What is the 'Political Spectrum'?
The modern empirical study of individual political viewpoints has revealed three distinct axes of individual political motivation or belief. These axes are Socialism vs Liberalism (Collective Sovereignty vs Individual Sovereignty), Conservatism vs Revolution (Stasis vs Change) and Egalitarianism vs Anti-Egalitarianism (Inclusion vs Exclusion). It is also important to note that these axes of political belief are not strongly correlated and are independently driven by a combination of personality traits, cognitive ability, sensitivity to threat/disease and environmental conditions.
It is very important to note that the primary axis of political motivation coincides, unsurprisingly, with the two foundational worldviews on human value. These two philosophies are philosophically antithetical to one another.
1. The first of these worldviews is that of liberalism, rooted in 'egalitarian universalism', a presupposition on human value that assumes all humans have equal inalienable intrinsic value and that all groups derive their value from the sum of the individuals that make it up.
2. The second of these worldviews is that of socialism. Socialism is based in the core belief that human beings have no intrinsic value and that all value is derived from group membership.
Unfortunately, the issue is further clouded by the fact that many people claim to be 'liberal', but support illiberal policies that treat one individual or group as having greater or lesser value than another individual or group. There are also those who claim to be 'socialist' but rigorously defend human rights, despite the core presuppositions of socialism making the very idea of human rights irrational from a socialist viewpoint.
Regardless, these two fundamentally opposing worldviews set the basis for all political motivation, only modified by the other axes of motivation as driven by individual personality, environment, etc.
The historical origin of the usage of the concept of ‘left vs right’ presented in most high school material is correct, however, it fails to note that the contrast of ‘conservatism’ vs ‘revolution’, as found in the French National Assembly in the 17th century, does not represent the primary spectrum of political motivation. As such, continued use of the 17th century French 'spectrum' is a serious intellectual and academic error.
The 'political spectrum' represented by the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly, the contrast between 'Conservatives' and 'Revolutionaries', can be found anywhere along the primary political spectrum and tells the outside observer absolutely nothing about the political views represented by either side.
Legacy 'Political Spectrum' based on 17th century dogma.
It is worth knowing that the true primary spectrum of political belief was a presupposition of prominent Enlightenment philosophers and practitioners. Abraham Lincoln and his party described the political spectrum in the following manner; ‘The twin dangers to liberty were tyranny (absolute state authority) on one extreme and anarchy, or “licentiousness” (no social contract of government) on the other. Licence was the abuse of liberty, the aggressive exercise of liberty without restraints imposed by a regard for the rights and liberties of others.’ This self evidently describes a primary political spectrum based on the balance between individual and state authority, with anarchy being the extreme right wing and tyranny being the extreme left.
This is a mid 19th century reflection of a similar description of the primary societal extremes by Thomas Jefferson who, in a 1787 letter to James Madison, gave a good description of the same political phenomenon:
‘Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of everyone has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.’
THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE
While the bulk of academic study on the psychology of political motivation has occurred in the last 50 years, the primary spectrum of political belief, that of individual vs group sovereignty, has been well documented since the 17th century; ‘anarchy’ being the extreme right and ‘tyranny’ the extreme left. In fact, a study of the thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Marcus Aurelius reveal this to be a very ancient observation. It's a bit like gravity except that it doesn't weaken as the distance between the bodies involved increases.
Therefore, it is most accurate to describe the ‘left-right’ spectrum in terms of individual autonomy vs state or societal authority, describing the primary axis of individual political belief, with ‘conservatism vs revolutionism’ being a secondary axis of individual political belief. A political spectrum that cannot differentiate between these two main factors of individual political motivation can never accurately describe a political philosophy, nor provide practically useful predictions or analysis of policy or political action.
In complete contrast to the intellectually bankrupt 'understanding' taught to current students, the dynamic of conservative vs revolutionary may occur at any point along the main political spectrum, explaining why conservatives in western democracies tend to hold classically liberal political views while western revolutionaries tend to hold anti-liberal socialist authoritarian views. By contrast, conservatives in Russia and China tend to hold anti-liberal authoritarian socialist views while Russian and Chinese revolutionaries often hold classically liberal or libertarian views.
