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Political spectrum

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The political spectrum is a concept for representing different political stances in relation to one another.


[edit] Left-right axis

At its most basic, the political spectrum consists of a line or continuum from left to right, with varying shades of opinion in between. Some people, particularly those at the far sides of the spectrum, will tend to simplify it further to be just two positions; left or right, with no room for compromise. More realistic ways of assembling a political spectrum tend to be far more complex, but the single dimensional spectrum from "left" to "right" is the most commonly used and most popular.

The terms "left-wing" and "right-wing" originated in the years following the French Revolution of 1789, when the nobility were seated on the right side in parliament meeting, and representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie sat on the left. Thus, the term "right-wing" became associated with maintaining the status quo and protecting the interests of the established elites, like the nobility, clergy and the wealthy. The "left wing" is associated with demanding progress and equality, although the extent can vary from liberals and social democrats who seek change through economic reform (while retaining a market-based system) to communists, who advocate the destruction of capitalism and collective ownership of the means of production.

Although the meanings of left and right vary between different countries, there is more than sufficient shared meaning to enable leftists in one country to affiliate with leftists in other countries and for rightists in in one country to affiliate with rightists in other countries, unless of course their countries are at war. The shared meanings that form the bases for their affiliation involve beliefs about human nature. Otherwise, they would be unable to form organizations like the Socialist International or the International Democrat Union.

The following is the classic left-to-right political spectrum that still makes a good deal of sense to many people in the United States of America and resonates strongly throughout Western civilizations.


The term "radical" has broadened in popular usage to mean extremists of either the left or the right, though (ironically) it's more often used now to describe rightist extremists. The following linear political spectrum shows examples of western ideologies and where they would fit:

Anarchism----Communism ---- Socialism ----- Social Democracy ----- Liberalism ---- Centrism ----- Neoliberalism ---- Conservatism ----- Reactionism ----- Fascism

[edit] Problems with a 1-dimensional spectrum

There are several problems with the the left-to-right spectrum. One is that the uses and definitions of the terms vary considerably between different cultures and contexts, since they are dependent on the political and economic status quo. For example, in authoritarian countries such as the USSR or China, hard-liners have sometimes been described as "conservatives," while proponents of the free market were regarded as progressive reformers, essentially the opposite of how the left and right wings of a spectrum would be labelled in democratic countries the United States. "Centrism" is not so much a clearly distinguishable position in its own right, as it is always defined in the context of other positions - what counts as a "centrist" position in one country may well be considered extreme in another. The terms "left" and "right" are also meaningless for people in many non-Western cultures, simply because they lack a tradition of categorizing politicians and parties in this manner. Another problem with the left-right distinction is that it suggests a one-dimensional spectrum that is often reduced to disagreements over economic policy, ignoring the importance of social issues and freedoms.

Another common observation is that the movements found at both the far-left and far-right positions tend to have more in common with each other than they do with more moderate liberals or conservatives, since both extremes have a tendency towards radicalism and totalitarianism. The horseshoe theory contends that the left-right axis should be viewed in terms of a horseshoe curve, with the ends of the axis curving towards each other, rather than a straight line from one extreme to the other.

[edit] Other measures

The Political Compass
The Nolan Chart

Another problem with the left-to-right spectrum is that there are some political positions which do not fit into it. For example, libertarianism upholds both personal liberties (traditionally left-wing) and unrestrained economic freedom (traditionally right-wing). This hasn't stopped some libertarians from claiming that therefore they are centrists.

Libertarians often contend that a full variety of opinions can be better represented by two-dimensional diagrams where the (economic) left-to-right spectrum is balanced with another (social) axis representing a varying level of restriction on civil and social freedoms, both of which can be either left and right wing. Two examples of such a representation are the Nolan Chart and the Political Compass, where political opinions can be plotted anywhere in a square grid based on the two axes.

The Vosem chart reworks the Nolan chart into three axes: Cultural, fiscal, and corporate.[1] The two ends of each axis are sometimes labeled as "hierarchical" vs. "egalitarian."

