How to Understand the Left-Right Political Spectrum
The Essential Basics of Left-Right Politics and Left-Right Spectrums
In simple terms, favoring Liberty, Social Equality, and the Collective is left-wing, and favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, and Individuals (unequally) is right-wing. Meanwhile, the “mean between” is “center-wing“.
|Favoring Liberty, Social Equality, and the Collective||The Mean Between||Favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, and Individuals (unequally)|
As you can see in the table above, that gives us three positions that we can then consider in different ways, such as by consider extremes and degrees between positions.
For example, the basic left-right paradigm table below shows four left-right paradigms extracted from the terms above, this time with more degrees (a broader “spectrum”; the logic behind this is explained below):
|Paradigms / Main Thesis||Extreme Left Thesis / Antithesis||Left||The Left-Right Mean||Right||Extreme Right Thesis / Antithesis|
|Liberty||Extreme Liberty||Favoring Liberty||Balanced Liberty||Favoring Authority||Extreme Authority|
|Equality||Extreme Equality||Favoring Equality||Balanced Equality||Favoring Inequality||Extreme Inequality|
|Classical Government Type||Anarchy||Democracy||Mixed-Republic||Aristocracy||Tyranny|
|Political Ideology||Far Left Liberalism||Liberalism||Centrism||Conservatism||Far Right Conservatism|
From that we can then create a robust left-right spectrum of possibilities between extreme left-wing and extreme right-wing for different left-right paradigms, charting and plotting them in different ways to create left-right spectrums of all sorts, and subsequently things can get a little complex.
To avoid getting sidetracked by complexity and semantics, it’ll help to understand a few things about left-wing and right-wing before moving on:
- The terms left and right come from the French Revolution where supporters of the King stood to the right of the President of the National Assembly, and supporters of “the Rights of Man and Citizen” stood to the left. The image below will offer a simple visual of this.
- The terms relate to the philosophies of great thinkers from Plato to Mill (who helped define the way in which we talk about and understand government).
- Left-wing and Right-wing are broad terms that relate to most political positions one can take on a given issue. In other words, left and right don’t speak to one thing, they speak to many related things. Thus, there are a number of different, but related, left-right paradigms to consider like progressive (left) vs. traditional (right) (how fast change happens), idealism (left) vs. realism (right) (whether we govern based on how things are or how they should be), cooperation (left) vs. competition (right) (whether we cooperate or compete). I.e. that four row left-right paradigm table above could have easily had many more rows.
- The terms left, right, and center are best used descriptively and comparatively per-issue instead of as absolutes (e.g. “left in terms of liberty in the social sphere as opposed to right in terms of social hierarchy”, or “right in terms of authority in the economic sphere as opposed to left in terms of liberty”). Since the terms mean so much, it helps to speak “in terms of.”
- Extremes are generally not desirable, and “correct” centers often don’t exist in the literal dead center. There are many ways in which, for example, extreme equality is actually right-wing and extreme inequality is actually left-wing. Again, we can combat this by saying “in terms of.” For example, anarchy is right-wing in terms of its lack of laws by which social equality can be enforced.
- Generally all real life ideologies are mixed, and people’s leftness or rightness differs issue by issue.
- The core of what left and right are doesn’t change, but some cultures and individuals might have different takes on the theory. After-all there is no physical object “left,” we are discussing theories and philosophy as it relates to political realism, but we aren’t discussing concrete and purely tangible things.
With all of that in mind, let’s start by discussing the origin and philosophy behind the terms a bit more (to ensure our foundation), then we’ll add some more logic before diving into left-right spectrums, comparative terms, and other details. Feel free to skip around the page or quest questions in the comments below.
Considering the Basic Political Identities and Classical Government Types for Left-Right
With the introduction in mind, lets get back to the core of what we are talking about by looking at the ideologies at the heart of the terms left-wing and right-wing.
The terms left-and-right are generally analogous with the classical governments types Democracy (left) and Monarchy/Aristocracy (right), the basic political ideologies Liberalism (left) and Conservatism (right) (in their classical liberty-minded and “social” equality-minded forms), and are closely related to the concepts of collectivism and individualism.
Thus, we can sum up everything so far to say, a basic left-right paradigm would be:
Favoring Liberty, Social Equality, Democracy, Liberalism, and the Collective equally is left-wing, favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, Monarchy/Aristocracy, Conservatism, and Individuals unequally is right-wing, and ideologies that favor a balance between the two, like republicanism and centrism, are “center-wing.”
And here we can note: Most real ideologies are “mixed” and most people hold “mixed” views (where mix means a mix of left, right, and center).
TIP: If you take a Mises-like stance, considering Bill-of-rights individualism as left-wing, know that I don’t disagree. Much of this page covers the semantics of deceptively complex terms like individualism and collectivism (as does our section on individualism and collectivism; I can’t say everything at once, so try not to get sidetracked by specific terms and instead consider all the terms in each paradigm together for a full picture).
The Virtues of Left-Right Politics, Abstractions, and Golden Means
Although each of the aforementioned basic left-right paradigms has many complexities to consider as they are, they all share a few foundational and important properties (or qualities, or virtues).
Knowing this, we can distill the two key “virtues” behind left-right politics and the above terms to: “liberty and equality” (distilling this to two terms, at first at least, will allow us to create complex and useful left-right spectrums; bare with me, more justification for these exact terms is given below).
With our two main virtues defined, we can then abstract the antithesis of the terms “liberty and equality” as “authority and hierarchy,” giving us a simple left-right paradigm that can symbolize the one above: liberty and equality vs. authority and hierarchy.
Next, we can abstract an “antithesis of deficiency” and an “antithesis of excess” from each of our four terms (liberty, equality, authority, and hierarchy) to find two extremes and one mean for each term (in the style of Aristotle’s Golden Mean Theory).
With that in mind, using the above logic, a basic left-right spectrum is well stated as an abstraction of the foundational virtues “liberty and equality,” which can be expressed by the following left-right paradigm: liberty and equality vs. authority and hierarchy. Further logic for this is shown below and otherwise in the links presented, but in a quick set of left-right charts, it looks like this:
Basic Left-Right Virtues From the Perspective of Liberalism (using Aristotle’s Golden Mean Theory as a model)
|SPHERE OF ACTION||RIGHT: Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough||The Left-Right Mean||LEFT: Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal|
|Liberty||Overly Authoritative / Classically Conservative||Liberal||Overly Liberal / Classically Liberal|
|Equality||Extreme Inequality (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative||Equal||Extreme Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal|
TIP: Each row in the table above can be considered “a left-right paradigm”. Here we expressing the basic virtues of the left-right politics from the frame of reference of liberalism.
Basic Left-Right Virtues From the Perspective of Conservatism
|SPHERE OF ACTION||LEFT: Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal||The Left-Right Mean||RIGHT: Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough|
|Authority||Overly Liberal / Classically Liberal||Correct Authority||Overly Authoritative / Classically Conservative|
|Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition||Extreme Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal||Correct Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition||Extreme Inequality (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative|
TIP: And here is the same left-right theory from the frame of reference of conservatism.
OPINIONS: The “purple terms” are denoting a balanced mean, a true virtue, while left and right represent a more “unbalanced” stance. This doesn’t imply centrism is the only right answer, but it hints that rigid ideologies that demand extremes are not generally ideal (see Communism and Fascism). One can think of correctness as a range of options that spans the moderate left, right, and center, and incorrectness as that which is unbalanced and extreme (our left-right paradigms, tables, and spectrums help offer a visual of this).
The Liberty Paradigm and the Equality Paradigm
Thus, above, what we are doing is considering two fundamental left-right paradigms (“the liberty paradigm” and “equality paradigm”) created from our foundational left-right virtues (liberty and equality), which we can then use as a foundation for our left-right political theory.
We can call the result of all this:
- The “liberty/authority paradigm”: liberty (left) vs. authority (right), and
- The “equality/hierarchy paradigm”: social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right) [the “equality paradigm” can also be expressed by a few other paradigms such as collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right)].
