The Domination Of Left Right Politics Politics Essay


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Since the French revolution Left-Right politics has dominated the political arena in most of the countries (Freire, 2006) (Shin & Jhee, 2005). Traditionally, Left-Right Dimension was used as the main axis of political cleavages to distinguish between proletariat (left-wing), bourgeois (right-wing), and religious (mostly right-wing or centre) parties and political organization (Van Deth, 1995). However, this distinction was subject to a major modification in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the rise of new social movements such as women's movement and the ecological movement, and the intensified political actions such as demonstration and boycotts (ibid).

Another revision to the long-established Left-Right Dimension was recalled again during the period of the so-called "Third Wave of democratisation". Transition to Democracy in Southern Europe during the 1970s inaugurated this wave which its tidal force reached Latin America in the 1980s and former socialist bloc republics in late 1980s and early 1990s.

These political changes have brought newly competitive party systems to a considerable number of societies. The conventional class-based political competition, where working class vote for left-wing parties and middle and upper class vote for the parties from the right, have been gradually replaced by value and identity- based political cleavages.

This chapter will look at the concept of political cleavages and its evolution since the second half of the twentieth century. I will start by introducing different definitions for political cleavages trying to point out the main common factors of these explanations. Then, I shall move to illustrate some major arguments in the development of the literature starting from class-oriented cleavage of Left-Right axis and passing through the major alterations that hit this long-standing dimension. It is worth paying attention to some observations regarding the literature and its updates.

First, major social and economic transformations in the societies always represent a medium for the literature to be revised. National and industrial revolution, for example, had crowned class politics as the dominant factor of social cleavages and party competition (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967). Post World War II era also introduced a new dimension of political polarization due the economic development witnessed by most countries affected by the war. Prosperity experienced by younger cohorts of the population brought in generational differences to the surface and divergence of values became salient as major drivers of New Politics (Inglehart, 1977) (Dalton et al., 1984) (Van Deth, 1995). Furthermore, Democratisation that started in the 1970s has altered the literature of political cleavages dramatically by introducing culture and identity issues.

Second, Left-Right axis of cleavages is still dominant regardless of the major socioeconomic transformations in societies and their related consequences. The conventional dimension denotes the ideal shortcut for electorates to identify their political preferences among different concerns, issues, and values adopted by different parties. It is believed that it simplifies and organises "complex political reality" (Inglehart, 1990) in which it facilitates the process of alignment, de-alignment and re-alignment of party supporters.

Last and most importantly, research on the literature presented in this chapter recognizes party competition as the main reflection of political cleavages in one society. It seems that institutionalization of cleavages in a certain context is the ideal way to measure political division which can be reflected in voters preferences in electoral ballots. Accordingly, democracy as to be noted is a prerequisite for researchers to study political cleavages.


Inglehart's (1984) concept of political cleavages is very simplistic with two main components: divided groups among different policies or parties.

"Political cleavages are relatively stable patterns of polarization, in which given groups support given policies or parties, while other groups support opposing policies or parties." (Inglehart, 1984, p.25).

Moreno (1999) follows the same simplicity of the previous definition, however government is introduced as one part of the political division along other groups and party alignment is the medium of expression for such divide:

"Generally, political cleavages are divisions in society of individuals' orientations, attitude, and behaviour toward policy, political groups, and government and that are expressed through partisan support." (Moreno, 1999, pp.15-16).

Unlike the previous definitions, Knutsen & Scarbrough (1995) present multi-dimensional definition that takes into account the social aspect of the divide which can be seen through common socioeconomic and cultural conditions values or way of life among one group:

"Our concept of cleavage encompasses three distinct but intertwined phenomena. First, a cleavage is rooted in a relatively persistent social division which gives rise to 'objectively' identifiable groups within a society-according to class, religion, economic, or cultural interests, or whatever. Secondly, a cleavage engages some set of values common to members of the group; group members know a 'common life' in so far as they share the same value orientation. Thirdly, a cleavage is institutionalized in some form of organisation-most commonly a political party, but also in churches, unions, and other associational groups." (Knutsen & Scarbrough, 1995, p.494).

It is worth noting among the three definitions that polarization or division in a society is the backbone of the concept of political cleavage that can be expressed through organisational or partisan support. However, Knutsen & Scarbrough concept stress the importance of having shared culture, identity or values that can form a 'common life' among a certain group of the society and can be the source of political mobilization.

In the next section, some major arguments of the literature will be presented. These arguments can be divided into Western and non-Western literature [1] according to the level of economic development that separates advanced industrial societies in the West from those which are less developed in other parts of the world. Other approaches of the literature will be discussed briefly such as Top-Down approach and context-specific analysis before ending the section with declaring the supremacy of Left-Right axis of political cleavages. This chapter concludes with listing some main cleavages from different societies.

