By Tom Anderson
As has been discussed in previous articles, the value of alternate terminology in an alternate history (AH) work is as an easy way of indicating that this world is quite different from our own to the reader. If used well (and not overused to the point of incomprehensibility), alternate terminology can also make a reader stop and think about how much of the terminology of our timeline (OTL) they take for granted as ‘the way the world works’, when things could have been quite different. We’ve already covered many everyday areas in which one would be immediately confronted with different names in an AH world, often involving practicalities like transport, but now let’s look at a more abstract (and controversial) area—that of politics.
Political factions have always had names, but for much of human history those names have often not reflected any great ideological divide in how a nation should be governed—a divide that would exist in the abstract, absent from personalities, powerful families, foreign rivals and so on. There was also less of a fine dividing line between politics and other social groups (in fact, the twenty-first century is more of the aberration here). For example, in the Byzantine Empire, the four colour-coded chariot racing teams (Blues, Greens, and the less important Reds and Whites) had groups of supporters who doubled as political factions, taking views on theological questions and rival claimants to the throne.
There were even major riots in AD 531 over whether Emperor Justinian, a Blue supporter, would pardon convicted Blue and Green supporters who had committed acts akin to twentieth-century football hooligans. Byzantium is far from the only civilisation where simple labels for factions were more important than any kind of intrinsic set of beliefs for those factions—to this day political parties are associated with colours and may simply be informally described as the red team or the blue team by their supporters. There has been a particular transformation in the United States since 2000; for that election, American broadcasters agreed to consistently make Republicans red and Democrats blue, with the intention they would swap over each cycle (previously there had been no consistency). However, as the 2000 election ran into stretched-out controversy over the Florida recount and Americans spent weeks staring at maps, red Republicans and blue Democrats became cemented into the national consciousness, and today American commentators talk of red states and blue states. This is much to the confusion of the rest of the world, where blue usually means the more right-wing party.
American political party names are deliberately vague and inclusive, reflecting the country’s two-party system in which each party traditionally drew together a broad coalition of voters whose interests were so divergent so as to be almost contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious with the Democrats in the early twentieth century, who were the party of white supremacy and oppression of black Americans in the south, but also simultaneously the party of liberal ideology and rights for immigrants in the north (to simplify greatly). The Democrats’ name was originally more meaningful, as they were the party of Andrew Jackson’s “Jacksonian Democracy” in the 1830s, arguing for suffrage to be extended to all white men; in the early United States it was commonly restricted to only wealthy property owners, though very variable from state to state. A pun on Jackson/jackass also led to the party’s symbol in political cartoons becoming the donkey, which it remains to this day—in fact the Democrats are the world’s oldest political party still in operation. Despite their party name being so generically acceptable in the modern world (“[Something] Democrats” is almost the default name for new parties in many countries), in the nineteenth century their rival Republicans used the word ‘Democracy’ in a negative sense to describe their opponents’ values, even though they had accepted the idea of universal white male suffrage themselves.
Speaking of the Republicans, also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP) despite being the younger of the USA’s two parties, their name was first suggested at an anti-slavery expansion political meeting in Wisconsin in 1854, as the party began to grow from the remnants of the old Whig party (more on them later). It was similarly an inclusive name, as all Americans were meant to be republicans (as in not monarchists) and hearkened back to Thomas Jefferson’s party, which had usually been called Republican at the time, though historians now call it Democratic-Republican.
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast is thought responsible for giving the party its symbol, the elephant, four decades after the donkey became associated with the Democrats. Despite this, American political parties are really fifty separate parties in each state with strong variations between them, and some states retain their own unique local symbols: Kentucky uses a log cabin, Indiana, New York and Ohio sometimes use a bald eagle. The Democrats, too, use a rooster or a star in some states rather than a donkey. As noted above, the association of the parties with particular colours is a much more recent phenomenon, with traditionally both draping themselves in the red, white and blue of the American flag. Third parties have historically not had lasting success in the United States, but those which had temporary success include the People’s Party or Populist Party, and later the Progressive Party—once again fairly inclusive names, with only the Progressives hinting at an ideological position.
The United States is of course not typical of western politics, in part because its constitutional situation has been so stable for so long. In many ways American parties still reflect the looser nature of British political parties at the time when the United States was founded. In Britain itself, the first formalised political parties were the Whigs and Tories in the seventeenth century—both named disparagingly from terms from the English Civil War. Whig is short for whiggamor, meaning cattle rustler in Scotland (an insult towards a particular faction of the Presbyterian Scottish Covenanters) and eventually broadly inclusive of anti-Catholic beliefs opposed to the succession of the Catholic King James II and VII. Tory, on the other hand, stems from an Irish word for outlaw or robber, and referred to supporters of James and more broadly the principle of royal supremacy as opposed to Parliament. These names long outlived the original issue and were reused for essentially any major political divide for almost two hundred years, meaning that for this time Britain had a two-party system in which both sides had names meaning some variety of thief—which some commentators might think rather appropriate.
Colours and symbols were not used consistently at this time, but the Tories were sometimes associated with blue and the Whigs with buff or orange—colours which have passed down to their ultimate descendants, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, although this is a gross oversimplification and in many parts of the country the local parties had their own unique colours until very recently. Nonetheless, William Hogarth’s famous “Humours of an Election” series of paintings from 1755 already show blue Tory flags and orange Whig flags in his depiction of a typically corrupt eighteenth-century election.
