Clarifying the Political Spectrum

The notion of a left-wing/right-wing political spectrum has been with us for a long time. Visualizing political stances is certainly helpful. However, people seldom question what the left-right spectrum actually signifies. People, even scholars, use the labels of “left” and “right” as received wisdom and as political judgments. I accept that a left-right political divide and conflict are real, but I think that we haven’t adequately examined what that conflict is about and what the labels “left” and “right” best signify. I want to clarify the meaning of the terms “left” and “right” and the left-right political spectrum in a way that helps us understand political and social conflicts.

Too Lazy; Didn’t Read (TL;DR): It’s about power.

One problem is that “left” and “right” have been relative terms not grounded in enduring principles. The terms’ relativism comes from their first uses in the days of the French Revolution. In 1789 in the French National Assembly, supporters of the king chose to group themselves sitting to the right of the assembly president and opponents of the king sat opposite to them on the left. The French newspapers of the time used the terms “the left” and “the right” to describe the opposing sides, and the usage spread throughout Europe to other political conflicts. Before long, all political movements opposed to a sitting government were called “the left” with “the right” referring to those who supported that government.

The unreflective use of “left” and “right” mischaracterize most political parties and movements. What does being “left” really mean? The media, goaded on by certain political factions, equate “leftist” with being outcasts, rabble-rousers, or worse, anti-social miscreants. Left-wing political parties are at best cast as being anti-status quo. What happens when a “leftist” party wins a majority in government? Then the “leftist” label, out of convenience, morphs into the cliché of “being for big government.” But the caricatures of “bomb-throwing thug” or “big government liberal” are equally vacuous, and calling them both “left wing” is contradictory.

Similarly, “right wing” has lost clarity. Those who self-label as “conservative” use it as a synonym for moral superiority, and being right-wing seems to mean little else than that one is against a caricature of the “left wing.” Some people differentiate what they call the “new right” without being entirely clear on what the “old right” is or what is new about the “new right.” The “new right” neologism is another relative label that shows the need for greater clarity and solidity about what is meant by “right wing.”

All of the political rhetoric doesn’t tell us what left-wingers and right-wingers actually believe other than that both sides feel their side is correct and the other side is wrong. We especially see this dynamic in the squabbling between the supposedly left-wing Democratic Party and the supposedly right-wing Republican Party. The policy differences between the two parties are much smaller than their rhetoric would have us believe. What differences they have can’t be reduced to the caricatures of “big-government liberals” versus “small-government conservatives,” especially since both of those labels are deeply ambiguous.

Inserting some philosophy into the question of what the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” truly signify, we can get past the dogmatic partisan rhetoric and identify some real points of contention. To set the stage for the exploration, here are two conundrums of the traditionally defined left-right divide.

The Hitler-Stalin Conundrum
The received dogma is that “communism,” including Joseph Stalin, is left-wing. I remember being taught in grade school that in World War II the right-wing Nazis fought the left-wing Soviets. That depiction is unfortunately still common. But there is little to nothing to distinguish between Stalin and Hitler. Both Hitler and Stalin persecuted Jews, quashed dissent, invaded neighboring countries, and ran totalitarian governments. Any suggestion that Stalin and Hitler were in diametrically opposed political systems has no basis in reality. Any meaningful left-right political spectrum would have to show Hitler and Stalin at the same place on that spectrum.

The Abortion Conundrum
The received dogma is that “the right” wants less government interference in individuals’ lives and “the left” wants government to run people’s lives. But the abortion debate turns this rhetoric on its head. In its simplest terms, the abortion debate is whether a woman should be legally permitted to or prohibited from terminating her pregnancy. Both sides of the debate seek to establish their position on that question as law. The “right” seeks laws prohibiting a woman from having an abortion and the “left” seeks laws establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

This is self-evidently an issue of a woman’s freedom to act on her own choice for her body and life. The right wing says the government should interfere in individuals’ lives and control women’s bodies. The left wing says women’s freedom to control their own bodies should be protected. But these are the opposite positions that the received dogma tells us the left and right would take. This example is one of many that show that the traditional characterization of the left-right dichotomy doesn’t reflect the true conflict between the two sides.

What Are the Concepts Behind “Left” and “Right?”

