily categorized ideologies of fascism and Nazism.[37][38][39][40] The BBC has called politician Pim Fortuyn's politics (Fortuynism) far right because of his policies on immigration and Muslims.[41] The term far right has been used by some, such as National Public Radio, to describe the rule of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.[42][43] The US Department of Homeland Security defines right-wing extremism as hate groups who target racial, ethnic or religious minorities and may be dedicated to a single issue, such as eradicating homosexuals or barring the immigration of Hispanics.[44]

The phrase is also used to describe support for ethnic nationalism.[45][46][47]


Social stratification

Right-wing politics involves in varying degrees the rejection of egalitarian objectives of left-wing politics, claiming either that equality is artificial or that the imposition of social equality is detrimental to society.[48] Right-wing ideologies and movements support social order. The original French right wing was called "the party of order" and said that France needed a strong political leader to keep order.[10] Latin Conservatism, founded by Joseph de Maistre, is uncompromising in its belief in the need for order. Maistre, like Thomas Hobbes before him, supported absolutism as the only means of avoiding violent disorder. Maistre, who fled the French Revolution, became convinced that ultra-liberal ideas, particularly Rousseau's theory of a "general will", had led to the horrors of the French Revolution and the bloodshed of the Napoleonic Wars.

Maistre also objected to the quasi-secularism and self-indulgence of some late 18th and early 19th century monarchies, and believed that state and church must remain inseparable. The principles of Maistre's Latin Conservatism were fully instituted in Spain under Francisco Franco. Religious fundamentalists have often supported the use of political power to enforce their religious beliefs.[49] While traditional right-wing politics supports legal and moral authority over those who would challenge such authority, the "Libertarian Right," in contrast with the religious Right and the nationalist Right, is anti-authoritarian.

British conservative scholar R. J. White rejects egalitarianism, stating: "Men are equal before God and the laws, but unequal in all else; hierarchy is the order of nature, and privilege is the reward of honourable service".[50] American conservative Russell Kirk also rejects egalitarianism as imposing sameness, staying: "Men are created different; and a government that ignores this law becomes an unjust government for it sacrifices nobility to mediocrity".[50] Libertarians reject collective or state-imposed equality as undermining reward for personal merit, initiative, and enterprise. In their view, it is unjust, limits personal freedom, and leads to social uniformity and mediocrity.[50]

Natural law and/or traditionalism

Right-wing politics typically justifies a hierarchical society on the basis of natural law or tradition.[51][52][53][54][55] To varying degrees, the Right rejects the egalitarian objectives of left-wing politics, claiming that the imposition of equality is detrimental to society.[48]

Traditionalism has existed in various forms in the West since its beginning, however it was in the 18th century that modern traditionalist conservatism emerged and even then it was not until the mid-twentieth century in the United States that it was an organized intellectual force. Traditionalism was found in the writings of a group of U.S. university professors (labeled the "New Conservatives" by the popular press) who rejected the notions of individualism, liberalism, modernity, and social progress, promoted cultural and educational renewal,[56] and revived interest in what T. S. Eliot referred to as "the permanent things" (those perennial truths which endure from age to age and those basic institutions that ground society such as the church, the family, the state, and community life.)

The term "family values" has had different meanings in different cultures. In the late 20th- and early 21st Centuries, the term has been frequently used in political debate, especially by social and religious conservatives, who believe that the world has seen a decline in family values since the end of the Second World War.[57] The term has been used as a buzzword by right-wing parties such as the Republican Party in the United States, the Family First Party in Australia, the Conservative party in the United Kingdom and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India. Right-wing supporters of "family values" generally oppose abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and adultery. Leftists and feminists often accuse the right of supporting patriarchy and traditional, hierarchical gender roles.


In France, Nationalism was originally a left-wing and Republican ideology, as the French exception consisted in it being a Republican regime.[58] Nationalism became a main trait of the right wing after the period of boulangisme and, moreover, of the far-right after the Dreyfus Affair.[59] These right-wing nationalists endorsed ethnic nationalism and believed in defining a "true" national identity and defending it from elements deemed not part of the identity and corrupt.[10] They also promoted Social Darwinism, applying the concept of "survival of the fittest" to nations and races.[60] Right-wing nationalism was influenced by Romantic nationalism in which the state derives its political legitimacy as an organic consequence of the unity of those it governs. This includes, depending on the particular manner of practice, the language, race, culture, religion and customs of the "nation" in its primal sense of those who were "born" within its culture.

