Political Moderates Agree More with Each Other than Left- and Right-Wingers Do
People tend to believe that individuals with extreme left- or right-wing political views have a lot in common with others from their own group, and that individuals within each of these groups are more similar to each other than political moderates. Is this belief correct? Is there less diversity among the political extremes relative to political moderates?
In our research, we tested whether Europeans who classified themselves as having far left or far right political views agree more on their values compared to political moderates. Values are typically defined as guiding principles in our lives, principles involving, for example, the importance of equality, security, and power. We tested our hypothesis using data from more than 40,000 people from 20 European countries, as well as Israel.
We found that the values of far left-wing supporters and right-wing supporters differed on average 10% more than the values of political moderates. Surprisingly, we even found this pattern of results when respondents reported their attitudes towards immigrants. This pattern was more pronounced in some countries (such as Germany and the U.K.) and less in others (such as Norway and Spain). However, in all 21 countries, political moderates agreed at least as much on their values as the left- and right-wing groups, if not more. In no country did political moderates agree less on their values.
One potential explanation for our findings is that, although far left-wing and right-wing people might strive for consensus in their local social networks, these individual networks might have different views and priorities, leading to insularity and less consensus on a broader national and international level. In contrast, political moderates might be more likely to interact with others on a national or international level. Indeed, political moderates have the highest incomes (and left-wingers the lowest), allowing them to travel and interact more. Of course, this explanation is only speculative.
Some people might argue that only 10% less agreement in values is no big deal. However, imagine a political party that is trying to convince people to vote for its candidates. Left- or right-wing parties probably need to cover more political issues to appeal to the diversity of their voters.
As one example, greater diversity in the value that people place on universalism—being concerned about the welfare of others—may cause right-wing parties to support nearly conflicting positions—both for and against greater equality. The German right-wing AfD party is accused of doing exactly this. On one hand, they act as though they support the "little man," but on the other hand, they are interested in producing and justifying social differences.
Further, less agreement in values makes it harder for left- and right-wingers to reach agreements than moderates. This is partly reflected in the European Parliament: evidence shows that members of right-wing parties are less coherent in their voting patterns compared to centre and left-wing parties.
When we presented our findings to our colleagues, some of them asked whether left- and right-wingers are really more diverse or whether this difference just reflects extreme responding. Extreme responding is a bias that causes people to select more extreme response options on a rating scale. For example, on a response scale ranging from 1 to 6, extreme responders are more likely to select 1 or 6 rather than 3 and 4. In other words, people who gravitate to left- and right-wing parties may be more likely to give extreme responses. Indeed, we found that across all types of questions, not just those asking political views, left- and right-wingers consistently chose more extreme responses, suggesting that extreme responding may be an inherent characteristic of these individuals.
Overall, our study challenges the widespread belief that people who identify with the political left or with the political right are similar to each other. In fact, those within the left and right disagree more on their values than do political moderates.
For Further Reading
Hanel, P. H. P., Zarzeczna, N., & Haddock, G. (2019). Sharing the same political ideology yet endorsing different values: European left-and right-wing political supporters are more heterogeneous than moderates. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(7), 874-882. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618803348
Ondish, P., & Stern, C. (2017). Liberals possess more national consensus on political attitudes in the United States: An examination across 40 years. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550617729410. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617729410
Van Hiel, A. (2012). A psycho-political profile of party activists and left-wing and right-wing extremists. European Journal of Political Research, 51(2), 166–203. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2011.01991.x
Paul H. P. Hanel is a postdoctoral researcher in social and cross-cultural psychology. His research interests involve human values and scientific communication.
Natalia Zarzeczna is a postdoctoral researcher in social and cognitive psychology. Her research focuses on psychological mechanisms involved in stereotypic perceptions of social groups (e.g., religious/non-religious).
Geoff Haddock is a professor in social psychology. His primary area of research is the psychology of attitudes.