The fundamental differences between left-wing and right-wing ideologies center around the the rights of individuals vs. the power of the government. Left-wing beliefs are liberal in that they believe society is best served with an expanded role for the government. People on the right believe that the best outcome for society is achieved when individual rights and civil liberties are paramount and the role — and especially the power — of the government is minimized.

Examples of an expanded role for the government include entitlement programs such as social security and Medicare, Medicaid, universal healthcare, food stamps, free public education, unemployment benefits, strong environmental laws, and other regulations on industries. Right wing ideology would favor market-based solutions to the issues that these government programs aim to tackle. For example, encouraging a freer marketplace for healthcare, driven by consumer choice to drive down costs. Or privately held retirement accounts like 401(k) plans instead of government-guaranteed Social Security.

Comparison chart

Left Wing versus Right Wing comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartLeft WingRight Wing
Political Philosophy Liberal Conservative
Economic Policy Income equality; higher tax rates on the wealthy; government spending on social programs and infrastructure; stronger regulations on business. Lower taxes and less regulation on businesses; reduced government spending; balanced budget;
Healthcare Policy Believe that access to healthcare is one of the fundamental rights of all citizens. Support universal healthcare, the Affordable Care Act, expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. Oppose government-provided universal healthcare and the Affordable Care Act. Favor competition to Medicare from private insurance companies; oppose Medicaid expansion.
Immigration Policy Pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; moratorium on deportations or prosecutions of undocumented immigrants who are young adults and have no criminal record. No "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants; stronger border patrol and fence to check illegal immigration. Belief that illegal immigration is lowering wages for citizens and documented immigrants.
Education Policy Favor expanded free, public education. Believe parents who want to home-school their kids or send them to private school should be able to get vouchers for opting out of the public school system. Generally not opposed to Public education.
Views on Abortion Generally in favor of abortion rights, and stem cell research. Generally against abortion and opposed to stem cell research.
Views on Gay Rights Generally support gay marriage; support anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT against workplace discrimination. Generally opposed to gay marriage; opposed to certain anti-discrimination laws because they believe such laws conflict with certain religious beliefs and restrict freedom of religion.
Views on Gun Rights In favor of gun control laws like background checks or waiting periods before buying a gun; banning automatic weapons; and disallowing concealed weapons. Strongly opposed to gun control laws; strong proponents of the Second Amendment.
Voter ID Laws Against voter ID laws citing undue burden on lower income groups causing them to be disenfranchised. For voter identification laws to combat voter fraud.
% of U.S. population self-identifying 23% 38%
Associated Political Parties Democratic Party, Green, Socialist Republican Party; Libertarians; Constitutional Party
Associated Media The New York Times, MSNBC National Review, Fox News
Ideologies Social Democracy; Federalism; Socialism, Communism; Collectivism; Marxism Capitalism; Conservatism
Famous Proponents of Ideology Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Einstein, Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, Noam Chomsky, Warren Buffett. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Washington, Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Tony Abbott, Mitt Romney

Origins in France

The political terms left wing and right wing originated in the 18th century during the French Revolution. They are based on the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly — those who sat on the left of the chair of the parliamentary president supported the revolution and a secular republic, and opposed the monarchy of the old regime. The people on the left were in favor of radical change, socialism and republicanism i.e. a strong French republic instead of the monarchy.

Those who sat to the right supported the institutions of the monarchist old regime or Ancien Régime. The stronger your opposition to radical change and desire to preserve traditional society, the more you were to the right. Tradition, institutional religion and privatization of economy were considered the core values of the right-wing.

Social Policies

A variety of social issues in the U.S. divide the left and right. These include abortion, the death penalty, drug policy, gay rights, women's rights, separation of church and state, gun rights, and healthcare policy. In general, the left wing philosophy believes in "one for all and all for one," looking to the government to support those who cannot support themselves. The right wing, on the other hand believes supporting individuals in need is not the most efficient way to optimize government resources, and relies on the private sector and charitable institutions for the same.