[edit] Leftism

Funny cartoon showing the socialist brain of a Democrat.
Democratic corruption does not count. Only Republican corruption counts. Fact!
If you are or want to become a political activist of "THELEFT," or learn "hersay," you better read this book
If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain.
—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill[2]
See the main articles on this topic: Liberalism and Fun:Really_embarrassing_liberals
Look, I'm an old lefty. The government must do for people what people can't do for themselves.
—Green Arrow, Justice League Unlimited

Leftist is widely used in US politics to refer to socialism and anti-capitalist ideologies, although it is also often mistakenly applied to liberals, which can cause confusion and resentment, since there is a vast difference between the two groups. For anyone who studies politics with rigor, the conflation of "leftist" and "liberal" is truly infuriating; the American right-wing talking point machine refers to anyone "left of center-right" (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Al Franken), as a "far-left" politician or pundit, further confusing political discourse. Indeed, the nomenclature of US politics is so skewed as to be practically unrecognizable to anyone from outside the US.

[edit] Far left

The term far left is a label used for political movements and parties that champion the abolition of private property and the "equality of outcome", i.e. a perfectly equal society in terms of (in theory) income, belongings, and rights. Most of these movements fall under the label of either communist (for which there are an absurd number of "subdivisions"), left-wing anarchist, or sometimes (though somewhat rarely today) socialist. Hard greens may be labeled far-left. If you hear it in American politics chances are it's being used as a snarl word to describe any liberal.

Some leftists wish to overthrow capitalism, and believe that "bourgeois democracy" is a sham, designed only to keep the rich in their places of privilege, while others believe in achieving a socialist society through democratic means. There are many different forms of leftism, as reflected in such terms as Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyite, neo-Trostkyite, Maoist, democratic socialist, libertarian socialist, anarchist, De Leonist, council communist, guild socialist, etc., not to mention various modern and postmodern theoretical schools that seem to exist mainly in academic circles, such as deconstructionism, left- or post-feminism, Critical Theory, and the Frankfurt School (sometimes so-called “Academical Left”). Many of these groups have a fierce rivalry with each other, such as the Marxist-Leninists with libertarian socialists, and the Stalinists and Maoists with just about everybody else.

Common ideas:

  • The abolition of private property.
  • The abolition of class and perfect or near-perfect economic equality among people.
  • In contrast to common opinion nearly all far-left philosophies call for the eventual abolition of government (in theory at least).
  • Usually the abolition of discrimination, since this is seen as a method of dividing the lower class from unity with one another. This one's somewhat of a headscratcher considering the extreme social conservatism present in many communist dictatorships such as under Stalinist or Maoist systems.
  • Many used to call for a single united world, usually without borders, though the idea of "Socialism in one country" caused some far-left movements to become highly nationalistic.
  • Methods used to obtain said goals range from embracing pacifism (unlike the far-right) to outright violence.

Rarely do far-left movements actually enact these goals since in practice the most ruthless members of these movements tend to position themselves to take it over, at which point they tend to devolve into highly nationalistic and brutal dictatorships. Anarchist left movements have had more success in standing by their ideals however, such as in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War and Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, until both the fascists and the Stalinists killed them that is.

[edit] Not far left

Like the label far-right, the term is oftentimes used inappropriately and pejoratively to movements that are not actually of the extreme left, such as:

  • Social Democracy - As social democrats accept the presence of a widespread market system, private property, and some degree of class inequality they are not far-left. This label is even more absurd when applied to "Third Way" social democrats who are essentially centrists.
  • Social Liberalism - As social liberals are even more toned down than old-styled social democrats (as they do not advocate for nationalization of any business) it's really hard to see how they are "far-left" in any meaningful sense of the word.
  • Juche - This one's actually debatable. Most scholars today believe North Korea's ideology is actually much closer to ethnic fascism than communism.
  • Nazism - Nazism is a form of fascism which is inherently far-right. While the Nazis did enact some policies that could be seen as "left" by the US political sphere, their stance on ultra-nationalism, racial superiority, their promotion of social inequality, etc. makes them far-right. One must also remember that the NSDAP means "National Socialist German Workers' Party"; while socialists and workers are far-left, wingnuts like to ignore that "National" and "German" were far-right, "patriotic" terms in 1930's Germany. Economists also rate Nazi Germany as center in terms of economic stance as it had no clearly defined economic policy and hated both communists and capitalists.