Of course, people tend to have very different stances on liberty and equality, equality itself has some complexities regarding the semantics of collectivism and individualism, stances change per issue, and things are generally complicated.
To combat this complexity we can consider multiple “left-right paradigms” at once, in different “left-right spheres” of political life, to discuss specific per-issue left-right stances in detailed and comparative terms.
Those are the basics, below we cover may different aspects of the logic and present some left-right paradigms and spectrums.
Putting This all Together in some Left-Right Spectrums
Before we get into any more detail, for those who just want a quick left-right spectrum (and don’t want more on the theory of how to build left-right spectrums), a useful left-right compass that considers the the “liberty/authority paradigm and the “equality/hierarchy paradigm” AKA that considers liberty (left) vs. authority (right), collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right), and social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right) looks like this (we explain the logic behind this below):
TIP: Using the above logic we can create a blank left-right spectrum that considers the liberty paradigm and equality paradigm on a 4 point XY chart that looks like this (the methodology for this and much else is explained in more detail below). More left-right spectrums an be found below. Feel free to scroll around and bookmark the details for later. Comment, questions, and insight are welcome.
A Quick Introduction into Left-Right Paradigms and Complexity – Paradigms, Spheres, and Descriptive and Comparative Terms
By considering different left-right “paradigms” (abstractions of single political concepts that are symbolic of what we mean when we say “left” and “right”) in different “spheres” (in different areas of political life), for example by considering the “liberty paradigm” liberty (left) vs. authority (right) in the political sphere (what the Objective Standard calls “degrees of force”), or the “equality paradigm” collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right) in the economic sphere, or the “equality paradigm” social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right) in the sociopolitical sphere, or the “equality paradigm” globalism (left) vs. nationalism (right) in terms of trade policy and immigration, or even by considering all this at once in general left-right terms, we’ll be able to create simple and complex left-right spectrums that line up with philosophy, history, and modern semantics.
This will allow us to compare and contrast the political left-ness and right-ness of ideologies accurately, per-party, and per-issue in terms of stances on social issues, the state, and more to create complex left-right descriptors like: “left in terms of liberty“, “to the left of X ideology in terms of favoring a large collective equally via social policy“, “right in terms of authoritative nationalism exclusive to a small group of nationals“, “to the left of Y ideology in terms of economic policy that favors economic equality without the use of right-wing authoritarianism“, “right in terms of favoring social hierarchy and protectionist policy, compared to an ideology that favors free-trade and globalism“, or “left in terms of freedom from government via good old classical liberal liberty“, etc.
TIP: The colors we are using the American political colors (where blue is liberal), the symbolic meaning of colors differs per nation, but the fundamentals we are discussing don’t.
The Logic Behind Creating Left-Right Spectrums
Before moving on I want to expand on the logic I used to create the above spectrums and paradigms.
Any concept (thesis) by its nature can be said to have an antithesis.
The concept of “liberty” has the antithesis “authority”, and this schism creates the foundation for what we can call a left-right paradigm.
For example, the “liberty paradigm” liberty (left) vs. authority (right) can be abstracted from the singular concept of liberty (a political term at the heart of politics and the origin story of the terms left and right).
Now moving on to the next step, when one takes a thesis like liberty or social equality, then defines the antithesis, for example social inequality (or social hierarchy), they then get a “spectrum of middles” (a spectrum of degrees between equality and inequality).
When we define one attribute as left and one as right (using our history and philosophy and a little logic and reason), we get a “left-right political spectrum” based on our left-right paradigm.
When we then add other factors, like liberty (left) and authority (right), we get two basic spectrums we can consider together.
This sort of logic results in the left-right spectrums we feature above and below (where we plot one paradigm on the X axis and on the Y to create a complex spectrum).
From there we can consider additional left-right paradigms, like globalism and nationalism, or realism and idealism, and create an array of different complex spectrums.
So, the process works like this:
- Define terms: Liberty and Equality. TIP: This can be one or more terms, we are using the core two as an example.
- Abstract each term to find its thesis antithesis: Liberty and Authority, Equality (ex. social equality) and Inequality (ex. social hierarchy). TIP: Be careful, some terms don’t have an antithesis, some have more than one.
- Define middles and extremes: Extreme Liberty/Authority, Moderate Liberty/Authority, Extreme Equality/Inequality, Moderate Equality/Inequality. TIP: Not all terms have extreme and moderate positions, but when they do they almost always work to define the bounds.
- Consider the spectrum of possibilities between: Extreme liberty <-> liberty <-> moderate liberty/authority <-> authority <-> extreme authority, Extreme equality <-> equality <-> moderate equality/inequality <-> inequality <-> extreme inequality. TIP: One can define as many middles and variations of extremes as makes sense for the topic. Some concepts exist in binary, others have countless degrees of possibilities.
This mode of thinking can then output spectrums like this, which we can then plot on an XY Chart:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||Extreme Left||>Left||The Left-Right Mean||Right||Extreme Right|
|Liberty||Extreme Liberty||Favoring Liberty||Balanced Liberty||Favoring Authority||Extreme Authority|
|Equality||Extreme Equality||Favoring Equality||Balanced Equality||Favoring Inequality||Extreme Inequality|
This is the type of logic we will use below to expand on the basic foundation we have introduced above.
Obviously we will be taking this method and applying it to more complex things, but having the foundation helps.
Speaking of more complex things, before moving on, consider the following image pertaining to the spectrum of Federalism (see that link if you need a refresher on federalism; it is important in general, so consider taking the moment):
On the above chart in the image, if we consider separatism (increasing separation within a federalist system) in left-right terms, we can say it is “left in terms of liberty”, but “right in terms of collectivism” (the entities are not in a tight union, so this is “to the right” (at least by enough measures to use it for an example).
Now, consider Unionism, the other extreme (the antithesis to separatism). Unionism is “right in terms of liberty” (as it demands all entities follow the same rule-set), but it is “left in terms of collectivism” (because it is one cohesive whole).
So what is the point? The point is that using the “art of abstraction” (where we draw antitheses, then means, then spectrums from a single thesis using the method above), we can both create the federalism spectrum and define its left-right properties.
When this then becomes an ideology, like oh I don’t know, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, we can then put down the party platform and instead think critically using our formal/informal system to better understand the qualities (or virtues) of the ideology and the different ranges of positions related to them.
Considering the paradigms that arise from this process of abstraction can help us to better understand the fundamental dualities at the heart of the political left and right (like liberty and equality). We’ll revisit this sort of logic below after covering more details.
Avoiding the Creation of Left-Right Spectrums that Don’t Align With Semantics
Using the above logic will help us to avoid the complications found in other left-right spectrums (like the one’s discussed in the article The Political Spectrum: Understanding the Grossly Misunderstood), such as:
1. The following 2 point left-right paradigm which tries to consider everything at once, but which we can say is considering the paradigm globalism (left) vs. nationalism (right):
LEFT: Communism -> Socialism -> Liberalism <- Centrism -> Conservatism -> Monarchy -> Fascism :RIGHT
Or, 2. this “liberty paradigm” that only considers liberty vs. authority (but in doing so changes the definitions of left and right):
AUTHORITY “LEFT”: Communism -> Fascism -> Conservatism <- Centrism -> Liberalism -> Libertarianism -> Anarchy :LIBERTY “RIGHT”
Neither of those paradigms are fully wrong, but neither aligns fully with what we mean when we say left and right, and that is why a more complex theory is being used below.
Before we get to any further details on “paradigms” and “spheres” and left-right in absolute and comparative terms, let’s sum up everything on the page in simple terms plain english terms by looking to the origin of the terms left and right during the French Revolution.
Starting Simple: General Left-Right Theory and Basic Left-Right Spectrums
The paradigms mentioned in the above introduction speak to the core of the left-and-right, where generally (for a PROPER two point left-right spectrum based on the origin of the terms left and right during the French Revolution):
LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty and equality and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority.