Abortion

The left wing generally supports abortion rights, but does not outwardly and necessarily believe that abortion is a good thing. Those on the right, largely due to religious beliefs, would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned to make abortions illegal. Some majority-right states have enacted legislation recently that would make it harder for women to attain abortions while not outlawing it entirely.

The right wing believes that a fetus is a living person and that abortion is, therefore, murder. Some people make an exception for cases involving rape and incest, but some do not.

Left-wingers believe that women should have control over their bodies and that outlawing abortion infringes on women's reproductive rights. Some also claim that making abortions illegal will only force them underground, resulting in untrained, non-physicians performing botched abortions and risking women's lives. Some other arguments by the pro-life and pro-choice factions are described here.

Related issues

Some issues are closely related to abortion rights, including:

The Death Penalty

Many on the left believe that the death penalty is barbaric and does not deter crime. Meanwhile, the right generally believes that certain crimes deserve death as a punishment, somewhat akin to the "an eye for an eye" doctrine. A debate over the fairness of the criminal justice system has emerged, with the left asserting that many on death row may be innocent.

Opponents of the death penalty cite the following reasons for their position:

Proponents believe that:

Gay Rights

Almost without exception, those on the left support gay marriage, and other gay rights issues like adoption rights and non-discrimination at work or in business.

Most on the right believe marriage is strictly an institution based on the union of a man and a woman, and see gay unions as an aberration from the norm. People on the right also advocate for the right of employers (especially religious institutions, including Catholic hospitals) to choose not to employ gay individuals.

Another issue of divergence on gay rights is businesses choosing their customers. For example, a florist in Washington state refused to do the flower arrangement for a gay wedding. She was sued for discrimination. In a situation like this, people on the right generally support the business owner while those on the left support the customers.

Religion

Some people on the political right believe that religious doctrine, such as the 10 Commandments, should play a role in government. Some on the right have sought to have such Christian documents enshrined near government buildings, as according to them, the government should abide by the Bible when it comes to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

A significant portion on the left identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. Regardless of their religious beliefs, people on the left strongly believe in a secular government and the separation of church and state.

Gun Rights

While some on the right are moving from strongly and wholly supporting the Second Amendment to accepting a ban on assault weapons, many still stand firmly in support of the right to bear arms. Their argument is that guns don't kill people; people kill people, and every citizen should retain the right to defend himself. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the U.S. constitution, and any attempt to regulate gun sales infringes on this right.

The left is in favor of restricting gun ownership altogether, or at least banning automatic or assault weapons. This video with its black humor is the left's take on the issue of gun control.

Morality

University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has studied moral values of people on different parts of the political spectrum. Here is a video of Professor Haidt explaining his findings in a TED talk:

Media

It used to be that the right wing had a very strong talk-radio presence, while the left had a strong presence in print media. In recent years, media outlets have formed to appease either the left or right wings. Right-wing media includes Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and Rush Limbaugh. Left-wing media includes MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Ed Schultz and comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Politicians

While many on the left will vote exclusively for Democrats and those on the right will vote for Republicans, many do so only because there are no other choices. Many on the far-right or far-left would prefer politicians who represent the most extreme respective political philosophy, i.e., full drug legalization, or the banning of all taxes.

Some notable far left figures include Ralph Nader and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and on the right former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Self Identification

In general, the right wing outnumbers the left in the U.S. According to recent polls, only 23 percent of Americans identify themselves as being on the left, while 38 percent identify as “conservative,” or members of the right wing. Even so, 23 percent is the highest number self-identifying as being on the left at any time since 1992.

Demographics

Those who would typically identify as being on the right tend to live in rural areas and suburbs, especially in the south, Midwest, and extreme rural west. Meanwhile, those on the left tend to inhabit medium and large cities, and live along either the east or west coast.

Those on the left also tend to be young, and many tend to be of a minority population, including women. Those who identify as being on the right tend to be older, most often Caucasian, and mostly male.

References

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