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.

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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


Our founders hoped we would not have political parties in America, but they also knew it was inevitable–the first parties developed just in time for the the second election. We can no more easily rid the world of political parties than we can of war among nations or yelling fits between the cast members of “The Real World”. And for the same reason: people desire different things for their lives, and when we put them together we are bound to have conflict.

How do we organize this conflict into an effective–and somewhat peaceful–political process? We form groups of like-minded people who are seeking the same general goals, or who find themselves fighting the same “enemy,” whatever form that may take. Because values change, the objectives of the parties gradually and continually change as well, and so does the make up of the group. So while political parties may have a stated list of things it supports at any given time, things are added and subtracted from official party platforms all the time, and there can be significant variations in particular candidates within the same party.

Why do we only have 2 major parties?
Britain has many parties, and whichever party has the most people elects the Prime Minister, so a party can have control with only 30% of the seats. In America, we prefer majorities. It doesn’t take calculus to see why you can’t have more than two groups trying to achieve 51 percent. Thus, we are always left with a choice between two.

The downside of parties is division. They fight, call each other names, distort truths to make their points, and so on. It’s an ugly and brutal process, but it also has some positive effects:

1. They help narrow down our choices and make them more reliable. We can listen to one, then the other, and make a decision, knowing that those within the party will be held accountable by their peers.

2. They raise money and organize campaigns. From local communities all the way up to the Federal Government, parties gather people to work together towards achieving common ends.

And there are specific benefits to the two-party system:

1. Two parties tend to have a stabilizing effect. They make it difficult for hard-left, hard-right or dead-center candidates to gain much power. When people must compete within a two-party system they must offer distinctly opposing views, but they must also be relatively moderate.

2. Politicians have to answer for a broad range of issues, instead of just campaigning on their particular interest. How would the “Green Energy” party, for instance, vote on health care or financial reform?

The important thing to understand about political parties is that they are never the ends themselves, but only a means toward an end. People decide what they want in society and find other people who agree, at least enough to throw their support behind it. These groups then find people that represent these views and endorse their campaigns for office. It’s that simple. Each party is essentially trying to achieve the same thing—justice.

Every person has some idea of what justice is and how to bring more of it into our world. One person may say justice is making sure no one is poor, while another might say justice is allowing people to keep what they earn. The first person may support the Democrat Party and the latter may support Republicans. You don’t have to label yourself by either of these names, but I would encourage you to know what you believe, and more importantly why you believe it. Once you know where you stand you can go to the voting booth knowing that you’re not just voting for a person – you’re voting for principles, and that makes the political process much more fulfilling.

ATTN: A REWRITE (and update) OF THIS POST WAS PUBLISHED ON JUNE 22, 2010 – CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

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If you are even moderately interested in politics and what happens in our government, you’ve probably tried to place yourself into one of the major teams – Democrat or Republican. (for a brief explanation of parties in America, read this short post)

We like teams because they make us feel like a part of something. Political parties help us identify our goals and ideas, and help us connect with other people who share them with us. But if you’re like most people, trying to “pick a side” isn’t so easy. You may agree with some things, but not others, and there may be things on both sides that are important to you.

Most traditional political diagrams show a horizontal line with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right. This is confusing, and somewhat misleading. The concept (and the terms used) came from the French Revolution, when the people who were for radical change sat on the left, and those that wanted to hold onto some traditions and allow change to occur gradually sat on the right. So today the terms seem out of place. The I’d like to make this a little easier, through a political ideology spectrum that I developed, and that has won the approval of several Political Science scholars. This spectrum comes from studying the different approaches to governing, which is essentially a two-fold question – 1) How do you think society should be? And 2) What is the best method for achieving that goal? And Here’s what I came up with:

political ideology spectrum
political ideology spectrum

Most of us believe in the values of liberty, morality, and equality. But when applied to government these ideas do not coexist peacefully. If equality is a priority in your society then it is impossible to also allow liberty, and if liberty is a priority you cannot expect morality, and so on. The extent to which you are willing to sacrifice one for another determines your place on this triangular spectrum, and defines your political positions.

For those who are less politically savvy, it’s important to understand what is implied by the terms liberty, morality, and equality. They are words we use every day without fully considering their meaning.

America was founded on a relatively new concept – human liberty. That we are born into the world free people, with certain “inalienable rights.” The basic idea is that you should be able to pursue your life path the way you want to as long as you’re not hurting anyone, and that no one can step in and take what is rightfully yours – be it your time, money, or possessions – without your consent. The only exception is government, which we establish and to which agree to authorize certain powers to rule over us. Therefore government assumes the only legal form of organized crime, and it is up to the people (all of us) to keep it in check. If you have never heard the story of Alexander the Great and the pirate, it’s worth a read. As much as we love liberty, absolute liberty is essentially no government at all; allowing citizens to do whatever they please without correction, and inevitably leading to complete chaos. There can be no such actual society for long, as human nature swiftly steps in to establish a pecking order. There is always someone in control and someone being controlled. Just look at the many troubled nations of Africa as an example. There is always government.