[edit] Rightism

Sir, it is a well-known fact that young people are generally leftwing. It is also well-known that as people get older, they become more rightwing. It is also a fact that, as people get older, their brain cells die at a faster and faster rate. I would therefore like to propose that conservatism be classified as a degenerative disease.
—letter to the Guardian, 1970.[3]
See the main articles on this topic: Conservatism and Fun:Really_embarrassing_conservatives

The term rightism is rarely used, but tends to refer to a form of extreme conservatism that seeks to do away with democratic politics entirely. In the past, most "rightist" groups either sought a restoration of a previous monarchy, or the creation of a fascist or authoritarian regime to "undo the chaos of democracy." Because the United States has never had a monarch or a totalitarian movement, "true" rightist groups in that country have been relatively few, though the US government has helped fascists such as Pinochet come into power. Another common component of rightism, however, has not waned: extreme nationalism. Most rightist groups try to force out all immigrants and minorities. It is possible that in modern rightism this form of nationalism is the only defining characteristic.

[edit] Far right

The far right or extreme right is a political label used to identify parties and movements based on fascist, racist and/or extremely reactionary ideologies. Officially those on the far right embrace the concept of the "inequality of outcome", meaning that one group is naturally better than another. This can apply to everything from absolute monarchies to Nazism, meaning that many far-rightists oppose others on the far-right who have a different idea of what the ruling class should be.

Much like the term "far left", if you hear the term "far right" it's almost certain to be a slur directed at a conservative.

The label of "far right" is a reference to the French Revolution to refer to those who sat on the right wing of the Assembly and were in favor of an essentially unrestrained aristocracy in terms of the power allocated to them, essentially wanting to either maintain or (later) restore the old order. They also tended to be opposed to the Enlightenment and secularism in favor of more conservative religious influence in government.

From the start of the 20th century onwards more "populist" reactionary political philosophies such as ultranationalism/fascism, racial supremacy (often to a degree that was considered extreme even by the standards of the time), and politically-oriented religious fundamentalism started to overtake the increasingly unpopular extreme pro-Aristocrat agenda that made up what could be considered the former far right. To what degree there is much of a difference between them in practice is up for debate and usually changes from country to country. In the 21st century the far right in the Western world has increasingly drifted towards broadly authoritarian nativist thought, often influenced by former fascist movements.

Common opinions:

[edit] Centrism

See the main article on this topic: Fun:Really embarrassing moderates

Centrism is a set of political positions that lie between the "left" and "right" wings of the political spectrum. The term is usually applied to a global spectrum of political philosophies and ideologies, not to those of single nations, as their political centers tend to differ strongly based on history, culture and the state of development. As a result, a party that might be centrist in a global sense such as the American Democratic Party, might be seen as "left" in its own national context.[5]

In established democracies, it is usually highly beneficial (and intellectually reasonable) for a party to occupy most of the territory in the middle of the spectrum, especially in majoritarian electoral systems, as this is where the coveted swing votes are to be found. Hence, parties often strive to occupy a center-left or center-right position, or at least try to brand themselves as such. While pure "centrist" parties have a mixed record of electoral success, advancing centrist policies to some extent is a popular strategy among parties in modern developed nations. For example, both dominant parties in Germany are so moderate as to be nearly identical. Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken such advantage of the centrist discourse that she's manipulated the political structure to benefit her most of all; discussion is less about who replaces Merkel and more about who becomes her top lieutenant or successor.

Some centrist parties and politicians might endorse the Third Way.

Almost all of the Pirate Parties are centrist parties with special interest in civil rights and copyright reform.

[edit] "Moderate": mixed views and career pols

In recent years, the term "political moderate" (aka, centrism) has become a buzzword in the United States. The term often comes with a negative connotation, due to the United States' rather partisan politics.

