Purposes and Origins of Government

Political Ideologies

Traditional Left-Right Ideological Spectrum

Traditionally, political ideology was seen on a spectrum from the left—favoring strong government and social and economic equality—to the right—favoring limited government, accepting social inequalities, and stressing individual freedom. The extremes of communism (left) and fascism (right) form authoritarian governments. Democracies generally occupy the center.
    Within a state and its government, various political ideologies may exist. An ideology is a philosophy concerning the design, functions, and goals of government. Political ideologies are best compared by examining them as a spectrum of ideas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, political scientists typically viewed political ideologies as existing along a left-right spectrum. This divide was based primarily on how much control government should have over both society and the economy. Political ideologies on the left called for more government control and equality within society and the economy. Those on the right tend to prefer limited government and accept social inequalities, generally emphasizing individual freedom.
    Several political ideologies fall along a political spectrum from left to right.
    Communism, on the far left, is both a political ideology and an economic system, emphasizing government control of property and the economy and aiming to eliminate class divisions. Under communism in its ideal form, all workers are considered equal within society, no matter their role or productivity. Communist states control economic output and provide education, employment, housing, and health care to all members of society.

    Still on the left but less radical than communism is liberalism. While continuing to stress equality of citizens, liberalism focuses on the government's role both in protecting individual rights and ensuring that the government plays an active role in the economy. Liberals accept the market emphasis of capitalism but believe that unfettered capitalism can lead to concentrations of wealth and power that can result in unfair labor practices, a lack of competition, and environmental pollution. They believe that the government needs to intervene in the marketplace to regulate business to mitigate these negative outcomes. Recognizing that capitalism can leave some workers behind, liberals support government-funded programs to help the poor.

    At the center of the spectrum are people generally considered to be moderate, or those persons whose political beliefs fall somewhere in the middle of the left and right. Moderates typically support a combination of economic and social beliefs from both sides of the spectrum.

    To the right is conservatism, which stresses a more limited government role and an emphasis on maintaining order and the status quo. Traditional conservatives support existing societal institutions; many also seek to limit government power. Compared to liberals, conservatives prefer less government regulation of business. They may also oppose government social programs such as those that provide income support to the poor.

    Farthest on the right side of the spectrum is fascism. This philosophy features strict control by the state and strong police and military power. Fascists promote what they see as a natural hierarchy within society and reject many elements of electoral democracy. Italy's Benito Mussolini and Germany's Adolf Hitler both capitalized on widespread discontent after World War I to establish fascist governments, pushing a strong sense of national identity and employing violence to gain power.

    Neither of the ideologies at either end of the spectrum—communism and fascism—typically has a strong presence within democratic governments. Instead, these ideologies are more commonly found in authoritarian governments. Authoritarianism is a type of government in which decisions are made by a centralized authority or leader who does not answer to the people. North Korea is an example of a contemporary state with an authoritarian government.

    Democracies are found in countries in which the prevailing political ideologies fall more along the middle of the political spectrum. The degree to which a democratic government plays a role in the economy and society can vary depending on the prevailing ideology. For example, in Sweden, the government taxes citizens at a higher rate than in many other countries. These taxes are then used to fund free, government-provided education, health care, retirement benefits, and other programs. In the United States, the government taxes citizens at a lower rate and does not provide social programs as wide-reaching as Sweden's, such as universal health care.

    Sociocultural Attitudes and Their Impact on the Political Spectrum

    Because of a complex mix of factors influencing attitudes on sociocultural issues, people's views on social issues can reflect positions from both sides of the traditional political ideological spectrum.
    Although the left-right spectrum is one way of thinking about political ideologies, in some ways it's quite simplistic and doesn't capture the range of diverse beliefs that individuals hold. For example, individuals may favor more government intervention in some spheres while opposing it in others. This is particularly true when sociocultural attitudes come into play. In the United States, a number of social issues affect ideological alignment and influence people's political views and behavior. Examples are the issues of gun control, abortion rights, women's rights, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people) rights, and racial equality. Individuals' positions on these issues are shaped by their religious beliefs, region, ethnic background, and education.

    This complex mix of influences can result in people having positions that reflect different sides of the traditional ideological spectrum. For example, many Americans who are passionate about the 2nd Amendment's right to bear arms want less government control of guns—placing greater emphasis on individual freedoms and personal liberty—but also favor more government involvement in limiting access to abortion—thereby accepting government limits on individual freedoms and personal liberty. Conversely, many of those who favor gun control legislation also advocate more freedom of choice regarding abortion.

    The complexity of Americans' beliefs on sociocultural and socioeconomic issues has resulted in political scientists sometimes using an ideological matrix that shows how individuals may be liberals on some issues and conservative on others. Populism, for example, is a political movement that opposes elites and big business by championing the average person. Historically, populist movements have quickly surged in strength and then gradually dissipated. The United States experienced a resurgence of populism in the last decades of the 20th century and the early 21st century. In the 1990s Republican Pat Buchanan made an unsuccessful populist-based primary run against incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. His positions against free trade agreements and emphasizing sociocultural issues served as a precursor for the populist conservative Tea Party movement that emerged in 2009 and gained significant traction in the Republican Party. Tea Party proponents called for a more limited government role in the economy, decreased taxation, and increased regulation on immigration. On the left, in 2011 liberal activists rallied in the Occupy movement protesting economic inequality and even criticized Democratic office holders who they saw as too close to big business. Later, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged with a focus on stopping violence against African Americans by the police.
    Political systems reflect a blend of underlying values ranging from authority to complete freedom on one dimension and emphasis on the group or the individual on another dimension.
    Libertarianism is another political ideology that combines economic and social views found on different sides of the political spectrum. Libertarianism is a political ideology that places individual liberty above all else and favors very limited government. To libertarians, each person should be free to live his or her life without interference from other people or the government. Libertarians tend to be conservative when it comes to the economy (for example, favoring lower taxation and minimal government regulation) and liberal when it comes to social issues (for example, supporting marijuana legalization and supporting LGBTQ rights).