Left Wing, Right Wing; Who Cares?

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I recently took a political spectrum test. In it, one is confronted by a list of vague aphorisms upon which they must make a value judgement. For instance, in the test I took one such statement was “the military budget should be scaled back”. I had options ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”, and a choice of how important I consider the subject-matter. Once the test is completed, one gets a neat little placement on a graph, such as this:


Sweet and simple. Sounds good, right? Not exactly. The problem with simple representations of political philosophy is exactly that they are simple.

Put it this way; in philosophy what people think is only half the story, we should care equally if not more about why they think those things. Being “right” for the wrong reasons is not being right at all. We don’t give equal credence to a scientist with a sound methodology who predicts an earthquake and a fortune teller who just gets lucky and predicts the same earthquake. So why should we separate methodology in philosophy?

But surely there’s nothing wrong with an approximation, even if it is ultimately false? Well, if you’re happy with that, why bother with any ism at all? Marx was not influential because of his conclusions, but because of his arguments. And while Rawls may appear similar to Marx on a cheap little graph, they actually arrive at those positions through very significant differences: the similarity is specious and deceptive. Marx and Rawls are not similar, whatever a spectrum might say. I, for one, don’t want to be told I’m similar to one with whom I harbour significant philosophical disagreement, all because of a graph.

This isn’t just a “problem” that only a philosopher could care about. The fact that the most powerful nation in the world has a stubbornly two party system is probably related to humanity’s eternal quest to split everything into a binary opposition. You must be either Republican or Democrat, left or right, right or wrong. If we lump everyone into the “left wing” and everyone else onto the “right wing” then it isn’t much of a surprise that only two parties thrive.

Granted, two-party dominance in democracies is not entirely down to the political compass – the spectrum itself is likely a symptom rather than the cause, but it is a telling symptom of a wider simplification.

The problem is making itself clear at the moment in Britain with the recent debacle of the proposed television debates. Even with the inclusion of Ukip, broadcasters seem quite incapable of imagining a panel beyond the relative similarities of Labour and the Conservatives. It is as if the Green Party simply don’t exist (or have an MP, for that matter) and the SNP have already sunk back into the shadows after a booming independence campaign.

The pessimistic truth is that we will probably never escape this false dichotomy. Humanity’s slicing and splicing of the world into two categories makes it seem natural, if not inevitable, that binaries will be favoured. But I think that, at least on a theoretical level, we should be optimistic, shun the political spectrum, and try to break through the binary – at least for the sake of a more interesting television debate.