My problem with left-right politics

Over the weekend, Christian Lindner, leader of the classical liberal party Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP), had quite a moment of Internet fame: A video recording showed him holding a passionate, emotional speech criticizing the common absence of acceptance of entrepreneurial failure in Germany. His move was triggered by a member of the Social Democratic party who made a comment mocking Lindner’s own failure as a company founder. Unlike in the U.S. where failure often is considered being a step on the path to eventual success, Germans have little respect for entrepreneurial risk-taking that does not immediately turn out to be fruitful.

I am optimistic that Lindner’s speech will be quite impactful in regards to raising awareness for an important but still ignored topic. I did not hesitate to tweet about it, twice, and to post it on Facebook. After then I realized something: If seen in isolation, somebody who does not know me would likely conclude that I am a person closely sympathizing with the German liberals. Which I usually am not.

Not that I care much about whether I give this impression. But the event made me once again think about an issue that has been crossing my mind many times lately: The traditional political landscape with its scale from left via center to right and with the parties positioned along this range does not represent me or my political views at all. Consequently I have huge trouble to cast my vote for one of the traditional parties. Too often it would mean succumbing to a predefined set of ideologies which I in part do reject.

There are a couple of areas where I clearly sympathize with ideas that are traditionally represented by left-wing politics. At the same time identifying myself as a lefty and voting for a party representing left-wing ideas would mean giving up on a couple of other principles and ideas that I find too important to barter away. Nor would I be comfortable supporting right-wing, conservative or libertarian politicians, even if there are at least a few elements represented by this political classification that I do not completely reject. What about center parties? Well, at least in Germany, one either votes for center-left (Social Democrats) or center-right (Christian Democrats or FDP), so one is still bound to the system of left-right politics.

corsetThe left-right approach might have been an adequate way to explain, understand, simplify and describe politics in the past. But I believe that today’s world is too complex, polarized and complicated for  a two-dimensional approach that forces people into a corset of thoughts. I miss at least a 3rd dimension, if not more. I am missing thought concepts that take elements and ideas from the complete spectrum of traditional politics, as well as introducing completely new aspects. That would open up new ways of thinking and it would free voters as well as politicians from ideological baggage that comes with the left-right range.

Why does it hardly happen that a left-wing politician or party member publicly praises a successful entrepreneur who became a billionaire while otherwise holding on to traditional left-wing positions?

Why does it hardly happen that a conservative politician or party member publicly takes an exceptional pro-environment stance or pro-equality stance while otherwise holding to traditional right-wing positions?

It is not because we humans only have two possible sets of values that are completely distinct from each other and that cannot be combined in new ways. The more likely reason is that the left-right ideology and the legacy of political history creates mental obligations, which in some cases even are reinforced by official requests for party/fraction discipline. Millions of individuals are expected to reduce and simplify their political, economical and social values and opinions so they fit into a rather narrow political corset. This cannot be the future.

I have not spent enough time with political theory to be able to outline how the introduction of additional dimensions could look like, or what else could be done. I can only speak as a voter. As a voter, I do not see myself fitting into the existing political ideologies and I do not feel represented by the left-right indicators. They all come with trade-offs that, in 2015, are too big to accept, in my eyes.

What are your thoughts? Do you recognize yourself or not?

Update: On Twitter Andreas Clever points to a concept called “Nolan Chart”, which does exactly what I describe in the post: Adding an additional dimension to the left-right line. Very interesting! Read more on Wikipedia.

(Illustration: Flickr/NotionsCapital, CC BY 2.0)



  1. Agreed.
    I wrote a text in German some years ago, but a friend of mine translated that to English:
    It is actually an introduction to something bigger I wrote like 15 years ago (many ideas in there have seen considerable updates since), but the middle part (§4-6) can be read out of context as a discussion of political dimensions.

  2. And as a separate comment an opinion: you are right. But the problem is not existing political idiologies but our political system. If you want to get more complex than left/right you start straining party democracy. The current wisdom appears to be that you need an extra party for each additional dimension like environmentalism (green parties) or internet civil rigts (pirate parties). And then you have to swallow lots of crap where this topical parties had to position themselves on the other dimensions. This works only to a small extent, it works only in advanced voting systems like the German (the anglosaxon majority vote system is too rigid, the Italian multi-party system too brittle) and it works much too slowly.
    I believe that vote based representative and grassroots democracy are both largely inept to organize modern societies.

    • Thanks for the link, will read it.

      “But the problem is not existing political idiologies but our political system.”

      I think both are the problem, but I agree that a good start would be to change the political system. A new political system would create a path to new ideologies.

  3. What you describe used to be called the “third way”, no? But it’s true: since Chancellor Schröder left office there is little appetite for progressive policies in the SPD. My feeling is that the Conservatives now have their “progressive momentum” (see their current pro immigration stance) …

  4. To first answer your question. I do recognize myself, not perfectly, but still so far that some time ago i joined the FDP (yes this party still has members). Therefore I’m really interested in why you see the FDP as libertarians and not liberals. For me, as a party member, Ron Paul is libertarian. But not the FDP.

    Regarding representation, I think one big problem is the segmentation of society and individualism. In the 1950’s few, but large social groups like workers, employees etc. existed. Even if there were different opinions within these groups, in the end they were so homogeneoues and large that they could be represented by a political party. Today the society consists of plenty different social milieus, for example described by the sinus milieus. Every single one is way to small for independent political organisation. But still, from my point of view, each of them wants to be adressed not just with more general phrases but ideas and political programs that are close to them. This makes it hard to find a way for political representation that is really satisfying.

    • I use “libertarians” to avoid some confusion among readers from the UK and the U.S. “In North America and Britain, liberals are regarded as being to the left of centre, with their support, for example, of state welfare programmes. By contrast, the continental European definition puts liberals on the right, because of their support for the free market.”

      “Regarding representation, I think one big problem is the segmentation of society and individualism”

      Yep although it is only a problem as long as we have this ancient party system. The problem is that we have to see the segmentation as a problem :)

      • After having received additional feedback regarding the usage of the term “libertarian” in the article, I changed it to “classical liberals”. That seems to be more to the point.

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