That two point spectrum is a really solid foundation that lines up with the original meaning of the terms left and right, and thus is a great starting point.
However, to have a practical theory that lines up with modern semantics, history, and classical philosophy (from the government types to basic political ideologies), we have to consider at least two paradigms at once (not just one).
Considering two paradigms abstracted from the terms at the heart of the French Revolution, what I call “the liberty paradigm” and “the equality paradigm”, at once gives us the basis of a four point left-right spectrum, where generally:
- “Liberal (favoring liberty) is left, and Conservative (favoring authority) is right” (see a discussion on liberalism vs. conservatism). We can call this “the liberty paradigm” (the paradigm that deals with liberties).
- Ideologies that favor the Collective (that favor social equality, collectives, and cooperation for example) are left, and ideologies favoring the Individual (that favor social hierarchy, individuals, and competition for example) are right (see individualism vs. collectivism). We can call this “the equality paradigm” (the paradigm that deals with social equality).
TIP: The above paradigms would then be the foundation of where the blank left-right spectrum above comes from, likewise it is the basis for our spectrums below.
With that, we have a general foundation to explore the complexities of the political left and right in-thought and in-action that avoids the pitfalls of other left-right spectrums.
Now that we have the essential basics discussed, lets move on to the origin of the terms left and right, the core principles behind creating left-right spectrums, and other useful insights, spectrums, models, theories, and charts pertaining to the political left and right.
More On the Origin of Left-Right Politics – Left-Right Politics and the French Revolution
With a basic introduction covered, before we get to any other part of our left-right theory, lets discuss where the terms left and right come from in a little more detail so we can all ensure we are starting on the same foundation.
The Origin of Left and Right and the Logic Behind a Simple 2 Point Left-Right Spectrum
During the French Revolution of 1789, supporters of the king stood to the president’s right, and supporters of the revolution to his left.
This is to say, The citizens who wanted democracy, individual liberty, and social equality stood to the left <—— of the President ——> and, the supporters of the Aristocracy, Monarchy, and King (“the few”) who wanted order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority stood to the right.
The above “left-right paradigm” doubles as a basic “classical” 2 point political spectrum. To simplify things: LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty and equality and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority (this is the basic original two-way split, in practice we want to consider liberty and equality separately rather than together).
TIP: When considering origins and using classical terms, we also have to consider the government forms from Plato’s Republic and early Greek works on politics. We cover this below, but it can be expressed as: RIGHT: Monarchy (pure lawful order and hierarchy) -> Aristocracy -> Timarchy -> Oligarchy -> Democracy (pure lawful liberty and equality) :LEFT. As you can see this lines up with our theory perfectly (and it should, we built our theory around the origin stories and what we mean when we speak).
TIP: Even though the Queen says “we”, she is still right-wing toward social hierarchy. Even though individualism is right in absolute terms, its effects can be very left (liberal and equal) if all are free in their right to pursue their unique life, liberty, and happiness. These complexities speak to why this page is long and not short, not to the validity of the theory. We grapple with complexities below.
TIP: Leftism, like liberalism in general, can be seen as a pushback against the pyramid shaped social order seen in the “estates” of France of the time of the French Revolution. The image below offers a visual of all this. Notice that the “barons” of the third estate (the oligarchs of the middle-upper-class) gained their liberty too, this complicates things and we should remember the Barons’ wars and the Magna Carta that did little for the workers or peasants (a Barons’ war is different than a Peasants’ War, is different from a Workers’ revolution, so to speak; this is true even though they all tend to rebel against the first two estates speaking in terms of the French Revolution). Learn more about Plato’s Republic and his class system, or see an explanation of the modern American class system (as it compares to the Estates of the Realm).
The Logic Behind Our Left-right Spectrum – Using Liberty and Equality as First Principals of a Left-Right Spectrum
Now that we have the origin story down and have reconfirmed the basics, the logic below should make more sense. Once you get the logic behind creating a left-right spectrum, once you get the foundation, the rest of the theory is just icing on the cake.
As a basis for constructing a general left-right spectrum (one that will relate to all the spheres and paradigms), we’ll start by examining two terms at the heart of liberalism and conservatism, the classical government types, and politics in general: “liberty” and “equality”.
As you’ll remember from the above, these terms really spoke to the heart of the French Revolution, so they don’t just line up with reality and philosophy, they line up with our origin story!
It isn’t that we won’t consider other paradigms and sub-paradigms (we will as you’ll see in a moment), it is that the terms liberty and equality generally relate back to what it means to be left (liberal) or right (conservative), both in their classical and social forms, be we talking about politics, economics, or other issues, and thus all other paradigms we create will all generally relate back to these two terms at the heart of the French Revolution, liberalism (and by extension conservatism), and democracy (and by extension Monarchy and the other classical forms of government).
Then, with our two key terms in mind, we’ll look at the dichotomy contained in each term, for liberty: liberty (left) vs. authority (right), and for equality: collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right) [which can also be expressed by the equally important paradigm, and sometimes even more telling when discussing specific spheres and issues, “social equality (left) and social hierarchy/inequality (right)”], and create some left-right spectrums based on that.
Next, after creating some basic left-right models based on the core theory, we’ll look at other paradigms that speak to other aspects of left and right, like: progressive vs. traditional (how fast change happens), idealism vs. realism (whether we govern based on how things are or how they should be), cooperation vs. competition (whether society is competition or cooperation based), collective responsibly vs. individual responsibility, flexibility vs. absolutism and rigidness, etc. TIP: To keep things simple we can consider each of these “sub-paradigms” to be a type of “liberty paradigm” or “equality paradigm” (there isn’t one equality paradigm, there is many, there isn’t one liberty paradigm, there are many; in a way we can think of this as all paradigms being sub-paradigms of the general liberty and equality paradigms; this will help our general 4 point spectrum to make sense in all cases).
The goal will be to create left-right models that match up with both the classical terms and modern semantics so we can use them to compare real and historic ideologies and policy stances of people, parties, and nations in terms of left-and-right.
NOTES ON OUR LOGIC: There are a lot of factors to consider here: spheres (like left-right economics, or left-right politics), paradigms (like liberty vs. authority), virtues (like equality or liberty), comparative terms vs. absolutes, the mixed nature ideologies, etc, and that can be confusing. The idea here is to start simple by looking at liberty, equality, and the roots of left and right in the French Revolution. Then with that foundation, we’ll consider left-right paradigms in the political sphere, in the economic sphere, in social sphere, etc issue-by-issue to get a true sense of how to determine leftness and rightness regarding a given policy or ideology.
The Logic Behind Creating a 4 Point Left-Right Spectrum Using the Classical and Social Forms of Liberalism and Conservatism as an Example
As eluded to above, it isn’t enough just to consider liberty and equality together (like it was in the French Revolution), instead we need to consider each term on its own and then in terms of left-right stances.
Why? Because as you know, people don’t agree on liberty and equality, in fact there are four general positions one can take based on our logic so far.
Thus, we need to consider FOUR (not TWO) things at once: liberty (of citizens) / Classical Liberalism vs. authority (of the state) / Classical Conservatism and collectivism (social equality) / Social Liberalism vs. individualism (social hierarchy) / Social Conservatism.
The above paradigms can be used to create a four point left-right spectrum that considers political ideology that looks like this:
NOTE: Consider the difference between classical and social liberalism and between classical and social conservatism; each of the four takes a very specific stance that butts heads with the others constantly. This is because they disagree on their positions on liberty vs. authority (“liberty paradigm”) and social equality vs. social hierarchy (“equality paradigm”). Specifically, this is complicated due to social liberalism requiring classical conservative authority, and social conservatism being rooted in a classical liberal love of liberty (more on that below, and generally in our politics section).
