by Emmanuel Siaw
Although there is a popular drive towards a much-touted ‘pragmatic’ understanding of global events, an ideological theory of international relations has become more important due to the complexity of these events. This means the creation of new methodologies and conceptions to demonstrate that the adaptability and everydayness of ideologies has become even more essential in a dynamic world. One way of doing this is to treat ideologies as living variables that can interact with contexts to shape policies and the substance of the ideas themselves. What this also means is to further enhance the bid to see ideologies as phenomena that are “necessary, normal, and [which] facilitate (and reflect) political action”. In this piece, I argue that a contextualisation of socialism and classical liberalism into the Nkrumah and Danquah-Busia-Dombo ideological debate, respectively, has been the ideological binary pervading Ghanaian politics since independence despite the changes in government and personnel.
Making a case for thought and action through ideological contextualisation
Many African governments have not hidden their love for or association with existing macro-ideologies like liberalism, Marxism, and socialism. Yet, for most of the journey of ideological studies, since its beginnings with Antoine Destutt de Tracy, Africa has been overlooked due to the preoccupation with the assumption that African states have little room for policy manoeuvre due to foreign influence—a position captured in the extraversion and dependency arguments. This has been consolidated by the view that the rhetoric and actions of policymakers do not conform to dominant ideologies, or external influences appear to override the ideological objectives of African governments. In this article, I argue against this position, emphasising that dependency is not akin to a lack of ideology; and demonstrate that ideology is indeed relevant in Ghanaian politics as it will be in the rest of Africa. What I suggest is that although the ideas of Ghanaian governments may not be pure or conform fully to the core tenets of existing macro-ideologies, paying attention to contextually relevant ideological variables and how they interact with macro-ideologies is a viable way of understanding the dynamic role of ideas in Ghanaian and African politics, in general.
Several studies have shown that events and politics in Africa are as dynamic and interesting as politics elsewhere. Hence, I agree with Thompson that “if the study of ideology helps political scientists to understand the politics of the West, then the same should also be true for post-colonial Africa. Any book seeking to explain the politics of this continent, therefore, needs to identify and explore the dominant ideologies that are at work in this environment”.
I first admit that the African context is unconventional and atypical. Unconventional because ideologies are embedded in context and the existing macro-ideologies evolved from contexts and situations outside the African conditions. Interestingly, in a lecture by Vijay Prashad (Indian historian) he demonstrated how India and China have integrated Euro-American ideologies, similar to the point I am making here. Second, I acknowledge the tight spaces in terms of structural institutional constraints, history and the level of dependency of African states that makes it quite unique from the politics of the global North. Therefore, to embark on this analysis of ideology in an unconventional setting requires certain theoretical adjustments to reflect the dynamic conditions of the politics in African states.
My approach to these adjustments is what I call an Ideological Contextualisation Framework (ICF). Ideological contextualisation is a coined concept that connotes that ideologies and ideological analyses should consider the immediate environment and historical experience of the cases being explored. It is inspired mainly by the works of Michael Freeden and Jonathan Leader Maynard on ideology. In the process of policy-making, large abstract political ideas must be translated into actual decisions, policy documents, plans, and programmes of action. To do that, ideological concepts need to be made to ‘fit’ a particular place, time, and cultural context. Part of this bid to make ideologies ‘practicable’ in different contexts flows from the field of comparative social and political thought to a more recent conception of comparative ideological morphology by Marius Ostrowski. For instance, James McCain’s experimental analyses of scientific socialism in Ghana, published in 1975 and 1979, reveal that it does not conform to the assumptions of orthodox ‘African Socialism’. Instead, what a leader like Nkrumah meant with this ideology was to exploit its political mobilisation feature within the Ghanaian cultural context. This is because it was a response to the needs at the time. Emphasis is, therefore, placed on the “native point of view” and “whatever that happens to be at any point in time”.
The essence of contextualising ideas is to avoid the analytical shortfalls dominant in the African context occasioned by analyses that focus on either the overbearing role of ideology, which leads to policy failures, or the non-existence of ideologies at all. These analyses fail to capture the dynamics of ideology and what falls in-between these extremes.
