The Importance of Political Education – knowing left from right

A very interesting article in today’s Irish Times discusses whether Europe should focus on education in its engagement with Africa. The article argues that political education is vitally important for all sorts of social and political outputs:

‘Individual Africans need to become more politically sophisticated. It is hard to think of a political party in Africa which genuinely professes, let alone practises, a coherent political philosophy. Whereas parties in Europe espouse socialist, liberal or Christian democratic values, there is no indigenous African ideology beyond tribalism. Political parties are more often than not built around a commanding personality who offers tribal leadership and is rewarded with uncritical tribal loyalty’ .

The description of African politics rings some surprising bells for students of Irish politics.

In the Irish party system, scholars have been trying to pick apart the policy stances of parties for some years now – with varying degrees of success and insight. Most analyses have concluded that the parties in Ireland offer a far less coherent, integrated ideological choice to voters than parties elsewhere in Europe – and many conclude that FF and FG are practically impossible to seperate in terms of political ideology.

 A sentiment analysis I performed with Dr Laura Sudulich of Irish party candidates in the 2007 election looked at how they felt about the terms ‘ Right’  and ‘ Left’. It revealed that FF and FG have no sentiment either way (overall) while Labour and SF members tend to have significantly positive sentiments towards the ‘ Left’  and negative sentiments towards the ‘ Right’ . 

Labour’s focus on its leader during the campaign, and FF and FG’s ‘party of government’  approach to political ideology meant that only a few independents and PBP members were focusing on matters of political ideology. Thus the election took place in an ideological vacuum, just as ideological decisions to do with taxation and public spending had to be made. The result was a rather opaque fudge – the implementation of existing policy with cosmetic changes, by new management personnel. 

Other problems, such as Dublin’s near epidemic homelessness and drugs crises, go undiscussed. I was shocked when home to be approached by several street people, clearly in need of help, many of them also clearly drug addicts. For whatever reason, this is an item that is given far too little political priority in Ireland.

One wonders whether political education may have some role to play in our current plight, as Clerkin argues is the case in Africa. Perhaps we should look to our own political education as we also look to Africa’s.

29 thoughts on “The Importance of Political Education – knowing left from right

    • difficult to summarise a deep debate like that in a single blog post, Don.

      Briefly ‘left’ tends to refer to political solutions that maxmize economic and social equality, at the cost of higher social contributions (at the extreme, the left envisions the overthrow of capitalism, which is predicated on competition and inequality). In social matters, leftists tend to also be ‘progressive’ meaning that they are likely to be in favour of gay marriage, legalisation of soft drugs and euthanasia, and an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment of criminals.

      The right’s fundamental belief is in the liberty of the indivudal – with state intervention seen as a necessary evil, rather than a desirable policy option. Somewhat confusingly, right wing people tend to be happy to see the state spend more on military personnel, hardware and operations than leftists, inverting the general tendeency. Rightists tend to veer towards the ‘conservative’ end of the social spectrum – favouring restrictive social laws built on religious dogma (be it Christian, Islamic or other). They tend to favour harsher measures to ‘punish’ criminals such as, for instance, the death penalty.
      To be upfront about my own views, I veer strongly left on social policy and left relative to the status quo on taxes/spending. There is also some alignment on immigration – with rightists tending to support anti-immigrant measures (or, at least, a strong focus on inculcating national values and norms of behaviour among immigrants) whereas leftists tend to defend the freedom of immigrants to maintain their own cultural identity and behaviour.

      That said, I respect the commitment to individual liberty of rightists – and think that both sides have much to gain from working together, rather than opposing eachother in an endless pantomime of antagonism.

    • Perhaps you could enlighten us as to the ‘true’ differences in that case? It’s rather easier to criticise somebody else’s explanation than to provide your own.

      Would you also care to state your own opinions on left and right, as I have?

      As I mentioned to don, it’s not a simple question. I was attempting to give broad policy and belief based overviews. What do you disagree with specifically?