TIP: Generally, to get around the inherent complications with discussing left and right, and to better describe mixed systems, we can use terminology like “left in terms of liberty” and “socially left in terms of social equality”, or “right in terms of authority” and “socially right in terms of favoring small groups”. Descriptors are key when discussing left-right politics, just like they key are when discussing liberalism and conservatism. With that in mind, we can say things like “classically liberal left in terms of liberty” and “socially liberal left in terms of social equality” to better denote in what way an ideology is left or right, or social-minded or liberty-minded. This will help us to describe things like “a socially liberal welfare policy that is right in terms of authority, but left in terms of social equality”.
TIP: In general I consider the left and right to be naturally occurring, and thus the basic political ideologies naturally occurring. To the extent that liberty and equality are natural desires, it stands to reason that much of the basis of politics is natural and not convention.
Confirming the Fundamentals of Left-Right Politics
As eluded to above, not only are these terms the core of La Révolution, they are also the core of what defines the government types, liberalism and conservatism, populism and elitism, and many of the terms we identify with politically (even “Democrat” and “Republican” to some extent; even those are “mixed” political parties consisting of different factions and different left-right policy stances, their namesakes, current forms, and different policy stances speak to aspects of the left-right split).
The fundamental underlying “virtues” of Democracy (as defined by Plato in his Republic), Liberalism, and the French, American, and English Revolutionaries are well stated as “liberty” and “equality” (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as they say; AKA the principles of liberalism meant to temper conservatism). These ideologies express the desire for an “excesses” of liberty and equality (as one can see in documents like the Rights of Man and Citizen).
Meanwhile, fundamental principles of traditional Monarchy / Aristocracy, conservatism, and the opposition to the revolutionaries of each country, like the Ancien Régime in France (those “old orders” whose principles are: hierarchy, order, and tradition AKA the principles of conservatism, that which tempers liberty and equality) sought what we can call a “deficiency” of liberty and equality (they wanted more authority and hierarchy and less liberty and equality).
Given the above justifications from the classics and the revolutions (specifically the French Revolution where our terms come from), we will be using the underlying virtues “liberty” and “equality” as a foundation, relating that to the basic political ideologies, relating that back to the basic government types, and basing our left-right spectrums and working off of that.
Because we have grounded our left-right theory in these political constants derived from history’s real governments and philosophies, it will generally work as a model that aligns with modern semantics, politics in-action, and the classical usage of terms.
For more reading, see The Origin of the Political Terms Left and Right.
Understanding the Political Left-wing and Right-wing – the Liberty and Equality Left-Right Paradigms Applied
Now that we have the background covered, lets start constructing left-right models using that logic.
Despite the ambiguity and complexity involved in creating a political spectrum, the political left-wing and right-wing are properly defined (from a historical perspective that considers the basic government types, the basic political parties, social contract theory, and the origin of left-right) by the following two paradigms noted above (which should both be considered at once):
- Most importantly, “Liberal (favoring liberty) is left, and Conservative (favoring authority) is right” (see a discussion on liberalism vs. conservatism). We can call this “the liberty paradigm” (the paradigm that deals with liberties).
- And, almost equally as important, ideologies that favor the Collective (that favor collective social equality over individual liberties) are left, and ideologies favoring the Individual (that favor individual liberty over collective equality and thus favor social hierarchy) are right (see individualism vs. collectivism). We can call this “the equality paradigm” (the paradigm that deals with social equality).
NOTE: As stated in the introduction there are other paradigms to consider related to economy, class, government type and more, but they all generally relate to the above paradigms.
NOTE: Also eluded to above, the Liberty Paradigm could use the terms “Classical Liberal” and “Classical Conservative” (the liberty focused split) and the Equality paradigm “Social Liberal” and “Social Conservative” (the equality focused split) instead. With that said, the concepts of liberty, authority, collectivism, and individualism are more common. So let’s stick with those to avoid extra explanations. All the terms are generally comparable as they are all speaking to the same fundamental truisms.
As one might immediately notice, the above “liberty” and “equality” paradigms illustrate some complexities and paradoxes related to balancing liberty and equality with authority and inequality.
This complexity isn’t a mistake, instead it speaks to the idea that politics is complex, that balance is needed, and that we are generally looking to maximize liberty and equality in the state while avoiding extremes of deficiency and excess (in a mixed-Republic at least). As we see with the French Revolution, when there isn’t balance, people sometimes lose their heads.
Sure, “pure” “rugged” individualism (everyone for themselves individualism) is a very equal in its offering of liberty, and “strict” “vertical” collectivism (authoritative hierarchical collectivism) can limit liberties in an effort to create social equality, but the spectrum below and our additional notes account for all of that. So let’s not get bogged down here.
With the above noted, in summary: the left-right spectrum can be defined by the “authority (right) vs. liberty (left) liberty paradigm” compared to the “individualism (right) vs. collectivism (left) equality paradigm”.
Placing the “left-right virtues” we named our paradigms after (liberty and equality) in a table that ties everything together looks like this (there are different ways to express this; see another example here):
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY (FAR-RIGHT)||THE LEFT-RIGHT MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS (FAR-LEFT)|
|Liberty||Overly Authoritative / Classically Conservative||Liberal||Overly Liberal / Classically Liberal|
|Equality||Extreme Inequality (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative||Equal||Extreme Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal|
You can think of each row of the table above as a super simple 2 point left-right chart (“a left-right” paradigm, derived from the above logic, which we can plot on more complex charts).
As you can see, each paradigm is really just illustrating an abstraction of a single concept. That abstraction is what creates our paradigms.
Pair this all with the fact that liberty and equality are the core not only of left-right, but also of the ideologies liberal and conservative, the government types democracy and monarchy, and we get a really solid foundation for left-right that matches up perfectly with the original usage of the term from the French Revolution!
Great, now lets turn that into some left-right political spectrums and consider other left-right paradigms so we can have a sensical political theory that works (a set of left-right principles so to speak).
So, our first left-right spectrum model is going to appropriately be a liberty vs. authority and equality vs. “inequality” (AKA individual focused) paradigm plotted on a simple 4-point left-right spectrum chart.
NOTE: This page uses a few different models to illustrate a few related points about the nature of the political left and right. I strongly suggest comparing the left-right spectrums and paradigms below. The notes are there to offer insight, feel free to skip around the text and just check out the images. All comments welcome!
Placing the paradigms on a four point chart again, but this time denoting terms to describe each quadrant, looks like the one below (where pure right-wing is at the top right corner, and pure left-wing is at the bottom left corner, and moving toward either from a more centered position denotes moving toward the political left or right respectively):
TIP: If one were to balance Liberalism with Republicanism and Democracy with Aristocracy, perhaps by separating historically overpowered powers, one would be expected to approach the “left-right mean” AKA correctness AKA balance. What a novel idea, why didn’t anyone think of… oh, wait. The philosophical point of the United States and the U.K. and the west in general. It is all, very loosely speaking, about balancing excesses and deficiencies of “liberty” and “equality”. #ThanksFounders.
Notes on the Left-Right Spectrum and Other Essential Left-Right Paradigms
The notes below will help to make sense of the above paradigms and charts and will introduce the complexity that we will explore below.
NOTES ON THE ABOVE LEFT-RIGHT SPECTRUM: The website politicalcompass.org uses a version of the left-right spectrum that is, in my opinion, the most correct modern political compass outside of ours. The problem with their chart is not their focus on economics (which as you’ll see below is a paradigm that one should consider), it is that they didn’t label “authoritarian” (the top of their chart) as “right” and “libertarian” (the bottom of their chart) as “left”. It makes more sense to use the terms liberty and authority than it does to use “libertarian”. As liberty is a fundamental aspect of governments and politics, and “libertarianism” is a modern political ideology (both span the bottom of the chart, but one is a fundamental of modern politics and the other an ideology). See also the very useful Nolan chart which just focuses on aspects of culture and economics. Below we take this a step further, marrying the ideas of both previous charts to create other models that give insight into other paradigms (showing how this can all be charted in a few ways to crack open the core of what left-wing and right-wing mean historically and in practice).