While Ghana is unique, its conditions resemble what happens in many African countries. This year, Ghana’s celebrates 65 years of gaining its independence and of being the first sub-Saharan African country to do so in 1957. Since independence, there have been highs and lows on the development spectrum. Ghana has experienced military, authoritarian, civilian, and democratic governments over the last six and half decades. At independence, Ghana was among the most economically promising countries in the world, but the 2020 Human Development Index Report ranked Ghana 138th in the world. Ghana has not experienced a full-blown civil war or war with other countries but has had pockets of internal conflicts. Over the years, Ghana’s politics and policy-making have also been a dynamic mix of successes and challenges that characterises many African states.
Just like many exegeses of politics in other African states, it is common to hear commentary in Ghana about how genuine commitment to ideology has ended or how it has lost its traction for understanding Ghanaian politics, especially after the Nkrumah era. In one of such instances Ransford Gyampo, in his study on Ghanaian youth, emphasises that ideology does very little in orienting party members, especially the youth. He further insisted on ideological purity as a conduit for organising the youth members. However, scholars like George Bob-Milliar have argued that political parties supply ideologies for their better-informed members who vote based on ideological differences. For Franklin Obeng-Odoom and Lindsay Whitefield, such ideological differences rarely exist as neoliberalism has become a supra-ideology that pervades the different ‘isms’ to which parties subscribe. Although the challenge here lies in the mischaracterisation of ideology, the jury is still out on ideology and its role in Ghanaian politics, just like many other African countries. A recalibrated look at the history of Ghanaian politics from the perspective of contextualisation presents a situation where ideology stretches far beyond magniloquence.
Ideology and the history of Ghanaian politics
What I do here is to briefly explore Ghana’s political history and demonstrate that ideology is and has indeed been relevant to Ghanaian politics. This ideology is typified by the ideological dichotomy between Nkrumah and the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group, which has lasted from the late 1940s to date. As I will explain below, the late pre and early post-independence period was characterised by two groups: one led by Dr Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) that eventually won independence for Ghana in 1957. On the other hand was the opposition United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC)—the party that brought Nkrumah to Ghana from London—led by Joseph Boakye Danquah, and later by Kofi Abrefa Busia and Simon Diedong Dombo. These two groups agreed and disagreed on many policy issues based on their ideologies and such duality has characterised Ghana’s political milieu since independence. I limit this discussion to the period from independence to the end of Kufuor’s administration in January 2009.
The beginnings of the politics of ideas in Ghana was more profound during the late colonial period after the split between Kwame Nkrumah and other members of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) that manifested in the formation of different political parties till Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966. After this split in 1949, Nkrumah formed the Conventions Peoples Party (CPP) and went ahead to win independence for Ghana in 1957. The UGCC, on the other hand, transformed into different parties which contested and lost to Nkrumah in all the pre and early post-independence elections (1951, 1954, 1956 and 1960). On the internalised level, the two groups were split by their commitment to socialism, African socialism, scientific socialism, or what later came to be known as Nkrumaism for the CPP and classical liberalism or what came to be known as property-owning democracy for the UGCC. One thing to note here is that the changes in vocabularies, as mentioned above and a common feature across subsequent administrations, is a practical manifestation of the constant search not just for a vocabulary that fits the Ghanaian context but ideas that reflects the aspirations of governments.
These party formation dynamics have even deeper ideological outcomes for the Nkrumah and Danquah-Busia-Dombo group on some key issues. For instance, beyond their internalised socialist ideas, the CPP had what they called ‘African personality’ while the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group preferred the ‘Ghanaian personality’ beyond classical liberalism. What the CPP or Nkrumah administration meant by ‘African personality’ was for “recognising that Africa now has its personality, its own history and its own culture and that it has made valuable contributions to world history and world culture”. According to Nkrumah, ‘African personality’ was to demonstrate to the world Africa’s “optimism, cheerfulness and an easy, confident outlook in tackling the problems of life, but also disdain for vanities and a sense of social obligation which will make our society an object of admiration and of example”.
