In many places we can see that people cluster into specifically two groups, politically. Of dozens of prominent unresolved societal issues, we can predict one's stance on many issues by knowing their stance on any issue (the person who is pro-choice is also in favour of gun control and more generous immigration policies, etc, in general).

Why does this binary division exist? (Or does it exist less than I claim?)

I've heard some say that the universe is fundamentally a balance of order and chaos - exactly two forces, and this somehow propagates into our human brains, leading us to one of two political mentalities.

I've also heard the possibility that left-wing tendencies (to move towards change) and right-wing tendencies (to maintain the status quo) lead to the most stable system, and we have evolved (biologically and politically) to maintain exactly this.

Why do members of societies tend to arrange themselves into exactly two political camps?

  • 4
    Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Wikipedia already has an article on causes of political polarization, on SE the questions are expected to be less generic. But societies do not always go binary, there are plenty of countries with 3 or more major parties, for example.
    – Conifold
    Nov 1, 2019 at 23:01
  • The division might have to do with word origins taking on a life of their own. I believe that the terms Left and Right described where partisans sat in the early days of the French Assembly in the 1790’s. Then use of the terms just continued. Nov 2, 2019 at 23:17
  • The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem may be of interest
    – Rushi
    Nov 13, 2019 at 3:42
  • I've heard that "first-past-the-post" voting systems, like the one in the US, tend to produce exactly two viable parties. Perhaps this is part of it. Feb 12, 2023 at 18:55
  • The dichotomy is a consequence of the political system. In the UK we saw it disrupted in the Brexit process where significant numbers of low-paid workers, traditionally Labour voters, felt sufficiently strongly about immigration disrupting their livelihoods that they started leaning to the right. These people didn't fit neatly into either political camp, and a third force (UKIP) emerged, and attracted sufficient support that the traditional two parties had to change their policies to survive. Feb 14, 2023 at 10:03

3 Answers 3


I don't see this as a philosophical problem, but as the process of politics devolving into a sport. The point of a party is not to hold a coherent opinion. It is to win things,and in doing so either advance the causes of its partisans, or just make them feel better because they won. Splitting into more than two contending teams wastes leverage, when competing becomes the primary point of politics, which it often does.

Other countries (infamously Italy, and famously India, until recently) have more than two parties, and that allows those parties to have more individual viewpoints, at he cost of having all important legislative moves require a coalition process. In such an environment, it can be hard to keep a government together, especially if it tries to actually do things.

The meaning of right vs left has changed across time. Democrats were once the party in favor of guiding social conventions through large institutions, which included the Catholic Church and, in the South, the plantation system, which it wanted seen not as a system of oppression but a matter of individual morality. Republicans opposed them.

Clearly, Republicans now see themselves as the party in favor of established religion, including the Catholic Church, and want to see racism as not being bound to systematic oppression, but as a matter of individual morality. And Democrats oppose them.

The division is always into two camps, but those camps are not really defined in the same way over time. The right/left naming and orientation is common in a world of democracies shaped by European influence because it once expressed the relationship of the party to a specific European variety of feudal monarchy that contended with traditional limitations in a given way.

We create an artificial continuity back to the days of monarchy, when the monarchy and its selected Church represented the Right and all institutions limiting it, such as parliaments, business and labor as groups, principles of common law, and even other Churches, represented the Left. But we do so only for the sake of labeling, individual ideas have almost all been held by both sides over time.


First, allow me to point out that this is (at least partly) mere appearance. The human mind likes to arrange things in opposing pairs, and will often shortcut complex relationships into simple dichotomies. It's a duality bias.

But with respect to politics specifically, there is a factor pointed out by Benedetto Croce back in the early part of the 20th century that does set up something like a universal polarity. It has to do with aesthetics: some people are largely pleased with the sociopolitical status quo, and are averse to anything that might create change that is too rapid or extensive; other people are largely displeased with the status quo and are pleased by the ideals of a better society, and seek to push those ideals through. The former gravitate towards rightism/conservatism while the latter gravitate towards leftism/progressivism. Of course, the status quo is different in different nations and cultures, so what pleases or displeases a group might be very different from one place and time to another place and time. But those two tendencies — the conservative resistance to losing what they deem right and good, and the progressive desire to create something right and good out of a debased system — seem to be universal movements.

Croce felt that if we could all keep this perspective in view — that our political differences are always little more than aesthetic disagreements about what constitutes the 'good life' — then most political animosities would fade. When people talk about what they love and appreciate it builds unity and camaraderie. Divisiveness relies on people focussing on what they hate and want to destroy. Unfortunately, Croce was writing to early in the century to appreciate the power that the language of hatred and degradation has in mass media.


societies tend to arrange themselves into exactly two political camps

Could we really guarantee the veracity of this thought though? I would've imagined the less turn up of voters in elections was a sufficient testament of society's growing uncertainty, or even disinterest in championing either of the mentioned extremes.

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