01 March 2014

A vocabulary of the political spectrum

caveat: just a few years after I originally posted this essay, dramatic shifts in the structure of the political right in the US left many of its references to some particulars outdated; fixing those probably has to wait for some dust to settle

As someone with a weakness for political discussion, I am often frustrated by people who have a very confused vocabulary for talking about the range of political views from left to right. Conservatives who referred to Barack Obama as a “radical leftist” inspired me to write up this essay, but such sloppy rhetoric is nearly as common coming from liberals, and perhaps even more common among eccentrics who like to style themselves as off the conventional spectrum altogether.

Language for describing the political spectrum is necessarily a bit mushy. The spectrum itself is a blunt tool for organizing categories of political thought: one dimension is of course insufficient to describe the universe of possible political stances. But the left-right axis has its uses — I consider it the best simple model available — and turns up in discussions all of the time, so if we are to use it we need as much clarity in it as we can muster.

When I want to talk about one whole side of the spectrum I will usually say “the broad left” or “broad right”. But that is not enough.

So I have tried to cultivate as much rigor and consistency as I can in the language I use in talking about where in the range one might place the philosophy which an individual or a movement expresses. What marks the difference between moderates and radicals? Between the hard right and the far right? Between liberals and leftists? These distinctions have an inherent slipperiness, of course. But reading people from a range of viewpoints whom I regard as sophisticated, I find good enough consensus that I can identify a taxonomy which is clear enough to use.

Though this essay references specific examples from American politics, I think this language can serve in other contexts as well.

Left vs right?

Fully addressing the defining distinction of the spectrum is itself a subtle and contentious subject which many people have examined at length. It admits no simple resolution into a clear right answer. I find the diagram’s one-word (over) simplifications that the broad left advocates equality while the broad right advocates heirarchy clarifying, but reasonable people may differ.

I keep a collection of links to my favorite pieces on this hard question, including one of my own. I will not attempt to recapitulate all of that here ... though if you believe the canard that the key distinction is How Much Government one favors, I recommend following those links and doing some homework.

For the purposes of this essay, I intend to frame the vocabulary of positions along the axis such that they will still be useful if one rejects my Equality vs Heirarchy thesis entirely. It suffices that we know the left and right when we see them.

Points on the spectrum


“the other side has a few good ideas”

Moderates are committed to one side or the other, but not perfectly consistently, such that they support some policies from the other side. In principle, politicians tend to be moderates (though at the moment in Congress, the Republican Party has driven out a lot of its moderates, and moderates look a little thin in the Democratic Party ranks too). A liberal who opposes gun control or a conservative who opposes the war on drugs may be described as a moderate. These days, conservatives further to the right like to describe moderate conservatives as RINOs (“Republicans in name only”), while Democrats call moderate liberals “Blue Dog Democrats”. Occasionally one may also hear “liberal Republican” and “conservative Democrat”, to refer to people’s place on the mini-spectrum within the party.


“we need big policy victories”

The Wing, as in “the left wing of the Democratic Party”, are fully committed to the philosophy of their axis and believe in focusing their political energies entirely within existing institutions. They want to win a decisive advantage in mainstream politics so that government can implement their policies without needing to compromise significantly with the other side. On the right from the 1980s through the mid-2010s, these folks were generally movement conservatives; on the left, these folks are generally just called “liberals”.


“we need both policy change and institutional change”

The Hard left and right believe in participating in conventional political institutions (like elections, government, and the two major parties) but also believe in the importance of working to change the institutions themselves if their philosophy is to be fully enacted. Someone on the hard right may want a dramatic re-interpretation of the First Amendment, or even a new Constitutional Amendment, to recognize that the United States is a Christian nation. Someone on the hard left may want a Constitutional Amendment to counter the Citizens United decision on free speech and corporate campaign donations, or to dismantle most of the military-industrial complex. On the right, this included most of the “Tea Party”, “religious right”, some “libertarians” (I’ll come back to them), and some “movement conservatives”. [Since DJT and MAGA, it has gotten much harder to pin down who qualifies.] On the left, these folks are generally called “progressives”.