The Danquah-Busia-Dombo group introduced the idea of Ghanaian personality counter the CPP’s African personality. By Ghanaian personality, they meant “giving more meaning to this freedom [republican status] to express our innermost selves”. This meaning was contextual as it was the period after two harsh laws were passed by the Nkrumah government, CPP. The Avoidance of Discrimination Act (ADA) of 1957 banned all regionally based political parties and forced all opposition parties to merge into the United Party (UP). The Preventive Detention Act (PDA) of 1958 allowed for people to be detained without trial for five years if their actions were deemed a threat to national security. For the opposition, the best way to project an African personality, in the spirit of freedom (decolonisation) and unity (African integration), was first to project a Ghanaian personality that prioritised the same rights.
The two ideas—African and Ghanaian personality—represented their contextual aspirations and significantly impacted their policy preferences and approach. They manifested in policy differences in issues such as how and when independence should be granted, how much Ghana should be involved in the politics of other African states, perceptions about colonial metropoles and future relations with them, how to approach regional integration, economic diplomacy and foreign policy, in general. It also influenced the domestic development goals and approaches.
To give some few policy examples, the CPP fundamentally wanted independence ‘now’ regardless of the consequences while the Danquah-Busia-Dombo wanted independence within the shortest possible period through what they perceived as legal and legitimate means. Parsimoniously on regional integration, while the CPP preferred rapid regional political unity on the continent with all African states, the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group preferred functional regional integration starting with economic and from within the West African subregion. In terms of domestic developmental approach, the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group always preferred alternative routes to Nkrumah’s state-led and managed Import Substitution Industrialisation and common or state ownership.
Throughout this period, the interpretation of ideological components such as economic independence was a key part of the ideologies of the two groups. Even though they both considered it a crucial concept, their interpretations varied, leading to some significant differences in policies and approaches. However, the growing power of contextual structures such as the Bretton Woods has occasioned similar ideas and policy path-dependence over time since the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. A cursory look at the IMF and World Bank interventions in Ghana since 1967 shows a common neoliberal trend in approaches to resuscitate Ghana’s economy. This has later accounted for some sort of ideological convergence that some scholars have identified in their study of Ghana’s Fourth Republic (since January 1993). For a developing country that is yet to address some of its basic needs, like infrastructure and education, there are points of convergence in terms of common components that address basic developmental needs. They translate into policies that can, in most cases, appear similar because they have similar inspirations. One of such examples is how even the different ideological factions within the CPP and other political parties acknowledged the need for independence and formed some sort of ideological convergence on that regardless of their fundamental ideological differences. This late colonial and early post-independence period of ideological dichotomy and similarities set the stage for subsequent administrations amidst variations. I explain these dynamics below.
The National Liberation Council (NLC) that overthrew the CPP government pursued policies that showed ideological consistency with the anti-Nkrumah group, Danquah-Busia-Dombo. This was buttressed by the fact that a one-time opposition leader during the CPP administration, who later went into exile, Prof. Kofi Abrefa Busia, became a leading member of the administration and headed the Centre for Civic Education—an organisation responsible for public education on civil liberties and democracy. The administration shifted Ghana’s domestic and foreign policy based on that ideological dichotomy flowing from the Nkrumah and the Danquah-Busia-Dombo debate. More instructively, they shifted to framing liberal-oriented development programmes and building stronger relations with the West—something the Nkrumah-led CPP administration was wary of.
When the Progress Party (PP) took power in 1969, it continued what the NLC began after the overthrow of Nkrumah’s CPP in 1966. Led by Prof. Busia himself, the PP government pursued policies that were ideologically at variance with Nkrumah but in line with ideas espoused by the UGCC before independence. For instance, the belief in non-violent decolonisation occasioned their policy to discontinue Ghana’s financial support for the African nationalists in South Africa, preferring dialogue with apartheid South Africa instead. In 1969, the Aliens Compliance Order promulgated by the government to return undocumented migrants affected many Africans and had implications for Ghana-Nigeria relations under subsequent governments had to address. For instance, in 1983 the Shehu Shagari government of Nigeria’s decision to deport undocumented migrants (half of the about three million deportees were Ghanaians) was popularly interpreted as a retaliation for Ghana’s 1969 deportation policy.