All terminology is somewhat relative, reflecting the nature of reality and language. What would be considered left or right in any time and place would differ. Nevertheless, if a term is to be useful, it needs to reflect a tangible concept. To call anything “left-wing” has meaning only when and if we know what “left-wing” means. Same with the term “right-wing.” Rather than mindlessly reuse the same terms over and over, let’s insert some philosophy into the left-right divide and try to understand what’s going on.

Struggling for Recognition

The Importance of Power

What exactly are the “left” and the “right” fighting over? Well, ultimately, what is any political struggle over? Political struggles are about power–the capacity to produce or prevent change. There are two types of power: hard power and soft power. Hard power is the control of land and resources, including money and personnel, and the power to enact policies. Soft power is the capacity to affect recognition norms and relations and people’s perceptions and interests. Hard and soft power are inextricably intertwined in human society. For example, a marginalized minority group is deprived of both economic and social power, seldom, if ever, only one. Similarly, economic power gives one social power–hard power enabling soft power.

The concept of power has some ugly connotations, but not all power is malevolent. One also needs power to be able to do good. Power is needed whether one wants to invade another country or feed the poor. When one has power, one chooses how to use it, and one is responsible for how it’s used. Some with power use it to oppress others; some use it to help others.

Most people would probably accept that power is central to politics. Both left and right would then say that their side uses power for good and the other side uses power for bad. Despite this “we are good, they are bad” partisan chestnut, the left-right divide cannot be so simply reduced. The issue is less how power is used by those who have it, but is much more a question of who has power. In both the Nazi and the Soviet states, only a very few people, perhaps even only one person, had power. The structure of power is an important aspect of power.

dtruvtureThe Importance of Structure

The two conundrums I just mentioned—the difference between Hitler and Stalin and the views about abortion—can help us understand the central issue of power. There is no fundamental difference between Hitler and Stalin in their use of power, but, more importantly, there is no structural difference in their power. They were both autocrats who ruled by fiat. They ruled absolutely over civil and military sectors of their society. Their decisions were not open to debate or criticism; their hard and soft power was virtually unchecked.

You could say that these were bad people who did bad things with their power. This is only part of the issue. The other part is that it was the structure of political power that enabled and protected their power to do bad things. The structure of power contributes to consequences. Hitler and Stalin were able to commit evil deeds with their power because the structure of the power relations in their society enabled that evil. The political structure of their societies, which they helped to create, gave them absolute authority and prevented debate and resistance to their actions. For example, someone can desire to kill many Jews, but only if one has the political power to act on that desire will one be able to commit genocide. The point being that how political power is structured is important.

Now, let’s look at the abortion conundrum. This illustrates how power structures exist in single issues within larger power structures. As mentioned, the abortion debate is whether a woman should be legally permitted to or prohibited from terminating her pregnancy. If abortion is legally banned, then all power rests in the hands of the state, which uses its power to prevent women from freely choosing their course of action. If abortion is legal, then power lies with each individual woman, who is free to make her own choices about her own body. The power structure on abortion could be either concentrated in the state or widely distributed among individuals.

Left and Right as a Spectrum of Power Concentration
Combining these thoughts on power, structure, and the two conundrums, what emerges is the presence in societies of greater or lesser concentrations of power. All societies contain structures that circulate power either broadly or narrowly among its citizens. Power is not a tangible resource like food or currency, but it nevertheless is something that people exchange and use in their social relations. A totalitarian society is one in which across the society power is concentrated in the hands of a very few, so power is only exchanged among and used by a very few. Particular social institutions or particular laws can also concentrate power in the hands of a few; banning abortion being a clear example. Other examples are legal and social practices of racial or ethnic segregation that concentrate power in the hands of selected groups. Also, structures that perpetuate gross economic inequality concentrate economic and social power in the hands of an elite few.

Human history can be described as struggles over whether power is to be more concentrated or more widely circulated. I mean this not in the simplistic sense of the totalizing Marxist dialectical materialism, but in the broader reality of diverse people seeking greater social and economic power for themselves. Throughout history, some people have tired to grab power for themselves and set up concentrated power structures at the expense of others. Other people have attempted to change prevailing political structures and open up the circulation of power to a greater number of people. These rebellious movements have been struggles for political and social recognition and struggles over material resources. What unites all of these conflicts is that they are ultimately over the circulation of power.