“only institutional change matters”

Radicals believe that it is almost pointless to engage within conventional political institutions, that the only meaningful political action is change to the institutions themselves. This reflects the of the word “radical”, which literally means “striking at the root”. Someone on the radical left typically wants to dismantle capitalism. Someone on the radical right may want to dismantle the Federal government's power over the States and dramatically strengthen the independence of county government. On the left, these folks are generally called “leftists” or “The Left”, as distinguished from “liberals”. On the right, these folks may call themselves “the Right” (from which we get the “Alt Right”), or may be Christian Dominionists, “Patriots”, “Three Percenters”, and so forth.

Extreme / Far

“only revolutionary change matters”

Extremists have eccentric philosophies, directed not just to radical political change but to revolutionary change throughout society. This tends to include an enthusiastic embrace of political violence, though not always. Though “horseshoe theory” claiming that the extreme left and right ultimately converge is more misleading than helpful, departure from the ordinary discourses of liberalism and conservatism can make it hard to place these folks on the left/right axis at first glance.


We need a quick word on libertarians, as they often claim that libertarianism is a third, distinct peer to liberalism and conservatism, or hold that a Liberty vs Authority axis is a peer to Left vs Right, or protest the common presumption that libertarianism is a species of conservatism by pointing to the left-libertarian tradition.

These folks have a bit of a point. The smartest and most principled libertarians end up with policy preferences which resist facile placement on the spectrum. But I submit that one can place even the most eccentrically thoughtful libertarians on the spectrum if one has a real understanding of what the broad left and right represent.

And frankly, in the US, the term “libertarian” emerges from rationalizations of conservatism, and one can see it in how most folks who call themselves “libertarians” prove to be firmly on the right if one examines their positions and their implications closely.

Liberals vs leftists

Even people on the broad left often get confused about the distinction between liberals and The Left. Locating liberals in the Wing and leftists as Radicals does not capture enough subtlety about the relationship between the two schools; liberals are not simply leftists but less so. They have profound differences which one must understand to have any sophistication about politics. Unhappily commentators in both camps, not to mention on the broad right, tend to muddy the waters.

As the spectrum suggests, liberals hold that existing institutions are the correct instruments to create a good, more equal society. There are two key fundamental institutions in play: liberal democracy and capitalism. Both of those are fraught terms.

The liberal of liberal democracy shares historical & conceptual roots with the liberal of not-Left / not-conservative, but these two liberalisms are two profoundly different things with the same name. Liberalism as in not-conservatism / not-leftism is a policy ideology, a program of particular things it wants government to do: projects to undertake, rules to enforce, an approach to the economy, and so forth. Liberal democracy is not a policy ideology but rather governance ideology, a vision of norms & institutions: how government (and to a degree society) should operate, how we set policies. (I will abbreviate liberal democracy as “libdem”, for brevity and clarity.) The liberal-ness of libdem is the stuff which distinguishes most real-world democratic societies from simple tyranny-of-the-majority direct democracy: universal rights, rule of law, structural limitations on government power, and so forth. So the conservatives of the right wing oppose the liberals of the left wing on policy but join them in commitment to libdem institutions.

To understand capitalism it helps to contrast it with socialism. These too are something deeper than policy ideology; they are institutional frameworks for the structure of the economy.

  • Capitalism is when capital (the factories, land, patents, and so forth which make it possible to create the goods & services which people want & need) is privately held. The means of production are owned by particular people, either directly or through indirect institutions like a stock market.
  • Socialism is when capital is publicly controlled. There are a wide range of possible arrangements for public control: it can mean government control, but could also mean any number of alternatives, like corporations where each worker owns an equal share and the workers choose their own corporate leadership in elections.

Looking at examples in the world, one cannot draw a bright line separating capitalist from socialist societies. A “socialist” country may have small privately-owned cottage industries like corner stores. A “capitalist” country may have utilities like electric power plants owned by the state. Though socialism rejects markets in capital — people cannot buy or sell factories — it may or may not embrace markets for goods & services in general, or for specific things in particular. A socialist might advocate corner store shopkeepers choosing their own stock and setting their own prices in a market ... while opposing a market for housing, calling for the state to act as landlord for everyone without charging rents.

With that vocabulary of libdem & capitalism, we can talk clearly about the distinction between liberalism versus leftism.