  1. I’d start with “Briefly ‘left’ tends to refer to political solutions that maxmize economic and social equality”, since when has the right had any problem with the attainment of economic and social equality? It would be more correct to say that those on the left tend to prefer policies with the stated aim of maximising economic equality irrespective of whether or not the attainment of the goal is the likely outcome of the policy or not.

    And it is your view that “right wing people tend to be happy to see the state spend more on military personnel, hardware and operations than leftists, inverting the general tendeency. Rightists tend to veer towards the ‘conservative’ end of the social spectrum – favouring restrictive social laws built on religious dogma (be it Christian, Islamic or other)” and an equally valid argument could be made that those on the left are also just as keen on imposing their views on social organisation on the rest of society just because I would agree with them doesn’t make them any less about restricting the behaviour of others.

    I’ve no preference for the state to spend more on the military than people to the left of me. My preference is that the military spending be no more than is necessary to achieve of the agreed goal of a society to ensure it’s security. And I would suggest that any objective person would see that there are those on the left and right who raise to a level of holy writ the writings and views of many people to the level of dogma. I don’t think that the fact that the originator of the text is a member of a religious institution or an academic one leads any greater credence either way.

    • To add, the right generally makes a distinction between equality of opportunity (which they often support, though on the extreme right this equality s not extended to immigrants) and equality of outcome. In terms of outcome the right tends to favour competition with often very unequal results.

      The major debate is really about the extent to which the state should enforce equality of outcome. Should you be able to pay for better healthcare than another person receives? Should you be able to buy a better education for your child? Those on the right tend (and I emphasise again, we’re talking about tendencies here) to say ‘yes’ to these questions. They argue that, having worked hard, as free individuals, they should be able to spend more fr better services. Those on the left tend to argue that health and education (also banking) shouldn’t be subject to a free Market logic. The left tend to argue for enforced outcome equality in those areas.

      • It might be more correct to say that the right would tend favour avoiding excessive inference in any process which is done to ensure an equality of outcome based on an individual’s membership some grouping rather than on the individual’s own endeavours. And you will tend to find that people on the right will tend to support objective measures of assessment rather that subjective ones which are actually more open to corruption and manipulation (something that usual favours the children of the establishment).

    • On the last point about academic texts versus religious dogma, you raise an interesting point.
      Certain writers and writings are certainly accorded a rather mythical status in left thinking – the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin spring to mind, and perhaps also the writings of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

      More concrete instances of semi-sacred texts can be found in totalitaian Communist systems – for example Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

      I was thinking about where the reasoning behind social policy preferences of the right, which do seem to often be grounded in religious texts. Perhaps though, this is more of a trait to be considered along your ‘authoritarian/liberterian’ axis?

  2. So your approach is to explain the right’s understanding of the left? Definitely authoritarianism, bureaucracy and an over reliance on state solutions are accusations that could all be levelled at the left.

    In terms of progressive/conservative, defence, immigration, etc. These items are not perfectly aligned on left-right, though they often ‘load’ well in factor analysis. Any one person can believe anything they wish, left and righ are only useful tools for understanding general patterns.

    • The Guardian had a nifty map a while ago showing Europe in a Left/Right using nice colours. It was very Fox News Fair and Balanced. I mean, using colours to differentiate? A bit too playschool. Anyway, they overlooked actual policies implemented. This site here is kind of alright on that front though I’m sure academics probably sniff at this –

      The Right have brought on more authoritarianism, bureaucracy, and an over reliance on state solutions than you could have imagined.

      Witness how civil liberties are suspended ad-hoc for a Queen visit no-one voted for or a presidential concert to kick start a faltering campaign. Add in the surveillance fetish

      On bureaucracy, the return of the means test and the huge middle management scrutiny have added hundred of wasted hours in paper work – witness the iron cage of self assessment teachers and edcuators have to go through.