Linked with right-wing nationalism is cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatism supports the preservation of the heritage of a nation or culture.


Historically the Right has advocated preserving the wealth and power of aristocrats and nobles. Reactionary right-wing politics involves the creation or promotion of a social hierarchy.[61] Right-wing politics views social and economic hierarchies as either natural or normal and rejects attempts to remove such hierarchies. For example, right-wing politicians in France during the French Revolution opposed the removal of the monarchy and aristocratic privilege.[7] Traditional rightists were uncomfortable with liberal capitalism. Particularly in continental Europe, many conservatives have been uncomfortable with the impact of capitalism upon culture and traditions. The conservative opposition to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the development of individualistic liberalism as a political theory and as institutionalized social practices sought to retain traditional social hierarchies, practices and institutions. There has also been a conservative protectionist opposition to certain types of international capitalism. There are still right-wing movements, notably American paleoconservatives, that are often in opposition to capitalist ethics and the effects they have on society as a whole, which they see as infringing upon or decaying social traditions or hierarchies that are essential for social order. Conservative authoritarians and those on the far right have supported corporatism.[62]

In modern times the phrase "right-wing" has sometimes been used to describe laissez-faire capitalism. In Europe, capitalists formed alliances with the Right during their conflict with workers after 1848. In France, the right's support of capitalism can be traced to the late 19th century.[10] The so-called neoliberal right, popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, combines support for free markets, privatisation, and deregulation with traditional rightist beliefs.[54] Right-wing libertarianism (sometimes known as libertarian conservatism or conservative libertarianism) supports a decentralized economy based on economic freedom, and advocates policies such as property rights, free markets and free trade. Russell Kirk believed that freedom and property rights were interlinked.[63] Anthony Gregory has written that right-wing, or conservative libertarianism, "can refer to any number of varying and at times mutually exclusive political orientations." He listed some as: being "interested mainly in 'economic freedoms'"; following the "conservative lifestyle of right-libertarians"; seeking "others to embrace their own conservative lifestyle"; considering big business "as a great victim of the state"; favoring a "strong national defense"; having "an Old Right opposition to empire." He holds that the issue is not right or left but "whether a person sees the state as a major hazard or just another institution to be reformed and directed toward a political goal."[64]

The Right often advocates equality of opportunities as an alternative to equality of outcome. Russell Kirk, a major figure of American conservatism included "civilized society requires orders and classes" as one of the "canons" of conservatism.[63] Western-style corporate capitalism but not full-fledged laissez-faire economics or individual autonomy was adopted by reformist governments in Singapore and Taiwan during a period of authoritarian rule and economic reform. These countries continue to venerate tradition in what has been described an "Asian model" of capitalism.


Right-wing populism is a combination of ethno-nationalism with anti-elitist populist rhetoric and a radical critique of existing political institutions. According to Margaret Canovan, a right-wing populist is "...a charismatic leader, using the tactics of politicians populism to go past the politicians and intellectual elite and appeal to the reactionary sentiments of the populace, often buttressing his claim to speak for the people by the use of referendums."

There are elements of populism in traditionalist conservatism. While many traditionalist conservatives live in urban centers, the countryside and the values of rural life are prized highly (sometimes even being romanticized, as in pastoral poetry). The principles of agrarianism (i.e., preserving the small family farm, open land, the conservation of natural resource, and stewardship of the land) are central to a traditionalist's understanding of rural life.

One example of right-wing populists were the Southern Agrarians of the United States. They bemoaned the increasing loss of Southern identity and culture to industrialization. They believed that the traditional agrarian roots of the United States, which dated back to the nation's founding in the 18th century, were important to its nature. Their manifesto was a critique of the rapid industrialization and urbanization during the first few decades of the 20th century in the southern United States. It posited an alternative based on a return to the more traditionally rural and local culture, and agrarian American values. The group opposed the changes in the US that were leading it to become more urban, national/international, and industrial. Because the book was published at the opening (1930) of what would eventually become the Great Depression, some viewed it as particularly prescient. The book's stance was anti-communist.


