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It’s Time to Retire the Political Spectrum

“If the political spectrum is largely meaningless and causes so much confusion, why does nearly everyone buy into it?”

· 13 min read
It’s Time to Retire the Political Spectrum

American culture is dominated by the idea that politics is a contest between two philosophies that occupy opposite sides of a unidimensional spectrum. People can be placed on either the “left” side (with “liberals” or “progressives” leaning that direction), or the “right” side (with “conservatives” leaning that direction). This paradigm rules in the media, scholarship, punditry, informal conversation, social networking, and virtually every other site of political discourse.

Here’s the problem: it’s completely wrong.

Humans create models to simplify and impose order on experience, but the models are only valuable if they improve, rather than distort, understanding of reality. Some theories—such as the germ theory of disease—are valuable and accurate, while others—such as the ‘four humors’ theory of disease—are harmful and inaccurate.

The political spectrum is one of the inaccurate and harmful models. Just as the four humors theory led doctors to bleed their patients to death in previous centuries, the political spectrum is bleeding our republic to death today in three ways.

1. Confusion

The political spectrum creates confusion. It tells us, for example, that both fascist Adolf Hitler and libertarian Milton Friedman are on the “far right,” yet Hitler advocated nationalism, socialism, militarism, authoritarianism, and anti-Semitism, while Milton Friedman advocated internationalism, capitalism, pacifism, civil liberties, and was himself a Jew.

George W. Bush’s big-government, militarist philosophy is considered “right wing” as is Rand Paul’s small-government, anti-militarist philosophy. We say that liberals believe in free speech and conservatives believe in free markets, yet moving to the “extreme left” means clamping down on free speech (as with Stalin or Mao) and moving to the “extreme right” means clamping down on free markets (as with National Socialism).

In short, the political spectrum teaches us that opposites are the same and the same are opposites. This is absurd.

Some try to save the spectrum by bending it into a circle, saying that if we go too far to the right or left we wind up in the same place—totalitarianism. But we are still left with the vexing question: what do we mean by “right” or “left” (or, for that matter, the new “up” and “down” the circle has introduced)? This modification of the spectrum only tells us that totalitarians are the same, but we don’t need a meaningless circle to know this.

The reality is that the two sides of the spectrum are largely mixes of incoherent, unrelated, and constantly shifting positions lumped together by the accident of history. What does being aggressive in military have to do with free markets?1 What does opposing abortion have to do with favoring the Iraq War or capital punishment? What does belief in “getting tough on crime” have to do with opposing gay marriage? And what does favoring tax cuts have to do with expanding military spending?

Defenders of the political spectrum may acknowledge this variation, but will claim that, underneath all the difference, there is an “essence”—some core idea, assumption, philosophy, or disposition—that ties all people of each side together.2 They might say, for instance, that all those on the right (conservatives) want to conserve and all those on the left (progressives) want change.

But when we consider the actual views of those called conservatives and progressives, we find that this doesn’t hold. Saying conservatives want to conserve only begs the question, “conserve what?” Both progressives and conservatives want to change tax rates, abortion laws, immigration policy, gun laws, and safety net spending—they only differ in which way they want to change them.

Some modify these definitions a bit, saying all those on the right are “backward-looking” while those of the left are “forward-looking,” yet Yuval Levin, Brink Lindsey, and others have shown that both left-wing and right-wing policies are backward-looking and marked by nostalgia, depending on the issue.3 The most prominent leftist economist in America, Paul Krugman, constantly pines for the more equal and regulated economy of the 1950s while leftist icons Karl Marx and Jean Jacques Rousseau were wistful for a primitive time before property introduced corruption. Claiming that someone is “forward looking” also assumes we know the future. We don’t. If we did, our track record of prediction as a species wouldn’t be so poor.

Of course, most people don’t use these definitions, but invent their own. If you pose the question, “What is a conservative [or progressive]?” to a hundred people, you will likely get a hundred answers. And most of these answers will tell us more about the person answering the question than about the ideology itself. A progressive might say, “Progressives care about the poor while conservatives care about the rich”; a conservative might say, “Conservatives love America while progressives hate America.” Neither of these definitions describes actual progressives or conservatives, but only reveal the prejudices of the person answering. The vast majority of people on both the Left and Right are patriotic and concerned about the disadvantaged. It clarifies nothing to say otherwise.

Some maintain that conservatives believe in limited government while progressives believe in expanding government, but this simply isn’t true. Those called conservatives today generally want more government when it comes to military spending, promoting morality, punishing crime, and enforcing immigration law, while those called progressives today want less government involvement when it comes to reproductive choices, domestic surveillance, and the military.4 And if ‘right-wing’ means less government, what are we to do with fascists like Mussolini who declared, “Everything in the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state”?

Others claim that the right wing is defined by foreign policy “hawkishness” while the left wing is defined by foreign policy “dovishness.” But those on the American Left were far more hawkish than those on the Right until the 1960s.5 The view that ‘right-wing’ is synonymous with hawkishness is a fairly recent development and looks to be changing again with the growing influence of “America First” sentiments in the Republican Party.

