Ideology: Left or Right
What does it mean to describe a politician or candidate as being "on the left" or "on the right?"
It’s an inexact term - shorthand used to describe the positions politicians hold on the issues. Describing a candidate or office-holder as "on the left," "in the center," or "on the right," stems from the fact that both our major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, are umbrella organizations: under each large party umbrella are members who are mostly liberal, moderate, or conservative.
In political science theory, the various positions are described as being on an "ideological spectrum," with liberal views placed on the left end of the arc, moderate views in the center, and conservative ones lodged on the right end of the spectrum.
Many politicians are not at all happy about being characterized in such a shorthand manner. They have different views on different issues, and would rather see themselves placed at different points on the spectrum, depending on the issue. However, candidates and elected officials cannot escape an overall characterization of their place on the spectrum as a way of describing them in relation to other politicians. If the media doesn't label them, then their political opponents will.
Although in today's political climate it may be impossible to escape, ideological labels do no one person’s views complete justice. They leave no room for nuances in positions, for changing views as the complexities of an issue become known, nor room for growth in a politician's perspective over time. At best, they can capture a moment in time for a certain issue.
Often these spectrum labels are used in a negative sense -- for example citing someone as on the "extreme right," "extreme left," “radical right,” or “radical left.” These terms have come to replace the gentler jabs of a few years ago, when conservatives were labeled as "right wing," and liberals as "left wing." On one level that's a simple description of placement on the ideological spectrum, but on another level it subtly connoted a slightly nutty image -- as in a loony bird.
Politicians’ views and voting records need a closer examination than generic labels such as “Left, Right, or Moderate” can provide. No such label will always be true of any politician, across-the-board on all issues.