Government support for the majority religion has from the beginning of the movement been a major part of right-wing politics. The original French right wing supported the power of the Roman Catholic Church and opposed the secularization proposed by the anti-clerical forces of the Left.[10] Religious figures with right-wing views, as in the Roman Catholic Church after the French Revolution, typically called for the creation or restoration of the authority of religious institutions and the social hierarchy that was associated with religion.[65] Joseph de Maistre argued for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters. According to Maistre, only governments founded upon a Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies but especially in Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodshed that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, as in the French Revolution.

The Christian right is a major political force in the West, supported by the Republican Party in the United States and by Christian Democratic parties in Europe. They generally support laws upholding religious values, and laws against illegal immigration.[66] Hindu nationalism has been a part of right-wing politics in India. A form of conservative populism, the movement has attracted not only privileged groups fearing encroachment on their dominant positions, but also "plebeian" and impoverished groups seeking recognition around a majoritarian rhetoric of cultural pride, order, and national strength.[67] Many Islamist groups have been associated with the right, such as the Great Union Party,[68] the Felicity Party[69] of Turkey and the Combatant Clergy Association/Association of Militant Clergy[70][71] and the Islamic Society of Engineers[72][73] of Iran.

Today many social and religious conservatives find themselves in opposition to scientific organizations over such topics as evolution and the global warming debate.[74][75][76][77][78][79]


Early communist movements were at odds with the traditional monarchies that ruled over much of the European continent at the time. Many European monarchies outlawed the public expression of communist views, and the Communist Manifesto began "A spectre is haunting Europe," suggesting that monarchs feared for their thrones. Advocacy of communism was illegal in the Russian Empire, the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, the three most powerful monarchies in continental Europe prior to World War I. Many Monarchists (except Constitutional Monarchists) viewed inequality in wealth and political power as resulting from a divine natural order. By World War I however, in most European monarchies, the Divine Right of Kings had become discredited and replaced by liberal and nationalist movements. Most European monarchs became figureheads; elected governments held the real power. The most conservative European monarchy, the Russian Empire, was replaced by the communist Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution inspired a series of other communist revolutions across Europe in the years 1917 1922. Many of these, such as the German Revolution, were defeated by nationalist and monarchist military units.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the fading of traditional right-wing politics. The mantle of conservative anti-communism was taken up by the rising fascist movements on the one hand, and by American-inspired liberal conservatives on the other. When communist groups and political parties began appearing around the world, as in the Republic of China in the 1920s, their opponents were usually colonial authorities or local nationalist movements.

After World War II, communism became a global phenomenon, and anti-communism became an integral part of the domestic and foreign policies of the United States and its NATO allies. Conservatism in the post-war era abandoned its monarchist and aristocratic roots, focusing instead on patriotism, religion, and nationalism. Communists were also enemies of capitalism, portraying Wall Street as the oppressor of the masses. The United States made anti-communism the top priority of its foreign policy, and many American conservatives sought to combat what they saw as communist influence at home. This led to the adoption of a number of domestic policies that are collectively known under the term "McCarthyism". Throughout the Cold War, conservative governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America turned to the United States for political and economic support.

See also



  • Berlet, Chip. "When Alienation turns Right". In Langman, Lauren and Kalekin-Fishman (Eds.) The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006 ISBN 0742518353, 9780742518353
  • Davies, Peter. The Extreme Right in France, 1789 to the Present: From De Maistre to Le Pen. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002 ISBN 0415239826, 9780415239820
  • Eatwell, Roger. "Introduction: the new extreme right challenge". In Eatwell, Roger and Muddle, Cas (Eds.) Western Democracies and the new Extreme Right Challenge. London, UK: Routledge, 2004 ISBN 0415369711, 9780415369718
  • Eatwell, Roger. "Conclusion: The 'End of Ideology'". In Eatwell, Roger and Wright, Anthony (Eds.) Contemporary Political Ideologies. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999 ISBN 082645173X, 9780826451736

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