Opinion & Analysis

Why views on inequality define the left-right divide

The left-right dimension is typically viewed as an economic dimension, with voters on the left supporting greater state intervention in the economy and voters on the right supporting free market principles. Yet as Jesper Lindqvist explains, this framework appears ill-suited to describing many modern political parties in Europe, notably those labelled ‘far-right’. Drawing on a new study, he shows that it is views toward inequality – rather than economic ideology – that best explain the left-right divide.

Western Europe has seen an increase in support for far/populist right parties over the last three decades. But what actually makes these parties ‘right-wing’? They are often not particularly far-right in economic matters, so there must be something else beyond their economic positions that explains them being ‘far-right’. To answer this question, we must turn to an even more fundamental question for political science: namely, what makes something left or right-wing to begin with?

Defining the left-right dimension

The academic literature has not settled on an answer to this question, but this has not prevented people from believing that the left-right dimension is an economic dimension, where the left wants the state to be more involved in and control more of the economy, whereas the right wants less regulation and more free market solutions.

This view of the left-right dimension is common among both academics and regular citizens. Some view this as the distinction between left and right in economic matters (most prominently in the Chapel Hill Expert Survey, where experts classify parties on an economic left-right dimension explicitly defined in this way), while others view this as the difference between the left and right in general.

However, most of the academic literature examining whether there is a core difference between the left and right in politics does not argue for government involvement in the economy as a good distinction. There are simply too many contexts and examples where the right favours government intervention in the economy to similar levels as the left, for example in parts of Eastern Europe and East Asia. Anthony Downs, in his famous 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy, argued that this distinction is imperfect because many on the far right (for example, fascists) do not mind if there is more government involvement in the economy.

Another common explanation of the left-right dimension that is popular today is that the terminology can be compared to empty vessels. This explanation argues that anything could in theory be left or right-wing, and that this explains why the left-right dimension looks so different in different contexts. If true, then we can make no safe predictions about the content of the left-right dimension in the future because anything could be (understood as) left or right, depending on the context.

Acceptance of inequality theory

Against these interpretations of left-right politics stands a prominent theory in the literature. Namely, acceptance of inequality theory. This theory argues instead that attitudes toward inequality represent the core divide of the left-right dimension in all contexts. Different authors define ‘inequality’ in a variety of ways, but I would argue that inequality in this theory concerns the overall inequality between groups (similar to inequality of outcomes). This type of inequality is a highly potent political divide as it concerns the interests of different groups, as well as ideological questions of fairness and group sympathy.

Different societies can be divided along different group divides. When one group is better off than another, there is an inequality and acceptance of inequality theory can then predict how this will translate into a left-right divide: the left will be less willing to accept this inequality than the right. However, an inequality should only separate left-wing from right-wing individuals when it is salient and (many) individuals choose their left-right self-placements because of the inequality.

This pattern is, according to the theory, universal. The main prediction is that in all representative democracies, at least the most salient inequality ought to predict the left and right according to this pattern. In some societies the main salient inequality is economic, in others it concerns ethnicity or religion. Regardless of which inequality is salient in that society, when controlling for other attitudes and sociodemographic variables, acceptance of any inequality should in isolation correlate with right-wing self-placements or not correlate with left-right self-placements at all.

Testing the theory

In a recent study, I test whether attitudes toward inequalities or government intervention in the economy better explain individuals’ left-right self-placements. To examine this, I use the latest data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study to predict left-right self-placements of individuals in 26 countries.

I use attitudes on homosexuality, gender inequality, and economic inequality as examples of attitudes toward inequality (between heterosexual and homosexual individuals, men and women, and high and low-income individuals). I then contrast how well these attitudes predict left-right self-placements with attitudes toward privatisation (to measure how individuals feel about less government intervention in the economy).

In Figure 1, a positive coefficient indicates that the attitude correlates with right-wing self-placements. Economic Inequality measures acceptance of economic inequality, Gender Inequality measures acceptance of gender inequality, and Intolerance of Homosexuality measures whether individuals find homosexuality unacceptable. The horizontal lines show estimated 95% confidence intervals. The results show that attitudes toward inequality are better at predicting left-right self-placements than attitudes toward the government’s involvement in the economy.

Figure 1: Attitudes predicting left-right self-placements

Chart showing that attitudes toward inequality tend to be a better indicator of an individual's left-right self-placement than attitudes toward government intervention in the economy.

Note: Multilevel model with individuals grouped within countries. Confidence intervals are calculated using 400 bootstrap samples. Data from the seventh World Values Survey and fifth European Values Study.

These findings advance our knowledge of the left-right dimension in two ways. First, we can use this evidence to show that attitudes towards government intervention in the economy is not the core disagreement of the left-right dimension. Second, acceptance of inequality theory holds up very well, and is therefore a prominent explanation that we can test further.

If this theory adequately describes the left-right dimension, then we have a simple explanation of the most important ideological dimension in representative democracies around the world. This would be an important step forward for political science. More research is needed, but at present, acceptance of inequality theory appears to be the best available explanation of how the left-right dimension manifests itself in different contexts around the world.

Lastly, returning to the puzzle of far-right (or populist right) parties. Acceptance of inequality theory has a simple explanation for why these parties are categorised as far-right – their immigration policies. This is another type of inequality (one between natives and immigrants/ethnic minorities), and the theory predicts that when this inequality becomes salient (as it has in Western Europe over the last 30 years), the right will be more accepting of this inequality than the left. The conclusion is that many far-right parties in Europe are far-right because of their immigration views, rather than their economic views.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the International Political Science Review

About the author

Jesper Lindqvist

Jesper Lindqvist is a Research Associate at the University of Gothenburg, where he researches democratic responsiveness. He obtained his PhD in 2022 at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, researching the meaning of left-right politics.

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