This question phrases the US political situation as:

Today the federal government is in a seemingly interminable pendulum effect going between far-right and far-left.

Coming from Europe and knowing US politics only remotely, I find this a very strange way of phrasing things. From my perspective, differences between the alternatives in the USA are very small indeed, where far-right and certainly far-left has absolutely no chance whatsoever, and everything tends toward the middle (or I might say to the right, but that could be tainted by my own political views). This XKCD infographic, however, also uses the phrases far left and far right, which makes me wonder if the terms have a different meaning in the US than they have in Europe. For me, far left is communism and anarchism, far right is fascism, racism and radical nationalism.

Are any mainstream political ideas represented in congress considered far left or far right in US political terminology? If so, what are the meanings of far left and far right in the US?

  • possible duplicate of What is meant by the "left" and the "right"? – user4012 Dec 6 '12 at 20:37
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    The meaning is fully subjective. Anyone not agreeing with you is far-something. – user4012 Dec 6 '12 at 20:44
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    It's not a duplicate. I know what left and right mean, the question is if far left and far right are actually used to describe politicians in US congress. – gerrit Dec 6 '12 at 20:45
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    To be honest, I don't think even US politicians understand what right/left mean anymore. By your definition, libertarianism would fall to the left, but in the recent primaries Ron Paul, who leans heavily toward libertarianism and limited federal power, was labeled as far right. In truth, politics is far more dynamic than the left/right paradigm can accurately describe. It is why I tend to side with the Nolan Chart, even if it is politically skewed in favor of anarchism. – Kevin Peno Dec 6 '12 at 21:26
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    @Kevin Peno in the US there is no left at all (by Europe's measure). All politician in the US are right. – Anixx Apr 25 '13 at 23:55
up vote 7 down vote accepted

In the United States, the two political parties can almost always be labelled "in power" and "opposition." Over time, since the opposition desires to be "in power," they tend to adopt those policies which have the broadest support not already adopted by the party in power. As such, your general analysis is correct - political parties in the United States as a whole are rarely on the extremities seen in European parliaments.

That said, an analogy is in order here. I live in Washington, DC. When we get 4" or 5" of snow, it's "Snowmaggedon" or a "Snowpolaclypse." Up in Erie, PA, it's a normal winter day. The definition of "extreme far left" or "extreme far right" tends to mean "more wrong than other stupid people in the opposing party." Within the Republican Party, for example - typically the party of low taxes and low government involvement, there is a faction known as the "Tea Party," which is even more strident in its opposition to taxes then the rest of the party. (And I say this as a pretty conservative Republican.) Remember also, that even Democrats view a 39% tax rate as "high," something say a Swede or a Norwegian would laugh at. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, considered to be pretty hardcore, considers a tax rate of 25% to be appropriate for the highest tax rate. Again, not that far.

As to the emergence of third parties - the mere fact that the U.S. has a "First-past-the-post" system tends to discourage them. To be sure, there is typically a "Constitution Party" that advocates low tax rates (like Ryan), and conservative social laws (like overturning Roe v. Wade) that might get 1% of the vote. And, there are the Libertarians who would have us all smoking pot whenever we wanted, and they too might get 1%. The Greens - in the U.S. strictly environmentalist, no Communism here! - are in the same league. There just isn't really an appetite.

The most successful third party in recent memory - Ross Perot's 1992 Presidential bid - actually garnered around 19% of the popular vote. But, in Perot's case, he held very "moderate" views. He wanted to cut the budget, raise taxes, and restructure debt - but overall it was a "take a business approach to the government." Overall, it was a very moderate, "pox on both your houses" approach to politics. And, even with such a strong showing, Perot was unable to make a serious long-term impact on politics, mostly because his best ideas were co-opted by the two established parties.

The lesson to be taken is this - extreme views just don't make a difference in American Politics. They might get token votes, but only the hardest core political junkies know about them. Only in the tightest races (2000 - Ralph Nader) do they even get looked at. Those views that do impact the nation tend to get absorbed into the established parties, so they stay mainstream.

In short, extremism don't really work well in the United States.

Given a two-party system it is clear that you can not represent as many nuances of the political spectrum than is possible in Europe with often more than 6 parties in the run.

In two-party systems you arguably often see a situation where the party itself represents opinions from the entire spectrum so you could probably find Republicans that are considered "far left" on some sort of scale as you can also find "far right" Democrats on another scale.

It all comes down to whether you only look at party affiliation or whether you consider differences inside of the parties. Besides this it does also depend on the choice of methodology to describe left and right. We have shown in the referenced question that you can measure the political leftness or rightness with many different scales, so the answer here is:

It depends!

In the US there is effectively one-party system. You can choose some politicians, but you cannot choose ideology.

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    The two major parties have platforms that have very discernable differences, even if they may not be as different as people in both parties wish they were. – user1530 Apr 26 '13 at 2:22
  • @DA. I assure you in the CPSU in the USSR the differences were much greater, even under Stalin. Even more: some differences in position over which the US parties differ like the attitude to abortion, or whether the tax should be 20 or 25% would not be considered political differences at all. – Anixx May 1 '13 at 1:11
  • I'm not arguing that other parties in other nations don't contrast more than those in the US--but saying that it's a 'one party system' is not accurate, either. – user1530 May 1 '13 at 1:53

For me, far left is communism and anarchism, far right is fascism, racism and radical nationalism.

And we have political parties that likely fit all those descriptions. The US actually has many parties.

Most of those parties fall to the left of Democrats or to the Right of Republicans. However, due to our election processes here in the united states, the system tends to prefer only 2 major parties. As such, the various other 3rd parties are either:

  • irrelevant or...
  • mainly organize and work to influence the two major parties or...
  • have some limited success at getting candidates elected, though usually at the more local levels of government.

So, broadly speaking, I don't think it's terribly accurate to label democrats and republicans as being 'far' on either side of the political spectrum. That said, there's certainly MEMBERS within each party that could be labeled 'far-' as well as there are outside entities that associate themselves with one of the two parties (either with or without the major party's consent) that could be branded as 'far-' as well.

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