A Theory of the Political Spectrum Part 1/2

In political discussions, most people use the terms “left” and “right” rather loosely, which has led to some people claiming that the left-right political spectrum is essentially meaningless. Others have claimed that a one-dimensional spectrum is inadequate and that we need two or more dimensions to properly map political positions. While a multi-dimensional mapping can of course be more accurate, it has the disadvantage of being more complicated and losing the relation to traditional understandings of left and right. What I want to do here is to look at some of the features a sensible theory of the one-dimensional political spectrum should have and the problems it needs to overcome. In tomorrow’s post, I will propose a theory which I believe fits the bill.

The modern idea of the left-right poltical spectrum emerged in France around the time of the French Revolution. In the various representative bodies in late 18th century France, supporters of the Ancien Régime (i.e. those who favoured monarchy and aristocratic and clerical privilege) sat on the right (from the perspective of the speaker), while republicans and supporters of the common people sat on the left, and radical supporters of the revolution sat further left than more moderate revolutionaries. Any sensible theory of the political spectrum needs to be true to that.

It also should correspond as closely as possible to our every-day understanding of the words “left” and “right”. For example, in contemporary politics it should put Marxists, democratic socialists, social democrats, liberals in the North-American sense, and conservatives in this order from left to right. Where I think we have to deviate from everyday usage is with the idea of Soviet-style communism and National Socialism being at the opposite extremes of the spectrum. After all, these two poltical theories and systems were in many ways similar: Both were authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships, both were highly collectivistic, both justified their rule through the will of the people, both engaged in massive genocides, etc. One way of rescuing the traditional understanding here is through the horseshoe theory, which posits that the political spectrum is shaped like a horseshoe with the far left and the far right closer to each other than to the centre. However, constructing the political spectrum onto a strange one-dimensional manifold rather than a straight line makes for an awkward theory.

Another problem that our theory needs to solve is the position of classical liberals and libertarians, i.e. of those who supporter capitalism, individual liberty, and want the state to be non-instrusive. The problem here is that classical liberals were traditionally viewed as being on the left (they were a major part of the original left during the French Revolution), while their modern intellectual descendants are considered to be on the right.

In part 2 I will propose a theory which I believe solves all of these problems.

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