The political spectrum is often a model that puts political ideologies on a scale of left to right – hence why we hear the term ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. The terms date back to 1789 and the French Revolution, when radicals sat on the left side of the National Assembly, the aristocracy on the right. But how are political ideologies labelled, and how are political spectrums formed? Damien Rowe spoke to Grant Duncan.

Grant Duncan is an Associate Professor in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University. He is an expert in New Zealand politics and is the author of The Problem of Political Trust: A Conceptual Reformulation.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Damien Rowe: What do we mean when we label things left-wing and right-wing in politics?

Grant Duncan: I guess there are two main dimensions on which we can look at it, rather than just one. One might be along the lines of the question of the role of the state and the economy, or economic distribution – there is that economic policy dimension. And the other one is what we might call a social dimension, or a moral or ethical dimension, which is to do with our social values on which we can be obviously more conservative or more liberal and that relates to matters like same-sex marriage or euthanasia and that sort of thing. So you could think of it perhaps most simply along two dimensions rather than simply one. The left-right dimension that we mostly think about tends to relate to that economic policy question about the role of free markets and the state and the extent of redistribution.

DR: Why do we use political spectrums and why do we put political ideologies onto a scale?

GD: I don’t think it is so much that we put them on to a scale. I mean, that is kind of an afterthought, so to speak, because the real-world thing is that different people have different values and different interests and different ways of perceiving right and wrong, and human beings will never agree with one another about core values and so forth so there will always be contestation and difference. So it is that kind of social reality that translates into different political values and different desires in terms of policies and political leadership that then leads us to think about, as an afterthought, well, how can we systematise these and stand them on a spectrum – as you put it.

DR: By using labels such as left-wing do we also end up merging ideologies together such as socialism and liberalism?

GD: Yeah, that is right and they are not the same thing because liberalism, as the name suggests, is about the liberty of the individual, so it is a rather individualistic ideology, whereas socialism, once again as the name suggests, is social in its orientation, so it starts normally from thinking more of society as an organic whole and thinking about, well, what can we do to respect the equality of individuals and to avoid some kind of radical form of inequality. So socialism and liberalism have a lot in common often about some particular values but they start from completely different premises and therefore they tend to arrive at quite different kinds of solutions in terms of policies.

DR: I believe the Fascist Manifesto of 1919 supported issues such as the eight-hour working week, minimum wage, and worker representation in management. By using a political spectrum are we also separating links to either side of a scale?

GD: Yeah, exactly. I mean there is a certain element at which opposite extremes or ideologies that seem to be at the opposite ends of a spectrum sometimes have some things in common. That’s not to say that they are the same, however: fascism and socialism in real historical terms did have some things in common. Hitler’s regime was very strong on a welfare state as long as you were the right race of course, so it was very exclusive in that sense but nonetheless had a welfare state policy. So yes, they might touch at some points and have things in common and so they are not necessarily diametrically opposed, so I think to some extent we have to be wary of taking the spectrums or dimensions or labels a little bit too seriously, we shouldn’t be too literal about them, they are just ways of representing different kinds of political values and how people group around them and how that turns into political action.

DR: By associating political parties on a spectrum or even its ideologies are the public less likely to look into specific policies? Do we often get stuck voting for an idea rather than the plan or implementation?

GD: Well, unfortunately I think a lot of people tend to vote on fairly superficial impressions or criteria. If they get past the ‘I am voting for this person because I like him or her’ and look a little bit more deeply, they might look at, as you say, some of their basic ideas. One of the basic problems in a representative democracy like New Zealand is the question as to how much time will the individual voter invest in actually exploring what the practical political or policy proposals of the parties are and then carefully weigh up and compare the practical implications of putting each of those manifestos into action and thinking, ‘What do I think is best for this country? What do I think is best for me and my family?’ Not many people invest that amount of time, so I guess as a kind of rough heuristic approach they may make a sort of general judgement about what a particular political party stands for in terms of ideas.

DR: In the media we often use terms such as alt-right to describe a particular group of protesters. Are we complicating the understanding of an idea by using such labels?

GD: Very likely we are. I think the term alt-right is a relatively recent one and it tends to refer particularly to American groups who are white supremacist or that kind of background. But the term alt-right is now starting to be used rather more loosely. And, you know, this is the nature of language about anything that is complex: people start to use these terms and the boundaries of the terminology get a little bit loose. But yes, in general I think we need to be careful about pigeon-holing people and labelling people in terms of their political values and views as individuals, let alone as whole groups. Because even an individual, you will find if you really talk carefully and listen carefully to what people have to say, their political ideas in the end actually are quite complex.

DR: Are we labelling ideologies the correct way? Is there a way that we can scale or measure ideologies more efficiently or should we focus more individually on the ideas?

GD: Well I think by definition an ideology is not something that is measurable because it is a loose collection of ideas and they have tended to co-exist around a particular set of labels. Liberalism for example, also has a history, so what liberalism might have meant, say in the early 19th century, is something quite different from what we might mean today because the world has changed and the role of the state has radically changed in the course of history as well. And so our understanding now about what fits within the general sort of ambit of liberalism as a set of political ideas – it is not just a simple locatable singular political idea. It is now quite a complex array of different positions and particular ideas. And also, you have to think of them in their historical and social contexts. I mean, we need labels in order to be able to group ideas together, but they are not measurable and they don’t fit tidily into little spectrums or graphs. People do that kind of exercise because it does help sometimes to visualise things but we shouldn’t take those representations too literally.

The other comment I would make is we need to be really cautious about pigeon-holing individuals into ideological boxes or forcing people to identify themselves with one identifiable political ideology because individuals do have, sometimes, quite varied and at times contradictory values, and of course their values do change as they age. So it is not a sign of hypocrisy, I think, for a person to change in their ideological outlook over the course of their life – I think that is a fairly normal thing. It is not like the person has sold out or they are hypocritical, they have just changed in the course of their life which is a normal human developmental thing to happen. So as I say we should be careful not to pigeon-hole people.

This interview originally aired on 95bFM’s weekly news and current affairs show The Wire. For more stories like this, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.