Political spectrum

From Academic Kids

The political spectrum theory is a way of comparing or visualizing different political positions, by placing them upon one or more geometric axes.


1 Left and Right

2 Alternative spectra
3 Multi-axis models

4 Suggested Reading
5 See also
6 External links

Determining political spectra

The key assumption of such a spectrum is that people's views on many issues correlate strongly, or that one essential issue subsumes or dominates all others. For a political spectrum to exist, there must be range of beliefs. Political systems in which most people fall clearly into one group or another with almost no one in between, such as most nationalist controversies, are not well described by a political spectrum.

In a modern Islamic country, for instance, a political spectrum might be divided along the issue of the clergy's role in government. Those who believe clerics should have the power to enforce Islamic law are on one end of the spectrum, those who support a secular society are on the other; moderates fall at various points in between. In Taiwan, the political spectrum is defined in terms of Chinese reunification versus Taiwan independence.

Even in issues of nationalism, spectra can exist; for example, in the Basque Country of Spain, Basque nationalists range from the EAJ/PNV, who have engaged in coalition governments with both the socialist PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular, to ETA, which engage in terror tactics and armed struggle against the Spanish national government, which they view as an occupying power.

Political spectra can end when one group wins so thoroughly that there is no longer a divergence of opinions. This occurred in the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China in the case between the rightists and the leftists in which the leftists won, or in the late 18th century controversy between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists in the United States. Often in this situation the winners start disagreeing over new issues, and a new political spectrum is created. In some cases, the defeated side can re-appear after several years or several decades, and start the controversy anew.

At other times the political spectrum remains, while the issues which define the spectrum change. The controversy over the selection of William of Orange's successor to the English throne helped to define the British political spectrum which exists to this day, long after the original controversy was resolved.

In some cases, especially in democratic countries without a "first past the post" system, multiple spectra can co-exist. For example, from it's founding in 1901 to 1909, the Commonwealth of Australia had two equally strong policial spectra - Free Trade vs. Protectionism and Workers vs. Bosses (Liberals). However, by 1909 the first continuum had become irrelevent, and the two leading parties of each idea (Free Trade Party and Protectionist Party) merged to become the Liberal Party, in order to better compete with the strong workers' party (Australian Labor Party). This second continuum remained dominant in federal Australian politics until the mid-1990's.

Left and Right

See main article Left-Right politics

In modern Western countries, the political spectrum usually is described along left-right lines. This traditional political spectrum is defined along an axis with conservatism, theocracy, and fascism ("the right") on one end, and socialism and communism ("the left") on the other. In North America and Europe, the term liberalism refers to a wide range of political viewpoints which can not easily be categorized as "left" or "right". Classical European liberalism developed as a reaction to the status quo of monarchical rule. This vein of thought, which emphasized the rights of the individual versus the state, was incorporated somewhat into American conservatism, where the growing federal government is perceived as the threat to the individual, but also somewhat into American liberalism, depending on the issue. For example, American conservatives have a stronger belief in private property, while liberals believe in the individual's right to an abortion without government intervention. Both sides claim to be more for religious freedom than the other. The terms left and right were also used to describe politics in China starting in the 1920s until the 1980s, although the issues were often very different from those in Western nations.

Multiplicity of interpretation of the left-right axis

There are various different opinions about what is actually being measured along this axis:

  • Whether the government's involvement with the economy should be interventionist/socialist (left) or laissez-faire/capitalist (right). This was the most prominent distinction in much of the world outside the US for most of the 20th century.
  • Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or liberty (right). This was proposed by Danielle Allen. [1] (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041220&c=7&s=forum)
  • Whether the state should prioritize social liberty (left) or economic liberty (right).
  • Whether the government's involvement with moral issues should be minimal (left) or interventionist (right).
  • Whether the government should take care of issues such as health care and retirement benefits (left), or whether individuals should be left to their own devices on such issues (right).
  • In budgeting and financial priorities, tending to promote economic security (left) or economic freedom (right).
  • Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right). This was proposed by Australian Labor Party leader Mark Latham.
  • Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
  • Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
  • Whether people should be more motivated by empathy (left) or direct self-interest (right).

Historical origin of the terms

The terms Left and Right to refer to political affiliation originated early in the French Revolutionary era, and referred originally to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France. The aristocracy sat on the right of the Speaker (traditionally the seat of honor) and the commoners sat on the Left, hence the terms Right-wing politics and Left-wing politics.

Originally, the defining point on the ideological spectrum was the ancien régime ("old order"). "The Right" thus implied support for aristocratic or royal interests, while "The Left" implied opposition to the same. Because the political franchise at the start of the revolution was relatively narrow, the original "Left" represented mainly the interests of the bourgeoisie, the rising capitalist class. At that time, support for laissez-faire capitalism and Free markets were counted as being on the left; today in most Western countries these views would be characterized as being on the Right.

As the franchise expanded over the next several years, it became clear that there was something to the left of that original "Left": the precursors of socialism and communism, advocating the interests of wage-earners and peasants.