The term "moderate" rarely refers to open-minded debaters. Instead, it is most often applied to people who have some conservative views and some liberal views — e.g., "I'm a fiscal conservative and a social liberal." Some are just wishy-washy. Others are actually closet extremists pretending to be moderate so they can get elected.[6] And some are just calculating, self-aggrandizing schemers.

One reason moderate politicians aren't often trusted is that you never know which side of an issue they actually favor until the last moment. A good example is Joe Lieberman, who was in favor of extending Medicare to people aged 55-64 until it seemed that it would actually pass.

[edit] Compromisers

More sane criticisms of centrism, usually coming from social democrats or moderate conservatives/libertarians, are directed at those who strive to be "pure centrists." One of the most common criticisms isn't necessarily at centrism but instead towards those that centrism sometimes tends to attract, mainly opportunist politicians with no core values who see centrism as giving them the best chance of getting elected. (Such people tend to do whatever furthers their own political career as opposed to what actually helps their country/organization.) Furthermore, they also tend to rarely actually fight for anything once elected, and will more or less give in to the most demanding party/faction with power so that they can claim to be reasonable "compromisers," even if said compromise does more bad than good. One example of this was the Simpson-Bowles plan, a budget plan that was championed by centrists simply because it was seen as a "compromise" between the two parties, even though some of the measures in the plan could have arguably worsened the 2008 downturn.

[edit] Sell-outs

Political radicals and extremists tend to criticize centrists for being "sell-outs" to the enemy group that secretly controls everything, or claim that centrists are tricksters bent on oppressing the public. Rarely will these radicals actually recognize centrists, instead preferring to characterize them as the "real radicals." This becomes most obvious when political extremists fail to actually name a centrist and, if pressed, will try to pass either themselves or a more "moderate" hard-right/left/libertarian activist as a centrist.

[edit] Fallacies: Balance, Solemnify, and Disregard

Another common critique of centrism is that centrists will commonly invoke the balance fallacy, commonly acting as if "both sides are just as bad" just so they can hold onto their centrist credentials. This can lead to the more corrupt or extreme of two parties being elected/empowered by opportunists who are fueled by self-interest. This is especially common with Very Serious People.

Alternately, many centrists become Very Serious People -- who talk about serious issues very seriously, yet fail to offer real solutions other than the status quo.

Finally, many centrists tend to disregard ideologies such as socialism and libertarianism completely, ignoring the truth value of individual claims in such philosophies.

[edit] Extremism

Extremism is a catch-all term for those whose political or religious views are far from the center of a given political spectrum, with connotations of being dangerously so. It is often synonymous with wingnut. It also refers to both wingnuts and moonbats simultaneously, given that "wingnut" is sometimes specific to the far right and "moonbat" specific to the far left.

More specifically, it has been used to refer to those wingnuts and moonbats who have an "end justifies the means" mentality and are willing to use violence or other extralegal means to achieve their goals. However, it is sometimes also used to imply that said wingnuts and moonbats are criminal elements willing to use violence even when in some cases they are not.

Wingnuts and moonbats usually don't like being called extremists, although they'll happily call each other extremists. Then again they usually don't like being called wingnuts and moonbats, either.

One of the early and still insightful treatments of the subject is Eric Hoffer's 1951 book "The True Believer." Check it out (as in at your local library).

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Politics in a Third Dimension: "Remodeling the political spectrum". July 9, 2005. http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2005/7/7/281/05051. 
  2. http://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotations/135-quotes-falsely-attributed
  3. Not all lefties turn right with age. Far from it. Letters to The Guardian, Thursday 10 September 2015 19.11 BST
  4. Though some on the far-right, such as the Front National or Geert Wilders, may endore or claim to endorse gay rights if they think it gives them a more "liberal" argument against Muslims or other religious minorities
  5. Don't believe us? All but one of the Democratic nominees for POTUS since the 1970s have leaned New Democrat or straight up Blue Dog, even if their rhetoric may say otherwise.
  6. You can often tell them by the company they keep when they aren't campaigning or in session.
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