Understanding the Political Spectrum

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What are the political ideologies?

Political ideologies are derived from political philosophies which explore and debate how we should live together in a society. In the United States, the political philosophy is democracy. From there, our government is formed from political parties. Political parties vary in their political beliefs. These political beliefs span the political spectrum in how they view the government should govern its citizens.

Below is the traditional one-dimensional political spectrum:

  1. Radicalism
  2. Progressivism
  3. Moderate
  4. Conservatism
  5. Libertarianism

What do right-wing and left-wing mean?

The terms right-wing and left-wing date back to the French Revolution in 1789. In the National Assembly (similar to a parliament) the King’s supporters sat to his right and supporters of the revolution sat to his left. These descriptions are still used to this day. Radicalism and progressivism are considered to be on the left wing of the political spectrum. Moderates sit at the center of the political spectrum and conservatism and libertarianism sit on the right wing of the political spectrum.

What is the difference between left-wing and right-wing?

The main difference between left-wing and right-wing political beliefs is the rights of individual people and the power of the government. Left-wing beliefs are liberal as they believe society will do better with a bigger government. People on the right believe that society is served better when individual rights are prioritized over the power of the government.

What are the values of the political parties?

Conservatism: Conservatism favors maintaining the status quo or wants to return society to what it previously was. Conservatives are opposed to abrupt change to the political system and society. Typically a conservative political party believes that government should be small and limit its intervention in people’s lives and the economy. this is described as the free market. Conservatives are typically happy to maintain the status quo rather than change the way we live. Conservatives tend to believe that government should lead as a moral example and uphold the traditional values of society. Conservatism is generally agreed upon as the right wing of the political spectrum.

Libertarianism: Libertarian parties tend to believe in the individual liberties and freedoms of the individual above all. They believe that government should be small and that any government intervention interferes with the individual’s personal freedoms.

Progressivism: Progressivism favors reform and progress within existing political systems to improve society. Progressives believe that governments should intervene in social issues to prevent inequality and injustice. Generally, a progressive party acts to rectify wrongs from the past to make society more equal.

Radicalism: Radicalism believes in immediate and dramatic change and they want to build a new political system.

What are the quadrants of the political spectrum?

The political refers to the grouping of political beliefs. The political spectrum spans from the far left to the far right. Both the left wing and the right wing can be libertarian or authoritarian as well. Trying to understand these terms or what people believe is called the political compass.

The political compass measures the intersection of left-right leanings and the authoritarian libertarian relationship of political positions, political views, and political beliefs within the political system. From here politicians, individuals, and political parties can be analyzed as authoritarian, such as fascism, or libertarian, such as the tea party movement.

What is the political spectrum of the United States?

The United States has 4 main parties:

  • The Republican Party is broadly right-wing
  • The Libertarian Party is broadly right-wing and above all believes in the individual freedom of citizens
  • The Green Party is broadly left-wing and more authoritarian than the democratic party and believes in equality

How do political ideologies impact social issues?

The debates between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party often revolve around how much the government should intervene in social issues and the economy. Broadly speaking the Republican Party tends to believe that government should be small and so people and businesses should be free to make their own decisions and act as they see fit to solve problems. The Democratic Party believes in reforming our society and that government needs to intervene to be made it fairer. They also do believe in the government trying to solve problems for its citizens economically and socially in line with their political beliefs.

What is an example of a difference between left-wing and right-wing?

The left-wing political view on government programs is that they provide for those worst off in society and create a social safety net to ensure citizens are provided for in the most basic way. They believe that the role of government is to provide housing, free education, unemployment benefits, and, healthcare.

Right-wing ideology would favor private paid-for solutions to the issues that these government programs aim to mitigate. For example, having less regulation on businesses for a freer marketplace for healthcare, allows consumer choice to drive down costs. Or privately held retirement accounts like 401(k) plans instead of government-backed Social Security.

Final thoughts

Politics can be a daunting task to broach with students, however, it is really important for all young people to be informed and educated about their role as citizens in our society. Understanding the core concepts of political philosophy will enable them to understand, analyze, and question the world they are being raised in.

Further resources:

  • Educating for American Democracy: a group of cross-ideological scholars is working to educate students across the United States. Click here for the full report.
  • Civics 101: a podcast by NPR about government and the US political system
  • How is the President elected? Click here to watch the video and learn more
  • Branches of government: click here to explore the American government system
  • New York Times: political identifying quiz click here or here.
  • Wikipedia: is a great resource to understand the history of political regimes across the world and within the United States.

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