West-based Literature

Lipset and Rakkan (1967) study provides historical account for cleavage structure in the western European societies. According to this study, national and industrial revolutions during the nineteenth century resulted in the development of four main cleavages which explain the formation of party systems in Western Europe. The national revolution created two main cleavage lines: nation-building process and the evolving relations between the nation-state and the church produced centre-periphery and religious-secular lines of conflict. Industrial revolution did also create two main cleavage lines which their foundations laid by industrialization and capitalism: a conflict between landed interests and emergent industrial class on one hand, and a conflict between owners and workers on the other hand. Based on what mentioned, Lipset and Rakkan's argument of formation of party systems is based on cleavages defined by class divisions, urban-rural differences, secular versus religious ideologies, and subject versus dominant cultures- including ethnic, linguistic, and regional conflicts.

Inglehart (1977) (1990) (1997) used comparative survey data to show value-based generational differences among the Western European mass electorates. He argues that post World War II generations experienced higher economic growth that older generations, and accordingly produced higher sense of general well-being due to the expansion of modern welfare state. This general sense of well-being led to the "diminishing marginal returns of economic growth" (Inglehart, 1977). This phenomena of unprecedented prosperity witnessed during the decades following World War II in addition to the absence of total war from the Western hemisphere has contributed to significant and dramatic changes in values between young and old cohorts of the societies. Younger generations in the society increasingly expressed their concerns about issues as quality of life and self expression rather than about economic and physical security. In other words, the concerns of freedom of expression and participation were favourably expressed by younger generations who were less economic and physical security oriented. This represents a great change in value priorities due to the shift from materialist to post materialist societies. Thus value became a source of major political cleavages (Inglehart, 1977), (1990), (1997), (Van Deth, 1995). Apparently, political conflict in advanced industrial society is associated with materialist-post materialist dimensions that stressed the importance of value and sidelined the influence of class in political cleavages.

Inglehart (Inglehart, 1977, p.16) argues that there is a change in the trend measuring the achievements of society's leadership from the extent of economic growth realized to other aspects of human well-being. The change from class-based to value based politics modified the original meaning of left and right in politics. The rise of new issues such as environmental protection and women's rights contributed to the rise of post-materialist values among Western publics. These "new politics" issues became the main dimension of competition for the New Left, mainly represented by green and environmentalist parties.

Ingleghart (1984) identifies two main axes of political polarization that exist side by side, "with the leading parties aligned along familiar Left-Right axis based on religion and social class, in uneasy coexistence with a largely independent polarization between materialists and postmaterialists" (Inglehart, 1984, p.68).

In further study, Inglehart (1997) concluded that postmaterialist values are just a small part of broader process of economic, social, political and cultural change which is reflected in a new dimension of political conflict, due to the shift from values of modern societies to these of the post-modern such as well-being, trust, tolerance, and self expression. According to Ronald Inglehart:

"This new dimension is distinct from the traditional Left-Right conflict over ownership of the means of productions and distribution of income. Its growing salience is transforming the meaning of Left and Right and changing the social bases of Left and Right. Historically, the Left was based on the working class and the Right on the middle and upper classes. Today, increasingly, support for the Left comes from middle-class Postmaterialists, while a new Right draws support from less secure segments of the working class. A new Postmodern political cleavage pits culturally conservative, often xenophobic, parties, disproportionately supported by Materialists, against change-oriented parties, often emphasizing environmental protection, and disproportionately supported by Postmaterialists" (Inglehart, 1997, pp.237-38).

Dalton et al. (1984) agree with Inglehart that New Politics had replaced class-based cleavages of Old Politics in the advanced industrial societies. They argue that advanced industrialism has fulfilled many basic economic needs for a considerable sector of the population. Accordingly, concerns shifted to new issue that are common among advanced industrial democracies such as social equality, environmental protection, dangers of nuclear energy, sexual equality, and human rights. These new issues have been 'loosely integrated' in new political agenda that stimulated new political cleavages and conflicts (Dalton et al., 1984, p.4). These cleavages have multiple aspects -"the new middle class versus the old middle class; affluent, skilled, blue-collar workers versus a poor, unskilled, and largely unemployable social substratum; the public sector versus the private sector; the young versus the old; traditional values versus the new morality; the technocrats versus the exponents of direct democracy (increased popular control)" (Dalton et al., 1984, p.21). They also argue that these cleavages are crosscutting and their way of cumulating and outcomes are difficult to predict.