Although economic reasons were cited for Nigeria’s decision, it is obvious that what Ghana, or the PP government did in 1969 made the Nigerian government and people more relentless to follow through with their decision in what came to be known popularly as ‘Ghana must go’—a name also associated with the type of bag the migrants travelled with. Based on Nkrumah’s relations with African settlers, the Aliens Compliance Order is a policy the CPP government would not have embarked on or fully encouraged. Under the CPP government, Ghana was touted as the Mecca for African nationalists due to the government’s warm reception.
Another point of difference between the two groups was the disagreement of large-scale industries of Nkrumah and the role of the state their building and operation. Therefore, a lot of Nkrumah’s industries were either discontinued or privatised. Some of these industries include the Glass Manufacturing Company at Aboso, in the Western Region, GIHOC Fibre Products Company and the Tema Food Complex Corporation, both in the Greater Accra Region.
The PP government was overthrown by an Nkrumaist oriented junta, the National Redemption Council (NRC), who tried to restore Ghana to its putative glorious years under Nkrumah by resuming Ghana’s contribution to African nationalist movement against Apartheid South Africa, supporting African states in several endeavours, resuming Nkrumah’s industrialisation agenda, pursing a domestication policy that aims to at food self-sufficiency, and repudiating foreign (especially Western) debts. These policies were grounded in the contextual ideological components of economic independence and Pan-Africanism, whose interpretations were closer to the CPP administration’s intentions.
This Acheampong-led NRC government, and later Supreme Military Council (SMC I) administration, was overthrown by an Edward Akuffo-led Supreme Military Council (SMC II) who, though they orchestrated a palace coup to overthrow Acheampong, did not deviate much from the previous administration’s pro-Nkrumah policies. Instead, they were more focused on restoring Ghana to multiparty elections. However, this administration lasted for only eleven months and was overthrown by a group of young militants, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), who took power until after the 1979 elections and handed over to a democratically-elected People’s National Party (PNP).
The PNP government, led by Dr Hilla Limann, was one of the latter attempts to bring introduce a full-fledged Nkrumaist party after the CPP was banned before the 1969 elections. Although to the disappointment of many Nkrumaists, this government did not pursue politics based on the ideas of Nkrumah’s CPP, its policies were somewhat closer to what the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group preferred—for instance, in attempting to the IMF for bailouts and broader pro-West economic relations. This was one of the reasons why the Rawlings-led military junta, now the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), returned to overthrow the PNP government in 1981. Although this group (PNDC) was generally touted as radical and anti-West, their internal ideological dynamics resembled the broader ideological dichotomy between the Nkrumah and Danquah-Busia-Dombo groups. Within the PNDC government was a group that aligned itself to Nkrumah’s CPP ideology and, for instance, were wary of the West, former colonial metropoles and programmes like the Structural Adjustment Policies. On the other side were those who were touted as less radical and ideologically closer to the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group, who were rather willing to engage the World Bank and IMF through the Structural Adjustment Programmes.
This internal dialectic shaped the government’s domestic and foreign policy. However, from 1984, there seemed to be a broader consensus within the party as one whose ideology and politics was shaped by contextual structures, which made it difficult for the government to pursue policies just based on its internalised ideology. The PNDC later metamorphosed into the National Democratic Congress (NDC) when the government, under several domestic and international pressures, adopted multiparty democracy and elections from December 1992. After leading Ghana democratically for eight years, the NDC lost the December 2000 elections to the New Patriotic Party (NPP).
Coming directly from the Danquah-Busia-Dombo tradition, the NPP government led by John Agyekum Kufuor pursued policies mainly in line with what the forerunners have proffered, especially against Nkrumah’s policies. For instance, they created an enabling environment for private property ownership and entrepreneurial development, including encouraging foreign investors, a strengthened relationship with the West, and for a greater emphasis on its economic and democratic values. To further the idea of Ghanaian personality that was based on respect for humanity and human rights, the government opened itself up for review by other African states through the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and took steps to pursue regional integration from a functional economic perspective.