Every proposed essence for right or left is easily falsified, leading to the conclusion that ideologies are evolving social constructs.6 Yet those who cling to the spectrum make their theories of right-left immune from falsification through creative ex-post storytelling. The test of truth is not storytelling, but prediction; those clinging to the political spectrum make no predictions, but they do tell plenty of stories.7 With enough creativity anyone can turn the random noise of politics into signals of coherent ideologies.

For example, it is impossible to falsify the claim, “the Republican party moved to ‘the right’ under George W. Bush” because we can simply redefine “the right” to make it fit whatever Bush happened to be doing. Who foresaw in the 1990s that invading a foreign country to spread democracy and doubling federal government spending would be considered “conservative” in the next decade? Who in the 1850s foresaw that advocacy for the welfare state would soon be considered “liberal”? It is only in hindsight that we can unite limited-government “liberals” like Locke, Jefferson, Mill, and Godkin and expansive-government “liberals” like Croly, FDR, LBJ, and Obama. Clearly, the left-right model of politics, confuses far more than it clarifies.

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2. Hostility

The obvious question to all of this is: “If the political spectrum is largely meaningless and causes so much confusion, why does nearly everyone buy into it?” Part of the answer is laziness. Putting people into one of two ideological boxes is far easier than understanding their unique point of view. Reducing politics to a simple contest between right and left is far easier than reasoning through hundreds of issues. Humans generally prefer simplicity to truth and would rather sign up for a “side” than do the hard work of thinking.

But even more powerful than laziness is tribalism. Social psychologists have found that humans have an intrinsic need to belong to groups in order to gain a sense of identity, purpose, and belonging. Ideologies fill this need.8

Most people assume that, when it comes to politics, we begin with some core commitment to a principle (e.g., “change,” “liberty,” “compassion,” “preservation,” “patriotism”), adopt political positions based on this commitment, and then identify with the ideology that encompasses all of these positions, but recent social psychology tells us this is exactly backward. Humans generally identify with an ideological tribe first and only adopt and justify the views of that tribe afterward.9 In Jonathan Haidt’s words, “Often our beliefs are post hoc constructions designed to justify what we’ve just done, or to support the groups we belong to.”10

This leads us to the second major problem with the political spectrum: it creates hostility. By telling us that there are two (and only two) sides in politics, it inherently pits a heroic, enlightened side against a villainous, foolish side. We don’t need to understand those who disagree with us, we only need to destroy them. They are “others” we can demean, belittle, and feel superior to. Anti-Semites needed the Jews as scapegoats for the world’s problems and ideologues today need political “opposites” for the same reason. Just as racism leads people to judge and hate based on skin color, “ideologism” leads people to judge and hate based on political labels. Ideologism has become a new form of acceptable bigotry, but can be as ugly as racism, sexism, imperialism, or any other “ism.” Unfortunately, it is pervasive, damaging, and getting worse.11

Ideologism also creates guilt by (assumed) association. By labeling someone “left” or “right,” we can make them guilty of crimes they didn’t commit and ascribe to them beliefs they don’t hold. Senator Joseph McCarthy, for instance, was a master ideologist who labeled any opponent of his agenda “left-wing” thereby making them guilty of the crimes of Communists everywhere. Many of today’s “conservatives” are no better, arguing that all “progressives” are guilty of eugenics because certain “progressives” of the past advocated eugenics.12 Yet the progressives themselves are not above this tactic, often smearing conservatives as “racists” since those with the label “conservative” in the past advocated slavery and opposed Civil Rights. Come out against the Iraq War and you are akin to Stalin; come out against the ACA and you are akin to Bull Connor. We can’t have reasoned political debates when we consider those “on the other side” guilty of humanity’s greatest sins. Far better to stop thinking in terms of “sides” at all.

Ideologism is an especially pernicious form of bigotry because the indeterminacy of political labels means that we can apply the terms “right” or “left” to nearly anyone for any reason. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, millions of people were beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, and killed for being “rightists,” even though nobody really knew what a “rightist” was. The epithet was so vague that it was used against even the most committed Communists. Religious zealotry in 1690s Salem meant that dozens were falsely accused of being witches and ideological zealotry today means that millions are falsely accused of being “commies” and “fascists.”

It’s a cliché that understanding is superior to hatred in human affairs, and yet how many of us work to understand others when it comes to ideology? With the exception of those who gain fame and fortune by stoking the flames of political anger (e.g., Ann Coulter, Kieth Olbermann, Sean Hannity, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, etc.), most of us would like to see more civility in our public discourse. The political spectrum makes this difficult.

3. Dogmatism

Finally, and most tragically, the political spectrum closes our minds. Philip Tetlock, James Suriowecki, and others have shown that those who think ideologically are less capable of solving problems, thinking creatively, and making predictions than those who don’t. Ideologues often declare, “Truth has a [left or right]-wing bias,” but this statement is both arrogant and false. Ideologues are demonstrably less guided by evidence and less able to see reality than those who think outside the left-right boxes. Foxes (eclectic thinkers) outperform hedgehogs (monistic thinkers) when it comes to cognitive tasks, but the spectrum turns us into hedgehogs.13

It shouldn’t be hard to see why ideological thinking makes us foolish: it creates a mental prison. The political spectrum tells us that there are two (and only two) ways to approach politics and that one side is right on everything and the other is wrong on everything. Finding truth then becomes a simple matter of declaring for the “correct side” rather than engaging in the hard work of critical thought.