The emergence of new issues of New Politics, according to Dalton et al (1984), are due to complicated process of overlapping of several forces with advanced industrialism that lead to the weakening of traditional political alignments. The new issues or ideologies then become a source of partisan mobilisation that may result in 'realignment' (Dalton et al., 1984, p.21).

It is worth noting in the argument of Dalton et al (1984) their mentioning of two important incidents that shaped up the political competition in the Western democracies in the 1970s and early 1980s. First, the emergence of a conservative counterattack around the issues raised by the New Left during the 1960s which paved the way to the rise of a New Right that adopted traditional values against abortion, equal rights for women and gay rights. This can be seen in the Thatcherism in Britain, Neoconservatism in France and Italy, and Reaganism in America (Dalton et al., 1984, p.452). Second, political agendas were dominated again by economic issues due to the early 1980s recession which weakened the economies of industrialized nations. However, this return to the old -economic- issues has not reproduced a return to Old -class- politics. This is due to, according to Dalton et al, several decades of prosperity that altered the social structure of the advanced industrial societies protecting most citizens from the worst ravages of unemployment and increasing the size of the middle class (Dalton et al., 1984, p.5).

In his studies about social democratic and radical right parties in Western Europe, Hebert Kitschelt (1994) (2000) identified two aspects of competitive dimension of politics: economically leftist (redistributive) and politically as well as culturally libertarian (participatory and individualist) positions at one extreme and economically rightist, free-marketeering as well as politically and culturally authoritarian positions at the other. However, how far parties from each aspect manage to appeal to the moderate voters and thus build electoral coalitions that predestine them to become governing parties is the decisive rule of the party system game.

Using empirical study, Moreno (1999) identifies two main salient dimensions of political competition in rich and stable democracies that represent issues of postmodern-fundamentalist and left-right materialism axes. The former reflects the value-oriented arguments of Inglehart (1977) (1990) (1997) and Dalton et al (1984), whereas the latter represents the classical economic-oriented polarization of redistributive Left and individualistic Right.

Non Western-Based Literature

Analysis of the cleavages on the other side of the continent, Central and East Europe, suggests that pre-communist political settings, the type of the authoritarian regime during communist context, and the transitional approach towards non-communist environment deeply influenced cleavage patterns in the post-communist republics (Jou, 2010).

For example, Kitschelt et al. (1999) categorize three types of communist regimes - patrimonial, national-accommodative, and bureaucratic-authoritarian- and forecasts cleavages based on historical pre-communist experience and the type of communist regime.

Patrimonial communist relies heavily on the vertical chain of personal dependence between leaders in the state and party apparatus and their entourage, buttressed by extensive patronage and clientelist networks. The political power in this kind of regime is centred around a small group or individual ruler worshiped by personality cult. It emerges where there a historical setting of traditional authoritarian regime assisted by compliant religious leaders. The second type of communist rule, national-accommodative communism, developed through formal-rational bureaucratic governance structure with partial separation of party rule and technical state administration. It prevailed in countries with previous history of vibrant political mobilization around parties and interest group representing semi-authoritarian and semi-democratic groups. The third type is a bureaucratic-authoritarian communism that represents a totalitarian model of party state well-organized powerful bureaucratic machine governed by a planning technocracy and a hierarchical communist party. It occurred in the countries that have considerable liberal-democratic tradition in the inter-war period with comparatively early industrialization and class politics mobilization. (Kitschelt et al., 1999)

Socio-economic perspective is also used by Kitschelt (1992) in identifying the political cleavages in East and Central Europe. He spots two main cleavages that drive the party competition: market versus redistributive and libertarian/cosmopolitan versus authoritarian/particularist. However these social bases for party competition will be introduced over time, as the economy moves to adopt free market settings and party formation proceeds (Kitschelt, 1992). On the other hand Kitchelt (1992) takes into account the possibility of overlapping of 'patterns of collective identification' such as religion, nationality, or ethnicity with the transformation process of the post-communist society in a way that may decelerate or speed up marketization.

Szelényi et al. (1996) picked up the concept of marketization to classify political cleavages in Eastern Europe under Liberal-Conservative and Lift-Right dimensions. They argue that during the transitional period of post-communist societies, concerns related to liberty, identity, and community dominated the epoch. Thus, non-class based political cleavage of Liberal-Conservative axis shaped the political competition in these societies. However, class politics and economic concerns will be back in the game gradually as the former socialist countries move steadily towards a democratic free marketeering model (Szelényi et al., 1996).