Liberals accept both libdem and capitalism as givens. They advocate policy enacted under libdem & capitalism which they believe will deliver greater equity. They frame these policy objectives in libdem terms: protecting rights, electing representatives who will pass legislation enforced by the state, building democratically-accountable institutions which tax & regulate privately-held corporations, and so forth. They often support policies of universal social insurance like retirement pensions or healthcare provision funded through taxation. Some of these social insurance policies may give government socialistic ownership of particular elements of the economy (like schools and hospitals) but they do not pursue a general disruption of capitalism.

Leftists reject capitalism. They hold that it is unjust for people to own capital because it gives those people more wealth and power than people who do not. They hold that the structure of capitalism inevitably creates inequities which no liberal policy under capitalism could adquately correct. They advocate replacing capitalism with socialist economic institutions which they believe will enable greater equity than capitalism will allow. But it is important to understand that different leftists can vary enormously in the particular institutional forms they advocate.

Leftists have a broader range of relationships to libdem than they do with capitalism. They may support libdem norms & institutions as worth retaining while criticizing the limitations in the equity libdem delivers — “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” — arguing that society must also enact other social & political governance institutions beyond only libdem. For example, leftists commonly say that libdem universalism which forbids overt discrimination based on race or sex or other characteristics is insufficient to correct inequities which linger from past discrimination, so society must make a positive effort toward cultural, institutional, and material supports for the populations who inherit those legacies, extending beyond the universalism of libdem mechanisms to incorporate unequal treatment of different groups which can correct the inequities between those groups. Other leftists reject libdem entirely, again on a range of different terms. Marxist-informed leftists may say that because libdem and capitalism spring from the same historical and political processes, we cannot disentangle them; a different form of state governance must displace libdem in order to overcome capitalism. Leftist anarchists reject the state itself as exercising power which inevitably produces inequities, and see libdem principle as inseperable from the logics of the state.

For more on this, including a bunch more vocabulary, I like Nathan Allebach’s essay The Difference Between Liberals And Leftists. (He also has an index of The Most Influential Political Identities From Left To Right which does a good job of recognizing some distinctions which get lost when one only thinks in terms of the one-dimensional left-right spectrum.)


One reason why I like my taxonomy and its breakpoints is how it reveals a pattern in people’s views of other positions.

Across the spectrum, people read their immediate and one-step-away neighbors in strikingly similar ways. They take the folks directly next to them as allies whom they can work with because they they have their hearts (mostly) in the right place, while considering those allies compromised by confused priorities and misunderstandings of how the world works. But people have an especially passionate disgust at the positions two notches away from them, seeing those people as rivals whose agenda presents special dangers greater than those presented by people at positions further away.

hard | wing | MODERATE | moderate | wing

Moderates think their Wing has good ideas but consider their Wing naïve about how one gets governance done because of the Wing’s refusal to reach across the aisle to the Moderates on the other side. Moderates look at their Moderate counterparts on the other side as wrongheaded about their policy preferences but respect them as reasonable people one can work with ... unlike the Wing one step further to the other side, whom they hate for making things harder for those reasonable Moderate counterparts. And they consider their own Hards narrowminded ideologues who must be kept away from any power, lest they break every effective institution.

radical | hard | WING | moderate | moderate

The Wing returns the friendly frustration of their neighboring Moderates, whom they see as allies who have fallen for the okeydoke of feigned “reasonableness” by the supposed Moderates on the opposite side. At least the other people among the opposition are honest enemies; the opposing Moderates compound their evil position with disingenuousness! The Wing admire their Hards’ ideas and idealism, but see themselves as smarter than those Hards who waste too much energy on impossible dreams. And heaven forbid the Radicals on their side get their hands on power; they claim to stand for the same things but their dangerous plans would destroy the necessary foundations of society.

extreme | radical | HARD | wing | moderate

Hards share most of their Radicals’ long-term goals, but they do not want to abandon the fights within existing institutions to people who do not share those ideals, so they see their role as a bridge between the Radicals’ aims and their allies in the Wing. The Hards hope to ignite the ideals of their side’s Wing as a way to drive the Wing to wring as much as they can out of existing institutions. Hards hate their side’s Extremists as scary lunatics almost indistinguishable from the Extremists of the other side, discrediting their entire side and threatening to seduce the Radicals they admire. And they suspect that their side’s Moderates do not really believe in anything because of how often they prioritize appeasing the Moderates on the other side over supporting their Wing.

