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:

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.

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.

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.

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 wgant@hbu.edu

Even if the health care bill fails, and if Republicans win back majority control in the House this November, the biggest conservative victory of the year probably took place this afternoon in Austin, Texas.  After years of progressive slant in social studies textbooks, the Texas State Board of Education approved a new curriculum that would include more conservative ideas. This news is particularly important because it will effect how books are written nation-wide, as publishers attempt to accommodate Texas – one of the nation’s largest buyers.

I applaud the Republican members of the Board for recognizing the left-leaning bias in our history, government and economics textbooks, and for taking action on the matter. My personal experience has been that my post-public school education has had to balance–or sometimes rewrite–many of the things I learned in K-12. That, for instance, America is not a racist, imperialist nation that has a tradition of killing or enslaving anyone who isn’t white; that government is not the default solution for all of nature’s ills; and that there are other legitimate theories of human development.

In fact, of all the “conservative” points that are now being included, the only one I had heard of as a teen was that there was no Constitutional separation of Church and State. I only learned this from my church. And it’s true – there is no separation whatsoever, outside of legislation. “Congress shall make no law…” – that’s it.

So what other craaaazy ideas do those conservatives have up their sleeves?

(pulled from New York Times)

– Talk about the conservative resurgence in the 80s and 90s, i.e. Reagan, the Heritage Foundation and the “Contract with America” that led to the first Republican house in decades.

– When teaching of the civil rights movement, ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported.

– Study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.

– Stress that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.

– Add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek to the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

– Require the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

This is all we have at the moment. The new curriculum requirements will be posted for 30 days before the final vote, during which time we can get a closer look.

And Democrat proposals that were rejected:

– Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures. (Should we choose who we study based on their race?)

– Requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.” (They didn’t, as clarified above)

The Houston Chronicle notes the views of Democrat Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, who said that “the standards ignore the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, Texas Rangers “killing Mexican-Americans without justification” and the U.S. Army’s role in the attempted extermination of American Indians.” (Are we trying to teach the history of our state and nation or are we trying to teach about racism and hate crimes? Perhaps future generations, looking back at 2009, should learn that America elected a half-black president, and that many white people went to “tea parties” to protest against him.” I hope the sarcasm and absurdity are clear.

The changes that will be taking place in the Texas curriculum should begin surfacing in 2011, and there will be no major revisions for another decade. The more lasting effects of a whole generation receiving a more balanced understanding of our political and economic history, and the philosophies which shaped them, could be felt for years to come.

David Frum had a good piece on the special elections in New York, Virginia and New Jersey, from which an important quote should be observed:

“And if the Republicans pick up an Arkansas Senate seat and a dozen blue-dog Democratic House seats in 2010, you can see this “tea party” mentality taking strong hold of the GOP in the run-up to 2012. But a political formula that encourages Republicans to write off the suburbs, the Northeast, and California is not a formula for a national majority. It’s a formula for a more coherent, better mobilized, but perpetually minority party.”

I, for one, have never been a fan of zero-tolerance policies. They remove human intelligence and judgement from the equation and treat similar circumstances as though they were exactly the same. That is not reality. Every situation has its own set of circumstances which must be considered and weighed. Something we could use less of in our society is knee-jerk reactions that attempt to solve problems with swift, broad strokes, leaving the collateral damage to be cleaned up by someone else down the line.

Conservatives who hope to change the direction of politics in 2010 by booting out the moderates and rallying around the campaigns of “true” conservatives ought to stop and think before they act.

Obama -  Fire Congress

I’ve seen these kinds of images on signs and stickers lately, calling for us to “fire congress” or “re-elect no one.” The irony of this particular advertisement is that people who actually listen to this are already shooting themselves. For those of you who are offended because you have supported merchandise like this, give me a moment to explain. It is better to understand the truth and get results than to run blindly and stumble.

A German Prussian politician, Otto Von Bismarck, once said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” As abstract that may sound to many, it alludes to a sobering reality: thanks to the many competing interests in society, very few of us will ever have exactly what we want. The best we can hope for is that we can manage to build enough consensus on the things we can agree upon in order to push through at least some of the things we want. The next time you hear someone complain that we only have two major parties, ask them how they plan to have any influence upon legislation with less than 50% of the vote.

While lots of passion, principle and great ideas sound like characteristics for the ideal politico, in actuality such a person can do very little without the support of others. The founders had this in mind when they created the Congress. They wanted to make sure that one person, or one small group could not have an influence on the whole country. This makes sure that most of our laws are supported by most Americans. In the Senate, the vote on whether to even hear a bill on the floor must be unanimous.

If the realm of “possibility” is the one to which we are confined, then we must prepare for a degree of concession to those whose goals are slightly different than our own. This is not a betrayal of one’s principles, it is merely “the art of the possible.”

Am I saying that the GOP should claim a more moderate position and endorse center-right candidates? Not at all. As Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio said on “The Morning Joe” today, “for Americans that want more government involvement in the economy, they already have an option on election day.” Republicans must advocate the alternative view and present it in a way that provides clear choices to the American people. But the idea that we have to remove any person that doesn’t completely support our specific platform, like some sort of party cleansing, is only going to shift majority power the other way. How can conservatives point to factions within the Democratic Party that have already weakened this administrations effectiveness, yet not see the speck in their own eye. 

We should also consider that the current congressional incumbents are there for one reason: the people of their district voted for them – usually more than once. Since districts are typically drawn to favor a certain party, “firing” congress to put in a fresh batch doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a different ideological make up. It only means that there will an inexperienced but zealous conservative minority, vying for attention from a professional and well-networked Democrat majority.

If alarmed conservatives oust moderate Republican incumbents in favor of hard-right conservatives they risk splitting their own voting bloc in two, giving Democrats a seat in a majority Republican district. The way to make your voice known is to speak up early, vote in primaries, and promote your cause in the off-season, but once your party’s candidate is chosen, the game play must shift toward a team win, because a loss for your team is a loss for your cause.

Obama owes his presidency to “Independents” – a group made up largely of people who really aren’t that interested in politics. And if a Republican wins office in 2012 or 2016, as a result of his inability to fix all of Americas problems as he said he could do, it will likely be these same individuals who put them there. They don’t want a watered-down message, but they don’t want extremists either. They just want someone with solutions that make more sense than the other guy. I believe that conservatives have the right solutions, they just have to be able to communicate them effectively.

The Mayoral race in Houston includes only one “true” conservative. He believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility, but in all fairness has no business running the fourth largest city in the U.S., with the second largest port in the world. He doesn’t belong and everyone can see it. The other candidates are more qualified, have better funding and are much further ahead in the polls. Though it is a sure bet that he will lose the race, he may also keep us from electing at least a moderate Democrat. It would be far better for him to pull out and declare support for one of the other candidates. If Ron Paul had pulled out of the primaries in 2008 and put his support behind Romney or Huckabee perhaps we would have run someone against Obama who could actually provide a challenge.

It is important for us to consider exactly what we want in our society and why we want it. We should be vocal about it and be active participants in our communities. True change comes from the bottom up. But we also have to be sensitive to the needs and wants of others, and understand that sometimes we have to give a little to take a little. I don’t believe in putting party before principle, but I do believe in cooperation. I understand that my desire to not “play” politics only gives advantage to others who will. The game will be played, and we are a part of it whether we like that fact or not. We can build consensus and have an influence on our future, or we can hand the ball to someone else as we shout from the sidelines.