In the field of political debate; the political ideologies or positions often classified either as "Left Wing" (consisting of secular/ atheist/ libertarian/ egalitarian/ socialist/ globalist etc. ideologies) and the "right wing" (consisting of nationalist/ patriotic/ religious/ conservative/ Authoritative etc. ideoligies).

But my question is; could there be something that typically does not fall into this linear spectrum?

I may be wrong but I personally felt like there are concepts in non-western civilisations; which do not exactly fall into these spectrum.

For example, think of a hypothetical scenario, in a country of suppose 100 people, there are food for 10 people only.

Now suppose a true left wing ruler would do. They will tell to do a lottery for which 10 people would get the food. So that nobody gets more priviledge than the other.

A true right wing ruler would stratify the people based on who is more superior or entitled to get the food, or which 10 people represent the ruler's religion or national ideology more.

But there could be exceptions (Which can be due to moral or ethical repercussion or from a spiritual viewpoint or some conventional value system) that some people themselves refused to accept the food or chosen to die. There could be 10 people saved in either left or right wing ideology, but since people refuse to take the priviledge, 100 would die.

This is why sometimes Indian poor people often do not make complaints about lack of access to different facilities, and sometimes appears in happier in happiness indices (I don't remember the exact study) in comparison to the level of poverty, (and sometimes happily accept inequalities) by putting a control on own expectation. In this situation, a typical westerner left wing would accuse the government, and a typical right wing would try to make a capital. But a conventional Indian person may introspect into adjusting own expectation.

This is because the concept of "Tyaga" (Giving up) and "Karma" (The belief that own suffering is the consequence of own bad deeds in past life and present) can be deeply ingrained into society, in a nuanced way. Swami Vivekananda wrote "Tyaga" as a characteristics of Indian nation as per his perception (We had to read a piece of his literature in school where he mentioned this, where a host happily died of hunger in order to fulfill the guest's each needs).

There are similar concepts in other cultures, such as the mexican fisherman.

Now what do you call the position (or effect) in society? A theocracy? A highly left wing and egalitarian system? A left wing action motivated by a right wing ideology? A system that is outside of Left-and-right binary?

  • 3
    Related question: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/73897/…
    – dan04
    Commented Mar 7 at 17:13
  • @dan04 it is about ambiguosity in western context. Mine seem to be outside of the spectrum
    – user49085
    Commented Mar 7 at 17:15
  • As an aside, readers should be aware of the common claim that one is "neither left nor right" ... a claim often made by nationalists to vacuum up disaffected voters
    – Pete W
    Commented Mar 8 at 1:24
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    @haxor789 I may have been mistaken. I meant what colloquially called as liberal
    – user49085
    Commented Mar 8 at 14:29
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    @haxor789 Ah, thanks for explaining. I figured the focus on laissez-faire economies was a general feature of Libertarian theory which was just overemphasized a bit in the US. (Really glad I didn't make this an answer)
    – kenod
    Commented Mar 8 at 16:05

4 Answers 4


A popular (at least in the US) model of the political spectrum is the Nolan chart, which classifies positions in two dimensions:

  • Economic freedom = Preference towards laissez-faire economic policies such as low taxes, a minimal welfare state, minimal regulation, and free trade.
  • Personal freedom = Support for liberal/secularist social policies such as abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, legalization of drugs, and a less punitive approach towards crime.

The somewhat-biased choice of the term “freedom”, with its positive connotation, was deliberate on David Nolan's part, since he was a Libertarian activist. Opponents of a particular type of “freedom” may prefer a more negative term like “selfishness” or “licentiousness”.

These two axes divide the political spectrum into four quadrants:

  • The left supports high personal freedom but low economic freedom.
  • The right supports high economic freedom but low personal freedom.
  • Libertarians support high personal and economic freedom.
  • Authoritarians or statists support low personal and economic freedom.

Sometimes, the chart is drawn with a fifth section for centrists who support medium levels of both types of freedom.

Political quiz websites that use such a two-dimensional model of the political spectrum include OnTheIssues.org and The Political Compass.

  • 2
    A line about whether there really are two axis of politics or whether this is just an example of a more detailed model, but there could be other models/axis might make the answer even better.
    – bharring
    Commented Mar 7 at 18:09
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    This good answer could be improved by mentioning disagreements about how many axes there are, how to label them, how to decide what they mean, and where to place various viewpoints. There are many examples on Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum Commented Mar 7 at 23:14

U.S. politics are well described by a single dimension

Voteview.com is based on a long standing political ideology ranking of members of Congress based upon their voting records maintained by a consortia of political science professors.

It has looked mathematically, how many independent parameters of variation are necessary to describe the voting behavior of members of Congress.

