Political ideology and the left-right divide

In the comments thread of the post How Trump won, but what does it mean? I made the comment:

    I don’t think we’ll ever get a just and decent society in the US or Australia from the right wing of politics. The question is whether we can make it on the left.

In Ootz’s rejoinder, he suggested that the old left-right dichotomy is not practical nor applicable anymore, and linked to an article Understanding the Determinants of Political Ideology: Implications of Structural Complexity, by Stanley Feldman and Christopher Johnston.

I was just using shorthand for the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and Labor/Greens, vs mainly the Liberals and the Nationals is Australia.

Feldman and Johnston are looking at the construction of political beliefs in the minds of the people, with a particular interest in psychological and personality traits, which is very interesting. Identifying the traits is secondary to their purpose, however, which is to claim that if you add extra dimensions to your filter, you will come up with more complex results, some of which may have been hidden if you use a unidimensional left-right model. Moreover, a unidimensional analysis obscures important information and can in some instances be misleading.

To me, this seems self-evident, and doesn’t need surveys and complicated mathematics to work out. However, apparently to that time (2013) much research on psychological and personality characteristics in relation to political ideology did in fact use the left-right dimension only. For simplicity, and because of the complex the mathematics, they add two issue domains. To “liberal” and “conservative” they add economic and social ideology.

They call it a two-factor model, social and economic being one factor, or division.

    Four questions were chosen to represent economic ideology: more government spending versus fewer services, desire for a government medical-insurance plan, support for government action to guarantee everyone a job and adequate standard of living, and federal spending on assistance to the poor. Social ideology was measured with three questions: a four-category question on abortion policy, the legality of gays and lesbians adopting children, and women’s role in business and government.

    We also examine the effects of a number of potential predictors of ideology. Several of these are important demographic variables: Age, education (in years), gender, and income (in thousands of dollars). We also include important predispositions that allow us to examine the psychological basis of ideology: Egalitarianism, authoritarianism, religiosity, need for cognition, and need for cognitive closure (in 2004/2006 only). The questions used to measure each of these constructs are shown in the appendix. Finally, we use a standard measure of political sophistication: respondents’ knowledge of politics and political figures.

The survey data they used was from 2000, 2004 and 2006.

I think it’s quite unsurprising that people didn’t line up consistently on all these issues, and their answers didn’t necessarily line up with how they identified politically. The results are quite complex, and I can’t summarise them here. However, some things did pop out, for example, the unidimensional research shows:

    Compared to liberals, conservatives are more religious, higher in authoritarianism, less committed to equality, and somewhat lower on need for cognition.

I’m not sure what “need for cognition” means, but they also say:

    Specifically, they show that individuals with heightened needs for epistemic and existential certainty and security are substantially more likely to identify as conservatives.

Some of their findings were:

    The effects of religiosity, authoritarianism, and need for cognition are much more nuanced in the two-factor model than in the one-factor models. Each one has a substantively large effect on social conservatism (larger than their effects on the one-dimensional ideology factors) but no significant effect at all on economic ideology. Egalitarianism has a substantially larger effect on economic ideology, but it is still a significant predictor of social ideology in both years (a result we will return to).

    Increasing need for closure is associated with increased economic liberalism in these data (although not significantly), while it is significantly associated with increased social conservatism.

    Increasing education is associated with greater economic conservatism but also with greater social liberalism.

They also found “six qualitatively distinct ideological types within a nationally representative sample of the general public, each characterized by a different combination of political beliefs.”

Class 1 are consistently liberal.

Class 2 is somewhat more liberal than Class 1 on economic issues, but are very conservative on social issues.

Class 3 have no clear ideological positions on the economic issues posed, and tend to take the moderate position on each. However, they are very liberal on the social issues.

Class 4 is very much the mirror image of Class 3. Like those in Class 3, they have no ideological preferences on economic issues. However, they are relatively conservative on the social issues.

In both Class 3 and 4 their social stances tend to determine their political identification as liberals or conservatives.

Class 5 have liberal positions on the social issues and conservative positions on economic policy. They are 0.7 or 70%) likely to identify as conservative. They could be labeled as ‘libertarian’.