From the discussions above, a few things must be clarified regarding Ghana’s ideological history. Socialism (for Nkrumaists) and classical liberalism (for the Danquah-Busia-Dombo group) have been the two dominant internalised macro-ideological leanings in Ghana, since independence. However, in an ever-changing, developing, and dynamic context like Ghana and the rest of Africa, these ideologies cannot function in their pure form, in their influence on policies. Therefore, in Ghana and Africa, I argue that context matters.
Looking at the Ghanaian case teaches us three main things analytically about the African continent. First is the dominance macro-ideologies or the fact that we cannot ignore ideologies like liberalism, Marxism and socialism as they are usually primary to the ideological structure of many governments. Second is the power and relevance of contextual structures, like regional organisations and the Bretton Woods, to produce ideas that African governments take on or adjust to because of their putatively weaker position. Constructivists have long emphasised the learning function of states. Third is existence of historical conditions that have evolved into ideas over time. Chatterjee Miller’s study of India and China’s foreign policy reveals a longue durée ‘post-imperial ideology’, comprising a sense of victimisation and driven by the goal of recognition and empathy as a victim of the international system to maximise territorial sovereignty and status. In the Ghanaian case, some of these conditions include economic independence, Africa consciousness and good neighbourliness. While these conditions pervade across different governments, the interpretations and approaches vary. Across the continent, these conditions of ideological value may vary, but they are very relevant to any analysis of ideology. This affords us the laxity to focus on ideological components, treating the macro-ideologies as part of the components.
One of the reasons why ideology has been overlooked is the assumption that African states are weaker and have very little policy options because a lot of their policies are dictated by foreign powers. However, looking at ideology in itself is a bid to explore existing spaces, shed more light on those that have so far been neglected, and begin analyses of African politics from a perspective that acknowledges a certain contextual relevance and policy constraints. To do this, we should see ideologies as living variables that can interact with contexts to shape policies and the substance of the ideas themselves.
The place of ideology in global politics has been evolving in methodologies and vocabularies. This article is borne out of the bid to take Africa more seriously in that conversation by paying more attention to the contextualisation of ideas. This is not to say that ideologies explain everything, but it is to highlight the relationship between the interpretive value of ideology and contexts, and to emphasise that such relationships have a significant effect on African politics. The Ghanaian ideological context has been dominated by different shades of the Nkrumah and the Danquah-Busia-Dombo ideological dichotomy, characterised by an interaction between big-isms, contextual components and structures. These varieties of Ghanaian nationalism is bound to manifest differently in other African cases, but its conceptual proposition of interaction between context and ideas is very relevant. It demonstrates an understanding of African politics from within. Therefore, while this application gives us an indication and confidence to probe more into ideologies and policy-making in other African states, it also responds to the agency question which is fundamental to domestic and foreign policies.
 Freeden, M. (2006). Ideology and Political Theory. Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(1), p. 19.
 Bayart, J. F. (2000). Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion. African Affairs, 99, 217–267; Robertson, J., & East, M. A. (Eds.). (2005). Diplomacy and Developing Nations: Post-Cold War Foreign-Policy Structures and Processes. Routledge Taylor & Francis.
 Brown, W., & Harman, S. (Eds.). (2013). African Agency in International Politics. Routledge Taylor & Francis.
 Thompson, A. (2016). An Introduction to African Politics. In Routledge Handbook of African Politics (4th Edition). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, p. 32.
 Vijay Prashad (2021) What's the Left to Do in a World on Fire? | China and the Left. Public Lecture Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd8w3ONjv6Y&t=453s Accessed 13th March 2022
 Ostrowski, M. S. (2022). Ideology Studies and Comparative Political Thought. Journal of Political Ideologies, 27(1), 1–10.
 McCain, J. (1975). Ideology in Africa: Some Perceptual Types. African Studies Review, 18(1), 61–87; McCain, J. (1979). Perceptions of Socialism in Post-Socialist Ghana: An Experimental Analysis. African Studies Review, 22(3), p. 45.
