The Political Colour Wheel

It’s becoming almost cliché to say that the traditional left-right political scale is out of date, or that it doesn’t reflect reality, or that people don’t understand it. Attempts have been made to produce more sophisticated models, such as the ever-popular compass which takes the existing left-right economic axis and adds a vertical one for authoritarian-libertarian. Then you have the horseshoe, separating moderates from extremists.

Today I make my debut on the market with my invention (unless someone else has already done this, but I couldn’t find any examples online) based on the colour wheel (the subtractive one used in art rather than the additive one used in physics, since I know of few political parties that use cyan or magenta livery). The three primary colours represent the three largest political groupings in Western democracies – liberalism in yellow, conservatism in blue and socialism in red. Of course, there are other political subdivisions which can be perceived as hybrids between any two of the big three, and these are represented by the secondary colours.

Of course, despite my best efforts, this one still has major problems:

For one thing I’m not entirely sure that “Populism” is the right name for the purple section. Purple is, in this country, the colour of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is often described as populist and which drew support from disaffected traditionalist members of the Labour and Conservative parties who did not approve of the economically and socially liberal turns those parties had taken over recent decades. Much of present discourse identifies Liberalism and Populism as the main adversarial forces in worldwide political trends, which corresponds to yellow and purple being opposite on the wheel. Of course, populism can also be described as a style rather than a substance, and one which can be applied to any existing ideology, so some may dispute its appearance here as a discrete category.

Social Democracy is here coloured orange – the hybrid of yellow liberalism and red socialism. Older readers will remember that in the 1980s the Social Democrats were a group that split away from Labour (red) and eventually merged with the Liberals (yellow) to become the party now called the Liberal Democrats (rather than the name referring to the ideology of Liberal Democracy as you might otherwise assume). They have demonstrated some confusion over the years as to what their colour should be, with orange and yellow both in use, sometimes simultaneously. To make matters worse the “Orange Bookers” among the Liberal Democrats are, generally speaking, those on the right of the party who supported to coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, rather than the left who would have preferred to ally with Labour.

Finally the green section for Libertarianism is starkly contrasted with observed practice, where most Libertarians use the same yellow livery that Liberals do. As the names imply, Liberals and Libertarians have similar roots, but in the present day would regard themselves as distinct sects. Libertarians favour maximising personal freedom and minimising the power and influence of government in all aspects of life, often crudely characterised as left-wing on social issues but right-wing on economic ones. This placement on the wheel gives it green by default, but of course in real life that colour is strongly associated with environmentalism, and most parties calling themselves “The Green Party” aim to achieve their anti-pollution goals through highly socialistic economic means (often earning them the epithet “Watermelon“). This makes them the polar opposite of Libertarians on the wheel, and indeed Libertarians in real life tend to oppose most Green policies.

If I had access to a more sophisticated graphics package I might have done the colours on a gradient so that the middle was white and the outer rim black, or vice versa. Of course, those colours are not political opposites either – white normally representing pacifism and black the orthogonal anarchism (or fascism, also seen in brown, which tends to preclude both of these).

Back to the drawing board, I suppose.


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