      As for over reliance on state solutions, two words: bank bailout.

    • I tend to think that most people characterisations of either the left or the right tend to be as accurate as they are incomplete. The more complete they become the more inaccurate they are.

      • That can be a problem, Daniel. The main value of these concepts is heuristic – they are meant to reduce detail and complexity, not add to it.

  3. I actually think left and right are outdated terms that no longer do the task set for them, I think that between authoritarian and libertarian is actually a better cleavage for discussion in the society we now live in.

    • Interesting point – I’ve been thinking about this topic myself. Still, in terms of the basic tax versus spend decisions that structure politics, surely L-R is still the best proxy?

      There is some interesting work being done by Kriesi and colleagues that suggests that politics is now structured onto three seperable dimensions:
      Winners versus losers of golbalisation.

      They use the latter category to explain the rise of radical right parties across Europe in recent years.

      What i was saying in my blog post is that none of these cleavages discernibly seperate Ireland’s main parties. Our party system more closely resembles the African than the European archetype in this regard.

      I was wondering if poor political education and low civic engagement levels in both Ireland and Africa could explain some of this similarity?

    • And it just so happens that in the realm of authoritarian and libertarian it is the former that is not up to speed on the reality as they’re wanting to increase taxation and implement capital controls etc. while the latter is all pro-business, in with the “reality”, loosey-goosey, MNCs can do what they damn well please ergo standard neoliberal right-wing doctrine.

      The former being outdated. In this realm the only differences are on what issues exactly? It would seem your premise is weighted heavily in favour of the latter ie. the bog standard Rightist approach of following a corporate run society go to seed.

      • All of the theoretical literature going back to Aristotle stresses the merits of centrism – it is interesting as you’re hypothesis is that parties of the left and right occcupy ‘extreme’ positions on the authoritarian/liberterian dimension.
        I think the EU was meant to be a ‘winning’ position on this axis – liberal markets with political regulation of certain aspects –
        However, in the modern EU, both the free markets and the political regulators appear to be struggling to perform their social purpose.

        Free markets are miring individuals and nations in debt, to the benefit of a tiny group of individuals.

        Our political regulators are either cheerleaders for this process (right), or ‘big state’ thinkers (left). Furthermore, politicians as a group are not held in high esteem in the region – and the salaries and travel arrangements of EP members resemble the last days of the court of Louis XVI.

        I wonder what a ‘winning’ position on this axis might look like?

  4. I’m not sure the Irish Labour Party can be classed as ‘left’. It may have been socialism some time ago but I think the Irish Labour Party stopped being left or socialist long before even the UK Labour Party – small c Conservative at best but left? I don’t think so.

    Talking about African politics is a very dangerous thing but it can’t be discussed properly in exclusion from African society and culture and I don’t think the labels of right or left wing can be applied to Africa in any way and certainly not right wing in the sense that it has developed from Edmund Burke.

    It’s easy for African political discussion to blame Europeans for so much of what’s wrong there but we are too scared to ahve the discussion that Africa wasn’t exactly on the road to modernity when the first white man arrived and that it’s a bit of a cop out to blame it all on colonialism.

    The current famine in the Horn of Africa is not due to left/right politics but is due to major falws with African culture and society – the flaws that allow extreme Islam take hold and the flaw that people won’t make the link between their poverty and their family sizes, the patriarchal society and the massive overfarming of areas that result in leaving them as dustbowls.

    We in Ireland were made to confront major flaws in our society and culture because of the famine – our families were too big, we were too stupid to lessen our dependence on one crop etc etc but after the famine the society and culture of Irish people was vasted different and better – the price we paid though was the chip on our shoulder and of course our even deeper ingrained inclination to always try to blame someone else for what’s wrong be it the Normas, the English and now the EU/IMF.

    The article argues (as I understand it) that change must come from within African society and culture but what sort of catastrophy needs to happen to Africa for that society to start to reform itself – hasn’t Africa suffered more than any other continent and still it’s culture and society is as backward now as it was 500 years ago and colonisalism can’t be responsible for failings that started before there was ever colonialism?

