Rethinking the Political Spectrum

Rethinking the Political Spectrum

This article, written for the Mount Observer, identifies crucial flaws of the traditional left-right political spectrum and introduces peers to a broader ideological map, The Political Compass. 

Edited and Published by The Mount Observer

Published in The Mount Observer (Volume XX, Issue X) 

Although the United States has always housed great ideological diversity, few ideas have traditionally been accepted in mainstream politics. As a result, popular American perception of the political spectrum has been incredibly narrow; simplifying the complex world of political theory into ‘left’ and ‘right.’ However, in today’s world of instant communication, political polarization, and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, various non-traditional ideologies have thrived. This makes the traditional left-right spectrum increasingly inadequate for mapping the complex differences between individuals. Therefore, in the wake of a more diverse political climate, it is crucial to reassess our perception of the political spectrum and our individual placements on it.

The Political Compass was created by political journalists and professors in the United Kingdom to provide a broader, more relevant method to map political ideologies. By dividing the spectrum into two axes (economic and social), the Political Compass accounts for differences which would be overlooked by the simplistic traditional range. The left-right spectrum assumes that those on the left are pro-government and those on the right are pro-markets; simply not accounting for socialist libertarians (such as Gandhi) and pro-market authoritarians (like Hitler). This assumption alienates many ideologies and fails to map crucial distinctions. By utilizing two independent axes, the Political Compass provides a spectrum which is more specific, accurate, and encompassing of more ideologies.

The Economic Axis

The economic scale (represented on the x-axis) reflects an individual’s level of preference between economic collectivism (left) and individualism (right). Since this placement is meant to be viewed in conjunction with the social axis (y), the economic scale is rather vague. Those closer to the left generally support an economy based on cooperation (rather than competition) and equality, while those closer to the right generally embrace the concepts of markets and capitalism. This distinction is crucial to understanding ideological differences, yet it alone cannot provide a full understanding of the political spectrum.

Two individuals could agree that the economy should be collectivized while disagreeing about the means to achieve it; such as whether through an authoritarian government or voluntary regional planning. Likewise, two individuals could agree that markets are central to an ideal economy; though they could easily disagree about the perfect level of government involvement. These differences cannot be mapped by the left-right spectrum, which equates all on the right as libertarians and all on the left as authoritarians. The spectrum necessitates a second axis to represent favorability towards authority.

The Social Axis

To address this, the creators of the Political Compass added a social axis (y) to map favorability towards government. Libertarians occupy the lower end and authoritarians are at the top. As the economic axis separates collectivists from individualists, the social axis distinguishes free-marketeers from state-capitalists and democratic socialists from Stalinists.

In current American politics, the social axis is perhaps most visible in the rise of Donald Trump and the resulting shift of Republican doctrine. As Republicans reject the idea of limited government in favor of protectionism, a more powerful military, and stricter immigration policies, the party becomes more favorable towards government – raising their social placement on the Compass, even if their economic position remained unchanged. On the traditional left-right scale, these uses of government are unaccounted for. Ideological maneuvers such as these epitomize our need to reconsider the conventional left-right spectrum.

The website of the Political Compass (politicalcompass.org) offers free, anonymous quizzes for anyone wondering their placement on the Compass, as well as thorough analyses of each quadrant and the placements of famous politicians. If you take the test, you will likely find that it works on global ideological standards, as opposed to the narrow spectrum of mainstream American politics. For fascinating discoveries such as these, I encourage you to take the Political Compass test and explore the sites’ offerings. Your results will likely surprise you.

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