A Two-Dimensional Political Spectrum

politicsWhen discussing politics in America, there’s a lot of talk about left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, and so on. Most of these distinctions have some meaning but fail to accurately represent reality. Some people have mapped political views along two separate scales in a sort of Cartesian graph, which makes a lot of sense (one source is the Political Compass). I’m going to explain such a graph in my own words, with a few tweaks to hopefully make it more clear what the graph means to me, who I oppose, and why.

The vertical scale is authoritarianism vs. liberalism. Your position on this spectrum indicates how much power you think the government should have, and where that power comes from. The terms I chose to label the ends are the common mainstream positions that occupy opposing space, not the absolute extremes. The extreme on the bottom would be anarchy, while the extreme at the top would be monarchy or theocracy that puts absolute power in the hands of a single person like a king or pope. The mainstream position at the bottom is liberalism, which is defined as a focus on personal freedoms, and is the main characteristic of democratic governments. The mainstream position at the top is authoritarianism, which has a focus on concentrating power in the hands of only a few people who control the rest of the nation. Oligarchy falls in the upper half, while a typical democratic republic is in the lower half.

The horizontal scale is socialism vs. capitalism, although those terms don’t capture the full meaning of the scale, particularly since capitalism isn’t compatible with authoritarianism. On the left we have a focus on the society as a whole, and the belief that the purpose of government is maintaining the well-being of its citizens. On the right we have a focus on individualism, valuing the pursuit of wealth over social cooperation, and the belief that government should not take care of poor or unemployed people. This is the traditional left vs. right, where classical liberals and capitalists are in the center and on the right, opposing socialists and communists on the left. It’s generally limited to economic issues, whereas social issues (such as personal freedom) are measured along the vertical scale. Since capitalism is a specific type of economy that incorporates principles of personal freedom, it’s only a valid label for the far right on the more liberal side. Authoritarian right-wing economics are a sort of state-controlled corporatism. The extreme left would be communism (the community as a whole owns everything), and the extreme right would be a complete absence of public services (everything is owned by private individuals).

The confusion we often face is that left vs. right doesn’t say anything about how authoritarian a political view is, and since both sides often accuse the other of infringing on personal freedoms, it’s important to combine both scales into a two-dimensional spectrum. Here’s how that plays out:

  • The upper left quadrant, “authoritarian socialism”, is where ideas lean toward concentrating power in the hands of a few and governing for the benefit of the collective society. In extreme cases this ideology can result in nightmarish genocidal regimes like those of Stalin and other communist dictators. State-enforced socialism is sort of an oxymoron (just like authoritarian capitalism), since socialism as a type of economy is about putting ownership of the nation’s means of production in the hands of the people, as opposed to ownership by a central government or a handful of powerful corporations.
  • In the upper right quadrant, “right-wing authoritarianism”, we have most typical American politics. Ideas in this area lean toward capitalist economics, a government run by a handful of very rich people (oligarchy), and a strong sense of nationalism that may seek to punish anyone who criticizes their leadership. In the extreme corner, this quadrant is home to Christian Reconstructionists, Nazis, and other fascist groups.
  • You’ll find me in the lower left quadrant, “liberal socialism”. This is where democracy and socialism come together. It’s where you find ideas like equal rights for all humans, government existing for the purpose of serving the citizens, democratic methods of governing to prevent the rise of an authoritarian state, and a focus on working together to solve problems and eliminate suffering. The extremists here are probably social anarchists, or anyone whose ideal society involves no central government and a socialist or communist approach to managing the economy.
  • In the lower right quadrant, “right-wing liberalism”, you’ll find the more honest and freedom-focused side of traditional American politics, where stories of brave pioneers inspire a unique brand of individualistic patriotism. It’s where our Libertarian party was born, so called only because the word “liberal” has been so badly abused. Some of the greatest heroes who shaped early America probably fit into this quadrant, if only because they lived at a time when self-reliance was more necessary and social welfare wasn’t feasible. The extremists here are pure anarchists who adopt an “every man for himself” view of society and economics.

