Rethinking Political Ideologies

This column asserts that, since quantitative models are fundamentally flawed when used for qualitative measurements, the traditional representations of the political spectrum are inadequate for properly comparing and contrasting political ideologies. Therefore, these flawed models should be replaced with a qualitative model that reflects the nature of the political spectrum. Such a model could be based on the Grundnorm theory of law.

Suppose that Legal Philosophy was ordered as a Left-Right Jurisprudence spectrum rather than by group—Natural Law, Legal Positivism, Legal Realism, and Critical Legal Studies (CLS). Suppose that Theology was ordered as a Left-Right Religion spectrum rather than by denomination—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Bahá’í, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. Suppose that the Natural Sciences were ordered as a Left-Right Science spectrum rather than by field—Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Astronomy, and Geoscience. This is the current state of Politics. One should feel a knee-jerk reaction seeing a complex and intellectually rich system of thought reduced to an overly simplistic uni-axis or multi-axis model that is ultimately inaccurate, but more importantly breeds tribal politics.i

Figure 1 (Click to Enlarge): Created by Sal Chiarelli

Figure 1 (Click to Enlarge): Created by Salvatore Chiarelli

The jurist and legal philosopher Hans Kelsen created a concept known as the Grundnorm, or “grand norm.” Kelsen used this word to denote the basic norm, order, or rule that forms the underlying basis for a legal system. This is a theoretical concept based on a need to find a point of origin on which the system can be legitimized. Conceptually, it is a pyramid with the top-most part being the basic norm and all other norms derived from this in an ordered and logical structure going down to the base of the pyramid (See Figure 1). Any norm not within this structure is seen as an illegitimate norm to the structure.ii

Similarly, modern politics is in need of a Kelsen reordering. It is time for political discourse to shed its dichotomous assertions of Left vs Right and instead explore the complex political ideologies, both individual and syncretic.iii

The two most well-known political spectrum models are the uni-axis left-right model and the bi-axis social/economic model. The uni-axis model (See Figure 2) traces its history back to the French Revolution 1789-1796. The terms “Left” and “Right” referred to the political affiliations, specifically to the seating arrangements. The aristocracy sat on the right of the Speaker and the commoners sat on the left, hence “right-wing” and “left-wing politics”. The political spectrum represented by the uni-axis model runs Radical-Liberal-Moderate-Conservative-Reactionary.iv Although the definitions have been somewhat distorted over the years, they refer specifically to the status-quo. For example, liberals desire a change to the current state of affairs and radicals more-so, moderates desire change in some aspects and no change in other aspects, conservatives desire no change to the status quo, and reactionaries desire a return to the previously existing state of affairs (status quo ante).v A variation of this model is Jean-Pierre Faye’s horseshoe theory, which asserts that rather than the far-left and the far-right being at opposite and opposing ends, the extreme left and the extreme right have many similarities and share a common ground. So, it basically takes the horizontal uni-axis model and bends it to almost a circle.

Figure 2 (Click to Enlarge): Created by Sal Chiarelli

Figure 2 (Click to Enlarge): Created by Salvatore Chiarelli

For almost a century, political scientists have approached the problem of how to best represent political variation, yielding underwhelming results. What almost everyone agrees upon is that a uni-axis model is insufficient for most practical purposes.

Figure 3 (Click to Enlarge): Created by Sal Chiarelli

Figure 3 (Click to Enlarge): Diamond Chart

The most well-known bi-axis model is the Diamond Chart by the World’s Smallest Political Quiz (See Figure 3), which is based on David Nolan’s Nolan Chart (See Figure 4). Generally, the left-right (x) axis represents economic freedom and the libertarian-statist (y) axis represents personal and social freedom. There are two tri-axis models based on the Nolan Chart. The Friesian Institute has suggested a model that combines economic liberty, personal liberty, and positive liberty. There is also the Vosem Chart, which has corporate economics, individual economics, and civil liberty.

