Political spectrum

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A political spectrum is traditionally described using a one-dimensional geometric axis . The two halves of the axis are referred to as left and right . For a more precise classification of political ideologies, different multi-dimensional classification systems are used today.

One-dimensional models


The emergence of the distinction “left” - “right” in the sense of political directional terms is traced back to the origin of the French National Assembly in the constituent national assembly of 1789. As a result, the seating arrangement no longer reflected firmly established social hierarchies as in the assembly of the feudal Estates- General , but soon expressed the dynamic of political-ideological disputes. There was a diversification of the political orientations in the National Assembly into a spectrum of opinion between two extremes: the left-hand side le côté gauche marked a revolutionary, republican thrust, while le côté droit represented more cautious, monarchy- friendly ideas. Soon the spatial adjectives “left” and “right” were substantiated and people simply spoke of la gauche and la droite . Within these camps, wing groups quickly formed: l'extrémité gauche and l'extrémité droite . The organization established by the Constitution of 1791 Legislative Assembly sat down already for several institutionalisierteren groups together, however, do not like today's political groups are to be understood parliamentary parties, but representing employee organization in the political landscape of the French Revolution in clubs. The number of sympathetic members of a club also fluctuated greatly, and just under half of the 745 members did not belong to any of the clubs. The spectrum ranged between the right, monarchist club of the Feuillants and the left Girondists and Montagnards , which included the Jacobin and Cordeliers club in particular .

However, the gradually developing language conventions could not take root due to the turbulent development of the revolution . The rise of the Jacobins to power resulted in a rigorous curtailment of the legitimate political spectrum. At the beginning of the restoration phase, the paralysis continued. After the turmoil of the first hundred days, political life quickly renewed itself in 1814. Only now could the geography, which had already developed in the first year of the Great Revolution and which was linked to the parliamentary seating arrangement, revitalize itself. But this happened in slightly different forms: Between the camps of the “right” and the “left” there was a moderate, monarchically oriented center . People continued to talk about the extrémités , but now also about the extremes gauche and extremes droite . Even before 1820, the continuum extrême droite - droite modérée - center droit - center gauche - gauche modérée - extrême gauche (ultra-right - moderate right - center-right - center-left - moderate left - ultra-left) was part of the established political language.

From France, the left-right distinction spread across Europe. In Germany, the Paulskirche parliament was constituted according to their model from 1848. Here the republican MPs who called for an immediate overthrow of the monarchy at that time sat on the left and the proponents of a constitutional monarchy on the right.

Possible opposites

In the classic, one-dimensional model, the contrast between “left” and “right” can represent the various opposites described below.

Egalitarian - elitist

Based on the equality postulate ( egalité ) of the French Revolution , egalitarian political approaches are central to the self-image of the “left”. This was directed against the disadvantages of certain population groups. This initially affected the materially disadvantaged layers ( working class ), but was later also applied to religious or ethnic minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled, homosexuals and other population groups. The left saw the fight for political and social equality as part of a progressive striving not only for equality, but also for freedom. Therefore, the term emancipation as a term for the liberation and self-determination of disadvantaged groups is an important point of reference for the self-image of left groups and organizations.

The “right” justifies the need for a high degree of inequality. Either the reasons for this are seen in human nature (talent, ability), or the inequality is attributed to societal considerations of usefulness (incentive to perform). In this context, the formation of elites is advocated, from which the management personnel of socially significant (political, cultural, scientific and economic) institutions are recruited. On the other hand, left / egalitarian concepts count as “equalization” and are rejected as interventions in individual rights of freedom and development opportunities or in the traditional social order.

In the democratic constitutional state , once political equality has been achieved, the distribution of social wealth is at the center of the dispute about egalitarian and anti- legal approaches. Differentiations in earnings (primary distribution) are justified with different "talent" and "achievement" of the individual. The question of an “appropriate” income-related tax burden (secondary distribution) is an important point of contention in the political debate, as taxation is directly under the control of legislation.