Adopting and teaching political definitions and a political spectrum that cannot provide interpretive value outside one’s own nation is a self-defeating exercise. Teaching a Canadian student that ‘conservative’ automatically implies the values technically attributable to classical liberalism, leaves that student completely underequipped to understand the perspective of ‘conservatives’ in Russia, India or Saudi Arabia, none of whom share common political ground with Canadian ‘conservatives’. A far more effective education is to teach students the perspectives of a classical liberal and then explain that, in the west, this represents most centrist and centre-right ‘conservative’ parties, but in other parts of the world where classical liberalism has never achieved significant influence, the ‘conservative’ label simply describes the traditionalist or those who support the retention of the status quo, whether that is a monarchy, communism, democratic socialism or some type of religious theocracy, etc.
Serious studies of political science, international relations and/or strategic studies must use, at the very least, a 2-D chart of political spectrum that contrasts these two primary axes of political motivation. An example of a more accurate and useful chart is shown below and there is no practical reason why it should not be core teaching in current curriculums. The ‘pragmatic’ or ‘embodied’ version of this empirically derived spectrum is triangular in shape, deferring to the idea that, as the policies that reflect this spectrum are embodied in a society, the further right you go, the smaller the contract of government becomes. This continues until the ‘revolution vs conservatism’ axis has no further influence as the ‘social contract’ vanishes and ‘society’ consists of one individual stood alone, i.e. anarchy.
Even deeper analysis reveals an ‘egalitarianism vs anti-egalitarianism’ (or ‘inclusive vs exclusive’) axis of motivation that sometimes, but not always, correlates to the ‘revolution vs conservatism’. I first encountered a 3-D political spectrum in research material used in my Intermediate Command and Staff College course at the UK's Royal Military College Shrivenham. Advanced political science studies should add this detail for completeness, although the 2-D spectrum shown below is sufficient for the vast bulk of political analysis and it is fine for high school level study. Please note that the ‘revolution vs conservatism’ axis can be seen labelled as ‘change vs stasis’ or other similar terms.
The advantages of teaching the political spectrum in this manner are twofold; it is supported by psychological research and historical evidence regarding individual political motivations, and that it equips the student with a framework on which most political movements can be placed. It also allows one to track the evolution of a collectivist egalitarian socialist society (Maoist China) into a state capitalist anti-egalitarian socialist society (Post Deng Xiaoping Fascist China) without having to imagine a massive leap to the other end of the spectrum, inexplicably missing democratic socialism, classical social liberalism, classical pure liberalism and anarchy on the way. Such a leap is the product of academic dishonesty or outright delusion, not serious scholarship.
 McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp 135
It is worth noting that these axes of political motivation are influenced by individual personality traits, specifically ‘Conscientiousness (Orderliness & Industriousness)’, ‘Agreeableness (Politeness & Compassion)’ and ‘Openness/Intellect’. In addition, IQ, historical literacy, societal stability, prevalence of infectious disease and a psychological phenomenon called ‘disgust sensitivity’ all play a significant role in forming political motivation. The effects of disgust sensitivity largely mirrors that of the prevalence of infectious diseases but is based on a perceived threat of disease or impurity.
I find it humbling that Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and other liberal leaders and philosophers of the 18th and 19th century were so technically accurate in their assessment of human political motivations and loyalties. No carefully designed psychological research projects; just careful observation, incredible intellect and a commitment to deep thought.
The following ‘pragmatic’ spectrum displays these competing influences:
1. Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rosin, P. (1994) Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Disgust: A Scale Sampling Seven Domains of Disgust Elicitors. Personal Individual Differences, Vol.16, No.5, 701-713.
2. DeYoung, C.G., Quilty, L.C., & Peterson, J.B. (2007) Between Facets and Domains; 10 Aspects of the Big Five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 93, No.5, 880-296.
3. Higgins, D.M., Peterson, J.B., Pihl, R.O., & Lee, A.G.M. (2007) Prefrontal Cognitive Ability, Intelligence, Big Five Personality, and the Prediction of Advanced Academic and Workplace Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.93, No.2, 298-319.
4. DeYoung, C.G., Peterson, J.B., Seguin, J.R., & Tremblay, R.E. (2008) Externalizing Behaviour and the Higher Order Factors of the Big Five. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 17, No.4, 947-953.
5. Hirsh, J.B, DeYoung, C.G, Xiaowen, X., & Peterson, J.B. (2010) Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol.36, No.5, 655-664.
6. Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2011) Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism, and Voting. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 000(00) I-8.
7. DeYoung, C.G., Weisberg, Y.J., Quilty, L.C., & Peterson, J.B. (2013) Unifying the Aspects of the Big Five, the Interpersonal Circumplex, and Trait Affiliation. Journal of Personality, Oct 13, 1-11.