    Should we all just walk away and let Africa fall in on itsself and in time let a sustainable Africa emerge or is it just a place where mother nature can’t be beaten and which will never support the sort of society we consider it worth aiming for but then again, we see the Chinese doing in a few years with infastructure etc what Africans have failed to do – which comes back to why?

    • I think that there are many parallels between African politics and Irish politics. I wrote my doctoral thesis on Africa’s party systems – which defy all kinds of basic social science predictions. One of the major themes in the literature is the absence of ideological political contestation across the continent.

      Instead, ‘politics of the belly’ predominates, with the ‘big man’ politician being a successful archetype. Ethnoregional identities are typically used, and political campaigns are about who can extract the most resources from the state for their region/clan/tribe.

      This predatory relationship with the state is often explained as a reaction to the colonial period. However, rather like Ireland, many African countries would do well to remember that they are now independent countries, and that state extraction is a zero sum game.

      Irish politicians and especially some independents are prone to identify themselves with certain projects or infrastructures that they have ‘delivered’ for an area. The apocryphal tales(detailed in the introduction of Jane Suiter’s excellent thesis on public expenditure and pork barrelling in Irish politics) paint a picture of ministers routinely slicing off 10-15% of their budget for their own constitutencies, with the tacit approval of their officials.

      As long as we keep endorsing such behaviour by voting for individuals who engage in it (and advertise their achievements in terms of what they have ‘delivered’for their constituency), we will deserve to live in a dysfunctional state. Whether higher levels of political education can change our attitudes about what politicians should do remains to be seen.

  5. The terms Left and Right are essentially meaningless.

    Why is discussed in my book “I Am My Rights”, under the chapter the The Three Axes of Politics.

    One may be conservative or radical, libertarian or authoritarian and communalist or individualist. For instance, “leftists” are often conservative, authoritarian and communalists, but imagine themselves to be radical and libertarian. Similarly, “rightists” or often radical, communalist and libertarian, but imagine themselves to be conservative and authoritarian.

    To complicate matters, while one may only hold one postion in relation to a specific issue, one may well hold a different position in relation to some other issue; thus one can be conservative in monetary matters, but radical in personal rights issues.

    Our many communalist institutions have ravaged Ireland, essentially by promoting emigration, authoritarian government and the avoidance of risk-taking, regarding entrepreneurs as a particularly dangerous and destabilising threat to an imagined common good.

  6. Regardless of what distinguishes ‘left’ from ‘right’, I have yet to come across a convincing argument as to why Ireland, or indeed any other country should organise their parties along such lines.

    Perhaps it would make life easier for academics and political scientists to compare countries internationally, but that seems to be about all!

    • It’s an interesting question, Ciaran. My response would be that spending versus taxation is such a major and basic political choice that it has to be adressed in deciding public policy.

      If the parties present clear stances on this issue, it would be more straightforward for voters to make an informed choice.

      • Thanks for your succinctness Matt, and I think it is interesting that you chose an economic axis on which to define the difference between left and right. But why not a social one? why are fiscal conservatives always assumed to be socially conservatives? Or a political one? I can see that there are clear historical reasons as to why that this is the situation, but those reasons are, in my estimation, illogical and limiting.

        There is hardly much unbiased evidence that would clearly demonstrate an empirical observation of actual superiority in terms of good governance of either left or right as currently understood over the other, and as such, it only stands to reason that superior government essentially rests on a variable and changing mix of all those policies in accordance with current context. From that perspective, the language of a left/right division seems to be unhelpful.

  7. There is a clear divide in Irish society but it’s not along left to right lines as the divide crosses between and among parties – it’s more about attitudes to transparency and accountability – the sort of Irish person who thinks pulling a stroke/being a cute hoor is great and the type of Irish person who despairs at such an attitude and just wishes people would be honest, even if they make mistakes to at least they know the mistake was made for the best of intentions.

