Current Issues Blog

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Understanding Ideological Labels

February 20, 2020 by Scot Wilson

During campaigns and elections, candidates use political labels, such as liberal, moderate, progressive, conservative, and libertarian, to position themselves in relation to each other and as a shorthand for their worldviews and policy preferences. This presidential election cycle features candidates from across a wider political spectrum than most elections in recent years.

In the United States, we often discuss a left-right political spectrum that might look something like this:

Socialist –> Progressive –> Liberal –> Moderate –> Conservative –> Libertarian –> Autocratic

This political ideology spectrum is confusing for several reasons. First, the far right includes both small government libertarian and autocratic/authoritarian political beliefs. Second, ideological labels such as socialist and libertarian are not commonly used and understood in the United States, although that is changing. This post offers some resources to help teachers and students explore political beliefs and values.

Aldrich-McKelvey Scaling of Canidates

Our debates in the United States take place within a small slice of the available political ideologies. To help your students explore the full range of ideas, and to see how our political debates compare to those in other countries, consider exploring The Political Compass, created by Pace News and journalist Wayne Brittenden.1

Additional Resources

Discussion Questions

  1. Do these political labels help you make sense of debates between the candidates? Why or why not?
  2. Which political label do you think best describes you? Why?
  3. When you think about candidates, how important is winning? Is it more important than political values?
  4. What political goals are most important to you? What political values?



Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2016-election-map.svg
[1] Quartz.com: https://qz.com/1748903/how-2020-us-democratic-candidates-compare-to-global-politicians/




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