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Political spectrum

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

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.

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Left and Right

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", called Liberalism in the United States) on the other. 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 Church and State should be separated(left) or integrated(right).
  • Fair outcomes(left) versus fair processes(right)
  • Whether one embraces change(left) or is frightened by it(right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
  • Whether human nature and society is malleable(left) or fixed(right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.

Historical Origin of the Terms

The usage in Western politics of "right" and "left" to refer to political affiliation stems at least from the French National Assembly[?] in 1789, during the French Revolution. There, the Second Estate[?], or nobility, sat to the right of the chamber, and the Third Estate, or common people (at the time the radicals) to the left. Thus, "right" generally meant conservative, upholding the existing social or political order, and "left" meant radical, attempting to change or overthrow the existing order. The usage may actually be earlier, from the pre-Revolutionary Estates-General, where right and left referred to supporters and opponents of the monarchy.

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 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 anarchy [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. On this axis, many mainstream politicians normally considered left-wing (such as Bill Clinton) are considered no different from those normally considered right-wing, because of their allegedly pro-business policies.

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. On the other hand are those who want the future to unfold naturally and without attempts to plan and control.

Other axes that might merit consideration include:

  • 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. ethnic nationalism (the nation should represent the dominant ethnic group)

Two-axis models

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

This approach has been most recently popularized by the libertarian group Advocates for Self-Government in their "World's Smallest Political Quiz". The ten-question quiz asks for positions on

  • five matters of "economic" regulation (business subsidies, tariffs, minimum wage, taxation, and foreign aid) and
  • five matters of "personal" regulation (military draft, censorship, sodomy laws, drug legalization, and open borders).

From these two axes, economic and personal, the quiz divides people's positions into five categories: left liberals, in favor of economic regulation and personal freedom; right conservatives, favoring economic freedom and personal regulation; libertarians, supporting freedom on both axes, authoritarians, supporting both kinds of regulation; and centrists, in the middle on both matters.

The Political Compass run an on-line questionnaire which will rate your political persuasions on two axes, Left-Right and Authoritarian-Libertarian. The site also shows where current and past political figures are positioned and recommends reading lists.

Two-axis systems have the interesting property that the traditional left-right spectrum forms an arc across the plane they define, with communism and fascism both in the ultra-authoritarian corner of the plane.

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