Rethinking the Political Spectrum

The classic 20th-century political spectrum is gravely flawed as a depiction of the range of philosophical opinion.

The Traditional Political Spectrum

The common depiction of the political spectrum traditionally shows communism at the left end, fascism at the right end, and less extreme political systems at various points in between:

Conventional spectrum

This depiction of the spectrum, and its nearly universal acceptance as a self-evidently accurate framework, has had a number of adverse corollary effects on political thinking and discourse.

  • Because tyranny is found at the extremes of the spectrum, the socially and politically comfortable place to reside is near the center. Centrists - moderates - are seen as mild and wise, eschewing extremism, splitting differences, encouraging compromise.
  • In the hyperbole of political campaigns, partisans to the right of center can tar their opponents as socialists or communists, while partisans on the left likewise can call their opponents fascists or Nazis.
  • Liberty is limited or lost as a political objective. There is no liberty under either communism or fascism, while both strong liberals and strong conservatives - because they are closer on the spectrum to the extremes, are depicted as mirror images, only too eager to limit liberty. The logic of the spectrum indicates that moderates should be the champions of liberty, but who ever hears moderates taking liberty's side? They are too busy splitting differences and compromising. Demanding liberty is just so, well, extreme.
  • There is no place on the traditional political spectrum for libertarianism. It's not associated with the tyranny of the extreme left or right, but neither is libertarianism found among the centrist moderates. Yet it exists. Something is wrong here.

Thank Joseph Stalin

Indirectly yet powerfully, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is responsible for the classic political spectrum commonly used to show the relationships between schools of political thought and the systems they engender. This is what happened:

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist movement was, as the name clearly says, a party of the left. While not explicitly Marxist-Leninist, National Socialism accepted the essentials of that worldview while adding Germanic racial supremacism to the mix. This is not the place to lay this out in detail, but it is part of the historical record. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism includes the best recent treatment of the subject. Thus it was not astonishing that in 1939 Hitler and Stalin found ample common interests to establish an alliance, nor did it astonish that Communist Party members in the West almost unanimously took up support for Nazi Germany. The alliance simply recognized the ideological kinship between the two.

Then in 1941, Hitler turned on his fellow socialist and invaded the Soviet Union. How was Stalin to explain or rationalize this turnabout? What ideological signboard could he put around Hitler's neck that would make sense in the Soviet political context? Certainly Stalin could not let it appear he had been duped by a fellow socialist, nor could he allow Hitler to give socialism a bad name. The solution was to label the bad guys, Hitler and the Nazis, as polar opposites of the good guys, Stalin and the Communists. Fascism - a leftist, socialist doctrine - was abruptly and absurdly labeled a phenomenon of the extreme right.

From 1941 onward into the postwar era, Soviet propaganda, diplomacy, and scholarship consistently depicted Nazism as a right-wing phenomenon, communism on the left, with the Western powers arrayed on a vague spectrum somewhere in between. Western academics and journalists fell into the same practice, often but not always because of their own leftist sympathies. Few bothered to contest the analysis and assumptions that underlay the new model, and it was a convenient way to depict and describe political camps. Thus the classic political spectrum of the 20th century became second nature to everyone, not just to communists.

A More Accurate Spectrum

The mental framing device of a political spectrum is not a bad idea in itself. There are indeed relationships among tyranny, liberalism, conservatism, and other political phenomena that lend themselves to depiction on a spectrum. But the spectrum must reflect reality.

There is something nonsensical about a political spectrum that spans the range between tyranny and ... tyranny. If one end of the spectrum is the home of tyranny, then shouldn't the opposite end of the spectrum be the home of liberty, tyranny's opposite? The new spectrum is a rough measurement of liberty: very little liberty on the left end, quite a bit on the right end. At the left extreme reside the hard tyrannies of communism and fascism, as seen historically in such places as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, or North Korea. A bit to the right are the softer tyrannies of socialism, as commonly practiced in Western Europe. Liberalism comes next, then "moderation." Moving further along the spectrum toward greater liberty, one finds conservatism, and finally libertarianism.

new spectrum

Placing the political world into this more accurate framework yields a number of important corollary benefits and insights:

  • Gone is the muddled notion that if one moves too far from tyranny, one only encounters more tyranny. Liberty is the opposite of tyranny, and the more accurate spectrum makes that clear.
  • Leftist critics become less persuasive when depicting conservatives as incipient fascists. They can no longer warn that if one becomes too conservative, one becomes a fascist tyrant. To the contrary, the conservative is identified with liberty, while the liberal has more affinity with tyranny, whether soft or hard.
  • Moderates lose their hallowed position and aura of wisdom and restraint. They are simply a bit more conservative than liberals and more liberal than conservatives, i.e. they are less jealous of their liberty than are those to their right.
  • Libertarianism has a home. It resides at the right end of the spectrum, reflecting the maximization of liberty.
Where is one to place oppressive regimes that are not particularly ideological? On the classic spectrum, they are often placed on the right, between conservatism and fascism. But consider their essential attributes: severe limits on liberty, the confiscation of productive assets by the government or cronies of the dictator, weak rule of law. These attributes have much more in common with socialism than with conservatism; indeed, many such regimes call themselves socialist, whether or not a political science purist would agree.

The most important effect of the new, accurate political spectrum is the clarity it brings to political analysis and discourse. Where the measurement of liberty was obscure or absent from the classic spectrum, it is the foundation for the new spectrum. Political parties, their candidates, past or present political systems from around the world, all can be placed with rough accuracy on the spectrum. And if one values liberty, it becomes far easier to distinguish the better from the worse.

David G. Muller, Jr. is a writer in Northern Virginia