Alternative spectra

Some people feel that it is not obvious how these various concepts are related. They say that it is very confusing to speak of the right or the left without indicating what exactly you are referring to. They believe that one should first establish context by defining the axes upon which different positions will be measured.

Nonetheless, the right-left spectrum is so common as to be taken for granted. Many people even have a hard time conceptualizing any alternative to it. However, numerous alternatives exist, usually having been developed by people who feel their views are not fairly represented on the traditional right-left spectrum.

Perhaps the simplest alternative to the left-right spectrum was devised as a rhetorical tool during the Cold War. This was a circle which brought together the far right and left ends of the traditional spectrum, equating "extreme socialism" (i.e. the Communist Party) with "extreme conservatism" (i.e. Fascism). This nexus was particularly useful to those opposed to rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

Another alternative spectrum offered by the conservative American Federalist Journal emphasizes the degree of political control, and thus places totalitarianism at one extreme and anarchism (no government at all) at the other extreme.

Yet another alternative, currently popular among certain environmentalists, uses a single axis to measure what they consider to be the good of the Earth against the good of big business, which is seen as being the force most likely to harm the earth.

In 1998, political author Virginia Postrel, in her book The Future and Its Enemies, offered a new single axis spectrum that measures one's view of the future. On one extreme are those who allegedly fear the future and wish to control it, whom Postrel calls stasists. On the other hand are those who want the future to unfold naturally and without attempts to plan and control, for whom she uses the name dynamists.

Other axes that might merit consideration include:

  • Role of the church: Clericalism vs. Anti-clericalism. This axis is not significant in the United States where views of the role of religion tend to get subsumed into the general left-right axis, but in Europe clericalism versus anti-clericalism is much less correlated with the left-right spectrum.
  • Urban vs. rural: This axis is also much more significant in European as well as Australian and Canadian politics than American.
  • Foreign policy: interventionism (the nation should exert power abroad to implement its policy) vs. isolationism (the nation should keep to its own affairs)
  • Market policy: socialism (government should democratize or control economic productivity) vs. laissez-faire (government should leave the market alone) vs. corporatism (government should subsidize or support existing successful businesses)
  • Political violence: pacifism (political views should not be imposed by violent force) vs. militancy (violence is a legitimate or necessary means of political expression). In North America, holders of these views are often referred to as "doves" and "hawks", respectively.
  • Foreign trade: globalization (world economic markets should become integrated and interdependent) vs. autarky (the nation or polity should strive for economic independence). During the early history of the Commonwealth of Australia, this was the major political continuum. Then it was called Free trade vs. Protectionism.
  • Diversity: multiculturalism (the nation should represent a diversity of cultural ideas) vs. assimilationism or nationalism (the nation should represent the dominant ethnic group)
  • Participation: Democracy (rule of the majority) vs. Oligarchy (rule by a limited number of people) vs. Republic (a compromise between the two - this is a specialised use of the term republic based on an interpretation of classical history)
  • Freedom: Positive liberty (Having rights which obligate others) vs. Negative liberty (Freedom from interference by others)
  • Progress: radicals (who believe in rapid change) vs. Conservatives (who believe in minimal or cautious change)

Multi-axis models

A one-axis model is highly over-simplified, and lumps together fairly different political propositions; in particular, as seen before, there are many ways to define the left-right spectrum, which do not yield the same classifications.

Several of the political philosophies that have arisen over the past two centuries do not fit on the one-dimensional left/right line, in particular anarchism and libertarianism. Anarchism is assumed to be "left", while Libertarianism is assumed to be "right". However, on the one-dimensional spectrum, anarchism shares almost the same position as various forms of Marxism, which is obviously inappropriate. Anarchism implies the rejection of government and societal control (as well as private property), while Leninism and other forms of Marxism imply the control by society of many activities. At the other end of the left/right line, Libertarianism finds itself in the same position as fascism, which is equally inappropriate.

In order to address these problems, a number of proposals have been made for a two-axis system, which combines two models of the political spectrum as axes.

Eysenck model

Missing image
The Eysenck Model
The first person to devise such a two-axis system was Hans Eysenck in his 1964 book "Sense and Nonsense in Psychology." Starting with the traditional "left-right" spectrum Eysenck added a vertical axis that considered "tough-mindedness" (authoritarian tendencies) and "tender-mindedness" (democratic tendencies). The effect of this new axis is that those who have very different views with regard to authority, but have the same "left-right" view (people like Stalin and Noam Chomsky), can be distinguished.

Similarly, one may wish to consider public/private property issues on the horizontal axis, and a spectrum from individual control of society to collective (or state) control of society on the vertical axis.

Nolan chart

A second chart is the Nolan chart, created by libertarian David Nolan, with an economic and political axes, perpendicular to each other, often with the whole chart rotated 45 degrees. This chart shows what he considers as "economic freedom" (issues like taxation, free trade and free enterprise) on the x axis and what he considers as "personal freedom" (issues like drug legalization, abortion and the draft) on the y axis. This puts left-wingers in the left quadrant, libertarians in the top, right-wingers in the right, and authoritarianism or communitarians (whom Nolan originally named populists) in the bottom.