Evans and Whitefield (1993, pp.539-40) classify three types of party competition in Eastern Europe according to 'national-level explanatory variables': economic development; levels of ethnic homogeneity; and the historic status of the state, and assume that the presence or absence of these variables is decisive of which cleavages are likely to emerge: socio-economic, ethnic or valence. An axis of Left-right issues will influence socioeconomic-based party competition, whereas liberal-authoritarian and national-cosmopolitan dimensions will surface where there is an ethnic root to party competition (Evans & Whitefield, 1993). In case of an absence of socioeconomic or ethnic bases, competition will be determined according to consensus around principal issue; "what will concern voters will be the ability of parties to achieve agreed-upon goals" (Evans & Whitefield, 1993, p.540).

Whitefiled (2000) elaborated on the previous argument by a presupposition that communist rule did not wipe out social identities of class, religion, and ethnicity. On contrary it maintained them and in some other cases articulated them (Whitefield, 2000, p.197). He concluded his argument by stating that political cleavages in previous communist republics "stem from the composition of each country's identities and the specific impact of communism" (Whitefield, 2000, p.197).

Moreno (1999) sums up the political competition in three main dimensions that characterized the belief systems of post-communist societies: (1) General dimension of reform that includes economic, political, and cultural issues (2) Liberal-Fundamentalist views about societies and (3) Democratic-Authoritarian dimension. In combination with religiosity, education, and urban-rural divisions, the previously mentioned dimensions constitute relevant political cleavages in the post-communist party systems (Moreno, 1999).

Same results concluded by Moreno (1999) to describe political cleavages in the Latin American context. Two main salient lines of political conflict in Latin American societies in the early 1990s: Democratic-Authoritarian dimension composed of mass attitudes towards political reform and authority, religious orientations, position on social issues and nationalism ; in addition to Left-Right dimension composed by attitudes towards social change, income equality, and economic individualism (Moreno, 1999). However, Democratic-Authoritarian dimension started to have less impact on the party competition as democracy has been consolidated and started to be take for granted as one of rules of the game. Accordingly, issues of liberal-fundamentalist dimension became more salient (Moreno, 1999).


Zukerman (1975) adopts a top-down approach in his conceptual and theoretical analysis of political cleavages. He argues that the source of cleavages is the social realm; however they are politicized to become issue of political conflict linked to political parties (Zuckerman, 1975). In other words, political parties are not a consequence of social groups' characteristics -ethnicity or class for example-, rather it is the parties that tailor up identities for these social groups. Thus, elite are the responsible for deciding which issues to politicize and which group to mobilize (Zuckerman, 1975).

Same approach is endorsed by De Leon et al. (2009) in their study of constitution of cleavages in the United States, India, and Turkey in which they challenge the belief that social cleavages frame partisan membership and argue that political parties are the source of social formation. They call this process as Political Articulation which is defined as the "process through which party practices neutralize class, ethnic, and racial formations as a basis of social division by integrating disparate interests and identities into coherent socio-political blocs" (De Leon et al., 2009, p.195). Accordingly cleavages are naturally politically motivated, but are deployed by parties to attain majorities. This articulation, according to De Leon et al. (2009) is very decisive in times of major social transformation (from a rural to industrial economy or form a regulated market to a market economy). In other cases, political articulation is preconditioned sometimes by the insignificance of influence exercised by the political organizations of one country over their state and civil society. In this case charismatic figures and prominent intellectuals fill the vacuum of the political organization in articulating social formations and cleavages (De Leon et al., 2009).


Freire (2006) stresses the importance of social factors in defining political cleavages. These factors have three fundamental dimensions: socio-structural, organizational, and normative/identity [2] . He points out the generational element by stating that the impact of social factors is greater among younger generation than among the elders (Freire, 2006, p.360) [3] .

Henjak (2010) argues that cross-national variation of cleavages is a product of interaction between characteristics of welfare state and patterns of traditional cultural cleavages. And since each country has its own special experience of this experience, the salience of economic and cultural divisions varies accordingly. For example, countries with liberal or social democratic welfare state with historical economic divisions is more likely to witness a dominance of economic cleavage; whereas cultural value cleavages are expected to sideline economic cleavages in countries with Christian Democratic Welfare state and historical cultural divisions (Henjak, 2010).

Left VS Right

Apparently, Left-Right Dimension of cleavages is still widely implemented. Since the French revolution Left-Right politics has dominated the political arena in most of the countries (Freire, 2006) (Shin & Jhee, 2005).