Class 6 are consistently conservative.

Classes 1 and 6 made up about 40% of the population.

The authors then grouped people according to their political identification, allowing them to define their stance on each issue questioned as liberal or conservative. Using this methodology they ended up with three classes. Class 1, amounting to 45% of the sample, were either full-spectrum conservatives or liberals.

    Class 2 strongly connect social issues to their ideological identification, but there is virtually no relationship between identification and economic issues. In contrast, Latent Class 3 is defined by the strong relationship between economic—but not social—issues and identification.

Class 2 represented 33% of the sample and Class 3 amounted to 22%.

One might conclude from the study that full-spectrum ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ do exist in America, at least earlier this century, and made up a little under half of the population. For the rest social issues appear to have more potency in political choices than economics.

I had a query about the questions used, especially those to identify economic ideology. I think different questions would need to be used in Australia. Also may vary over time.

The biggest query on the research, though, is that the left as understood internationally, is arguably not represented in the survey. Liberalism is probably a centrist ideology in most places around the world.

Douglas Heywood, in his Political Ideologies: an introduction identifies nine main ideologies, including liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, anarchism, fascism, feminism, ecologism and religious fundamentalism. Libertarianism is a minor variation of some of the majors, defined by the extreme value given to personal choice.

An ideology is a system of ideas, values and beliefs, so Heywood looks at the main elements of each. In liberalism, it’s The individual, Freedom, Reason, Justice and Toleration. In conservatism it’s about Tradition, Human imperfection, Organic society, Authority and Property. Socialism focusses on Community, Cooperation, Equality, The satisfaction of need, and Common ownership.

One of the fascinating differences relates to how the ideologies see human nature. Liberalism sees humans as unique individuals with innate intrinsic qualities owing little or nothing to social or historical conditioning. Humans are self-seeking, largely self-reliant, capable of personal development.

Conservatives see humans as essentially dependent and security-seeking individuals, intrinsically morally corrupt and need a firm justice system to keep them on track. They are, of course, needing to be led by elites, usually property-owning and with moral substance, who in recent times are asserting fundamental individual rights.

Socialists see humans as largely social creatures, with capacities shaped by nurture more than nature. Creative labour is seen as important. They have a propensity to cooperation, sociability and rationality, making the prospects of human development and personal growth considerable.

Ecologists see humans as part of the great web of the ecosystem, part of nature itself. Humans have been alienated from nature through materialism, greed and egoism, and need to return to nature to regain their humanity.

Feldman and Johnston report as a scientific finding that political ideologies are influenced by genes. I suspect that in itself is an ideologically conservative idea.

Feldman and Johnston’s work suggests that the broad terms of left-right, or liberal-conservative do still have currency, but at best apply to a substantial minority of the population. If we separate out social and economic ideologies and categorise each on a liberal-conservative scale, the binary can in fact be pushed further.

However, I would suggest that if researchers took an ethnographic approach, starting with a clean sheet of paper, asking respondents to describe their own political, social and economic world, a very complex pattern would emerge.

Political ideologies, however, have a life of their own, being generated by philosophers, thinkers, revolutionaries and political movements. So it is a valid process to investigate how such ideologies have penetrated the populace. Most of them have a utopian impulse, to make the world a better place. Not everyone agrees that is possible.

There is every reason, then, for research that adopts bottom-up approaches as well as top-down.

The left-right divide in politics appears to have arisen from the French Revolution.

Baron de Gauville, explained:

    “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.” However, the Right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests but should not form factions or political parties.

The contemporary press started to use the terms “left ” and “right”.

In 1791 the Legislative Assembly comprising entirely new members, the divisions continued:

    “Innovators” sat on the left, “moderates” gathered in the centre, while the “conscientious defenders of the constitution” found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the Ancien Régime had previously gathered.

And so it went from there, as a somewhat moveable feast. The article suggests that those declaring the categories redundant are not usually from the left.

There is no reason, however, why as Ootz suggested, that we shouldn’t invent new labels to describe major qualities of political tendencies. New filters will tell us new things.