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 '19 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 '19 at 23:17
  • The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem may be of interest Nov 13 '19 at 3:42

Good question, though it sounds like more of a topic for a political science forum, or maybe even a psychology forum. I can't offer a complete answer, but I have some comments.

It's probably largely a product of both convenience and mind control.

Convenience - Political parties are prominent feature of the modern political scene. While thirteen parties might better represent people's diverse interests than two, they would also make politics even more complicated.

Moreover, not all parties are equal. Some parties will inevitable be bigger and more powerful than others. Some people may thus be discouraged from allying with parties that they deem too weak to accomplish anything.

Mind Control & Manipulation - In many, if not most, countries, political parties are largely controlled by corporations and other special interest groups. It's to their advantage to marginalize all but two parties that can be more easily controlled and manipulated. A single party would be even more efficient, but a minimum of two parties are necessary if you want citizens to think they have a voice in government.

Until recently, Washington State was one of just three states with a "blanket primary" that allowed voters to vote for any candidate. The state's residents are said to be about one third Democrat, one third Republican and one third independent.

Several years ago, the blanket primary was torpedoed. Soon after, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offered dual endorsements, listing their favorite Republican candidates and favorite Democratic candidates while ignoring all the others. See how it works?

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.

Interesting. Left-wingers are more likely to challenge the system, while right-wingers tend to defend the status quo (in the U.S., at least). However, I'm not sure if the right-wing status quo is the most stable system. Nor is the most stable system necessarily the best. Would we want a nice stable society where three multi-billionaires have more money than all other citizens combined?

However, it is true that governments generally have both supporters and critics, and it would make sense for both groups to ally into powerful groups rather than tiny, insignificant parties.

In the U.S., Republicans (generally regarded as right-wingers) tend to be very supportive of corporate policy and war, while typically clamoring for more environmental "development." Such a party is obviously going to get enormous support from government, the media and the elitists who control them. Conformism (e.g., peer pressure, the bandwagon effect) alone can easily swell such a party's ranks.

Ironically, the same power brokers may support the "alternative party," which may actually be an example of "controlled opposition." For example, the Democratic Party is viewed as a liberal party, even though Obama was one of America's most right-wing presidents ever. I was one of many people who didn't vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because she's so right-wing, she's almost off the chart.

In summary, the rich and powerful have created a de facto two-party system that was long ago labeled "Demopublican," because both parties are increasingly hard to distinguish from one another.

  • You are conflating left/right division with two-party division. It's of course possible to have many right-wing parties and many left-wing parties in the same government, as some countries do.
    – Eliran
    Nov 1 '19 at 21:55
  • People are like sheep - they follow the flock. They may initially gravitate towards left-wing or right-wing parties. But if they perceive that a particular left/right-wing party is where the action is, that's the party they'll likely ally with. At the same time, mind control (e.g. propaganda) also steers people towards particular ideologies/belief systems, which translates into party affiliation. Nov 1 '19 at 21:58

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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