If you’ve ever been frustrated, confused or irritated at trying to figure out what political “team” you’re supposed to play for, join the club. Even the politically savvy have a hard time explaining exactly what one group believes and why. It’s enough to make a lot of people shrug their shoulders and opt for easier choices in life, like whether you want mayo or mustard on your burger. Therefore, I’ve attempted to provide the most accurate and shortest explanation known to mankind.
The reason for the complications is simple: there are way more opinions than there are names for them. Before going any further, it must be understood that political parties and ideologies are two completely different things. I’ll explain this a little further in a moment, but political parties are nothing more than a vehicle by which ideas become policy through the cooperative effort of like-minded individuals (for more on parties go here). So throw out the Democrat/Republican paradigm for a minute. What we’re really concerned with is understanding what influences political opinions and how they differ. First, let’s look at a couple of popular spectra:
LIBERAL VS. CONSERVATIVE: THE OLD MODEL
Though people act like this is the only way to look at ideology, it’s quite wrong. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that this spectrum was created over 200 years ago under a whole different set of issues, but we’ve been trying to apply them to modern times for decades—without success. People will tell you the “left” (lib’rals!) want radical change, usually in the form of equality and moral freedom. The “right” (the Neo-Cons!) want low taxes for the wealthy and traditional values. These are both oversimplified and frankly inaccurate.
THE CAPITALIST VS. SOCIALIST MODEL
This one gets a little closer to reality, but it’s too narrowly focused on money. One viewpoint thinks the government ought to stay out of people’s pockets, the other thinks the government ought to take or hand out money however it wants. But what about the moral issues? Any model that tries to graph political ideology has to account for non-economic values.
Some ideology models will try to combine social and fiscal issues, but they make it appear as though a person can believe in a completely free market, yet also believe in complete government control of your personal life. That simply isn’t possible. I’ve yet to see a spectrum that truly captures—both theoretically and visually—the full breadth of social and political thought, and why different ideologies are in such conflict with one another. It took me nearly two years to put one together, but when the end result of my research was presented to several Political Science professors it was received quite well. I’ve constructed a unique Political Ideology Spectrum that looks at ideology as a system of social values and beliefs about the freedom of the individual in relation to common goals.
A TRIANGULAR APPROACH
All of the colors on your television or computer monitor are generated from very tiny dots. These dots only come in three colors—red, green and blue (RGB). The colors you see are based on which dots light up the most relative to other dots. In the same way, political views are determined by the particular balance of three distinct social values. Thus, a triangular spectrum is evident.
At the top I have placed Liberty, which represents a belief in the freedom of the individual. A person in this camp would tend to distrust government and prefer market solutions to solve most problems. At the very tip are the extremists who would advocate no government at all. Of course, we have a word for that—anarchy. It isn’t a sustainable situation, so more moderate individuals will attempt to pull toward the other poles.
Both of the bottom poles are statist in nature, meaning that they value collective power to individual power, and view personal choice as inherently opposed to what is “good” for society.
The left corner represents the value of Unity. Those who embrace Unity desire a world in which there is no conflict, and no division among people. According to this view, the differences between humans are merely man-made. Thus, if we can unmake them we can eliminate the things that cause conflict. This group will argue for policies which are said to end war, universalize incomes and opportunities, and eliminate judgments of merit or morality. This agenda, also, is unsustainable. It acts against natural forces in such a way that drives society into poverty, while at the same time removing individual liberties to the point—in extreme cases—of genocide (take China and the USSR for example).
While those in the right corner also seek state control, their objectives are radically different. They are primarily concerned with the Vitality of the nation. The difference rests primarily on a view of human nature in which differences among people are not invented, but inherent, and that humans naturally act according to self-interest, including conquest. Therefore, a strong and secure society must use the arm of government to promote that which strengthens society, and outlaw that which weakens it. The exact things that are promoted or outlawed depend on the rulers. The ancient spartans left undesirable newborns to die in the forest, and the Nazis tried to exterminate a whole race/religion. To use a less horrifying example, America has outlawed certain drugs, pornography and liquor sales on Sundays.
BACK TO POLITICAL PARTIES
When we look at this spectrum, we can see how it applies to modern parties. Currently, people who lean toward the left corner call themselves Democrats. People who are closer to the right carry the GOP banner. But what of those at the top? People who desire small government, and who distrust the whole political system are less likely to form strong political parties. Many of them simply vote for whichever candidate is the least likely to expand government, particularly in the manner that concerns them most. However, many liberty-minded people are affiliated with the Libertarian Party, which waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. When citizens get upset with both parties for overreaching, libertarian principles tend to get more attention.
Determining our political values means determining our social values. To what extent should the freedom of each person be sacrificed for the good of society? And if state power is desirable, should it be used to unify us at the cost of prosperity and security, or to protect and strengthen us, even if it means there will be casualties? These are not easy questions, and as we each reach our own conclusions about them we will be faced with others who have concluded otherwise. This can make for a very messy debate, but the key is to always be willing to dialogue, and perhaps even change your mind.
This post was adapted from a research paper I completed in May of 2010, and presented at the 2011 meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. For a pdf of the full document please email firstname.lastname@example.org