Arbitrary unequal treatment ( discrimination ) based on language, gender, “race”, origin, religion, political beliefs or disabilities are outlawed in democratic states under the rule of law. However, it is controversial whether and to what extent the state should take measures to compensate for disadvantages and to what extent the state should counter discrimination in the social field. A distinction is made between equality and equal treatment. For example, parts of today's left to enforce social equality justify measures that are designed as unequal treatment in the sense of improving the position of socially disadvantaged groups (" reverse discrimination ").

Progressive - conservative

In the early days of western democracies, especially in the 19th century, the left strove above all to improve the living conditions of the lower classes, especially the workers , to enforce human rights and thus to continuously renew society. The left propagated this as social progress ( progressivity ). The right, on the other hand, advocated maintaining the status quo with regard to political and economic conditions and referred to “traditional” social norms , which also gave them the name “ conservative ” (“preserving”).

Several developments today make it difficult to classify according to the terms conservative / progressive: In the western democracies after 1945, even more right-wing parties developed their own programmatic progress concepts and represented their own policy of technical and social modernization. Meanwhile, it is extremely controversial within and between organizations with a left self-image which views and measures are to be regarded as “progressive”. In addition, the ideological figure of the “defense of progressive achievements” developed, which can be viewed as a left variant of conservative approaches.

Internationalist - nationalist

In accordance with the basic egalitarian idea, the left pursued an internationalist approach for a long time , saw itself as a worldwide movement and organized itself internationally . After 1945, however, many left groups saw their task as a “national liberation struggle” and relied on anti- imperialist ideologies. To satisfy patriotic emotions in the population, to enforce territorial claims to power or as an expression of an anti-imperialist worldview, even governments with a left-wing self-image have taken nationalist approaches. In the context of a world of ideas that is critical of globalization , parts of the “left” see the sovereignty of the nation-states as a prerequisite for safeguarding social achievements and mentally position it against the internationality of capitalism .

Up until the middle of the 20th century, the right-wing camp pursued a nationalist policy and still represents a corresponding ideology today. At the same time, the “bourgeois camp” in Western Europe - including the liberals - sees itself as the driving force of economic globalization and refers to its contribution to European unification .

More opposites

While the above-mentioned opposites could at least originally be mapped onto the left-right spectrum, this is not possible or only possible in individual cases in the case of further opposites. A typical example of this is the contrast “centralist - separatist”. In some states with strong autonomy movements, e.g. B. Spain , there are centralist and separatist parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum .

Classification of political currents

Today's opinion polls show that the voters of the individual parties represented in parliament are spread across broad areas of the political spectrum in their self-image. In a poll carried out by Emnid in 2007, 76% of the voters of Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen see themselves as “left”, with the SPD 39%, the CDU 25% and the FDP 23%. Overall, 34% of German citizens said they belonged to the “left” in the political spectrum, 52% belong to the “political center” and 11% belong to the right-wing.


The “conservative-bourgeois camp” mostly emphasizes the conservative and more rarely the elitist aspect of their own politics in their self-portrayal. From the opposition in particular, egalitarian ideas are often advertised, sometimes to distinguish them from liberal positions.

The term right for one's own position is avoided by the conservatives, the term left - if at all - mostly only used disparagingly for political opponents. As in the social democratic and liberal camps, some conservative popular parties are increasingly proclaiming the term “ political center ”.

Social democracy

In the Godesberg program of the German SPD of 1959, the term left was not used explicitly, in the Berlin program it only says in retrospect: "The Social Democratic Party presented itself in Godesberg as what it had been for a long time: the left-wing people 's party." In the 1998 federal election campaign advertised the SPD with the catchphrase "New Center " comparable to the British New Labor . The Hamburg program adopted in October 2007 defines itself as the “ left people 's party”. In the previous Bremen draft from January 2007, the SPD was also defined as the “party of the solidarity center ”.