8. Xiaowen, X., & Peterson, J.B. (2013) Does Cultural Exposure Partially Explain the Association Between Personality and Political Orientation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol.39, No.11, 1497-1517.
9. Tritt, S.M., Inzlicht, M., & Peterson, J.B. (2013) Preliminary Support for a Generalized Arousal Model of Political Conservatism. PLoS ONE, Vol.8, Issue 12, e83333.
10. Tritt, S.M., Inzlicht, M., & Peterson, J.B. (2014) Confounding valence and arousal; What really underlies political orientation? Behavioural and Brain Sciences, Dec 14, 1-7.
11. Xiaowen, X., & Peterson, J.B. (2015) Differences in Media Preference Mediate the Link Between Personality and Political Orientation. Political Psychology, Oct 15, 1-18.
12. Tritt, S.M., Peterson, J.B., Page-Gould, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2016) Ideological Reactivity: Political Conservatism and Brain Responsivity to Emotional and Neutral Stimuli. Emotion. Jun 16, 1-51.
13. Xiaowen, X., Plaks, J.E., & Peterson, J.B. (2016) From Dispositions to Goals to Ideology: Toward a Synthesis of Personality and Social Psychological Approaches to Political Orientation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Vol.10, No.5, 267-280.
14. Van Leeuwen, F., Tybur, J.M., Dukes, A., & Park, J.H. (2017) Disgust Sensitivity Relates to Moral Foundations Independent of Political Ideology. Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences, Vol.11, No.1, 92-98.
There are a number of definitions that students should understand at a basic level. The following are suitable for high school students and would give high school graduates an appropriate foundation for post-secondary studies in Political Science, International Relations, Strategic Studies, Modern History and related subjects.
Left vs Right. Primary axis of political belief related to an individual’s attitude toward group, societal or state authority.
Centrist: A term describing a person who rejects authoritarianism and totalitarianism but also rejects anarchy or unrestrained liberalism. Centrists tend to be classical ‘social’ liberals who recognise the potential pitfalls of unrestrained liberalism and the mutual benefits derived from state provision of some type of financial and healthcare safety net, in addition to the classical ‘pure’ liberal restriction of government to collective self defence, policing and justice.
Left Wing: A term applied to ideologies, governments, political parties and policies that feature increasing societal/government authority and decreasing individual rights and autonomy. Increasing Authoritarianism as you move left from centre.
Right Wing: A term applied to ideologies, governments, political parties and policies that feature increasing individual rights and autonomy and decreasing societal/government authority. Increasing Liberalism as you move right from centre.
Change vs Stasis. Secondary axis of political belief related to an individual’s approach to change. Also may include individual attitude toward egalitarianism, where a third axis is not separately plotted.
Conservative (or counter-revolutionary): A person or ideology which opposes, or is cautious about, change. Conservatives may be left or right wing.
Extremist: A person who has fanatical or immoderate views.
Moderate: A person or ideology which balances both revolutionary and conservative points of view, recognising the tension that often occurs when the need to adapt to a constantly changing environment must be appropriately balanced against the duty of government to protect against destabilising influences from extreme ideologies. Moderates may be left or right wing.
Radical: A person or ideology which advocates rapid and substantial change, often through coercive or violent means. Can be left or right wing. May be an ‘Extremist’ Ideological Revolutionary or a reaction to coercive or violent oppression by a Conservative movement.
Reactionary: A person or ideology which favours stasis or a return to a previous status, often through coercive or violent means. Can be left or right wing. A reactionary may be an ‘Extremist’ Ideological Conservative or a reaction to coercive or violent oppression by a Revolutionary movement.
Revolutionary: A person or ideology which favours change over stasis. Revolutionaries may be left or right wing.
Egalitarianism vs anti-Egalitarianism. The tertiary axis of political belief related to an individual’s approach to societal inclusiveness.
Egalitarianism. A person or ideology that tends toward including everyone, disregarding the potential for conflict between cultural, religious or ideological differences. Tendency toward globalism or internationalism. An egalitarian may be left or right wing.
Moderate: A person or ideology that strives to achieve a balance between inclusiveness and the need to mitigate the potential for conflict arising from including antithetical viewpoints or ideologies.
Anti-Egalitarian: A person or ideology which supports an exclusive society based on race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc. Tendency toward isolationism and/or tribalism. Anti-Egalitarians may be left or right wing.
Last Edited: 16 May 2023