    I think the nearest we came was the CJH/FitzGerald era but even then there were as many decent honest supporters of Fianna Fáil as there were crony cute hoors in Fine Gael.

    Is the Irish political divide between the me feiner/cute hoor type and the rest?

  8. Left and Right. That’s only appropriate when discussing the movement of vehicles – when custom and practice mandate the necessary separation of opposing flows – to avoid unnecessary collisions. Thought everyone knew that.

    Africal politics? Anyone speak sub-saharan? Their word for philosophy?

    Brian W

  9. Hello,

    I am two years late to respond to this post, but election method experts tend to think that the Irish exception is caused by the voting system that you Irish have.
    Among Western democracies, and even further away, there is a clear axis from the left to the right, with little overlap between party’s platforms. They have either list PR or First-past-the-post, which results in a strong party power (although the British like to think FPTP is personalist). What happens under PR-STV is that campaign and constituency work have to focus on the personal link between candidates and voters. It results in a strong intra-party and inter-party competition resulting in feudal possessions. The first part is good: a lot of people, at least a majority (MMC criterion) are going to like the result, as one of their first wishes surely came true. Moreover, large competition means true choice and attention paid by politicians, who tightly knit the country. The other part is feudalism: that link is so difficult to re-create, that it is easier to pass on the seat to a family member ; the practice can even be argued to the party for it is truely less risky.

    So in contrast to FPTP and List-PR, which are top-down methods, PR-STV is a bottom-up method. The parties cannot first decide how different they are. They have to convince voters one by one, or let’s say family by family or by neighbourhood, and that does not imply radical measures, but instead just the same principles put in better practise. So I think this bottom-up is conservative in nature, while top-down methods emphasize difference, and different principles often means picking a harmony that is democratic and leaning to the left.

    The funny thing is that, among the 3 European countries who do not have a right to abort a normal pregnancy, you have formerly Atheist-ruled Poland, and the two formerly British-ruled islands which opted for PR-STV, Ireland and Malta. Let’s not draw too early conclusions as Spain wishes to come back and in Portugal it was shoved after 2 referenda. But I have read that the Maltese Labour Party does not even try to question the Maltese Nationalist Party’s stance on abortions: no legal exception at all. This is exactly like FF/FG’s ying-yang politics. I am not saying conservative and liberal countries are the product of a voting system, for religious harmony matters more here; but in the end they seem to make the life of policies easier or harder.

    • Thanks, some interesting comments with which I’d largely agree. There are very few examples of PR-STV in action (Ireland and Malta essentially) so hard to say anything with the certainty of a lot of hard data. Both FPTP and List-PR (with rare exceptions like panachage) are similar in that they force voters to make a mutually exclusive choice (parties either get an elector’s vote or not; there’s no middle ground). This black/white hardness surely incentivizes parties to differentiate themselves from each other (in terms of policy and in other ways). PR-STV is on the other hand more like a hundred shades of grey. A party candidate may still need/hope for lower transfers from voters of a party supposedly of a very different hue. This has to disincentivize differentiation (having a broad inoffensive appeal, sucking up transfers from across the spectrum, being a better strategy than taking a harder policy stance and targetting a limited niche subset/niche of the electorate). Ireland’s quite limited PR-STV proportionality (average constituency size of just 4) must exacerbate this (even such a subset would have to be rather big, circa 20%, implying little room for small parties, certainly not if they’ve a hard aspect, though there can be some room for warm and fuzzy transfer-friendly ones, e.g. the Green party did OK for a while until down-the-line transfers dried up).