MORE NOTES ON THE ABOVE LEFT-RIGHT SPECTRUM (AND THE NEXT ONE BELOW): The term collective liberty can be confusing, as all groups are made of individuals. There is a lot of complex conversations to be had here, but for the purposes of our model: We want to consider two questions (each separately and together). 1. the question “who does it favor” and 2. the question “who is exerting the force (or who is giving true consent to the force being exerted)”? Here I’ll note that “who does it favor” is generally the question we are asking when discussing left-right (because of the fact that real life governments always require power to be delegated). So, in terms of “who does it favor”:
- When liberties are applied equally and/or benefit all, when there is a focus on collective equality rather than the individual, but when the ideology is not authoritative, it is “collective liberty“ (“the liberty left”, where “left” is the “social left”, toward collective equality).
- Likewise, when the focus is on the individual rather than the collective, when individual liberty is favored over collective equality, but there is otherwise limited state authority, it is “individual liberty“ (“the liberty right“, where “right” is the “social right”, favoring individualism over collective equality).
- Next, when authority is used to ensure collective equality or even personal liberties, when authority is used to ensure social equality, it is “collective authority“ (“the authoritarian left“).
- Lastly, when hierarchy and order are favored over collective equality, it is “individual authority“ (“the authoritarian right“). With that said, we can use the same terms when speaking of “who is exerting the force“.
Here though the complexity arises that the person exerting the force isn’t always acting in their own self interest. The Queen may say “we” and create a classically right authoritarian state, but may do this in a way that respects rights and liberties of all (in a way aligned with “the general will“), thus the Queen would be being far-right in terms of governing style but very left in terms of social policy. Likewise, the Tyrant Stalin or Hitler may say they are acting upon the will of the collective, but may strip the people of their rights and liberties, thus they would be acting far-right in many respects despite their on paper ideology. Real systems are very complex! Our model is meant to help us to decode complex real systems. In all cases, the complexity isn’t a statement on the model not being right, it just speaks to the complexity of politics, why we should consider things comparatively and per-issue using different paradigms, and generally “to why the answer is balance“.
TIP: With the above in mind, we can also show the left-right spectrum like this (this time adding in explainers and focusing on the question “who does it favor?”).
Considering Different Left-Right Spheres
Left-right paradigms can be applied within different left-right spheres. Understanding this helps us to understand why, for example, an ideology might be left in terms of social issues, right in terms authority, but left in terms of economics (i.e. why they may hold a “mixed” ideology not just per-issue, but per-“sphere”).
An non-exhaustive list includes:
Left-Right Politics (the paradigms of the left-right political sphere). Most political left-right paradigms fit generally in what we can call “the left-right political sphere). We can discuss this sphere in terms of left-right social issues, left-right economics, left-right governments, etc as noted below. This section is all about making distinctions so we can differentiate between left-right views in politics, economics, social issues, etc.
Left-Right Governments (the paradigms of the governmental sphere): Another way to look at it is that popular governments like Democracies are left and authoritative governments like Monarchies are right (although this is somewhat tautological as the government types relate directly to the above underlying factors in general; as both democracy and liberalism are the ideologies of liberty and equality and conservatism and monarchy the ideologies of authority and inequality AKA hierarchy). See types of governments and Plato’s five regimes.
Left-Right Economics (the paradigms of the economic sphere): When considering governments and political ideologies, it makes sense to consider economics (as it is very foundational to a society). Here a regulation on a business may be “left” because it favors the collective by favoring the environment and workers, but “right” because it restricts the liberty of an employer. Likewise cost assistance may be left, as it favors low-income, but right, as it means more government mandated taxes. Issues of economics should be considered separately from social issues and issues of personal liberties, as they are different aspects of an ideology. Paradigms for economics could include, for example: “state controlled economy (right, controlled by the few) vs. individual run economy (left, controlled by the many)” and “taxation (right, authoritative) vs. no taxation (left, liberty)”. Of course any of these should be compared against social equality paradigms, as a nation that does not care for the social welfare of the collective is by its nature more right than one that does (the way in which big government and taxation can be socially left despite its right-wing aspects). We can see how economics can lead to complex left-right systems where a socialist and libertarian can’t fully square out who is left of who as an absolute! TIP: Consider also left-right globalization paradigms, where we can denote free trade vs. protectionism, isolationism vs. imperialism, nationalism vs. internationalism, nativism vs. globalism, etc. In all cases, the ideology that favors the large group is generally “to left in terms of collectivism”, although it may be “to the right” by other measures.
Left-Right Classism (the paradigms of the class sphere): Another way to describe the factors underlying the left-right spectrum is by a classist divide. This would include looking at the paradigm: populist (left) vs. elitist (right). A chart I can’t draw might plot this as a Z axis, but we could also here remove the individual vs. collective axis and add this populist axis (creating a populist vs. elitist / liberty vs. authority chart; thus differentiating between authoritative populism and not, and left-wing populism vs. right-wing). Consider, the KKK and NAZIs are far-right in general, but they are also in some ways “left” in terms of being anti-establishment and favoring aspects of individual liberty. Generally, “populist” is a liberal collectivist ideology and “elitist” is a conservative individualist ideology… however, socialism is authoritative collectivism, and this is obviously a left-right ideology, and “Tea Party” populism is a liberal individualist philosophy in that it wants the liberty to be progressively conservative. So again, things get complex, but like with the governments left-right paradigm, it is all analogous to the equality and liberty paradigms (in that, generally speaking, a populist movement is a collective movement against the authority of another group or individual whether it is left or right-wing).
TIP: Don’t confuse the political left and right with Democrats (left) and Republicans (right), that is a good starting point, but a little overly simple due to the complex ideologies of the parties in practice. See our breakdown of the modern American left and right for a little more nuance or see the original meaning of the party names.
More Notes on The Mixed Nature of Left-Right Ideologies and Their Complexity
Given the above, we can say there is not one primary left-right factor to consider, but at least two that must be considered simultaneously!… and this means almost all ideologies are “left-right” in practice.
Consider, an authoritative collectivist, a liberal monarch, and a free-trading-republic with a strong central government. Each is left on one paradigm, but right in the other.
- The freedom to own a slave is left, but the act of inhibiting the freedom of another is far-right.
- A despot using the state to ensure morality and social justice in a puritanical way is left in terms of policy that favors the collective, but right in terms of the authority needed to ensure that policy.
- A collective that only accepts one type of person is to the right of a collective that accepts all types (why Communism is to the left of the NAZI’s National “Socialism”).
- Taxation is right-wing in and of itself, benefiting or inhibiting some individuals more than others at the demand of the state, but its ends of providing funding for the common good (like locals roads) benefits the whole collectively equally, and is thus that aspect is left.
- A libertarian society based on pure freedom (save some basic rules) is far-left in terms of liberty, but right in terms of individualism (as pure freedom means inherent inequality).
- A socialist utopian commune based on pure equality is left in terms of favoring the collective, but to enforce total equality of all things is to exert authority, and that is right!
- Meanwhile, a society that offered the same freedoms as the purely libertarian one, but somehow also provided a strong safety-net, would be “to the left” of the libertarian utopia and the socialist utopia due to it favoring the collective over individuals and liberty over authority.
In all cases, the left and right labels work, but as we can see, most ideologies are “mixed”. In practice, one must typically either sacrifice liberty for collective social welfare, or sacrifice protections for more individual liberties.
This speaks to the balance needed in governance and politics, and makes giving accurate left-right labels complex in absolute terms.
Luckily, the terms still hold up as comparative terms when used on an issue-by-issue basis, and that is what allows us to construct accurate left-right political spectrum models like this 4 point left-right political compass (presented again) which uses well known historic figures to illustrate the above theory again in a different way.
IMPORTANT: If you consider this left-right compass model, the four point models above, and the additional paradigms below at once you’ll have a really solid understanding of the political left-right. I might actually prefer this compass due to its shape (which shows us why Hitler and Stalin are so similar in terms of authority), but the above ones start by playing off the classical Nolan and accepted politicalcompass.org charts (so we grounded the theory in squares over circles; both work as “models” and logically many other models can be constructed).