The liberalism can be based on this view, hardly a particular political orientation assign right-left scheme because on the one hand very strongly promotes equal rights, performance-related social differences but advocated as an incentive for personal commitment. Often the liberals oppose the opposition between elitist and egalitarian with the opposition liberal-regulative. Liberals strive for the greatest possible self-determination and personal responsibility of the individual in the areas of personal as well as economic life . Social liberals want to correct socially determined inequalities in a compensatory way. They want to answer the social question through qualifications, a state-sponsored education policy and a social market economy .

In Germany and other European countries, parliamentary liberalism is sometimes classified as politically “right-wing” or “bourgeois” due to its economic proximity (“fairness to performance”).


Many European socialists now define themselves directly via the left attribute . This is most clearly expressed in the fact that many parties directly refer to themselves as the Left Party .

In Germany in 2005 the Democratic Socialism Party renamed itself Die Linkspartei.PDS ; through the merger with the WASG , the party Die Linke emerged in 2007 .

In Austria, the Trotskyists founded the Socialist Left Party in 2000 , which, alongside the older, larger and more successful KPÖ ( Communist Party of Austria ), acts as a further party to the left of the Social Democrats. In the course of the preparations for the National Council election in 2008, a left-wing project was set up , which, following the example of the German Left Party , is to unite left-wing social democratic and trade union forces as well as other left-wing SPÖ forces.


Ecological positions are not necessarily linked to traditionally “left” positions. For example, the Greens in Latvia are more conservative, as is the ÖDP in Germany. The civil rights activists of Bündnis 90 , which merged with the all-German Greens in 1993, saw themselves rather “left”, but radically differentiated themselves from the PDS .

In Switzerland, bordering green liberals from the Greens by a liberal economic policy and a more restrictive fiscal and social policy from.

Radicalism and extremism

There is an additional gradation using the attributes radical and extreme . According to the definition of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, radicals strive for fundamental changes to the social and economic order, whereby they are based on the constitution. Extremists, on the other hand, are directed against the free democratic basic order .

According to Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, extremism means “anti-pluralism” and “closing the political market”. According to this, center extremism is also conceivable for Lipset .


Strong simplification

A major criticism is the extreme simplification of the political landscape by projecting various programmatic differences onto a single axis. For the philosopher Johannes Heinrichs , "[t] he operating on the one-dimensional axis of left and right ... today is not just outdated, not just unsuitable, but disrupting peace and anti-progress." In addition, it is criticized that the term spectrum suggests a continuity (as e.g. with the color shades of the light spectrum ), although ideologically "neighboring" political currents can also show clear fault lines and the individual political-ideological orientations by no means always merge seamlessly.

Correlation between goals and methods

The use of these attributes indirectly creates a positive correlation between the radicality of ideas (i.e. how much they deviate from the status quo) and the vehemence with which they are represented (latent or overt violence against those who think differently or the state). Although this correlation is naturally given to a certain extent (the parties in the center usually have the support of the executive , judiciary and media and do not need any extreme measures themselves), it is by no means mandatory. There are moderate groups with radical ideas and aggressive advocates of generally accepted views.

Two-dimensional models

Model according to Maurice C. Bryson and William R. McDill with a vertical statism-anarchy axis, which records the extent of state intervention, and a horizontal left-right axis, which shows the desired level of egalitarianism

Model after Maurice C. Bryson and William R. McDill

The model published in 1968 by Maurice C. Bryson and William R. McDill locates political positions in a two-dimensional model, which is made up of a vertical statism - anarchy axis ("statism" - "anarchy" axis), which records the extent of state intervention , as well as a horizontal left-right axis (“Left” - “Right” axis), which represents the desired level of egalitarianism.

“Political compass”, a 2D model with an authoritarianism-libertarianism axis in the vertical and an economic left-right axis in the horizontal, based on the model by Maurice C. Bryson and William R. McDill

In the form of the so-called “Political compass”, a self-test for positioning in the political spectrum on a website of the same name, the model became known to a wider audience. In contrast to the original version of the model, the "Political Compass" uses the terms authoritarianism and libertarianism (→ Libertarianism and Libertarian Socialism ) for the vertical axis that measures the extent of state intervention .

