The Left Versus the Right Explained

How to Understand the Left-Right Political Spectrum

We explain “the left-right political spectrum” by applying the terms “left” and “right” to a number of “left-right paradigms”.[1][2]

Understanding the Political Left-wing and Right-wing

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 partiessocial contract theory, and the origin of left-right), by the following two paradigms (which should both be considered at once):

  1. Most importantly, “Liberal (favoring liberty) is left, and Conservative (favoring authority) is right” (see a discussion on liberalism vs. conservatism).
  2. And, almost equally as important, ideologies that favor the collective are left, and ideologies favoring the individual are right. See individualism vs. collectivism.

Thus in summary: the left-right spectrum can be defined by the “individualism (right) vs. collectivism (left) paradigm” compared to the “authority (right) vs. liberty (left) paradigm”. This means there is not one primary left-right factor, but at least two that must be considered simultaneously!

For example: An authoritative collectivist is left-right, as is a liberal monarch, as is a free-trading-republic with a central government. For a more extreme example, the freedom to own a slave is left, but the act of inhibiting the freedom of another is far-right. Likewise, a despot using the state to ensure morality and social justice in a puritanical way is right in terms of authority, and left in terms of policy that favors the collective.

TIP: Keep in mind, 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.

LEFT RIGHT ECONOMICS: 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. You can see how this gets complex quickly, but the basic authority/liberty/individualist/collectivist paradigm will work as a general guidepost even in complex situations (like the ones we detail below).

Left-wing and Right-wing As Comparative Terms

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. Thus, using the terms often requires critical thinking and other considerations.

The problem is, 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 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 left-right are all fertile ground for tyranny, and can be difficult to even tell apart (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).

Based on the above, a very basic left-right model (which places the two paradigms above on an XY axis) looks like this:

Ideology Spectrum of American Leaders

This left-right spectrum is showing our basic spectrum model, using popular political figures as examples (see our comparison of presidents).

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 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.

TIP: Another way to describe the factors underlying the left-right spectrum is populist (left) vs. elitist (right). 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 (here liberal means classical liberal liberty focused). So again, these are the basics, but ideologies in-action are often complex. Another way to look at it is that popular governments like Democracies are left and authoritative governments like Monarchies are right (although this relates to the above underlying factors in general), we will muse more other factors below.

TIP: Don’t confuse the 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.

Simple 4 Point Political Compass – Why Both Authority and Collectivism Must Be Considered for a Proper Left-Right Chart

Now that we know the basic left-right spectrum and its historical background, lets put aside labels like conservative and liberal and discuss the questions that underly both liberal and conservative and left-wing and right-wing.

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:

  1. Non-Authoritative Collectivism (“Left-Left”)
  2. Non-Authoritative Individualism (Left-Right)
  3. Authoritative Collectivism (Right-Left)
  4. Authoritative Individualism (Right-Right)

The political compass below illustrates how authority and individualism vs. collectivism relate to the left and right, by applying well-known historical figures and parties to a 4 point political compass.

NOTE: The 4 point political compass left-right chart below 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.

One way to look at the left-right political spectrum. In this model the left and right intersect at two points.

One way to look at the left-right political spectrum. In this political compass model, the left and right intersect at two different points to create a simple 4 point spectrum.

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.

Where do the Political Terms Left and Right Come from?  The terms left and right themselves come from the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. Like America’s revolution around the same time or England’s Glorious Revolution in the late 1600’s, it was a liberal revolution over human rights v. the divine right of kings (see history of human rights and birth of liberalism).[3] Specifically, the terms “left” and “right” first appeared during 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. Learn more about the origin of the terms left and right.[4]

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, let’s better define the underlying 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:

Left-Right Chart Liberal Vs. Conservative

This chart shows the different types of liberalism and conservatism as the political “left” and “right”.

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.[5][6][7][8]

  1. Social Libertarianism (Chomsky) / Social-tribal-commune type Socialism (Marx as a philosopher) (Non-Authoritative left-left).
  2. 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).
  3. True Libertarianism (Robert Nozick and Ron Paul) / Classical Liberal (Locke, Jefferson, and Jackson) (Non-Authoritative right-left).
  4. Conservatism (Tories, Hamilton, Churchill, Thatcher, or King George III; It changes with the times) (Authoritative right-right).

TIP: This 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.

basic-left-right-political-spectrum-2.0

An updated basic left-right political spectrum which shows the type of liberalism and conservatism. Note that we removed the opposition philosophy social conservatism (as its largely just conservatism and classical liberalism in practice) and used social libertarianism for the far-left ideology… because people can’t handle the word socialism in the U.S. (thanks Hoover).

The Left-Right Spectrum as Multiple Paradigms

Now that we have some basic charts, 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.

Question

Left- Right Paradigm

Left

 Right

How much authority do people have? (Who has authority)

Anarchy (Liberty) / Authority

Anarchy (Liberty)

 Authority

Who says so?

Collective / Individual

Collective

Individual

For the benefit of who?

Everyone / Someone

Everyone

Someone

Do we cooperate or compete?

Cooperation / Competition

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

Progressive

 Traditional

How restrictive are the rules? (how authoritative are laws?)

 Liberal / Conservative

Liberal (not restrictive)

 Conservative (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.

NOTE: This chart is not exhaustive per-say, other topics to consider include nationalism and imperialism (where both a right and the lack of is left) as well as 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.

“How Many People Get a Say?” The Underlying Aspect of Government

While all the above left-right paradigms are important for having clear conversations about political leftness and rightness, there are a few basic government types to consider when thinking about left and right. All other governments are sub-types of these.

The basic government types, 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”.[9][10]

The Political Spectrum and Basic Types of Governments (see a Visual of this here)

How Many People

Deviant

Correct

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

Oligarchy/Plutocracy

(class based on wealth, power, and social status; rule of money.)

Aristocracy/Republic

(class based on birth, power, and social status; or election; rule of law.)

Many – Left

Anarchy

(No Rules.)

Democracy

(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.

TIP: These are the basic government types, are based on the works of Plato and Aristotle. See Aristotle’s political theory, see Plato’s Republic.

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.

A left-right paradigm using a four point graph to show how common government types relate to left and right in terms of who has authority and who says so.

A left-right political spectrum using a four point graph to show how common government types relate to left and right in terms of “who has the authority” and “who says so.”

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.

Citations

  1. Left–right paradigm” Wikipedia.org
  2. Left–right politics” Wikipedia.org
  3. Divine right of kings” Wikipedia.org
  4. 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
  5. The Political Compass charts” Politicalcompass.org
  6. The Nolan Chart” Wikipedia.org
  7. Political “Left” and “Right” Properly Defined” Theobjectivestandard.com
  8. 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
  9. Aristotle’s Political Theory” plato.Stanford.edu
  10. Plato’s Republic” classics.MIT.edu


"The Left-Right Political Spectrum Explained" is tagged with: American Politics, Bias, Left–right Politics, Liberty, United States of America

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