NOTE: The political compass left-right chart above is, in my opinion, the most useful due to its spherical shape. It shows clearly why people confuse the WWII ideologies of Communism and National Socialist Fascism. There is only a thin line between extreme authoritarian ideologies, so to speak… Still, the line is there, and these ideologies can be discussed issue-by-issue using the terms left and right.
TIP: Beyond the two core liberty and equality paradigms, there are many secondary paradigms that apply. We list them below as we add complexity to the theory, so make sure to check them out.
TIP: Keep in mind, as noted above, all collectives are comprised of individuals. Thus, an individualist ideology, like libertarianism, can favor a collective by extension of its focus on individual liberty, and a collectivist ideology like “socialism” can sometimes limit the liberty of the individual by its focus on the collective. In both cases, it is using two left-right paradigms at once that helps us understand that these are both “mixed” left-right ideologies. The liberty of libertarianism is left, but the focus on the individual is right. The authority of a collectivist ideology may be right, but its favoring of the collective is left. Again, to expand on an above example, a benevolent monarch is right in terms of individual authority, but may be left in terms of their treatment of the collective. The more nuanced we are, and the more we discuss left and right qualities issue by issue, the better we can understand an ideology on paper and in practice and compare it accurately to other ideologies.
More on the Origin of the Terms Left and Right
With the above basics noted, before expanding on the above theories, lets return to the easiest and most accurate metaphor for what left and right, origin story of the terms left and right themselves. We covered this above, but musing on it a bit more in the next section will help the skeptical reader to re-confirm we are on the right track.
Where do the Political Terms Left and Right Come from?
Like the American Revolution around the same time, or England’s Glorious Revolution in the late 1600’s, the French Revolution was a liberal revolution over human rights vs. the absolute and divine right of kings (see history of human rights and birth of liberalism).
Specifically, the terms “left” and “right” first appeared during the events leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left.
In other words, at the National Assembly at the dawn of the French Revolution, the ideology that supported the traditional order, hierarchy, and government of “the one” King and “the few” aristocrats was called “right”, and the ideology that favored the collective rights and liberties of “the many” was “left”. And this of course fits with the models presented on this page.
The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29. This will help put things in context.
TIP: See Left and Right: The Great Dichotomy Revisited for a more complete telling of the significance of the terms left and right. The opening chapter of the book describes the French origins of the terms in vital detail.
Left-Right and Governments, Using Plato’s Five Regimes as a Metaphor
With the above in mind, in terms of origins, we can also look to the philosophers of pre-Hellenistic Greece to confirm the basics of the theory.
In terms of Plato’s five regimes, each step away from Monarchy and toward Democracy can be said to be more “left” (Plato never used the term “left” or “right”, but he did coin the types of governments and offer theories of liberty and equality in his theory of justice from his Republic).
Thus, in Plato’s terms, each subsequent government from Monarchy to Democracy sacrifices order and inequality to gain more unrestrained liberty and equality:
RIGHT: Monarchy (pure lawful order and hierarchy) -> Aristocracy -> Timarchy -> Oligarchy -> Democracy (pure lawful liberty and equality) :LEFT
But don’t get too excited thinking i’m somehow favoring liberty and equality, nothing works well in extremes, even the core principles of liberalism… and certainly Plato postulated that it was none other than unrestrained liberty or equality that led to anarchy and tyranny.
In fact, while Plato didn’t exactly love monarchy, he greatly preferred the order of constitutional monarchy to the excessively liberal and equal democracy (hinting, as hopefully you’ll pick up by reading this, that it is a tempered balance of the powers, rooted in a lawful Republic in which we find the balance that maximizes liberty and equality).
EXTREME RIGHT-LEFT: Tyranny (pure lawless order and hierarchy) <- -> Anarchy (pure lawless liberty and equality) :EXTREME LEFT-RIGHT
From this point, with the above political compass and the rest in mind, one only needs to deal with the points eluded to above about complexity, namely, that a Tyrant who favors the collective is to the left of the tyrant who doesn’t, and that pure lawless individualist focused anarchy is to the right of an egalitarian commune focused on social welfare with the same degree of liberty.
Plato: The Republic – Book 8 Summary and Analysis. To help frame the types of governments.
More Details to Consider for Understanding the Left-wing and Right-wing
Now that we have a basic understanding and an origin story, lets add some more details and discuss other aspects of the left and right.
Left-wing and Right-wing As Comparative Terms
Given the complexity noted above, we can conclude that the terms left-wing and right-wing work best as comparative or descriptive terms, as we are typically using them to describe centered left-right ideologies that are “more left” or “more right” than another ideology on a given issue.
Is states’ rights liberal? Really, it depends on the issue and if we are comparing it to the authority of the Federal government or an individual.
Questions like this and more mean that using the terms left and right will often requires critical thinking and other considerations.
As i’m sure you’ve realized already, pure left and pure right are almost too simple and absolutist to be actual forms of government or political ideologies in practice, and this fact is compounded by the truism that extremes [of liberty and equality] corrupt democracy.
Just consider these extremes, a collective with no authority is bound to dissolve into anarchy, a society of individuals with absolute authority is anarchy, an individual with complete authority is a despot, and a state with absolute authority is a despotic state.
The extreme forms of left and right and even “left-right” are all fertile ground for tyranny, and can be difficult to even tell apart (again, why people can’t agree on if Hitler or Stalin is left or right)!
Simply put, pure left, pure right, and even extremes of mixed-left-right are some of the worst ideologies in practice for large groups (although some pure forms work in sub-groups in very specific situations; such as in a elite unit of Marines).
TIP: The importance of going issue by issue can’t be overstated. Utilitarianism is a great “left” “collectivist” theory that seeks to maximize liberty, equality, and happiness… when understood properly via a close reading of Mill. However, when taken to mean “the ends justify the means” – Period – it can result in some far-right means that really pervert Mill’s socially minded classically liberal theory. To apply left-right labels, one would look at each “mean” and the desired and potential “ends” and think on the left-right qualities of each. From this one could create a full picture on not only the correctness of the action, but its left-right properties. This could help one understand if the ends were a just balance of forces, or were skewed perhaps resulting in undesired outcomes.
TIP: There is no one way to understand left-right ideology, but our paradigms (especially the simple ones) are fairly accurate none-the-less. Our left-right spectrum models are similar to the popular “Nolan Chart” (which in my opinion, outside the chart on politicalcompass.org, is the only other correct model). I highly respect articles like “Political “Left” and “Right” Properly Defined” by the libertarian-minded theobjectivestandard.com, but their liberty-focused ideology has left them only considering one paradigm (and thus missing the bigger picture). The modern deregulatory right-wing likes to consider the social left-wing as being right-wing, but as we explain, this is only true in the liberty/authority paradigm, not the collective/individual paradigm. When we add in additional paradigms below, we will see things get even more complex. See us myth bust an “alt-right” claim that Hitler was a left-winger using this logic.
“Who Rules?” The Question at the Core of the Political Spectrum
Due to an economy of words it didn’t make sense to bring up this point before, but it is a key to understanding the overarching theory here.
The main question that creates the left and right, and the traditional forms of government is the same, it is simply: “who rules?” (classically meaning who makes the laws, not just who votes for officials) which can be understood by two more questions:
- “How much authority does the government have?”
- “Who says so?” (which almost always nets the same result as asking “who benefits?”).
We can then call the basic political affiliations that arise from this:
- Non-Authoritative Collectivism (“Left-Left” or “the Liberty Left”)
- Non-Authoritative Individualism (Left-Right or “the Liberty Right”)
- Authoritative Collectivism (Right-Left or “the Authoritarian Left”)
- Authoritative Individualism (Right-Right or “the Authoritarian Right”)
Thus, the above the basic logic not only makes sense from a historic perspective in terms of the French revolution or liberalism, it actually all fits together, as noted, with the basic government types! Sweet. I postulate this is because it is a naturally occurring social system, thus, of course we can see similar shadows of it dancing on any cave wall at any point in history.
