Reg Henry: Out with 'left' and 'right.' Who's a 'Neville'?

Reg Henry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

A question for history buffs: In politics, where did the terms "left" and "right" originate? If you answered the French National Assembly of 1789, pat yourself on the back but hold your wallet in your other hand as politicians could be nearby.

Back then, the delegates sat on the right if they supported the king and on the left if they backed the revolutionaries. Or whatever. The delegates could just as well have divided on subsidies for croissants or pensions for mistresses.

The point is the political divisions of France in 1789 don't readily fit America in 2017, although it is fun to pretend.

For example, President Donald Trump can be viewed as today's preening monarch. Though posing as a people's sovereign, he is surrounded by groveling courtiers, rules by whim and lives in digs that make the Palace of Versailles look like a Motel 6. Heck, he may even wear a powdered wig, because whatever is on his head is not found in nature.

It can also be said that those on the left, the latter-day sans-culottes, which translates from the French as ones without knee breeches, seek to overthrow the traditional order of society. They mostly don't, they just want to reform what we have -- but let us allow conservatives their hyperbole. After all, they can't fault Bernie Sanders for not wearing knee-breeches.

Certainly the labels did make a rough sense for a while. Left and right were shorthand for those who held differing views of how much power the federal government should wield, one of the oldest arguments in the republic.

But Trump has changed everything. Many have argued that he is not a true conservative, but like it or not, he has remade conservatism in his unconservative image. While he retains some old conservative themes, he has basically reduced the philosophy to its grossest and meanest components and taken it all to extremes. He has made conservatism into a parody of itself.

Let us all admit that being conservative is not necessarily about bullying, boasting and serial lying. And surely it is not conservative to conceive of deficit-perpetuating plans to lower taxes on the rich while increasing spending on goofy projects such as a border wall (or, for that matter now, cutting federal revenue when it is urgently needed for hurricane relief).

Surely being conservative is not about kicking out 800,000 people who, through no fault of their own, came to this country when they were 6 or so and became Americans in all but official papers. Tell me if I am crazy in believing that being conservative is not about a full flight from old-fashioned common sense and decency.

But nothing is sure in the Trump era, except that we are still waiting for the greatness to be made again.

Of course, I say this as a liberal but not one from the far left, where the illiberal liberals live. I believe in equal opportunity, hard work and personal responsibility. I don't believe in subsidies for croissants although pensions for mistresses may have merit. I am someone from the great middle and I'd be happy to have any sensible conservative at my side. What name for us?


As the old left and right labels have become threadbare in political crazyland, and even Sen. Ted Cruz has suddenly discovered that the federal government can help suffering people without turning them into socialists, perhaps we should take our political terms from an era closer than 1789. How about 1938?

That was the year when a conservative British prime minister came back from Munich waving a piece of paper promising "peace for our time" after meeting with Adolf Hitler. The great appeaser was a good man in many ways -- none other than Winston Churchill was to acknowledge this -- but he made a historic mistake.

Now, for the purpose of this analogy, Donald Trump is not a Nazi, but he is a dangerous autocrat driven by ego and bile. What he does not need is appeasement.

Yet he is surrounded by Neville Chamberlains, both in the White House and in the nation at large (Vice President Mike Pence, thy name is Neville). Some are good people who had respectable reasons for initially supporting Trump. But no respectable reason remains to persist in a cult-like loyalty that forgives him everything.

Not right or left, conservative or liberal -- the only political identification that matters to history is who are the Nevilles and who are the Winstons in this troubled time.

About The Writer

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at rhenry@post-gazette.com

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