extreme | extreme | RADICAL | hard | wing

Radicals have a loving pity for both of their neighbors, whom they see as sharing their dreams. They expect the Hards to eventually end up heartbroken after wasting their energies on hopeless institutions, while they read most Extremists on their side as tragic products of heartbreak, their legitimate moral urgency boiling over into an understandable but counterproductive zealotry. Radicals have contempt for the Wing on their side; to Radicals, their Wing paradoxically supports the very institutions which create the problems which they claim to want to fix. And with Radicals we see how for this purpose, the spectrum does horseshoe around: because they sympathize with and think they understand the passion of the Extremists on their side, they look at the Extremists on the other side and are terrified to see that same passion in them dedicated to morally perverse ideals, far more frightening than the ordinary proponents of the other side.

radical | extreme | EXTREME | radical | hard

Extremists return the feelings of their neighboring Radicals on their side: they see folks who want the right things, so come the Revolution they expect their Radicals to step up belatedly, after having wasted their time for so long with refusal to Do What’s Necessary. Extremists also return their Hards’ hatred: to them their Hards sap the energy of people who see The Problem, softening the way people talk about it, making people complacent with the world which must be overthrown. And wrapping to the other side, Extremists have ambivalence about the opposing Extremists, who share their understanding of profundity of change the world needs, half-right and half-wrong in their reading of The Problem. To an Extremist the opposing Extremists have terrible ideas about the world they want to build after The Revolution — but they will fight for The Revolution and thus can serve as allies, either to be flipped to their side ... or at least employed as useful idiots on key issues until the current order has been overthrown, at which point they must be prevented from holding any power. Extremists see the Radicals on the other side as the worst monsters of all, determined to build the world of their nightmares; this looks to Extremists like a revealation of the horrifying impulses which animate the entire other side, suggesting that the Radicals on the other side must be the secret masters of the world they seek to fix through revolutionary change.

Mad magazine!

They covered this question back in 1970 with a set of satires of liberals, leftists, conservatives, reactionaries, right-wing militants, and new left extremists. I would say “just for fun” but it remains surprisingly familiar, and maps to many of the same waypoints I point to here, so I consider it a ratification of my taxonomy.

Ongoing revisions

I have made several clarifying changes and expansions from the original version of this essay over the years. Aside from many tweaks to phrasing and formatting, key changes include:

  • Softening the description of the Far/Extreme position from saying “only violent revolution matters” to saying “only revolutionary change matters”. Advocacy for, or acceptance of, political violence is common at the far edges, but it is not universal.
  • The exemplars of different positions on the right are now frustratingly dated, but hard to correct. DJT’s impact has scrambled the structure of the broad right in the US. For example, one can find the Trumpist slogan Make America Great Again used from the right wing to the far right. Clear examples in each position will have to wait for things to settle.
  • The original post only had a small hint about what the section about neighbors now describes in detail.
  • I added the explication of the relationship between liberals and The Left long after the original post.


Jeff Schwartz said...

I feel like there are also those moderates who think of moderation as an inherently good thing. Rather than taking some positions from column left and column right (which I think might more accurately describe so-called independents or libertarians, those who, for example, support drug legalization and gay marriage but oppose the welfare state), there are folks who think the truth is in the middle, i.e. the Clinton/Blair neo-liberal "third way" of triangulation or those who like divided government because they think good policy will emerge from the struggle between the "extremists" of either side, as if the true and good is somehow in that sliver where Paul Ryan and Bernie Sanders agree, or just the cliche of rejecting the radicals of both sides.

Jonathan Korman said...

Yeah, I almost included a bit about "centrists" at the end, but I think that centrism is a fundamentally different phenomenon.

There are Overton Window "centrists" like you describe, Jeff, who don't have a strong political sensibility and therefore presume that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the two extremes". There is a strong American tradition of valuing political moderateness ... though most often it takes the form of people with strong sensibilities asserting that their position is the center, as Nixon did with his rhetoric of the "silent majority".

But there is a more significant version of "centrism", which is the default ideology of American political media. It likes to think of itself as non-ideological, but that is a lie.