Where do the Political Terms Liberal, Conservative, and Socialist come From? The terms liberal and conservative arise from the battle over conservatism and liberalism in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment starting in the 1600’s (when democratic ideals flourished along with free-trade, but religion was losing power). Later in the mid-1800’s Marx introduced the world to Marxism as classic liberalism was (according to legend) failing to ensure social justice for the people. Thus the dominant political model in the West, social liberalism, is a mix of socialism and liberalism.
Basic Liberal Vs. Conservative Political Ideology Spectrum – What is the Difference Between the Left-Wing and the Right-Wing?
As noted above, historically speaking, the simplest way to understand left-right ideology is: liberal is left and conservative is right.
Also noted above this relates to the authority and collectivism vs. individualism paradigms.
With this information covered, lets focus on the political core of all this, conservatism and liberalism.
Below we will better define those political terms so we can be clear on their meaning.
- Liberalism (AKA classic liberalism) typically being a fight for liberty, progress, and democracy and against authority. It supports the individual liberty and individual authority of the people, but at the expense of collective liberty and collective authority of the state. At its worst, it is lawless anarchy or a tyrannical mob.
- Conservatism (AKA traditional conservatism) being a push toward tradition, order, and authority and away from liberalism. It favors collective authority via the state, but at the expense of collective and individual liberty and individual authority. At its worst, it is a tyrannical dictatorship.
- A third concept, Socialism, is a populist movement rooted in late 19th century Marxism, that is typically to the left on most issues. Conservatism stands against this as well, as does classic liberalism. It favors collective authority via the state to ensure collective liberty, but at the expense of individual liberty and individual authority. At its worst it is also a tyrannical dictatorship.
These three types then break into four types as socialism informs liberalism and creates social liberalism and then social conservatism stands against that. We break this down in detail on our liberalism vs. conservatism page, but here is the gist:
- Liberalism is an ideology that grew out of the Age of Reason as classic liberalism (individual rights, anti-authority; a rejection of Kings, humans have natural rights), and evolved into social liberalism (collective rights, pro-authority; a rejection of social injustice, authority and law are needed) in the mid-1800’s.
- Conservatism stands against both types of liberalism as classical conservatism (collective rights, pro-authority; Monarchy is the best system, revolution is wrong) and social conservatism (individual rights, anti-authority; anti-social justice and anti-big government).
Without getting into further details, here is how the types of liberalism and conservatism look on a left-right spectrum chart:
Understanding Left-Right and the Classical and Social Forms of Liberalism and Conservatism Illustrated Above
As you can see, like other aspects of the theory, these terms fit neatly on the chart. However, these terms are complex. Social conservatism uses classical liberal liberty and classical conservative authority, social liberalism uses classical liberal and classical conservative principles, classical conservatism all but classical liberal, and classical liberal all but classical conservative. In other words, each type is rooted in one quadrant but pulls from two other quadrants, really only opposing one quadrant. That complexity helps explain the key to finding balance in general (and applies to other charts), but also makes it too complex a spectrum to lead the page with.
Try comparing the above chart to the one below with important American figures on it. Here the left-right model shows that the ideologies of these past figures are best described as “mixed”:
TIP: Left and right are largely comparative terms, and are thus best applied specifically to an issue rather than broadly to a party, period, or nation. This is what creates “mixed systems”, you’ll note throughout this page that extremes are bad and lead to tyranny and most real world ideologies are “mixed.”
Who is Left and Right in American Politics? It is important not to get too caught up in modern politics when trying to understand the concepts of left and right, as the American political parties ALL have aspects of “left” and “right.” Generally, Democrats are “left” and Republicans are “right,” but this isn’t true on every issue. For instance, Republicans have a lot of classical liberal beliefs regarding individual liberty and deregulation, while taxes favored by the Democrats can be considered authoritatively right, despite funding programs that are socially left. See our page on the basic political parties if you feel unclear about what we are saying. You can also get a deeper understanding by looking at the difference between individualism and collectivism.
Complex 4 Point Political Left-Right Spectrum – Representing Actual Political Views
This next chart considers socialism and libertarianism, rather than just liberal and conservative. Thus this chart moves some things around, is more complex, and is more opinionated than the above charts (the more examples we give, the more likely there will be disagreement).
Our chart uses modern political terms, and we can draw similar conclusion to the “The Political Compass charts,” but we disagree with other spectrums like this. There are four basic quadrants of political leftist and rightist thinking based on individualism and liberty/anarchy, and collectivism and authority. These quadrants can be named using modern language and our model of basic political parties.
- Social Libertarianism (Chomsky) / Social-tribal-commune type Socialism (Marx as a philosopher) (Non-Authoritative left-left).
- Modern Social Pro-business Liberalism (Clinton, Keynes, and Mill) / Big Government Socialism, Communism at an Extreme (from FDR all the way to Lenin or even Stalin or Hitler) (Authoritative left-right).
- True Libertarianism (Robert Nozick and Ron Paul) / Classical Liberal (Locke, Jefferson, and Jackson) (Non-Authoritative right-left).
- Conservatism (Tories, Hamilton, Churchill, Thatcher, or King George III; It changes with the times) (Authoritative right-right).
TIP: The chart below uses different terminology than the other charts. These are “theories” AKA “models” for understanding the concept of left and right. No single chart is absolutely correct, they instead should be contrasted and compared.
The Left-Right Spectrum as Multiple Paradigms
Now that we have the details covered for a basic two paradigm chart, we can add further complexity by considering some other paradigms and applying them per issue to a government type, political party, platform, piece of legislation, or ideology.
We can then add another layer, comparing them to each other to get an aggregate perspective of left-ness and right-ness. Each layer we compare makes the theory more complicated and less transferable, but also more correct.
For instance, we might consider a party’s outlook on economics, social issues, or foreign policy, and compare that to their other platforms and ideologies, to get a complete picture of the party’s “mixed” views.
We can see where views go wrong when they leave the center and move more toward extremes. We can even spot problems in society by seeing, “what extremes are arising from what areas”, and “in response to what?”
As noted above, in real life governments, politicians, and people have mixed political views that don’t fit neatly into any one category. This helps explain why, for instance, modern American liberals are often seen as authoritative, using executive power to push progressive legislation, or are seen as favoring the collective and small groups like unions or vulnerable minority groups.
The Left-Right Paradigm Table – Creating a Complex Left-Right Political Spectrum
The left-right political spectrum can be expressed as overlaying individual paradigms related to political ideology.
TIP: Each paradigm in the table below can be compared using an XY axis like our charts above. It is my opinion that these paradigms are the key to truly understanding left-right politics. My theory may not be perfect, but given the Nolan chart and my research, I am very sure we are on the right track here.
TIP: For those with a deep interest, check out Aristotle’s deficiency and excess as it relates to governments below (or see a discussion on how it relates to virtue here). Ideally each left-right paradigm should have a “mean”, a balance in which correctness is found and then two extremes. For a very rough example, the “mean” of cooperation and competition may be “healthy competition and cooperation”. This side-note likely merits its own page, so lets put it aside for now.
Left- Right Paradigm
|How much authority do people have? (Who has authority)||
Anarchy (Liberty) / Authority
|Who says so?||
Collective / Individual
|For the benefit of who?||
Everyone / Someone
|Do we cooperate or compete?||
Cooperation / Competition
|Do we rule with compassion or reason?||
Empathy and Ethics / Logic and Reason
Empathy and Ethics (idealism)
Logic and Reason (realism)
|How fast does change happen?||
Progressive / Traditional
|How restrictive are the rules? (how authoritative are laws?)||
Liberal / Conservative
Liberal (not restrictive)
NOTE: It is tempting to confuse “Anarchy” and “Liberty”, but we placed them side-by-side to avoid this. Liberty is a key underlying principle of western democracy, but true Liberty can only be accessed through laws (pure freedom is anarchy, not what most people think of when they say liberty). Anarchistic communes and individual anarchy do not recognize laws and only work in small groups, not as government systems that want to promote liberal principles. This general complication was well stated in Plato’s Republic where he considered Democracy and Anarchy as one due to both favoring liberty.