With that explanation, it should become clear that what most reasonable people strongly oppose is authoritarianism. We are mostly all united in hating fascist and communist dictatorships, which are equally authoritarian but in opposite corners when it comes to the left vs. right. I’ve talked to several conservative Christians who use “communist” as a derogatory term for anyone who is farther left than them. They are attempting to associate social liberals with communist dictators, which is especially ridiculous when they do it to me, as they’re usually much closer to authoritarianism than I am.

In an effort to get as much out of this chart as possible, I divided each quadrant into four more sections and tried to associate each one with a political position that occupies roughly that area of the chart. Of course, these terms are often flexible and overlap to some extent, so it’s not perfect, but it should help to further illustrate why this is a better way of thinking about political views than merely left vs. right.


Let’s start with the top row…the hard authoritarians. On the left we have communist dictators, and moving toward the right we shift from communist to more individualistic and nationalist ideas, ending up with fascism and Nazis. I wasn’t sure who to put in the middle, since it seems most extreme authoritarians also tend toward an extreme on the left/right scale. My opinion of this row: Just no. Don’t go here. This is where bad things happen no matter how good the intentions are.

The second row starts with a milder but still state-run socialism or communism, gradually giving up social cooperation and moving toward typical American free-market oligarchy on the right. My opinion: Still too much power concentrated in the hands of too few people.

The third row has democratic socialism on the left, where a strong democratic process keeps the government in check, and the government exists to take care of the people. On the right, there is the same focus on democracy but an opposition to using government for welfare. My opinion: Lots of good ideas in this area, though the far right is too selfish, as it rejects the responsibility to care for the poor.

The bottom row is where we have dedicated liberals, ranging from socialists who want a minimal government to capitalists who want a minimal government. In the center I put classical liberalism, the view that had a great influence on our Constitution and Bill of Rights. My opinion: Same as the third row.

One important thing to note is that the voters in the democrat party come from much of the center-left area. Social liberals, social democrats, and even some conservative liberals tend to group together in our democrat party, along with an occasional democratic or state socialist. The people who typically get elected (i.e. the ones who can be bought by corporations and rich individuals) are who you find in the box labeled as the democrat party. The same thing goes for the republican party…in fact, republican supporters come from an even wider area than democrats, ranging from social democracy all the way down to classical liberalism, over to right-wing libertarianism, and up into the region of fascism.

Most of the intelligent and reasonable conservatives I know fit into conservative liberalism, as much as they might hate being associated with liberals (they don’t seem to realize the alternative is authoritarianism). They are on the side of personal freedom just like I am, but our opinions differ on the purpose of government, especially when it comes to economics. I think the most important purpose of government is maintaining and protecting the well-being of the people, which means it should be focused on eliminating poverty, providing healthcare and education, maintaining equal freedoms for minorities, and so on. Conservatives are usually religious and think their religion and/or private organizations should be responsible for social services, while government should only exist for general administration, law enforcement, and protecting the country from outside threats.

The squares marked social liberalism and social democracy tend to mix together a lot. Social democracy is where we get things like police, fire departments, public roads, and other socialist projects. I put it on the authoritarian side because those projects are often controlled by the government, not the people. Social liberalism is a version of classical liberalism that focuses more on the responsibility we have to provide assistance to people who need it and protect the rights of minorities, and the term lends itself better to private control and government implementation (the government works for us), rather than government control and private implementation (we work for the government).

There are plenty of other terms as well that could replace some of these, or go along with them, but I didn’t want to make it too complicated. Once you understand how the spectrum works, it’s pretty easy to place any political ideology in roughly the area it belongs. American progressivism would be found in the center four squares of the left half. American conservatism is found in the center four squares of the right half. The various forms of Marxism are found throughout the entire leftmost column.

The most important point of this chart is that regardless of how far left or right someone is, they can be just as opposed to authoritarianism and just as passionate about personal freedoms. Socialism needs to stop being associated solely with communist dictators, because it can bring a lot of helpful ideas to a democracy or republic (as it already has in America). On the same note, conservatism isn’t bad either, and is perhaps a necessary balance to the progressive leanings of socialism.

It seems that when one or the other is excluded from participating in government, a small number of vocal people from the opposite extreme tend to take control and send the nation careening toward authoritarianism (if I’m correct, this would explain why most dictators are at the extreme ends of the left/right scale). The universal value of personal freedom, plus a balance between conservatism and socialism, is what might keep us from ending up like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.


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