WSJ Historically Speaking: The Backward Seating at the State of the Union



The end of January brings two certainties: another 49 days until spring and the president’s State of the Union address. In the past, the president often used to palm off this constitutionally mandated chore to a clerk; nowadays he (or she) is expected to deliver it in person. But in every other respect, the rituals associated with the event haven’t changed at all: The president speaks for about an hour, ecstatic applause erupts from one side of the chamber, and grim silence exudes from the other.

Many foreign observers find these partisan reactions reassuringly familiar. What they find puzzling is the placement of the Democratic Party to the right of the aisle and the Republican Party to the left. Equally confusing is the U.S. media’s long-standing allocation of the color red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. In the rest of the world, right-wing parties sit on the right and left-wing ones on the left; blue is the color of conservatism, and red is the color of revolution and communism—or pink, if one leans toward socialism—something apparently unknown to the networks and CNN.

So what gave Congress its supposedly anomalous configuration? The answer lies in the origins of modern democracy. During the early 1700s, Britain became the first country to embrace the idea that political opposition wasn’t a one-way ticket to the gallows. The interior of the House of Commons helped to reinforce that notion; it was long and narrow, like a church, with pews that faced one another. Perhaps echoing Ecclesiastes 10:2 (“A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left”), the king’s ministers insisted on occupying the benches on the speaker of the house’s right. Naturally, the disaffected and the disillusioned congregated on the opposite side.

During the French Revolution of 1789, France’s National Assembly took the left-right division and elevated it into a life-or-death decision. The monarchists huddled together for protection on the speaker’s right, leaving the rest of the chamber to the rowdy revolutionaries. Geography once again dictated the course of history: “Right-wing” came to mean a supporter of the established order, and “left-wing” meant a proponent of change.

In the U.S., parties came and went with bewildering speed in the first part of the 19th century. But the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 represented a radical challenge to the status quo; hence its House members arranged themselves to the left of the speaker. The Democrats, by contrast, were physically and politically on the right. The parties stuck to their original seats in Congress, though over time, they seemed to swap political identities. This wasn’t a purely American phenomenon: As the British discovered under Margaret Thatcher, her brand of conservatism delivered nothing less than an economic revolution.

The topsy-turvy nature of politics is well summed up by Yuval Levin in his recent book “The Great Debate”: Ronald Reagan prefaced his intention to reform Washington by invoking the radical spirit of Thomas Paine. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has usually sounded as though he were channeling the conservative philosophy of Edmund Burke—for instance, urging Congress in September 2009 “to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.”

True, action and ideology often collide in a heap of political objectives, but that need not be cause for despair. As George Orwell once wrote about the path of socialism, “There are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business.”

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