TIP: The empathy vs. reason one is a little like the liberty paradigm (everyone has a mix). All we mean here is that where a mother may act with compassion, a father may take a more rational approach. Both are acting out of love, but one is taking a more realist stance. Consider Hume’s fork (i’ve always thought David Hume “right” with his empirical approach, but really that sensory data is a “realist” thing and Kant’s reason is “idealist”). There is an essay of complexity just in that one point and i’m very sure complex cases can be made. Still, here reason is best equated with empirical evidence, as Pure reason has a certain idealist quality.
NOTE: This chart is not exhaustive per-say, I’ve already noted other paradigms in the page (such as in the left-right economics section) where we looked a free trade vs. protectionism, isolationism vs. imperialism, nationalism vs. internationalism, nativism vs. globalism. We can also look at other aspects like rationalism (left) and empiricism (right). Feel free to contribute to the overarching theory by commenting below.
The moral roots of liberals and conservatives – Jonathan Haidt. This video looks at the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. It looks at five moral factors: purity, in-group, authority, fairness, and harm, any of which can be compared as a duality in a fashion similar to the above paradigms.
TIP: I don’t want to highlight this part of the theory, as people get touchy about the terms “male and female… With that said, all left-right paradigms can very generally and metaphorically described as “feminine” (left) and “masculine” (right) traits. For example, empathy, ethics, the seeking of fairness, compassion, nurturing, caring, and other (very loosely and metaphorically speaking) “feminine” traits are “left”, and cold logic, order, strength, fear, protectionism, militarism, and other (again loosely and metaphorically speaking) “masculine” traits are “right”. Here we can generally equate “the feminine” with the general concepts of mother, democracy, the collective, and liberty, and then generally equate “the masculine” with the concepts of father, monarchy, individual, and authority. Of course, just like in real life, the lines blur. If you want know more about how I relate left-and-right back to the male and female characteristics, see a page on the left and right as naturally occurring.
“How Many People Get a Say?” The Underlying Aspect of Government
We touched on governments above in the origin story of left and right, and we discussed them in terms of how they apply to our theory, but lets return to them now as they are important part of the overarching conversation.
The basic government types (of which all other governments are generally a sub-type), clearly illustrated by Plato (Republic) and Aristotle (Politics), focus on “how many people get a say?” and are based on their observations of real government types. The table below describes these types, and then the chart below plots them as “left” and “right”.
The Political Spectrum and Basic Types of Governments (see a Visual of this here)
How Many People
One – Right
Tyranny (or Mob Rule).
All acting as one tyrant, sometimes under a single tyrant.
Monarchy (or Dictatorship)
(Single leader, minimal democratization of power if any.)
Few – Left-Right
(class based on wealth, power, and social status; rule of money.)
(class based on birth, power, and social status; or election; rule of law.)
Many – Left
(everyone has representation or votes directly.)
TIP: There is more than one way to express the concepts in this chart. One could easily place mob rule under Democracy. This is a simplified chart to express left-right and basic types of government. Most governments are complex variations of these.
Left-Right Political Spectrum Infographic (With Basic Governments)
The following image compares the basic government types discussed above into a more complex chart illustrated based on the authority vs. liberty and collective vs. individual paradigms.
Notice the authoritative democracy that Conservatives fear, and the lawless isolationism that Liberals fear? Notice how both are versions of authoritarianism?
This chart helps make sense of why Libertarians and Socialists share certain ideals, while “the establishment” on both sides share other ideas. A close inspection of this chart and America’s 2016 election is telling, to say the least.
TIP: Consider how government types work for different size groups. A bigger group needs more authority than a smaller one to function well. A careful inspection of the spectrum, from behind “a veil of ignorance“, and with complexity considered, makes spotting sticking points and addressing them oddly simple conceptually. In real life, we have to factor in bias.
TIP: Consider that most governments, especially large Democratic ones like America, use many different government styles and embrace ideas from across the political spectrum.
Understanding the Left-Right Governments Infographic Better
In the infographic, we see how each government type needs at least two left-right qualifiers to describe their left-ness or right-ness. For instance, a Dictatorship is right-right as a single individual has complete authority, and Mob rule is on the opposite side of the X axis, it is left-right because everyone has complete authority. Both types are tyrannical, one born from Democracy and one from the authority of a ruling class.
We can compare this chart to any of the other qualifiers mentioned in the table above. So we may consider a centered right-right Republic, and then ask “how progressive is this specific Republic?” If we find they are very progressive, then they are, on the arrogate, more left.
Notice how, no matter how we compare and contrast, the extremes are not a good thing. A quick glance at the graphic makes it apparent that most people are centered left-right.
America is a type of mixed Republic that employs elements of all the quadrants. If we then consider the branches of government and all the groups that form in America, we can see a single country can span just about every point on the chart, and that no one view is “always correct.”
How Big Should Government Be? Left vs. Right #1. This YouTube series by PragerU takes another look at the left-right paradigm. This is a right-leaning video and a good lesson on rhetoric. See how their theory contrast with or theory of left vs. right.
“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” – Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton knew as the Greeks did that freedom can only be found in a centered law, to find the center we must have balance and avoid extremes. The American Republic is meant to strike a balance between law and liberty (or Authority and Anarchy).
Noam Chomsky: On Power and Ideology | The New School. Here is some Chomsky to balance out the PragerU.
Looking at the Basic Political Spectrum in Another Way
To end, I want to stress the theme that when we look at the spectrum, we have to look at each issue and not get side-tracked by ideology and bias.
When Lincoln freed the Slaves, he was using an authoritative form of democracy and executive power for the benefit of the collective on behalf of his supporters (roughly half the country). Exerting that power was very “right-wing”, but it was done in a “left-wing” way that favored the liberty of the collective over the authority of individuals. This paints a complex picture that leads to debates over subjects like “did the American political parties or platforms switch?”
When we discuss a real life ideology, we can call it left or right, but it is typically going to be “mixed.”
For instance, Social-liberalism favors collective authority (of the state) to ensure collective liberty (of all people as a group). It does this at the expenses of individual liberty (of a given person as an individual) and individual authority (the freedom of individuals to be their own boss); Think socialist utopia and central planning as extremes.
Meanwhile, Classic-liberalism favors individual liberty and individual authority at the expense of collective liberty and collective authority; Think total free-market, unregulated capitalism, and the individual’s right to own indentured servants at an extreme.
Depending on context both the above ideologies could be described as left or right, because ultimately liberty always requires some amount of authority to ensure.
- “Left–right paradigm” Wikipedia.org
- “Left–right politics” Wikipedia.org
- “The Political Compass” PoliticalCompass.org
- Political spectrum Wikipedia.org
- Left-wing politics Wikipedia.org
- Right-wing politics Wikipedia.org
- centrism Wikipedia.org
- Horizontal & Vertical Individualism & Collectivism
- “Divine right of kings” Wikipedia.org
- Gauchet, Marcel. “Right and Left.” In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of Memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997 ISBN 0-231-10634-3
- Historiography of the French Revolution
- Left and Right: The Great Dichotomy Revisited Edited by João Cardoso Rosas and Ana Rita Ferreira (NOTE: See introduction).
- “The Political Compass charts” Politicalcompass.org
- “The Nolan Chart” Wikipedia.org
- “Political “Left” and “Right” Properly Defined” Theobjectivestandard.com
- “What is the difference between the left wing and the right wing? What is the difference on a basic level & on a hardcore politician level?” Quora.com
- Politics for Dummies: Left & Right, Conservative & Liberal, Democrat & Republican
- “Aristotle’s Political Theory” plato.Stanford.edu
- “Plato’s Republic” classics.MIT.edu