 Ibid, p. 46
 Gyampo, R. E. Van. (2012). The Youth and Political Ideology in Ghanaian Politics: The Case of the Fourth Republic. Africa Development, XXXVII(2), 137–165.
 Bob-Milliar, G. M. (2012). Political Party Activism in Ghana: Factors Influencing the Decision of the Politically Active to Join a Political Party. Democratization, 19(4), 668–689.
 Whitfield, L. (2009). “Change for a Better Ghana”: Party Competition, Institutionalisation and Alternation in Ghana’s 2008 Elections. African Affairs, 108(433), 621–641; Obeng-Odoom, F. (2013). The Nature of Ideology in Ghana’s 2012 Elections. Journal of African Elections, 12(2), 75–95
 Frempong, A. K. D. (2017). Elections in Ghana (1951-2016). In Ghana Elections Series (2nd Edition). Digibooks.
 Potekhin, I. (1968). Pan-Africanism and the struggle of the Two Ideologies. Communist, p. 39.
 Kwame Nkrumah: Official Report of Ghana’s Parliament of 4th July, 1960, col. 19
 S. D. Dombo: Official Report of Ghana’s Parliament of 30th June 1960, col. 250
 Aluko, O. (1985). The Expulsion of Illegal Aliens from Nigeria: A Study in Nigeria’s Decision-Making. African Affairs, 84(337), 539–560.
 Graphic Showbiz (21st May, 2020) Ghana Must Go: The ugly history of Africa’s most famous bag. Retrieved from https://www.graphic.com.gh/entertainment/features/ghana-must-go-the-ugly-history-of-africa-s-most-famous-bag.html#&ts=undefined Accessed 13th March 2022
 Although in 1954, when Nkrumah was the Prime Minister and three years before Ghana’s independence, some Nigerians were deported; but not on the scale, in terms of number and government’s involvement, of what happened in 1969. After independence, Nkrumah’s support for African immigrants and other African states seems to have overshadowed the 1954 deportation of Nigerians.
 Ghana News Agency (28th September 2020) Ghana: 'Revive Nkrumah's Industries'. Retrieved from https://allafrica.com/stories/202009280728.html Accessed 13th March 2022
 Miller, C. M. (2013). Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China. Stanford University Press.
by Alain Noël and Jean-Philippe Thérien
In recent years, several analysts have contended that the old cleavage between left and right has faded gradually, to become less central politically than it once was. The end of communism, the unchallenged victory of market capitalism, and the rise of neoliberalism narrowed the distance between parties of the left and of the right, and reduced the range of options available in political debates. Yet, although the left-right distinction may have become blunter as a cognitive instrument for politicians and voters, numerous studies show that it has not been replaced. In fact, no ideological cleavage is more encompassing and ubiquitous than the opposition between the left and the right.
When asked, most people across the world are able to locate themselves on a left-right scale, which basically divides those who support or oppose social change in the direction of greater equality. Ideological self-positioning also tends to be in line with the values and policy preferences associated with one of the two sides. The strength of this left-right schema, however, varies significantly among countries. In some cases, left-right positions correlate strongly with expected attitudes about equality, the state, the market, or social diversity; in others, they do not. We know little about the factors that make the left-right opposition more or less effective in structuring national debates. At best, existing studies suggest that left-right ideology is a more powerful constraint in Western democracies than elsewhere. To assess this question, we have taken the measure of cross-national variations in left-right ideology in 83 societies, and linked them to various factors, including economic development, secularisation, and the age of democracy.
Instead of focusing on individual determinants of ideology such as social class, gender or education, as scholars generally do, our analysis looks at country-level survey evidence and evaluates how, in each country, political debates are framed, or not framed, in left-right terms. The idea, along the lines suggested by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, is to take the mass attitudes measured by large-N comparative survey projects as “stable attributes of given societies,” and as indicative of a country’s elites’ success in structuring politics along left-right dimensions. More specifically, we consider answers to twelve survey questions that capture the standard dimensions of the left-right political distinction. All answers were collected between 2008 and 2014 through the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS). The twelve questions include, for each society, one on individual left-right self-positioning, and eleven related to issues that have historically divided the two sides. The varying degree of ideological consistency in citizens’ responses then makes it possible to assess the architecture of a country's political debates and make cross-national comparisons.