Nolan diagram

Nolan diagram

The Nolan diagram created in 1969 also shows political attitudes on a two-dimensional diagram. Economic freedom is shown on one axis and negative social freedom on the other . It comes from libertarian circles and is not highly regarded outside of them. The structure of the Nolan diagram can be traced back to the model according to Maurice C. Bryson and William R. McDill.

The horseshoe scheme

Horseshoe scheme

The much-criticized horseshoe scheme (also known as the horseshoe model ) depicts the political landscape not as a horizontal straight line, but as a horseshoe shape: an incomplete circle with adjacent end points. It shows a closeness between left and right-wing extremism (see extremism ), which is rejected by experts, the media and the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

This representation is intended to express that extremist political attitudes are closer to each other than to the respective democratic position. Various aspects are criticized, such as the misleading term “center” and the undifferentiated equation of left and right-wing extremism, which if accurately presented would have practically no common ground. According to Robert Feustel, the "horseshoe model was never up to date" because it would suggest equating left and right. This is "even more absurd today than it used to be."

MEP Martin Sonneborn described the horseshoe theory as a funny little theorem that is likely to go down in the history of democracy as the most pathetic political analysis of the 21st century.

As an image for the distribution of political forces and the relationships between these forces, the horseshoe was first used in the 1932 publication Entfesselung der Unterwelt. A cross section through the Bolshevikization of Germany used. The authors, the National Socialist sociologist Adolf Ehrt and Julius Schweikert, use the picture as an argument against so-called cultural Bolshevism . The picture was quoted in the 1960s by the volkish author Armin Mohler , from whom the conservative political scientist Uwe Backes took it up in 1989. Since then it has become an integral part of the political discourse. Eckhard Jesse , one of the founders of the extremism theory, has occasionally used the metaphor “horseshoe”.

The metaphor of the horseshoe alludes to the visual similarity to seating arrangements in parliaments.

More two-dimensional models

Influence on the seating arrangements in parliaments

German Bundestag

When it comes to the seating arrangements in the German Bundestag , the (pre-) council of elders is traditionally roughly oriented towards the political spectrum.

The FDP was placed to the right of the Union parties in 1949 because it was generally considered right-wing liberal at the time. Later neither side wanted to swap. To the right of the FDP sat the DP in the first three federal days and now the AfD. In the first Bundestag some MPs from smaller parties and non-attached MPs were still placed to the right of the DP. The MPs who had switched to the GB / BHE sat in the back rows of the first Bundestag, including Union MPs. In the second Bundestag, the GB / BHE sat between the Union and the SPD.

In the first Bundestag the KPD sat on the far left, from the second Bundestag this was the SPD. Until 1983, the SPD insisted that no parliamentary group should sit on its left. That is why the Green parliamentary group sits to the right of her, although she was seen as clearly “left” in her early days. When the then PDS moved in in 1990, the SPD no longer existed in its outer position.

Seating arrangement in the 19th Bundestag
The Left - SPD - Alliance 90 / The Greens - CDU / CSU - FDP - AfD

National Council (Austria)

In Austria, the seating arrangements of the National Council have nothing to do with the political direction of the parties. The social democratic SPÖ sits on the left, the conservative ÖVP on the right, while the right-wing populist FPÖ traditionally takes the place in the middle, where other parties represented in the National Council are also placed.

Seating order in the 27th National Council

National Council (Switzerland)

Seating order in the Swiss National Council from December 2016

Since 1995, the seating arrangements in the Swiss National Council have been roughly based on the political spectrum. Previously, the focus was primarily on the language groups. On the left is the SP - GPS in front, CVP in the back - various small parties in front, FDP, the Liberals in the back - and the SVP on the right.

Web links

Commons : Political Spectrum  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

further reading

  • Uwe Backes: Political extremism in democratic constitutional states: elements of a normative framework theory . VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 978-3-531-11946-5 , fourth chapter: typology, p. 247 ff ., doi : 10.1007 / 978-3-322-86110-8 .