Then there’s the issue of morality. When I showed this diagram to Dr. Christopher Hammons, professor of political science at HBU, his only suggestion was that I use the term “order” instead of morality, which may be a good point, but this makes it easy to exclude religious conviction as a valid political interest and a term such as “morality” reminds us that good intentions are often behind the most heinous crimes against humanity. Morality isn’t merely religion, nor is it any one set of rules. While I firmly believe in a natural and universal law, it is up to each society to determine its own rules of engagement. Good and bad is ultimately determined by the particular culture in which you live, and while these rules may be lax for some societies, for others they are taken very seriously. Steal a TV in America and you might go to prison. Steal a TV in Iran and you may have your hand removed. It doesn’t matter what type of moral code is being used, the point is that the person who has the power to control law has the unique privilege of establishing the rules and “moral” standards, and we should hope that whomever is in charge has a healthy appreciation for liberty. I’ve heard fellow Christians argue that America was founded by Christians and that we should rule our nation according to the Bible, or the will of God. First, they should understand that America was never intended to be an exclusively Christian nation, which is why they made sure that the right to religious liberty was protected. Thomas Jefferson himself, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was not a Christian but a proclaimed “Deist”, although he did attend Christian church services because, as did his contemporaries, he believed faith was an essential complement to democracy. Secondly, who gets to determine which interpretation of God’s will, or the Bible, is the correct one? Would we have denominations instead of political parties competing for the presidency? I strongly believe that governments should support ethics in society, and part of that is supporting faith-based initiatives, but I also see very good reasons why our founding fathers felt there should be a separation between church and state. The government exists to protect and preside over people, the church exists to nurture them.

Equality tends to take two different forms – one that is fully supported by our constitution, and another that it vehemently opposes. The former is the idea that we are each human, and with that comes certain rights and protections, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some may point to the abhorrent practice of African slavery in America as evidence that our founders didn’t fully apply the principle, and while this is true in a legal sense, their comments on the practice were well documented and reveal a strong distaste for it. George Washington made arrangements for his slaves to be freed upon his death, and it was debated in the constitutional convention whether to emancipate them right away. They decided that it was impossible to do at the time, but hoped that a gradual process would end slavery in America. Several states passed emancipation laws before 1800, and over the next century America would play a significant role in ending slavery throughout the world. That people are born equal is a principle that is woven deeply into American culture and informs our priorities and our values. This definition equality is actually more tied to liberty on the spectrum.

But there is the other interpretation of “equality” that we are not only born to equal protection of rights, but are truly equal in many or all other aspects. In sociology and psychology we are consistently faced with whether people are shaped by their nature or by the environment and way in which they are raised (nature vs. nurture). People who believe that we are in fact born completely equal would say that it is only our environment that shapes us and makes us different. From this position they form their political agendas on changing circumstances, in hopes that it will result in changed people. They may think that better teachers means smarter students, and that higher pay means better teachers, thus more money is the solution to low test scores. It is this interpretation of equality that I consider a political ideology that is altogether separate and opposed to liberty, and which makes up the third point on the diagram. When it is taken to extremes nearly all individual liberty is removed from citizens in order to create a society where people are of equal wealth, equal education, equal social status, et cetera.

Comparing this government approach with capitalism, Winston Churchhill commented, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.” I say that our constitution opposes this “equality” because of the belief that capitalism – private ownership and free markets – provides not only the best form of economic freedom and growth, but also breeds competition in the marketplace. A point with which I agree. The market must be responsive to the peoples needs not only for affordable products, but also innovation. By allowing free markets, we are allowing products to be manufactured and sold at whatever cost is determined by the maker and the seller, but since the buyer is you, they have to accommodate for your needs or lose your business. This results in a broad price range for goods and services. The cost of a haircut can range from $5 to several hundred, and some Hollywood big-shots are even willing to pay thousands!

WHERE DO YOU PLACE?

I myself am probably on the line between the “D” and the grey area, in the upper-left. I believe that people are a result of a mix of their nature and their nurturing; that environments can influence behavior, but that ultimately it is the responsibility of the individual to make the best of it. Most Americans would probably find themselves in the grey area, as the lettered spaces would require very strong opinions, and those that land in A, B, or C would be a danger to society in my judgement. Hitler would have been a B, Fidel Castro a C, and Timothy McVeigh an A. In case you don’t remember, McVeigh was the man who bombed an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people as a show of his distaste for the federal government.

Libertarians, in general are near the top, and most Republicans are around the “D”, while most Democrats are closer to “F”. The shifting of public opinions and political leadership is constant, so parties can move around the spectrum quite easily. For instance, under the leadership of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi the Democratic party has moved further down and to the right. In response, Republicans are moving upward.

This model is a work in progress, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. Does it help you determine your political values, or which parties you agree with? Does it help you understand what motivates political leaders and drives public policy? It’s easy to take sides on an issue at face value without really understanding the fundamental questions that we are dealing with. I wrote this in hopes that readers will have a broader sense of political philosophy, what our nation was founded on, and what kind of future we want to see in America.