Inglehart (1990) considers it as an abstraction that organizes and simplifies "complex political reality" providing an overall origination toward a potentially limitless number of issues, political parties, and social groups. Same applies with Freire (2006, p.360) who describes it as important 'information-economizing device' that simplify the complexity of the party competition game. On the other hand, Sartori (1976) sees it as empty box that can be filled with any meaning unlike Liberal and Conservative labels whom he labels as informative and cognitive that has semantic limitations.

Huber & Inglehart (1995) noted that Left-Right dimension is inescapable aspect of party competition and it does exist almost wherever political parties exist. However its meaning differ systematically among societies according to the underlying political and economic conditions (Huber & Inglehart, 1995). For example, in recently established democracies politics is dominated by competition between authoritarian versus democracy views which are shaped into Left-right dimension; On the other hand, in long-established democracies where democracy is taken for granted the party competition is seen as a struggle between left and right based on 'non-constitutional issues' and ideological conflict (Huber & Inglehart, 1995, p.82).

Shin & Jhee (2005, p.386) argue that 'left' and 'right' like 'democracy' are 'western inventions' and their issues that identify and distinguish between them can vary remarkably across cultures and societies. Even within the same context, issues of left and right may be perceived differently by people of the same culture or society in terms of different issue dimensions (Shin & Jhee, 2005, p.384). Shin & Jhee also observe the use of the terms "progressive" and "conservative" instead of "left" and "right" in some societies due to long-standing link of "left" with communism (Shin & Jhee, 2005).


A political cleavage is characterized be parties that offer competing messages that appeal to electoral constituencies divided by their propensities to get involved in political action. Cleavage will resolve around the basic components that define the operating mode and the results of collective choice. These components are (1) rules specifying who is the player admitted to the institution, (2) rules of the game players are expected to follow, and (3) the assets players are endowed with in order to participate in the game (Kitschelt, 1992).

A dominant dimension or dimensions of conflict that based on most salient political cleavages in a given society during a given period of time, is usually the backbone of party competition. Generally, Lift-Right polarization of economic issues -such as level of state intervention in the economy, public versus private ownership of the means of production, the extent of social and welfare policies, and economic freedom and equality- is the most common dimension of political conflict.

In the late 1950s, Lipset (1959) found that there is correspondence between class interests and party support in established democracies. His bottom line conclusion was as follows: lower-income groups vote mainly for parties of the left, while the higher income groups vote mainly for parties of the right in "virtually developed countries".

Due to the emergence of new political issues and groups in West European societies in the 1960s and 1970s, new meanings and revisions had risen of Lipset's theory of Left-Right polarization. The new Left adopted issues such as environmental protection and gender relations, and new Right embraced messages of racism and xenophobia. These messages and issues attracted support from various social classes where poor and people from middle and upper classes casted their votes for different parties from right and left.

In general, the literature on political cleavages generated from Western Europe took democracy for granted. Although political elites disagreed on redistribution policies, they agreed that democratic politics is the best way to achieve their programmatic goals.

The rise of new democratic societies around the world has again altered the left-right axis of political competition and a new revision has been called for the literature and again the scope of research has been expanded. This democratisation created polarization between pressures for democratic transformation and efforts to preserve the authoritarian order in the newly democratized societies. This polarization might overshadow the left-right socioeconomic class cleavages that usually characterize party competition. Having said that, economic concerns are still in the 'newly' democratic game where voters still take them into considerations and still heavily influence their preferences. In other words, if democratization is linked with economic collapse and domestic disorder, many or most citizens may reject it.

Economic development does not only influence the electorate preferences, but may solely draft the whole rules of political game. It is worth noting that economically developed stable democracies have more issue-oriented cleavages based on Left-Right materialist and Postmodern-Fundamentalist dimensions while less economically developed stable democracy has more likely to have stronger structural cleavages based on regional, religious, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Same conclusion may also apply on newer and less economic developed democracies.

From all mentioned above, we can summarize the cleavages of political competitions as follows:

Left-Right Dimension: the classic economic axis of political competition which is traditionally defined by class and issue orientations. Ownership of means of production and issues of economic redistribution are usually the basis of political conflict.

Materialist-Post materialist Dimension: the main characteristic of party competitions in advanced industrial society. Political preferences are based on individual orientations to the New Politics issues such as environmental protection, feminism, sexual preferences, deference towards authority, and nationalist sentiments. The struggle here is for greater political rights and more participatory citizenry.

Democratic-Authoritarian Dimension: common aspect of party competition in new democracies in which attitude towards democracy represent the focal point of political polarization. This dimension is subject to fade away once democracy is consolidated.

Liberal-Fundamentalist Dimension: similar to Postmodern-Modern dimension, however it reflects issues in new democracies. Attitudes towards abortion, religiosity, and nationalist sentiments are backbone of social division.

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