When practicing science, we understand that we must alter our paradigms to fit new evidence, but ideology makes us alter new evidence to fit our paradigms. Many argue that we should allow free speech and consider alternative viewpoints because “we might be wrong.” Actually, we should consider alternative viewpoints because we are certainly wrong and the only way to be less wrong is to have our views challenged. Ideological thinking stifles this open-mindedness that would help eliminate errors in our thinking. The point of politics should be the improvement of society, but political tribalism puts the quest for victory above the quest for truth. It leads us to assert our ideological dogmas with more force, hatred, and vehemence, which only retrenches us in our errors.

Instead of declaring for sides, Americans should address specific problems and debate a wide range of approaches to those problems without encumbering them with ideological labels. We should be listening rather than labelling, practicing humility rather than arrogance, and seeing complexity rather than duality. As long as we remain stuck in the political binary, the solutions to our most urgent political problems will remain out of reach.

On immigration, for instance, ideologues are working themselves into a frenzy over whether we should have more or less immigration. But they are probably asking the wrong question. The debate over “how much?” might profitably be turned into a debate over “what kind?” By admitting more skilled immigrants to America, we could gain many of the advantages of immigration (higher economic growth, diversity, providing opportunity) while minimizing many of the disadvantages (burden on the public sector, growing poverty and inequality). This solution is currently ignored because political discourse is trapped in the left-right view of “more vs. less” immigration.

Similarly, we are unable to reduce the national debt because the left-right spectrum presents us with two bad fiscal alternatives: increasing spending (left) or cutting taxes (right). Compromising between the two sides of the spectrum only leads to the “tax-cuts-in-exchange-for-increased-spending” policies that have produced record budget deficits in this century. We will continue to be limited in our ability to find solutions to public problems so as long as we imprison ourselves in the categories of left and right.14


It wasn’t easy for doctors to give up the four humors theory of medicine and it’s not easy for us to give up the binary spectrum theory of politics. But discard the spectrum we must. If we really want to be on the “right side of history,” we should be in the forefront of letting go of this misleading paradigm. It will likely be ridiculed by our descendants for the same reasons we currently ridicule astrology and phrenology.

Philip Tetlock once said, “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.”15 It’s time to stop the insanity. The vast majority of Americans agree on the basics of wanting a safe, prosperous, and peaceful country. Starting from these points of commonality, instead of from the divisions created by the left-right binary, might do wonders in getting fruitful action taken on today’s social problems and letting our political discourse heal.


[1] In fact, Bruce Porter saw that war is the single greatest catalyst for the expansion of state power and that conservatism, as it had evolved to be both anti-state and pro-war by the late 20th century, was self-defeating. Porter, War and the Rise of the State (NY: Free Press, 1994).

[2] Jason Weeden and Rob Kurzban call this the General Orientations Model. Weeden and Kurzban, “Do People Naturally Cluster into Liberals and Conservatives?” Evolutionary Psychological Science, March 2016, Vol 2, pp. 47-57.

[3] See Levin’s The Fractured Republic (NY: Basic Books, 2016) and Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance (NY: HarperCollins, 2007).

[4] As a percentage of GDP, Federal Government spending went from 21% to 18% under Bill Clinton, and from 18% to 25% under George W. Bush, but which of the two was considered “conservative”?

[5] Conservative isolationists, remember, were the harshest critics of FDR’s “interventionist” policies in the 1930s.

[6] In The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) and “Do People Naturally Cluster into Liberals and Conservatives?” Kurzban and Weeden wisely propose a Domain-specific Model of politics to replace the binary, simplistic, and false General Orientations Model.

[7] For instance, the proposition that says the right, at its essence, believes in conserving, would predict that environmental conservation would be associated with the right. It’s not and this view is thereby falsified.

[8] Because political parties are necessary, some tribalism is endemic to democracy, but belonging to a party without thinking there is a philosophy behind the party’s policies would do wonders to reduce that tribalism.

[9] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011).

[10] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (NY: Pantheon, 2012), 290.

[11] See Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” American Journal of Political Science, Volume 59, July 2015, 690–707.

[12] George Will, “Eugenics Was a Progressive Cause,” Washington Post, March 9, 2017. Also see Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[13] James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (NY: Doubleday, 2004); and Philip E. Tetlock, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (NY: Crown, 2015).

[14] If a sociologist told you that everyone can be divided into one of two categories: dumb, good looking, athletic “jocks” and smart, ugly, un-athletic, “nerds,” you would counter that such a categorization schema is both false and harmful. The world isn’t that simple. There are many characteristics not given in this binary, there is infinite variation within those characteristics, and there are many who fit neither side. The political spectrum creates these same problems and worse.

[15] Stewart Brand, The SALT Summaries (Long Now Press, 2011), 128.

Hyrum Lewis

Hyrum Lewis is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and Professor of History at BYU-I. He received a PhD in History from USC.

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