1.3.4 Limits of the Left-Right Spectrum

Gregory Millard

So the left-right spectrum can be thought of as a meaningful, if very general, way of categorizing ideologies. It may be unwise to insist that all ideological disagreement can be crammed into the left-right binary or, at the very least, we should concede that this is challenging to do.

One example of an issue that is tricky to slot into the left-right continuum is what is sometimes called the debate between “Anywheres” and “Somewheres” (Goodhart, 2017) – also referred to as “Open” versus “Closed” (e.g., Economist, 2016). Those who focus on this debate argue that a major fault-line exists between people who are fiercely loyal to particular communities and traditions and those who are more mobile, comfortable with diversity, and “global” in outlook. The former tend to back projects like Brexit and politicians like Donald Trump who want to strengthen borders, while the latter tend to support globalization and are more “multicultural” in orientation. On its surface, anyway, this debate seems to have little to do with equality in any sense, and so fails to fit into the left-right framework as we sketched it out above.

That said, one could argue that, in subtler ways, it does fit. For example, the politics of the “Somewheres” is often laced with worries about immigrants, “outsiders,” and concerns that historically dominant identities are losing ground to others. In this sense, their politics may represent an attempt to privilege traditionally dominant cultural identities over other identities – a move in the “inegalitarian” right-wing direction. Meanwhile, the politics of the “Anywheres” often entails a rejection of traditional cultural, gender, and sexual hierarchies and can even extend to support for completely open borders and a view that it is unjust to treat citizens and non-citizens differently – a move in an “egalitarian” left-wing direction.

All the same, rather than doing a lot of heavy lifting in order to make every last issue fit within the left-right continuum, we may prefer to simply accept that the left-right structure does not perfectly capture everything about politics. And that’s perfectly fine: it’s not necessary to assume that any single belief system or conceptual structure must tell us the totality of what we need to know or understand about the world. Note, however, that those who find a single left-right binary too limiting have developed other options, such as the Political Compass, which posits a four-quadrant grid as a better way of categorizing ideological disagreements. Try taking a test to see where you fall on the Compass.

Move the slider below to see how Canadian political parties ideologies have shifted from 2008-2022. The information cited below reflects official Canadian political party standings leading up to each federal election.

Source: Political Compass, 2005-2022.


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