This approach to the workings of left-right ideology has two advantages. First, it moves the discussion of ideology beyond Western countries, and makes it possible to draw an extensive map of national ideological patterns. Second, and more importantly, because we use aggregate survey evidence, we can assess national-level causal mechanisms, and weigh, in particular, the respective influence of economic, social, and political factors on the constitution of the left-right cleavage.
Our results indicate that the left-right opposition is unevenly effective in structuring national politics. Individual answers to questions about equality, personal responsibility, homosexuality, the army, churches, or major companies correlate with left-right self-positioning in more than half of the countries considered. But answers to questions about abortion, government ownership of industry, competition, trade unions, or environmental groups correlate with ideological self-positioning in only a third of the cases. In line with the expectations of Inglehart and Welzel, we also find that economic development, secularisation, and the age of democracy are the best predictors of a structured left-right debate.
Theorising left and right
The construction of ideological identities is both a top-down and a bottom-up process, whereby people adopt political orientations defined by elites and institutions in line with their own personal predispositions. Psychologists have naturally paid more attention to the bottom-up, personal determinants of ideology, while political scientists have been more interested in the top-down, collective process. As a top-down process, the building of the left-right divide hinges on a country’s elites’ and institutions’ capacity to propose to voters what Paul Sniderman and John Bullock call a “menu of choices.” For these authors, political institutions—most notably parties—give consistency to the views of ordinary citizens, by providing coherent menus from which they can choose. As left-right self-positioning is strongly correlated with partisanship, we can hypothesise that a long-established, institutionalised party system contributes to structure ideological debates along left-right lines, compared to the more volatile politics of countries with fragile democracies.
To evaluate if the “menu of choices” proposed by a country’s elites and parties and adopted by voters is organised along left and right lanes, we test whether divisions in a country’s public opinion appear consistent with individual left-right self-positioning. People on the left are likely to be more favourable to equality, state intervention, public ownership, and trade unions, and people on the right better disposed toward markets, individual incentives, competition, and major companies. The left should also be more open toward homosexuality and abortion and more supportive of environmental organisations, and the right more at ease with churches and the armed forces. In countries where the menu of choices is strongly structured by the left-right opposition, there should be significant relationships between individual left-right self-positioning and the expected attitudes on these questions; in countries with a less powerful left-right schema, these relationships should be weaker.
Moreover, one should expect a connection between the structure of left-right discourse and the human development sequence identified by Inglehart and Welzel. Economic development, secularisation, and democratisation broaden the possibility, the willingness, and the rights of people to consider social alternatives. Economic development fosters the material capacity of a people to make choices, secularisation expands the moral frontiers of available choices, and democratic consolidation allows political parties and groups to define over time a menu of choices ordered around the usual left-right patterns. Left-right patterns should thus be associated with these three dimensions of human development.
83 societies have a complete set of WVS/EVS answers for the questions we select. The core question of interest concerns left-right self-positioning, and it is addressed by asking respondents to locate themselves on a 1 to 10 scale going from left to right. Although the rate of response varies significantly across countries, overall, about three-quarter of respondents proved able to locate themselves on a left-right scale, allowing for valid inferences about ideology.
To verify whether this left-right positioning corresponds to consistent ideological stances, we correlate left-right positioning to responses on substantive political issues. Some of our eleven ideological questions refer to the core socio-economic components of the left-right cleavage (attitudes about equality, private or public ownership, the role of government, or competition), others concern cultural or social values (attitudes about homosexuality and abortion), and others tap respondents’ views about various organisations (churches, the armed forces, labor unions, major companies, and environmental organisations). We expect people on the left to be more favourable to equal incomes, public ownership of business or industry, and the government’s responsibility “to ensure that everyone is provided for,” and less likely to consider that “competition is good.” Respondents on the left should also be more open toward homosexuality and abortion, and more confident in labour unions and environmental organisations, but less so in the churches, the armed forces, and major companies.