In the Nolan chart, the traditional left-right spectrum forms a diagonal across the plane, with communism and fascism both in the ultra-communitarian corner of the plane (which is hotly disputed by more liberal-minded communists who do not advocate state control over matters of "personal freedom").

Missing image
The chart used by the Political Compass Organisation

Because of the economic left/right positions being the x axis, and political/social freedoms being on the y axis, the Nolan chart and Eysenck's chart are notable for maintaining all left-wing positions, from Anarchism to Stalinism on the left half of the chart, and all right-wing positions, from Fascism to Libertarianism, on the right half of the chart. These orientations avoid the three key problems of the Nolan chart, which places the standard left-right postions as a diagonal, groups together idealogies such as Socialism and Fascism together under the term Populist, and uses terminology (high political freedom and economic freedom) for Libertarians which are also claimed by Libertarian Socialists.

The Nolan Chart has been reoriented and visually represented in many forms since David Nolan first created it, with the various representations all combining an axis for economic freedom with an axis for personal freedom. It has been the inspiration for an endless array of political self-quizzes, many of which are available over the Internet. Perhaps the most famous of these is the model used by the Political Compass organization, which also runs an online quiz placing one on the chart.

Pournelle Chart

Missing image
The Pournelle Chart

A third, very different, two axis model was created by Jerry Pournelle. The Pournelle Chart has liberty (a dimension similar to the diagonal of the Nolan chart, with those on the left seeking liberty and those on the right focusing control, farthest right being state worship, farthest left being the idea of a state as the "ultimate evil") perpendicular to Rationalism, the belief in the power of one's political philosophy of choice (with those on the top believing that all the evils their ideology attempts to fight would go away if only their ideals were instituted, and those at the bottom reduced to blind, celebratory attachment to their ideology for its own sake -- the fascist who will now do anything to celebrate "greatness", the anarchist given to tossing bombs around for the fun of it).

"Leftist" ideologies, such as (American) liberalism, socialism and communism, tend to be placed in the upper right-hand quadrant of low liberty and high rationalism. Conservatism, fascism and Nazism are to be placed in the lower right hand quadrant of low liberty and low rationalism. Classical anarchists are in the lower left hand corner of high liberty and low rationalism. Libertarians and Objectivists are placed in the upper lefthand corner of high liberty and high rationalism.

Note that this two-axis model lacks some nuances as to what is referred to as "control". For example, one may wish to divide the question into issues of personal freedom, and other issues. For instance, up into the 20th century, the United States gave a significant leeway to its citizens with respect to security (right to bear arms...) while at the same time heavily regulating sexual activities, even between adults in private (Comstock Law, sodomy laws...).

Other models

Missing image
The Friesian Institute's proposal

In its January 2, 2003 issue, The Economist introduced a chart to plot cultural ideology onto two dimensions. On the y-axis it covered issues of tradition and religion, like patriotism, abortion, euthanasia and the importance of obeying the law and authority figures. At the bottom of the chart is the traditionalist position on issues like these (with loyalty to country and family and respect for life considered important), while at the top is the secular position. The x-axis deals with self-expression, issues like everyday conduct and dress, acceptance of diversity and innovation, and attitudes towards people with specific controversial lifestyles such as homosexuality and vegetarianism. At the right of the chart is the open self-expressionist position, while at the left is its opposite position, which The Economist calls survivalist. This chart not only has the power to map the values of individuals, but also to compare the values of people in different countries. Placed on this chart, EU countries in continental Europe come out on the top right, Anglophone and Latin American countries on the bottom right, African, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries on the bottom left, and ex-Communist countries on the top left.

In addition to the distinctions between different types of "control" on many of these spectra, there is no clear way to locate philosophies such as feminism or environmentalism, even using a two-axis spectrum. Additional dimensions would be required to accommodate them, and that would make the model far too complex to be of any use.

As an example, there are even some three axis models, both based on the Nolan Chart. The Friesian Institute has suggested a model that combines the economic liberty and personal liberty axes with positive liberty, creating a cube. The Vosem Chart splits the economic axis of the Nolan chart into two axes, corporate economics and individual economics, which combine with the civil liberty axis to form a cube.

Suggested Reading

Maximum Liberty by Anonymous. 2003. (ISBN 0974443905)

This nonpartisan book is possibly the first to provide a clear and concise overview of the different models of the political spectrum. The author proposes a new, universal model for the political spectrum and explains why the various existing models are inadequate. The book's most original and significant contribution to political theory, however, is the idea that the scope of government must be considered separately from the form of government. In other words, the political spectrum only describes potential levels of government control over society, not forms of rulership and administrative organization. This clears up much of the confusion surrounding the concept of the political spectrum and, in the process, provides a good introduction to politics in general.

Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum by William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie; foreword by David Boaz. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1984. (ISBN 0932790437)

This book was apparently one of the first to suggest that the world needs a better model of the political spectrum. Regrettably, the authors are heavily biased in favor of the American libertarian concept of a two-axis model. Although the book provides a good introduction to the libertarian model, the authors offer no real critique of the model and fail to adequately address competing models.

See also

External links

es:Espectro político fi:Poliittinen spektri it:Spettro politico


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