Continuing down this path will inevitably lead to hundreds of possible variations because there are too many factors to take into account. What about foreign policy, foreign trade, law & state authority, censorship, patriotism, individualism, religiosity, humanitarianism, nationalism, and ideological rigidity? Like the price-quantity (aka supply-demand) model in economics, one walks a tight-rope in determining between accuracy and practicality. For example, how does one even make the assumption that by measuring economic freedom to personal freedom that they are equitable to each other? For something qualitative such as political ideology, the model must reflect the nature of that system. A degree-based model is fundamentally flawed for the political spectrum because it is meant for a quantitative representation and not for qualitative measurements. Any quantitative model of the political spectrum, whether uni-axis or multi-axis, will always lead to this opportunity cost scenario.

Kelsen’s pyramid, which has a basic norm and lesser norms branching outwards, better serves the civil community and political discourse. Although Kelsen applied his theory to legal systems and the basic norm of such a system is hypothetical, one can not only apply it to political ideologies, but can deductively determine the basic norm of each one. Unlike a legal system, a political ideology is much more ordered and intellectually consistent with

Figure 4 (Click to Enlarge): Nolan Chart

Figure 4 (Click to Enlarge): Nolan Chart

Not to be confused with political philosophy, a political ideology is a certain collection of ideas that have an ethical set of ideals, principles, and doctrines that explains how a society should work and offers some blueprint for a certain social order. A political ideology largely concerns itself with how to allocate power and the ends to which it should be used. Political ideologies have two dimensions—goals & methods: (1) how society should function or be organized and (2) the most appropriate way to achieve this goal.

This is certainly not the only way to go about this, but one can reduce all political ideologies to either of the following three norms: (1) Government is good, (2) Government is evil, (3) Government is neutral. It can then proceed to the necessity of Government: (1a) Government is good and necessary, (1b) Government is good, but unnecessary, (2a) Government is a necessary evil, (2b) Government is an unnecessary evil, (3a) Government is neutral and necessary, (3b) Government is neutral and unnecessary. In continuing this derivation, a certain pattern emerges. Liberal ideologies are derived from the norm that Government is a necessary evil, statist ideologies tend to be derived from the norm that Government is good and necessary, and anarchist (ant-statism, properly so-called) ideologies tend to be derived from the norm that Government is an unnecessary evil. Breaking down the basic norms will eventually yield any known political ideology. This is a superior system in qualitatively analyzing the similarities and differences among the myriad of political ideologies without using a flawed degree-based model. Using this system will reset the battle-lines of partisan politics and demand ideological distinctions within the parties. Politics should not be about left-wing vs right-wing; it should be about answering such questions as what public policy best benefits the people, what the appropriate role of Government should be, and how to cope with the challenges humanity faces in the future.


i. tribal politics: when a Republican opposes a Democratic stance and vise-versa solely to support the opposite of what one’s opponent supports.

ii. An example of this is institutionalized slavery, which was inconsistent with the doctrine expressed in the US Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Because this norm was not located within the pyramid, it was a matter of time for slavery to be rejected.

iii. Syncretic politics: when a political ideology attempts to combine seemingly opposed ideological systems. Examples include Italian fascism and also the ideology of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which combines Marxism and Islam.

iv. Alternative terminology: far left – left of center – centrist – right of center – far right

v. Status quo: the existing state of affairs. Latin, literally ‘the state in which’. Status quo ante: the previously existing state of affairs. Latin, literally ‘the state in which before’

vi. For the most part, political ideologies are consistent with themselves. However, one should also recognize that political ideologies are simply frameworks for shared beliefs and/or interests. Therefore, there are some political ideologies not entirely consistent, such as fusionism (aka libertarian conservatism). Fusionism combines libertarians, traditional (paleo-)conservatives, and social conservatives. In addition, neo-conservatism is inconsistent with the general conservative ideology. This is the equivalent of trying to mix water and oil. You can continuously stir the two together, but they fundamentally cannot mix.

Works Cited

Advocates for Self-Government. Last modified 24 Sept 2009. Accessed 10 Oct 2009.

Ladavac, Nicoletta Bersier. Hans Kelsen (1881-1973). ©1990-2004 European Journal of International Law. Academy of European Law online. Last modified 19 Nov 2003. Accessed 10 Oct 2009.

Nolan Chart. Last modified 18 Oct 2009. Accessed 10 Oct 2009.

Original Appearances of Data Visuals and Media

1) Figure 1 – Kelsen Pyramid

2) Figure 2 – Left-Right Spectrum

3) Figure 3 – Diamond Chart

4) Figure 4 – Nolan Chart

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Politics and Society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.