These struggles over concentrations of power characterize the left-wing/right-wing political spectrum. “Left” and “right” are most descriptive as relative terms describing someone’s intentions as to the general direction of power circulation. In broad terms, a right-winger is someone who wishes power to be more concentrated and limited to select people, and a left-winger is someone who wishes power to be more widely circulated and thus enjoyed by more people. The goal of the left is increased social participation, and the goal of the right is a restricted hierarchical society.

Societies in which social and political structures circulate power narrowly are right-wing. The more a society circulates power among its citizens, the more to the left it is. Civil rights struggles for recognition are leftist because they seek legal and social equality for oppressed minorities—in other words, greater power for those who are disempowered by the prevailing power structure. Feminism is leftist in its intention to end power being concentrated in men and have power be more circulated to women. Conversely, anti-immigrant, antifeminist, or white supremacist movements, are right-wing movements that seek a return to more restrictive concentrations of power. Labeling these movements as “left” and “right” are independent of any moral judgments about the people’s intentions. Each of these groups would see their cause as morally just. Sincere, intelligent discussions can be had about whether particular circumstances warrant a greater or lesser concentration of power.

This clarification of the left-right political spectrum resolves the Hitler-Stalin conundrum. Both the Nazis and Soviets were far-right because their power was extremely concentrated in one totalitarian ruler. This clarification also resolves the abortion conundrum and other social and economic issues by accepting that the left and right choose their positions on the basis of concentrations of power, not on vague notions of governmental size.

Applying the Power Spectrum
If we expand on the question of whether particular laws and policies are left-wing or right-wing, applying the criterion of the concentration of power dissolves many apparent political contradictions. Like laws banning abortion, laws restricting free speech, freedom of religion, and so on are supported by the right and opposed by the left on the basis of how they change the circulation of power in society. This is why conservatives can support some governmental intrusions into people’s lives and not others and leftists can support some restrictions on freedoms and not others.

For example, speech is power, and freedom of speech is a particularly live issue in how free people are to speak against the power structure. The principles of citizens’ rights of criticism and petition of grievances of government are inherently left-wing principles that tend to be featured more often in more left-wing societies. True, even the most extreme right-wing party can say, with sincere conviction, that they support free speech. That is because the question is not whether speech is allowed but rather who should be allowed the power of speech. Totalitarian regimes greatly restrict freedom of speech to those loyal to the regime: a concentration of power.

Putting aside for the moment that left-wingers are often guilty of the all-too-common double standard as to who is allowed to criticize sitting leaders, the right-wing almost by default seeks to restrict the power of speech to those deemed worthy, while the left-wing generally seeks to extend free speech rights. This is consistent with the overall intention of the right wing to concentrate power rather than allow it to be widely circulated, which is not to say that freedom of speech is infinite. Leftist John Stuart Mill recognized that a left-wing government could and should, without contradicting its principles, restrict speech that harms others. Restrictions based on the harm principle are expressions of left-wing principles because harmful speech disempowers others and the restrictions seek to increase circulation of power.

Answering Potential Objections to This Clarification

The most common objection to my clarification will be to reassert the traditional portrayal of the left-right political spectrum. Defenders of the traditional spectrum base their argument on a dichotomy of rights of individuals (the right) versus the power of the government (the left). They also tend to repeat the mythos that the left is about state control of the economy and the right is about economic freedom. This portrayal is, however, a right-wing polemic that inaccurately equates the leftist quest to expand the circulation of individual power with statist authoritarianism. It’s true that governments have had to intervene to protect the rights of minorities, but to castigate, as the right-wing does, these interventions as governmental overreach or even as tyranny is an unabashed assumption that it is wrong to extend rights and power to minorities.

The question isn’t the size of the government but the effectiveness of government in facilitating human freedom and prosperity. Unless one takes the extreme opinion that there is no role for government in society, it seems self-evident that government’s role is to defend the rights and freedoms of citizens from those who seek to deprive others of them. Who is against the basic concepts of rights and freedom? No one. Nevertheless, some people are against granting rights and freedom to certain others. It is long established that it is a legitimate role of governmental power to protect the powerless from exploitation and abuse. This notion predates any modern conception of “liberalism” and is found in feudal and ancient societies that by today’s standards would be considered despotic.

The abortion debate shows that it is incorrect to associate the right wing with limitations on state power. There is no greater imposition of state power than a power structure forbidding a human being from controlling his or her own body and future. Right-wing polemics erect a strawman of the “left” as power-hungry statists eager to stamp out individual liberties.This contradicts the fact that left-wing movements, most prominently about civil rights, LGBT rights, and women’s rights, are motivated by the desire to increase individual liberties. How much freedom citizens should have is a large, complex set of questions. We can get past polemical rhetoric if we accept that both the left wing and right wing see liberty as a positive good and see the difference between them in terms of concentration of power.