  1. ^ Jean A. Laponce: Left and Right, The Topography of Political Perceptions. Toronto / Buffalo / London 1981.
  2. Netzeitung: Every third German feels "left" ( Memento from May 21, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  3. ^ SPD party executive (ed.): Hamburg program . Basic program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Berlin October 28, 2007, item no. 3000085, p. 13 ( Hamburg program ( Memento from December 26, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF]).
  4. ^ Social Democracy in the 21st Century . “Bremen draft” for a new basic program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Bremen January 2007, p. 62 ( Social Democracy in the 21st Century ( Memento from February 21, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF]).
  5. Wolfgang Ayaß : Max Hirsch . Social liberal union leader and pioneer of adult education centers . Berlin 2013.
  6. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) . Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution . Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  7. ^ Seymour Martin Lipset, Earl Raab: The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America , Chicago (Chicago University Press) 1978. ISBN 0-226-48457-2 .
  8. Johannes Heinrichs: The antiquity of left and right. (PDF) In: JohannesHeinrichs.de. Retrieved August 18, 2019 .
  9. Bryson, Maurice C .; McDil, William R. (1968). The Political Spectrum: A Bi-Dimensional Approach (PDF). Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought. 4 (2).
  10. a b Fabian Falck, Julian Marstaller, Niklas Stoehr, Sören Maucher, Jeana Ren, Andreas Thalhammer, Achim Rettinger, Rudi Studer: Political Compass: A Data-driven Analysis of Online Newspapers regarding Political Orientation . The Internet, Policy & Politics Conference, Oxford September 2018, pp. 2 ( ox.ac.uk [PDF; accessed June 15, 2019]).
  11. a b Erick Elejalde, Leo Ferres, Eelco Herder: On the nature of real and perceived bias in the mainstream media . In: PLOS ONE . tape 13 , no. 3 , March 23, 2018, ISSN  1932-6203 , p. e0193765 , doi : 10.1371 / journal.pone.0193765 ( plos.org [accessed June 14, 2019]).
  12. ^ Brian Patrick Mitchell, Eight Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right . Greenwood Publishing , 2007, ISBN 978-0-275-99358-0 , pp. 6–8 (English, limited preview in Google Book Search).
  13. a b Katharina Meyer: Why the horseshoe theory is not up to date , ZDF website, February 14, 2020. Accessed on July 30, 2020.
  14. Johannes Schneider: The horseshoe has to go down. , The Time website. October 28, 2019.
  15. Stern website: Hammer, sickle and swastika band: Martin Sonneborn dismantles the horseshoe theory , February 15, 2020. Accessed July 30, 2020.
  16. ^ Adolf Ehrt / Julius Schweikert: Unleashing the Underworld. A cross-section through the Bolshevikization of Germany, Berlin / Leipzig: Eckart, 1932, p. 270.
  17. Armin Mohler, The Conservative Revolution in Germany 1918–1932. A handbook, 2nd edition, Darmstadt 1972, p. 59.
  18. Uwe Backes: Political Extremism in Democratic Constitutional States Backes, Uwe. Political extremism in constitutional democratic states: elements of a normative framework theory. Wiesbaden: Springer, 1989, p. 252.
  19. Volkmar Wölk : On the horseshoe trail. In: Junge Welt, March 10, 2020, pp. 12–13.
  20. ^ Astrid Bötticher / Miroslav Mareš. Extremism: Theories - Concepts - Shapes . Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012, p. 108.
  21. ^ Uwe Backes : Political extremism in democratic constitutional states. Elements of a normative framework theory. Wiesbaden 1989.
  22. Jürgen W. Falter in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of August 17, 2006
  23. The seating arrangements in the Bundestag are documented in the respective Bundestag data manuals. Peter Schindler: Data Handbook on the History of the German Bundestag 1949 to 1982, 1983, pp. 522–524; Data Handbook on the History of the German Bundestag 1980 to 1984, pp. 531–532; Data handbook on the history of the German Bundestag 1983 to 1991, pp. 553–554
  24. Swiss Federal Archives SFA: The Confederation, Parliament and the Chairs. Retrieved November 28, 2017 .