Political Spectrums Are Rarely Enlightening

Justin Katz, of Anchor Rising, has attempted to recreate the political spectrum. But Mr. Katz’s new political ideology loop acts like many political spectrums: it reveals more about Mr. Katz than the political system he attempts to describe.

There’s a lot of obvious ploys in Mr. Katz’s spectrum, most notably it places moderates as the opposite of conservatives. This acts to marginalize progressives, but also serves to marginalize libertarians; instead of there being a diverse system of ideologies, there’s only a dialogue between moderates and conservatives. In Rhode Island, we can fundamentally see this is false; there are distinct disagreements between each of the four groups; progressives, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians. Pushing any of these ideologies to the fringe is a way to minimize their importance. Mr. Katz has an interest in minimizing both progressives and libertarians; the former are wholly opposed to his economic and social policies while the latter oppose his social policies from within the right wing movement.

Another issue is that it doesn’t really enlighten. Political spectrums are valuable when they add another way of seeing political ideologies. Mr. Katz’s doesn’t eliminate the left-right way of thinking. And the left-right dichotomy is hopelessly out of date. It’s based on where republicans and monarchists sat in the French Estates General. Since there are few monarchists left in the world, the right has necessarily moved left to embrace republican ideals, to the point where the left-right divide no longer makes sense. The addition of socialism complicated what had been a relatively simple conservative (monarchist) vs. liberal (republican) dichotomy. Yet, Americans continue to define ourselves by where a bunch of dead Frenchmen sat.

The red-blue divide is also unexamined. Red and blue have become useful shorthands for the major American political parties. And that’s relatively recent, it was only during 2000 that all the major television networks used red and blue to color their maps. That consensus is new; and nonsensical. Only if you assume that Democrat vs. Republican is the ultimate expression of political ideology should you utilize them in this manner. Red has traditionally been the color of communism. Blue has traditionally been the color of conservatives. But such complications are avoided in a simplifying political chart.

And “simple” is what it is. Instead of using gradients, a gradual shift of color, Mr. Katz has hard lines, where if you cross them you’re a moderate or you’re a libertarian. It’s never that simple in politics. If it was, we’d have no problem organizing ourselves. To be fair to Mr. Katz, many political spectrums use hard lines. But just because they’re all committing the same sin doesn’t make them any more correct. And the reason you commit that sin of treating groups like monoliths isn’t to clarify the way things are, but to divide groups according to your agenda.

Mr. Katz developed a political spectrum to advance an agenda. Most political spectrums have an agenda involved; for proof here’s the Nolan Chart, created by libertarian David Nolan:

Nolan Chart (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nolan Chart is important because it was one of the early pioneers of looking at political spectrums not as a straight line between left and right, but as a plane on which multiple ideologies can be found. But right away, you can see the agenda here. It equates libertarianism as just as large as left wing and right wing; it equates populism with totalitarianism. It believes that both left and right believe in eliminating some set of freedoms, and that libertarianism alone stands for all freedoms. It’s convenient for libertarians to believe this, but it’s not as useful for the rest of us. The problem is that many political spectrums have inherited this libertarian vs. totalitarian mindset as well. Here’s the chart from The Political Compass (politicalcompass.org):

Political Compass (Public Domain)

It’s pretty much the Nolan Chart; with the x-axis meaning economic values and the y-axis meaning social values. To see how it plays out, here’s how The Political Compass ranked the 2012 candidates for the presidency:

2012 US Presidential candidates ranked by The Political Compass

And people say the President is turning this country into a socialist hellhole… Mind you, that’s a chart developed by an organization that uses a chart with an inherently libertarian bent on social issues. But it’s useful if only to point out how restrictive the political debate in this country is.

And that’s ultimately the problem. The convenience of the left-right political spectrum is that it narrows the debate. We don’t have to consider the wide varieties of opinions and differences it comes down to ultimately left vs. right. As long as we can group people on a simple line, we can make arguments about others to our hearts’ content. It also helps to be the one defining the terms. One that note, I’ll leave you with the Inglehardt-Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on the World Values Survey. You could also plot yourself on it if you wanted.

Recreation of the 1999-2004 Inglehart-Welzel Values Map (via Wikimedia Commons)

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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