The phony dual axis spectrum
The phony dual axis spectrum

Then there will be the dual-axis political spectrum objection. The dual axis attempts to portray political psychology along an XY chart with one axis standing for left-right and the other reflecting some other sentiment, most commonly labeled as “authoritarian-democratic.” The dual-axis spectrum is sometimes offered as a way out of the Hitler-Stalin conundrum and is most often used as an argument prop by political libertarians.

My strong tendency as a philosopher is to acknowledge that issues are more multidimensional than currently viewed. The dual-axis chart however, obfuscates the discussion by creating a false dimension. The authoritarian-democratic axis is the right-left axis. Splitting Hitler and Stalin into left and right is artificial and unhelpful except as a marketing tool. By marketing in this context, I mean how political libertarians try to push the false dimension in the dual-axis spectrum as an argument prop to differentiate their ideology from more traditional right-wing ideologies. Marketing political libertarianism in terms of the dual-axis spectrum usually takes the form of a diamond-shaped XY chart with one axis signifying economic freedom and the other axis signifying social freedom with political libertarianism at the top as though it was divine wisdom handed down from on high.

Most significant of the myriad fallacies of the dual-axis marketing scheme is the assumption that ending the rule of law would lead to utopia rather than a Hobbesian “state of nature.” Second is the artificial separation of economic issues from social issues—an attempt to mask the reality that economic inequality is inextricably intertwined with social inequality. The dual-axis political spectrum, however construed, collapses under analysis into the single-axis spectrum of concentration of power. This is particularly true of political libertarianism, which is an anarchism that inexorably leads to what some have called a “totalitarianism of the individual,” in which, like a totalitarian leader of a state, the libertarian is immune from criticism from and responsibilities and accountability to others. In this way, political libertarianism is right-wing because it would inexorably result in a concentration of power, both economic and social, in the hands of a few strongmen who, without any social structure to circulate power, would be free to be autocratic oppressors. There will always be the active potential for people to abuse power; therefore libertarianism is absurd to pretend that we have no need for social mechanisms to limit abuses. The dual axis attempts to distract from this absurdity with a false dimension.

Moving Forward with the Clarified Spectrum
Clarifying the left-right political spectrum in terms of concentration of power is not mere semantics. This understanding puts the question of power where it belongs—as a primary motivation and goal of human political action. Political parties seek political power to enact agendas that either further concentrate or further circulate power in society. Particular political issues are also about either further concentrating or further circulating power in particular circumstances. Who has power and its use affects others are what are at stake in politics.

The power concentration clarification also demythologizes the political spectrum. Notions of a teleological struggle between Left and Right may be romantic, but such notions don’t reflect human society. Political conflict is far less about a clash of political ideologies than political theorists and the corporate media portray. We must remember that most people don’t live their lives in terms of grand political theory; they seek better lives in terms of economic and social comfort for themselves and those they love. Some people do want power over others, but most people desire only enough power to manage their own affairs successfully. The left-right spectrum as concentrations of power better reflects how people look at and live their lives.

Further Reading:

Leslie Green– “Power”

Arthur Berndtson – “The Meaning of Power”

Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Injustice” Power and the Ethics of Knowing

No discussion of philosophy of power is complete without a link to Foucault

A young philosopher’s interpretation of Foucault’s philosophy of power

Feminist Perspectives on Power

Crispin Sartwell – The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus

And if you are interested in some archaic conceptions of the political spectrum


  1. Intriguing re-imagining of the idea of the political compass. I agree with your basic premise that we really need to clarify what all of these labels signify. Nice to see someone in academia taking an analysis on this topic because all of the idiots online and in the media just assume without thinking what left and right mean. Lot of food for thought in this article, especially your argument about how libertarians are really right-wing.

  2. Interesting article. The whole left-right thing always seemed strained to me. I’ve always considered myself outside them. I don’t disagree with what you are arguing, but I still don’t see the political spectrum as describing me. So I reject both the single axis and dual axis models.

    1. It’s a good question whether any of us can consider ourselves out side of a political spectrum. If we are political at all, aren’t we then necessarily somewhere on that spectrum?

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