We humans like to put things into boxes. We love to describe things in black and white, both our world and ourselves. That’s why we use the left-right political spectrum to describe politics because it’s a highly complicated topic that isn’t easy to comprehend for the masses unless we keep it simple. But how does the simplification of our political system in debates, news, and electoral campaigns influence our perception of politics?
The interest or motivation to keep informed in politics is a vital part of a working democracy but clashes with a short attention span and increasing distractions in the technology age. We are, at the same time, interconnected and have access to more information than ever, but can barely keep up with it even if we tried. Add to that the often described lack of interest in politics of newer generations that is so often complained about, and the issue at hand becomes clearer. How do we make informed decisions when huge chunks of our population are either not interested or unable to keep up? Simple – we package them in known quantities.
The Left-Right Political Spectrum
Political knowledge is often interwoven with individual intelligence and status, which isn’t necessarily surprising. Yet at the end of the day, we all (hopefully) cast our votes every few years, regardless of our intelligence or status. In order to do that we are mainly guided by categorizations. Several studies show, that the vast majority of the population of any established Democracy can accurately put themselves and their parties in a position on the political spectrum. This showcases, that the left-right political spectrum, however broad it may be, can provide a working model that is understood and applied by anyone. In fact, studies also show that the average citizen is not less able to place themselves and their parties on the spectrum than the average Ph.D. professional, showcasing a deep penetration and comprehension of the left-right political spectrum.
However, this only holds true for established democracies. Newer democracies that have evolved from other systems over time do not have similarly high rates of being able to pinpoint where exactly they stand. In countries like Romania, Croatia, and Taiwan only two-thirds or less of the population are as well-informed about where they personally fit on the spectrum. Those nations usually also struggle with the placements of their parties, which can pose unique challenges to actually establish a working Democracy that can last and function.
Working Within the Spectrum
The real issue with all nations, however, is the party placement, which ultimately determines how we vote. It’s also important that we are aware of how to place ourselves and our ideologies on the spectrum correctly. In other words: just because we think we know where we belong on the spectrum, doesn’t mean that we actually do it in the right way. The idea of Democracy is that we are voting for the party that represents us mosts as an individual, thus achieving a perfect representation in the government. It’s here where the system trips up in a few places. As mentioned earlier, politics are a complicated topic, and the ability to truthfully place ourselves with left-right political spectrum is dependent on many variables, many of which we do not control ourselves.
If we are the member of a party or have been affiliated with one for a prolonged time, we are more likely to put ourselves close to that party on the political scale, regardless of if that may be the best choice for us individually. The internet and social media have given us the choice to read and discover news selectively based on our perceived political preferences, polarizing us further. Of course, we don’t exclusively work within the categories we have set up, there are certainly individual topics that may sway us further left or right, like immigration for example. That leads us to another flaw: the personal responsibility in a democracy.
The Politics of Lying to Yourself
Broad categorizations by using left-right political spectrum coupled with an increasing polarization can cause us to lie to ourselves. If we have established ourselves as a conservative on the right, we are likely to assume that ideology fully, neglecting our individual needs. A working-class voter may assume a right-wing position out of habit or historical occurrence and may vote for a harsh immigration policy because he is made to believe that those will eventually steal his job. In truth, his individual needs may rather align with a more leftwards party that would ensure improved working conditions and benefits. Making the “wrong” decisions may also be amplified by the number of parties we can choose from. Left-Right terminology seems simple but can have huge ramifications if the underlying party system is as bipartisan as our word choices.
This means that the personal placement in adherence to the left-right political spectrum varies drastically between nations based on the number of parties as well as their compliance with their positioning on the scale. More centrist nations like Germany have a lot of voter movement around the center, changing left-to-right frequently. In Germany’s last election, for example, almost a million voters changed from voting for the center-left SPD (500,000) and far-left Linke (400,000) to the far-right AFD. A move that would almost imply a whole ideology change in most countries, but isn’t too uncommon for a country like Germany.
It Helps and it Doesn’t
There surely are many more details we could spend time on, but this should do to get a general idea of how left-right political spectrum interacts with voters. It is a highly efficient system because it is understood by almost anyone, keeping our Democracies working by having a lower entry barrier to pinpoint political parties and ideologies. At the same time, the broad strokes it uses to replicate an increasingly complicated system contains fallacies that can very well cause an undesirable turnout, both for individuals and whole nations. The most recent example would be traditional left-leaning Italy turning to far-right parties in their most recent election.
Using the left-right political spectrum is a good entry into organizing politics, but we should be aware of the downfalls and our individual duty of truthful evaluation of our personal needs when walking to the ballot.
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