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Political Spectrum

If you follow what’s going on with governments and elections, you know that the terminology can be confusing: conservative, liberal, socialist, capitalist. When anything is complex or confusing, I try to visualize it, make a picture of the parts and how they relate. When anything is both complex and confusing, visualization is the best way to make sense of it.

For something as pervasive and important as politics, the complexity and confusion are worse. I’ll define politics as power. Who decides how the benefits and burdens of human living together — society — will be distributed?

  • Benefits – things like police protection and due process.
  • Burdens – things like taxes and military service.

People who study politics have proposed many visualizations of what is usually called the political spectrum to acknowledge that just as the rainbow has millions of separate colors, so our political life has myriad fine shadings.

The French Assembly

The French Assembly

As usual, the Wikipedia has a thorough overview and several visualizations. Because these are visualizations, they cannot be objective; they make trade-offs between competing values and contexts, that is, the ideas of the people making the visualizations.

One Axis

The simplest visualization is a line, one dimension, with a left end and a right end. In the U.S., with only two viable political parties (a rarity among nations), that simple visualization is the most common. Internationally, there is no firm consensus about the meaning of left-wing and right-wing.

Wikipedia’s Left-right politics

As a visualization, the one-dimensional left-right political spectrum originated over two hundred years ago in the French Assembly (right) when the representatives of the aristocracy sat to the right of the speaker facing them and the representatives of the common people sat to the left. The two sides had sharply contrasting ideas about the pace of change and the distribution of benefits and burdens. The aristocracy wanted slow change, if any, and the common people wanted lots of quick change. Both sides wanted to decrease their share of the burdens and increase their share of the benefits. Close study of that era quickly shows the inadequacy of that simplification even then.

However, if you don’t want to be looking at a society too closely and want to quickly establish a relationship between two people or events or ideas, then the simple left/right distinction is useful. In any event, it is very common.

A 3D spectrum

A 3D spectrum

Two Axes

The next step up in complexity is a rectangle, two dimensions. With two axes instead of one, the question becomes what do you put on them? If one axis is economics, what should the other be? How much government? How much personal liberty? As you can see on the Wikipedia page, various models try a variety of combinations of axes.

The second axis lets the visualizer emphasize only some aspects of the overall complexity. The disadvantage is that it takes more thought to place a person, event, or an idea on the rectangle.

For example, the World’s Smallest Political Quiz (smallest in the sense of quickest) will place you on a two-dimensional spectrum with personal issues on one axis and economic issues on the other.

Three Axes

As tempting as a fourth dimension would be, the most complex political visualizations have three dimensions, either cubes or circles. The third axis enables many combinations of social and economic factors. Faith versus reason? Individual versus institution? Because three dimensions are hard to represent on two-dimensional media (“pages”), they are rare. In addition, the placement of a person, event, or idea gets even more nuanced in three dimensions.

What’s behind it?

People. What are we? Responsible and resilient? Fragile and in need of assistance? In need of strong leaders? Of course, you know people who would fit all three. Perhaps at any given time in your life, you have been all three, too. However, let’s look at a specific question:



Should the arts be supported by taxes?

You don’t ask that about the military because none of the options to a tax-funded, government-run army are good ideas. If a country’s one central government doesn’t finance its one army, what are the alternatives? Each local police becomes a local army? Each family is on its own? Every home is a fort? That sounds like a tribe, not a nation.

However, we don’t think about the arts in the same way. Just like the miliarty, the arts often involve expensive materials and they always involve someone’s time, often after a long training period. Who should pay for that?

If people are responsible and resilient, shouldn’t the market decide? That is, if people would rather listen to Eric Clapton play guitar instead of me, shouldn’t he make a lot of money and I pay to listen? What’s the alternative — in the name of fairness and equality, we should force you to listen to me first so that you can then listen to Eric Clapton?

If people are fragile and in need of assistance, should something other than market value decide? Let’s say that the young ladies in the photo above right want to devote their lives to learning and teaching the angklung, one of the thousands of traditional instruments that various societies have developed. Should they have to live on lessons given to people who can afford to pay them? Should the government provide a modest salary so that they can teach everyone, regardless of ability to pay? What’s the alternative — letting the sounds of the angklung completely die out, to never be heard again except on YouTube? Of course, we should support people willing to preserve non-commercial but culturally important musical instruments. The question is, who should pay for it if the market won’t?