      There are definitely some big differences between Irish PR-STV and List-PR. The Finnish electoral system seems to be the cleanest comparison (being very open like PR-STV; voters, not the party, control the order in which those on the list are elected). I suppose it’s arguable whether the differences are due to greater proportionality or the “harder” nature of their system. There are roughly double the number of parties (4 big and 4 smaller ones currently). Not all of their parties have been around since independence (all our significant parties: Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, even Sinn Féin in its own way, have been with us since the foundation of our state). That said, almost all of the Finnish parties have pedigrees (via splits etc.) stretching back to original independence parties (maybe that indicates starting a party from scratch is never easy anywhere). But party dynamics have certainly been less moribund than here. And the recent big success of the True Finns party does show “harder” parties can gain a foothold in their system. Maybe that’s a mark against the system. But I’d also be suspicious of simplistic portrayals of them as being “far-right”. They seem a strange mix of populism, social conservatism, being somewhat left-wing in terms of welfare etc. and with a certain anti-immigration element. “Far-right” doesn’t seem particularly accurate. Their arrival certainly did annoy some of the older parties by disrupting the usual party formation patterns and maybe shook them out of their complacency. “Harder” isn’t always a bad thing either, not being middle of the road could mean a radical reforming party also. Overall, my suspicion is that both the “softness” and lack of proportionality in Irish PR-STV would choke the life out of any such party before it could even get off the ground in the first place.

      Celebrity politicians do seem a more prominent feature of the Finnish system, i.e. an Olympic gold medal winners gets catapulted onto a party list. Maybe that’s their equivalent of the dynastic politician here.

      Greater proportionality within PR-STV might be worth trying here (say an average of at least 7 seats per constituency or above, one would have to wonder whether some marginal increase to 5 would be worth the effort). That would bring its own logistical problems (Northern Ireland manages with 6 seaters so they surely can’t be all that insurmountable). Large constituencies spanning several sparsely populated rural counties could be rather unattractive places to be a TD (supposing the constitutional lower size for constituencies was bumped up to something much higher than 3). Though there’s more than one way of striking a compromise between proportionality and constituency logistics.

      John Coakley’s (mostly) fixed boundary scheme has its attractions ( ). In this setup constituencies would follow county boundaries as much as possible. The Sainte-Laguë/Webster system is first used to proportionately allocate seats to counties according to population. There’s a lower bound of 3 and an upper bound 9 seats in a constituency. If a county’s seat allocation falls within this range then one immediately has a valid constituency. If its allocation is below 3 it is merged with a neighbouring country to ensure the constituency’s allocation is at least 3. Only if a county’s allocation exceeds 9 is it then subdivided into smaller constituencies. Coakley shows that this system would make little difference in terms of malapportionment. Most boundaries would have been remarkably stable for decades. And they’d be far less need for a boundary commission. And, importantly, average constituency size would be close enough to 6 (about 5.7 in recent times), though one could bump up both lower and upper bounds to increase this further. Constituency logistics would be easier in small sparsely populated rural counties (such areas would likely still end up being part of relatively small constituencies).

  10. Reblogged this on Windy Arbour Woman and commented:
    In the Irish party system, scholars have been trying to pick apart the policy stances of parties for some years now – with varying degrees of success and insight. Most analyses have concluded that the parties in Ireland offer a far less coherent, integrated ideological choice to voters than parties elsewhere in Europe – and many conclude that FF and FG are practically impossible to seperate in terms of political ideology.

    A sentiment analysis I performed with Dr Laura Sudulich of Irish party candidates in the 2007 election looked at how they felt about the terms ‘ Right’ and ‘ Left’. It revealed that FF and FG have no sentiment either way (overall) while Labour and SF members tend to have significantly positive sentiments towards the ‘ Left’ and negative sentiments towards the ‘ Right’ .

    Labour’s focus on its leader during the campaign, and FF and FG’s ‘party of government’ approach to political ideology meant that only a few independents and PBP members were focusing on matters of political ideology. Thus the election took place in an ideological vacuum, just as ideological decisions to do with taxation and public spending had to be made. The result was a rather opaque fudge – the implementation of existing policy with cosmetic changes, by new management personnel.

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