Which way from Left to Right?

The concepts of Left and Right are very salient in the political discourse. They are probably the labels most frequently applied to describe parties’ political views. They are often used by political scientists, politicians, or simple citizens. The pervasiveness of the Left vs. Right opposition reflects the idea that political conflicts are structured by a single dimension. Debates on a range of issues, including the welfare state, immigration policy and national defence, can be expressed in terms of a Left-Right contrast. Political competition, thus, seems to take place along a single overarching ideological dimension.

At the same time, much research in political science shows that two dimensions are necessary to adequately describe the configuration of political positions: an economic dimension and a socio-cultural dimension. The first one relates to issues such as the welfare state, taxation, or economic regulation, while the socio-cultural dimension corresponds to issues such as immigration, traditional moral and values, or law and order. This two-dimensional conception is reflected in the use of “political maps” to present the positions of parties or candidates. This type of representation has become particularly popular following the development of Voting Advice Applications, such as Smartvote in Switzerland or the EU Profiler for European Parliament Elections. The following figure is a recent example of this type of political map. It represents the positions of the candidates in the upcoming election of the executive of the city of Zurich.

Source: Tages-Anzeiger, 20.02.2010, p.22

The predominance of the Left-Right dimension in describing the nature of political competition is thus something of a puzzle. If political competition takes place along a single dimension, relying on two-dimensional representations is an unnecessary complication. In contrast, if two dimensions are necessary to describe the possible configurations of party positions, the concepts of Left and Right may be misleading. How can citizens and political actors orient themselves in a two-dimensional political world by referring to a single Left-Right dimension?

In a recent CIS working paper, I try to solve this puzzle by investigating the relations between citizens’ preferences on various political issues and their Left-Right orientations, in five different countries. I suggest that the Left-Right dimension corresponds to a curve on the two-dimensional political map, rather than a straight line as this is usually assumed. The above figure illustrates this in a telling way. The three largest parties in the local parliament are the left-wing Social Democrats (SP, red), the centre-right Liberals (FDP, blue), and the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP, dark green). SP and FDP candidates differ strongly from one another on the horizontal axis, i.e., on the economic dimension; but they share quite similar preferences on the socio-cultural dimension. Moving from the centre-right (FDP) to the right (SVP), in contrast, means moving along the vertical or socio-cultural dimension. The data I have analyzed reveal a similar pattern in a large majority of the 19 elections considered. This suggests that movements along the Left-Right dimension do not always mean the same in terms of issue preferences. They sometimes imply changes in economic issue preferences, sometimes in socio-cultural preferences, sometimes in both.


5 thoughts on “Which way from Left to Right?

  1. Bringing Downs to Zurich

    I completely agree with Romain that it can be very useful to think in two dimensions when analyzing political competition. But more than that, I think Romain has brought Anthony Downs to Zurich! Why? A striking feature of the data Romain used to illustrate this is that candidates’ policy positions are heavily clustered by parties. This means that (assuming that the estimates of candidates’ ideal points are valid) party labels themselves contain information about a candidate’s preferred policies and therefore may serve as informational shortcuts, an idea put forward by Anthony Downs in 1957. I already learn a lot about a candidate simply by knowing which party she/he belongs to without having to spend my spare time on learning details about all these candidates. Such party labels may be extremely valuable to voters: The citizens of Zurich could nicely use party labels as informational shortcuts when having to decide on their preferred candidate.

  2. this is extremely interesting. i have a few questions:

    wouldn’t it be possible specify a curvilinear function based on the left-right variable to test the hypothesis? some sort of inverse function might do the job …

    another thing: isn’t it possible that the curvilinear pattern exists in the same way, only runnnig from the top left through the bottom left to the bottom right? i believe this could be the case where there is no distinct liberal party catering to pro-market and culturally liberal voters but where a strong populist right with a welfare chauvinist appeal exists (austria?). van spanje and van der brug (2009) suggest that voters with such a profile (economic left and cultural right) are underrepresented in typical european party systems.

    • I expect the ‘shape’ of the left-right dimension among citizens to depend on how these labels are used in the political debate. If the welfare chauvinist party in your example is labelled extreme-right, then the left-right scale in a two-dimensional representation should first be horizontal (similarly to the example in my original post) and then go both downwards and slightly leftwards.
      I would expect the pattern you suggest only if the centre or centre-right parties are left-wing in economic matters, but culturally conservative. This is a rather unlikely situation, though.

      Regarding the estimation procedure: the function should be flexible enough to accomodate different ‘shapes’ of the left-right scale – including the one sketched above in response to your comment. I have not found a satisfying way to do that. But I am happy for any suggestions.

  3. I’d also go for some very flexible higher-order polynomial as a first try. Unfortunately, I think it will not be possible to fully do justice to the “circle model of political competition”, because in the two-dimensional representation a circle cannot be described by a function, as it would require mapping one point to two points.

    If I buy that party competition basically takes place on a circle, then I would go for statistical models for circular data. Jeff Gill (Wash U) and Dominik Hangartner (University of Bern) have a working paper titled “Circular Data in Political Science and How to Handle It” that offers a couple of very interesting applications, one of them being party competition. They use the Chapel Hill Party Dataset 2002 and 2006 which includes ideal point estimates for 89 parties and estimate party movements which are described by vectors (p. 15 and figure 9). That might be one way to go. I post the link below.

    Gill/Hangartner 2008: “Circular Data in Political Science and How to Handle It”, http://polmeth.wustl.edu/media/Paper/gill_hangartner.pdf

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