There are been brief periods in U.S. history when two dimensions were necessary to accurately capture the ideological position of a U.S. member of Congress (e.g. during the realignment era when the U.S. effectively had a three party system of Republicans, Northern Democrats, and Southern Democrats), but currently, U.S. Congressional voting behavior is almost fully captured with a single left-right dimension and this has been the case for many decades.

Similar models also work well looking a state partisan politics and judicial ideologies in the U.S.

No policy dimensional model, even with more than one dimension, is a good fit globally

Globally, it isn't quite this simple. Looking at global variation in a dimensional model base upon policy positions isn't very fruitful.

Considering the differences to be inherently "non-Western" also isn't very helpful, however. For example, many practices that attract attention as insufficiently democratic, too corrupt, or disrespectful of human rights in the modern Islamic world were common or had close analogs in the West in the 19th century. To provide one example, political parties that also directly provide services to people rather than just seeking to win elections, like Hamas, used to be common, and were called political machines, in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In much of the world, rather than being truly policy based, the primary political divisions are ethnic or religious (e.g. Northern Ireland, Belgium, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Iraq, Bosnia) and even when this isn't the case, ethnic or religious divisions are important secondary factors (e.g. the U.K., Canada, the U.S., Spain, Germany, Italy, Iran, Mexico, Finland).

Many countries are likewise one party systems (e.g. China, Vietnam, North Korea), dictatorships (e.g. Syria, Turkmenistan), absolute monarchies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, UAE), or dominant party systems (e.g. Russia), where, again, a dimensional policy analysis isn't a very helpful way to understand the situation. In those countries, characterizing a particular supreme leader's views may be most helpful.

Globally, it probably makes more sense to think about "baskets" of countries with similar political systems and policies (often due to shared histories), than it does to try to classify governments in a universal policy dimensions model.

  • US politics are a spectrum from "right" to "far right." Commented Mar 8 at 4:18
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    Political dimensions are only meaningful in relative terms. Absolute policy standards change over time. And, no the left wing of the U.S. political spectrum is not right wing globally. That's a myth. The Democrats are at least center-left and some are outright left, if not "far left" by international standards.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 8 at 4:53
  • @ohwilleke Why would absolute political standards change over time? Like that's the point that they don't change over time, it's the actors positions that would change on the spectrum.
    – haxor789
    Commented Mar 8 at 14:15
  • @haxor789 Because societal standards change over time. For example, no one executes people for non-fatal robbery anymore, when it was once a conservative v. liberal issue. Similarly, first conservatives fought for slavery, then for segregation, then for opposition to affirmative action.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 8 at 21:07
  • @ohwilleke Ok I see your point but that's kind of a red herring given that conservative and progressive are inherently relative adjectives that don't really fit the idea of an absolute spectrum to begin with.
    – haxor789
    Commented Mar 9 at 12:32

It's more pronounced in the US I think.

The most common weakness with the 1-dimensional model might be that the modern center-left ("liberal" in US terminology) lumps together the following pair:

  • socially-progressive - E.g. liberties of lifestyle, gender equity, justice issues esp. when entrenched along lines of race or religion
  • economic-liberal - E.g. faith in market solutions, minimize government footprint on commerce, finance, and industry. The harder versions of this, called libertarian in the US, is usually grouped into the right, but the center-left also embraced market solutions as a first class principle, replacing unions as a center of gravity (think Clinton Blair era deregulation and embrace of NAFTA, and Obamacare).

This creates a contradiction when discussing inequality in wealth and income, and its potential remedy - redistribution of wealth and power. That is, questions of unions, labor law, progressive taxation, regulation of monopolies and big business, public subsidy and (in the US) health care.

The modern day center-left policy synthesis from the above pair, has left a lot of people frustrated. So much so, that in much of the West, the working class is in the process of abandoning the old center-left (eg US Democrats, or SocDem more generally) in favor of a growing nationalist revival seen in so many Western countries.

As a postscript - modern progressive liberals can see this abandonment, but seem powerless to stop it. Policy suggestions from the likes of Sanders or Corbyn get watered down by economic-liberal counterparts on their own side, time and again. Then after that internal battle they have to go on to face the "right" which likewise tends to take a pro-big-business position, but does not equivocate on those issues it has staked out. In the aftermath, frustrated working class voters then turn to whoever remains, which is often parties who present economic issues (eg job insecurity) in nationalist terms (eg blame the immigrants). It is a slow moving disaster, and the 1-dimensional political discourse makes it particularly hard to unravel.

