Research into that pesky Left/Right division in politics

Describing the entire domain of political attitudes in terms of a single Right/Left dimension does have its problems. Many people say they have a mix of views that does not makes them clearly either Leftist or Rightist. Libertarians in particular are always promoting a two dimensional description of political attitudes. The political compass and the "World's Smallest Political Quiz" are popular applications of such theories. Below is one example of such a description:

I regret to report, however, that we seem to be pretty stuck with the old Left/Right schema. Academics have been talking about this at least since the 1940s. Various authors (e.g. Eysenck, 1954; Rokeach, 1960; Kerlinger, 1967) have proposed that an adequate description of world politics really needs two dimensions, as we see above. They propose, for example, that the Left-Right dimension be supplemented by an Authoritarian/Permissive dimension. So that democratic Leftists and Rightists are Permissive Leftists and Rightists whereas Communists and Fascists are Authoritarian Leftists and Rightists. They have not however been able to produce strong evidence that the attitudes of the man in the street are organized that way -- as I point out here and here and here, for instance.

The dimensionality of political attitudes was a topic of great interest to me also throughout my research career and many of my published papers bear on it. I attempted an answer to the dimensionality question in the second paper I ever wrote, in fact -- written in 1968 and published in 1973.

What we usually find when we do surveys of people's attitudes on political questions is that MOST people lean one way or the other. A person who agrees with one "conservative" opinion is highly likely to agree with lots of other "conservative" opinions. Very few people are evenly balanced between Leftist and Rightist opinions. THAT is the basic fact of the matter.

By contrast, people are not at all likely to be predictably pro- or anti-authority. Typically they will agree with about equal numbers of pro-authority and anti-authority questions. Leftists will tend to agree with the enforcement of Leftist authority (e.g. over business activities) and conservatives will tend to agree with enforcement of conservative authority (e.g. over moral matters). The Left/Right division swamps everything else. See here.

The account of Left/Right attitudes given in my monograph on conservatism suggests why this is so. For a start, the assumption that Fascists or Nazis are Right-wing is false. Hitler himself energetically claimed to be a socialist and Mussolini (the founder of Fascism) was a lifelong Marxist. The evidence for this has been summarized at great length elsewhere so will not be elaborated here.

Historically, the core of conservatism has always been a suspicion of government power and intervention and conservatives therefore accept only the minimum amount of government that seems needed for a civil society to function. So it is no wonder that there is no authoritarian version of conservative ideology. If it were authoritarian it could not be conservative.

Leftism, on the other hand, IS intrinsically authoritarian and power-loving and will always therefore tend in the direction of government domination. It is only non-authoritarian to the extent that is thwarted by external influences (such as democracy) from achieving its aims. Leftists in democratic societies do of course commonly deny authoritarian motivations but that is just part of their "cover". Deeds speak louder than words.

A way in which a two-dimensional schema is NEARLY correct

As conservatives characteristically know and as Leftists characteristically deny, reality tends to be peskily complex -- and the present subject is no exception. I wish therefore to point out now one of the complexities not mentioned so far.

There IS a way to divide up normal political discourse into two distinct dimensions but those two dimensions tend to be correlated. They are not independent. Knowing a person's position on one dimension will give you a weak prediction of his/her position on the second dimension. Ferguson in fact published such a description of the attitude domain in the 1940s, though he failed to see that his two dimensions were correlated.

And the dimensions identified by Ferguson can always be found in comprehensive survey research and they are in fact rather familiar. They are the religious/moral dimension and the economic dimension. In other words, it is perfectly possible for people to be conservative on religious and moral matters but at the same time to be socialistically inclined on economic matters -- as indeed America's founding fathers initially were. For an extended discussion of just that combination, see here. There IS even now a religious Left who favour all sorts of government intervention in economic matters. As Waldman says: "Actually, in 2000, at least 10 million white "evangelical Christians" voted for Gore".

Some attitude combinations are more common than others, however, and it will be no news to anybody to hear that the PREPONDERANCE of religious conservatives also support conservative (non-interventionist) economic policies.

What is surprising, in fact, is how weakly the two attitude clusters are associated. In one of my 1973 papers, I found, for instance, a correlation of only .24 between economic conservatism and social conservatism. It was this weakness of association that misled Ferguson into thinking that his two dimensions were not correlated at all.

It would appear, however, that this weakness of association stems from areas of discourse that are less central to overall political orientation -- as, in some 1984 research, I found that moral issues lay at the centre of all conservatism/Leftism issues. See the second Appendix in the paper. It is no wonder, then, that religious conservatives figure so prominently in America's Grand Old Party at the beginning of the 21st century. It shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the most personal issues are also the most important in politics.

In summary, then, religious/moral conservatism and economic conservatism are distinct but related -- and the more important the issue is the more highly they become related. It is perhaps encouraging that psychological research from many years previously in Australia predicted so well what is happening in American politics in the early 21st century.


Eysenck, H.J. (1954) The psychology of politics. London: Routledge

Ferguson, L. (1941) The stability of the primary social attitudes. J. Psychology, 12, 283-288.

Kerlinger, F. N. (1967). Social attitudes and their criterial referents: A structural theory. Psychological Review, 74, 110-122.

Rokeach, M. (1960) The open and closed mind. N.Y.: Basic Books.


1 comment:

  1. Here's another political quiz:

    10 questions. Fast and fun. Find out how pro- or anti-freedom you are.

    Also, includes celebrities to compare.


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