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

Table of contents
1 Determining political spectrums
2 Left and Right
3 Alternative Spectra
4 Multi-axis models
5 External links

Determining political spectrums

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

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

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

Political spectrums can end when one group wins so throughly that there is no longer a divergence of opinions. This occurred in the 1970s in the People's Republic of China in the case between the rightists and the leftists in which the rightists won or in the late 18th century controversy between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists in the United States. However, what tends to happen in this situation is that the winners start disagreeing over new issues and a new political spectrum is created.

However, many times the political spectrum remains although the issues which define the spectrum changes. An example was the controversy over the succession of William of Orange's successor to the English throne. This helped to define the British political spectrum which exists to this day, long after the original controversy was resolved.

Left and Right

See main article Left-Right politics

In modern Western countries, the political spectrum usually is described along left-right lines. This traditional political spectrum is defined along an axis with Conservatism ("the right") on one end, and Socialism ("the left") on the other. (In the United States, the term Liberalism refers to a wide range of left-of-center politics; in Europe, this same term refers to a wide range of center-right politics.) The term left and right was also used to describe politics in China starting in the 1920s until the 1980s, although the issues often were very different from the one's in Western nations.

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

  • Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or liberty (right).
  • Whether the government's involvement with the economy should be interventionist (left) or laissez-faire (right).
  • Whether the government should be secular and separate itself from religious beliefs (left) or should take a stance of religious morality (right).
  • Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right)
  • Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
  • Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
  • Support for the economic interests of the poor (left) or the rich (right).

Historical Origin of the Terms

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

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

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

Alternative Spectra

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

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

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

Another alternative spectrum offered at American Federalist Journal emphasizes the degree of political control, and thus places communism and fascism [totalitarianism] at one extreme and anarchism [no government at all] at the other extreme.

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

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

Other axes that might merit consideration include:

  • Role of the church: Clericism vs. Anti-clericism. This axis is not significant in the United States where views of the role of religion tend to get subsumed into the general left-right axis, but in Europe clericism versus anti-clericism is much less correlated with the left-right spectrum.
  • Urban vs. rural: This axis is also much more significant in European politics than American.
  • Foreign policy: interventionism (the nation should exert power abroad to implement its policy) vs. isolationism (the nation should keep to its own affairs)
  • Market policy: socialism (government should democratize or control economic productivity) vs. laissez-faire (government should leave the market alone) vs. corporatism (government should subsidize or support existing successful businesses)
  • Political violence: pacifism (political views should not be imposed by violent force) vs. militancy (violence is a legitimate or necessary means of political expression). Informally, these people are often referred to as "doves" and "hawks", respectively.
  • Foreign trade: globalization (world economic markets should become integrated and interdependent) vs. autarky (the nation or polity should strive for economic independence)
  • Diversity: multiculturalism (the nation should represent a diversity of cultural ideas) vs. assimilationism or nationalism (the nation should represent the dominant ethnic group)
  • Participation: Positive Liberty (positive participation in the government) vs. (rule by a limited number of people)

Multi-axis models

A number of proposals have been made for a two-axis system, which combines two models of the political spectrum as axes.

The Nolan Chart

The first person to devise such a two-axis system was David Nolan, creator of the Nolan Chart. This chart shows economic freedom (taxation, free trade and free enterprise) on the x axis and personal freedom (issues like drug legalization, abortion and the draft) on the y axis. This puts liberals in the top left quadrant, libertarianss in the top right, conservativess in the bottom right, and authoritarianss (whom Nolan originally named populists in the bottom left.

This has the interesting effect that the traditional left-right spectrum forms a diagonal across the plane, with communism and fascism both in the ultra-authoritarian corner of the plane.

The Nolan Chart has been reoriented and visually represented in many forms since David Nolan first created it, with the various representations all combining an axis for economic freedom with an axis for personal freedom. It has been the inspiration for an endless array of political self-quizzes, many of which are available over the Internet.

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

Having three axes is a modified Nolan Chart created by the Friesian Institute. It combines the economic liberty and personal liberty axes with positive liberty, creating a cube showing the form of government crossed with the four corners of the Nolan Chart. Another three-dimensional representation is the Vosem Chart, the axes of which represent cultural issues, fiscal issues, and corporate issues.

See also:

External links