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I've just realized I don't understand what this phrase means. What does "Gaddafi is on the wrong side of history" mean?

Does it mean he's about to die, or something else? Here's the relevant quotation:

The Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, is "on the wrong side of history," said U.S. president today. In a joint press conference with President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, Obama said his country is studying "a whole range of options" to apply in Libya, but downplayed the possibility of military intervention, saying that "what want is to have potentially the capacity to intervene quickly if the situation deteriorates".

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May you provide the context in which the sentence is used? –  kiamlaluno Mar 11 '11 at 18:10
    
This article provides some context. It is a phrase apparently popular with other presidents as well. –  HaL Mar 11 '11 at 18:19

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Being on the wrong side of history means that history will judge him as the person who was "in the wrong." For instance Ghaddafi will be judged by history as "in the wrong" for bombing his own people.

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The phrase refers to someone who supports (or supported) a person, country, movement, etc. that when viewed from far enough in the future that it's considered "history" was considered to be the "wrong" or "losing" side, even though it may not have been clear that it was the "wrong" side at the time.

For example, former US Senator Strom Thurmond was heavily opposed to the civil rights movement in the United States and was pro-segregation, etc. At the time, it wasn't especially clear which way the civil rights movement would end up, nor was it as cut and dry a moral issue as it is considered now. In the view of history, however, it's clear he was on the wrong side. (And I should note that he admitted as such later in his career)

In the case of Gaddafi, it means that his government will lose out and in the long run, it will be considered the "wrong side" of the conflict.

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This idea is strongly related to the notion of "moral progress", a taken-for-granted cultural underpinning in western cultures that asserts that society is gradually improving morally and therefore people in the past have less moral sophistication/virtue than contemporaries. The civil rights movement and slavery are often cast in this light in US history. There's a sense that the morally good path is inevitable and cannot be prevented simply because of its goodness. Of course many see this as a huge fallacy--history is always written by the victors of these struggles. –  Doug T. Mar 12 '11 at 2:22

In practical use, the phrase is used when someone wants to characterize their opponent's position as old-fashioned or out-of-date. When used, it is asserting the idea that in the future the vast majority of people will look back and view the position as wrong.

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It means that the author believes that we are in the final stages of a historical trend where dictatorships are replaced by more democratic forms of government. Therefore Gaddafi's rule exists more in the past (i.e in history) than it does in the future.

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Some examples of use (from the Corpus of Contemporary American English) might help underline the meaning:

  • only to find himself twenty-five years later on the wrong side of history, a relic overrun by his former enemy in tinted bifocals…
  • As an occupied, dispirited people who felt they were on the wrong side of history, they were fine with envisioning history's end
  • the president and vice president have [sometimes] been on different sides of an issue or the wrong side of history. As a senator, Biden voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991
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This is a direct reference to Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History' thesis. Nations not moving towards liberal capitalist democracies, 'the post-historical world', are said to be 'stuck in history'.

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