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    *"It's a slow-moving disaster [if you're center-left]"
    – Jedediah
    Commented Mar 8 at 3:54
  • @Jedediah - and also if you're a more traditional left as I see it (eg 60s/70s style SocDem or flat out socialist
    – Pete W
    Commented Mar 8 at 16:20

Depends on how you construct these spectra.

Like the first approach which gave the name was apparently just to look at the sitting order in the French Post-Revolutionary parliament. Where people with matching political ideas grouped together and where as a result of that people with conservative, monarchist, elitist views ended up being on the right side of the room, while those with progressive, republican, democratic, egalitarian views found themselves on the left and those somewhere in between ended up being in the center.

That is pretty volatile though. Like after the revolution some monarchists tried to help the king escape and have the other monarchs wage a war against France to reinstate him, which was uncovered and the king was executed. So that the right lost their heads, the center became the right and the left became the far left and so on.

So rather than spanning all the political ideas and ideals, it's rather something that has a time and place and isn't neatly applicable to other nations.

Also if you use those broad categories:

Left Wing" (consisting of secular/ atheist/ libertarian/ egalitarian/ socialist/ globalist etc. ideologies) and the "right wing" (consisting of nationalist/ patriotic/ religious/ conservative/ Authoritative etc. ideoligies).

There are good chances that some of these arguments fit different groups for different reasons or that they change their character over time. Like in it's conception a nationalism might have some "leftist" themes to it like being a liberation movement, empowering the people, creating a new social contract by the people for the people. While a nationalism of an already established nation usually has far more "rightist" themes like ethno-racism and discrimination of un-national people (whowever falls into that group), chauvinism and so on.

So again while listing these adjectives in a given context of time and space can make things better understandable. They usually fail to describe the bigger picture.

For that there also have been ideas of constructing left-right spectra which actually try to aim for mutually exclusive adjectives on each side, so that as a consequence of that, all political ideologies and systems would need to fit somewhere on these spectra.

The standard one seems to be the one ranking the ideologies and systems according to their usage and acceptance of social hierarchies. So are there rulers and ruled or are people of equal power and importance. Which at least in theory lets you place all systems somewhere in between those.

Though the more you go towards purely descriptive methods the more you lose the ideological motivation of these different groups and just because you can map them on a spectrum doesn't mean that the scale is linear, like again people can support the same measures for vastly different reasons and that can make a huge difference.

So this idea:

Now suppose a true left wing ruler would do. They will tell to do a lottery for which 10 people would get the food. So that nobody gets more priviledge than the other.

A true right wing ruler would stratify the people based on who is more superior or entitled to get the food, or which 10 people represent the ruler's religion or national ideology more.

Is these comparisons aren't really that good, because they compare idea in a situation that already sucks no matter the system. And what measures to apply in those situations depends on the specifics of the situation. Like if you have 100 people but only food for 10 people for 14 days but you know that the deserted island is frequented by a ferry once a week then it might make sense to spread that food equally to all so that most people survive. Or maybe even to spread it according to need so that those who are at the risk of dying get more than those who can stay longer without it. Or if you know that no one will come and that this is all you got, then it might make sense to invest in self-reliance and try to gather new food by other means. Maybe that reveals skill sets most valuable which require special ratios of food.

So the left-right description in terms of actions is pretty ambiguous and not actually set in stone. What is more useful is to define them in terms of motivation. Like you could define left as egalitarian and right as elitists, then the left wing position would argue that the lives of everyone matter equally while the right wing position might be that "I" matter more or that, "my peer group" matters more or in general that people should be thrown under the bus without consideration in favor of the rest. But again they could do that out of principle or out of necessity, so just because the action is the same the motivation can vary drastically, between a someone that is in favor of unequal ratios because of a support of equal rights to live and an unequal necessity of food or someone who is in favor of unequal ratios because they don't like to share food.

That all being said, left-right spectra also have some obvious advantages. Like often enough the divide within a country about an issue can be summed up with two opposing views or can be narrowed down to to. And if you can do so you can have a binary vote, so it's either the one or the other. Now it doesn't mean that this is always a good idea, but at least it gives you majorities rather than just pluralities. Like the more axis and complexity that you introduce the more possible alternatives you have and the less likely you'll find majorities.

Like the center of a 1 dimensional line from 0 to 1 is 0.5. Now if you apply a +-0.25 margin you have covered 50% of the spectrum.

If you look at a 2 dimensional square from (0,0) to (1,1) then the center is still (0.5,0.5) but now the +-0.25 margin (so the center square with side length of 0.5) is just 0.25 so only a quarter of the square.

In 3 dimensions the center cube is only 1/8th of the cube and so on. So the more dimensions you introduce the less likely you'll have a central majority and the more it becomes fractured and complex to administer, while a 1d representation gives the illusion of simplicity.

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