Using national responses to our eleven questions on substantive issues, we build a composite dependent variable, called left-right ideological reach. This variable measures the extent to which, in a given country, left-right self-positioning predicts the expected ideological stances on substantive political issues. If, in country A, the relationship between self-positioning and, say, attitudes about equality is significant (p < 0.05) and in the expected direction, we give a score of 1, and if not of 0. Adding results for eleven questions, a country’s score for left-right ideological reach can then range from 0, when self-positioning never correlates in the expected direction with a substantive left-right political division, to 11, when the expected relationships are present for all questions.
To account for national differences in ideological reach, we use indicators for economic development, secularisation, and democratic experience, as well as a number of control variables, for cultural differences in particular.
Left-right ideological reach varies significantly across countries, from 0 for Libya and Moldova to 11 for a number of Western countries, including France and the United States. As Table 1 shows, there are 27 countries with scores of 0 to 3, where left-right self-positioning hardly predicts respondents’ positions on traditional issues dividing the left and the right; 31 where left-right ideological reach is moderate, with scores of 4 to 7; and 25 where a person’s ideological self-positioning predicts her position on most issues, most of the time, with scores of 8 to 11.
This is a new, multidimensional, and country-scale representation of left and right public attitudes across the world, and the idea of a relationship between left-right self-positioning and substantive political orientations appears validated, at least for nearly two thirds of our sample.
A cursory look at the data suggests, in line with the literature and with our theory, that left-right ideological reach is influenced by economic and democratic development. Countries with high scores in Table 1 are predominantly rich, established democracies; countries at the low end of the scale tend to be poorer, with authoritarian regimes or newer democracies. Indeed, economic development, measured by GDP per capita, is strongly correlated with ideological reach, and so are our indicators of secularisation and democracy. In multiple regressions, the three explanatory variables considered are significant, with democracy coming first. Control variables for cultural differences (religiosity and civilisations) are non-significant.
These results are consistent with our interpretation of the left-right divide as a political construct that has global resonance but is clearly more structured in countries that have long experienced economic development, secularisation, and democratic politics. They also dispose of the seemingly common sense but misleading argument that would jump from a look at the cases in Table 1 to the conclusion that left and right are a Western specificity. Looking closely at the same table, one can see countries like Uruguay, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and Pakistan with scores of 7 or more, and countries like Hungary, Taiwan, and Brazil with low scores. Fostered by economic development and to some extent by secularisation, the left-right cleavage remains, first and foremost, a product of the enduring democratic conflict for control of the government. Not surprisingly, a host of comparative politics writings lend support to this conclusion, and suggests that the left-right divide is more structuring in countries with a strongly institutionalised party system.
The evidence from cross-national surveys is rather clear: around the world, most people are able and willing to locate themselves on a left-right scale and when they do, they tend to understand what this self-positioning implies. Their understanding, however, tends to be more comprehensive in countries that are more advanced economically, more secular, and more solidly democratic. As political parties compete for the popular vote, they construct an ideological pattern that makes sense for both elites and voters, and that gives structure to politics. When they fail to do so, or when democracy is non-existent, political discourse remains more haphazard, driven by context and personalities.
To go beyond these conclusions, we would need to probe further the political mechanisms that contribute to the development of ideology. Looking systematically at the party system institutionalisation hypothesis, in particular, would seem promising. For now, however, we can be satisfied that the language of the left and the right seems to function as an imperfect but critical unifying element in global politics.
 Russell J. Dalton, ‘Social Modernization and the End of Ideology Debate: Patterns of Ideological Polarization’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 7:1 (2006), pp. 1-22; John T. Jost, ‘The End of the End of Ideology’, American Psychologist, 61:7 (2006), pp. 651-670; Peter Mair, ‘Left-Right Orientations’, in Russell J. Dalton and Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 206-222; Alain Noël and Jean-Philippe Thérien, Left and Right in Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); André Freire and Kats Kivistik, ‘Western and Non-Western Meanings of the Left-Right Divide across Four Continents’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 18:2 (2013), pp. 171-199.