More meaningful party names stem from the mid-nineteenth century. Following the Great Reform Act, the old Tory principles had been obsoleted, and it was clear the party needed detoxifying with a new message and name (although Tory, often as a derisory term, remains around to this day). In OTL, the party took the name Conservative from a Tamworth speech by Sir Robert Peel, in which he argued the party’s duty was to ‘conserve’ the best parts of the past. He could just as easily have used the word ‘preserve’, in which case we might now be talking about the Preservative Party. This sounds silly to our ears because we are used to seeing the word preservative in the context of food preservation, but there will be timelines out there where the word conservative sounds equally silly. Another suggestion for a new party name came from Lord Stanley and his ‘Derby Dilly’ faction of Tory modernisers, who preferred ‘Moderate’—or even ‘Moderate Whig’. Indeed, earlier on, William Pitt the Younger had always insisted he was a ‘Reform Whig’, though posterity had described him as a Tory. This is an example of parties shifting terminology to reflect a particular term becoming toxic, which can still be seen today.
Meanwhile, the ‘actual’ Whigs eventually became the Liberals, after combining with a breakaway faction from the Conservatives (ironically led by Peel himself). ‘Liberal’ had been a term already thrown about in a political context, reflecting a laid-back laissez-faire approach to trade and the economy. The term was popularised by Lord John Russell, who had attempted to use it as early as the 1830s, but it did not catch on until twenty years later. Another term which had been popular in British politics in the 18th century has been ‘radical’, to describe more ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ whigs (to use modern terminology), often associated with the colour sea-green (again from English Civil War roots). The word’s long British history meant that when the Social Democratic Party was formed in 1981, one alternative name that was considered (according to David Owen) was Radical Party. In the end, when the SDP merged with the remnant of the Liberals, they became the Social and Liberal Democrats, soon contracted to just Liberal Democrats. British politics had been transformed from its former two-party state by the rise of the Labour Party, united from precursor organisations in 1899 when Thomas R. Steels of Doncaster proposed a special conference to unite all left-wing organisations. Former organisations on ‘the left’ included the Social Democratic Federation (which included Marx and Engels as members, illustrating how the term social democracy has become less radical in tone over the years!), the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party and the Fabian Society. British politics is unusual in that its primary party on the left has a name derived from its original primary constituency—labourers—and not its ideology of socialism or social democracy. This could easily have gone differently, and indeed Labour was often referred to as ‘the Socialists’ in the twentieth century by both its supporters and its detractors.
The preceding paragraph has illustrated how difficult it is to speak about politics without using terms like right-wing and left-wing. But these terms did not exist until the French Revolution, when they described how the more radical deputies in the new National Assembly sat on the King’s left and the more conservative ones on his right. This could easily have been different. There were also many other terms in the French Revolution, a boiling mass of possibilities that set the tone for the politics of the next century, which did not persist or extend outside France. Notably the most radical and left-wing faction in the Revolution was often called the Montagnards or Mountaineers, reflecting the fact that their leaders tended to sit in the highest seats at the Jacobin debating clubs of the revolution. The term Montagnard was revived for a left-wing French faction in the mid-nineteenth century, in which its main conservative opponent was the Party of Order. France also saw a phenomenon described as ‘sinistrisme’ (‘leftier-ness’, approximately) in which the political centre gradually moved to the left, leaving parties with explicitly left-wing names now occupying the right of the new political landscape. A similar phenomenon was seen in Denmark, whose biggest ‘right-wing’ party today in the 2010s is Venstre, whose name literally means ‘the Left’ as it was originally a peasant movement against the aristocracy. Confused yet?
The idea of the political centre as a position in and of itself, which has been frequently (though very vaguely) invoked in the United Kingdom of late, is often a debatable one. A party may seek to attract voters repelled by ideological extremes by claiming to be in the moderate, thoughtful centre, not being directed by knee-jerk ideological concerns—but whether this is actually true is often more questionable. Parties objectively on the left (or, more often, the right) may claim to be centrist to look more inclusive than they are. Possibly the best known party of the nineteenth century associated with this terminology, Germany’s Zentrum (simply ‘the Centre’) however, was not an example of centrism in this sense—rather, it was a Catholic interests party whose name was meant to imply it was representative of all Catholics regardless of whether their politics were right- or left-wing.
There are many, many alternative terms that could have been used (and have been used, in other countries and eras) for political ideologies - as well as alternate ideologies themselves (as shown by David Hoggard's articles here on this site). ‘Reactionary’ and ‘regressive’ happen to be seen as purely derogatory terms for right-wingers in our timeline, but so too are many terms that have been openly used by parties themselves at one point, and in Look to the West I have these terms used by some parties. There is no right or left wing in LttW because its point of divergence predates the Spanish Revolution, and instead there is a political spectrum from copper to silver to gold devised by a South American theorist (so via Spanish, left-wingers are cobrists, centrists are argentists, right-wingers are doradists). Instead of socialism, there is the Mankind Movement, which via German (Menschen) becomes the Mentian Party in worn-down English. Other writers have also found plausible alternative terms; for example, Max Lindh has coined the term Skeptical Party for an alternative right-wing party in nineteenth-century Scandinavia, reflecting the party’s scepticism of change.
So if you’re writing an AH work and it’s got a suitably early POD – don’t assume everything’s got to be conservatives and liberals!