The Political Spectrum: A dive into one of politics rabbit holes.

If you have hanged around The Politician long enough, you may have noticed that most of us have our own page with a small introduction about ourselves, our political interests and our political ideologies. But I believe that more than just pointing out what we believe we are, we should understand what a political Spectrum is.

Politics tends to be usually divided by a Left-Right Spectrum. This spectrum was first conceived during the French Revolution, when the members of the National Assembly started to group together in different parts of the assembly having the supporters of the revolution to the left of the president of the Assembly and supporters of the King to the right of the president of the Assembly. At first, this was a practical solution to avoid conflict and the shouting and insults that could occur. It was also something spontaneous.

It was not until much later that this divide represented actual political beliefs. The process of incorporation of this divide came throughout the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century. It was heavily used during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the inter-war years in Europe, and that is probably the time in which this Left- Right Spectrum stuck.

Politics as an area of philosophical thought came about way before any divide in virtual spectrums. Most people would associate a label to themselves, Monarchist, Republican, Socialist, Democrat, Communist. But a location in a virtual spectrum did not exist.

And thus, nuances between ideologies were not so straight forward and some ideologies would blend. For example, some people argued for Republics while not being necessarily democratic, an example of this is Machiavelli that even though supported the idea that the people always have the correct opinion, he did not support a democratic state.

The first academic study on the matter of political spectrums comes in 1950, by Leonard Ferguson. Ferguson did an empirical search asking people their opinions on ten topics: birth control, capital punishment, censorship, communism, evolution, law, patriotism, theism, treatment of criminals and war. Later grouping these topics into three axes: Religionism, humanitarianism and nationalism. This is the first academic work and probably the first one that dwells in empiric research.

The two models that came after were attempts by psychologists at understanding human values and the correlations these had in political beliefs. The fact that their area was not politics would influence their research.

Hans Eysenck came first with the idea of a compass with two axes in his book Sense and Nonsense in Psychology (1956). One of the axis would be an R-factor for radicalism and a T-factor for tender mindedness. This would create a political compass with four quadrants, in which communism and Nazism would not be together, but they would be closer to each other than they were from liberalism. For Eysenck, a simple Left-Right division did not make sense to him because he believed that there was more in common between Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union than any of these two political models with democratic countries.

The tough mindedness fact was found with no values associated with it and Milton Rokeach argued technically about it, believing that tough mindedness is not a present value in human natural values. But even though he did not agree with the T-factor, Rokeach believed that Eysenck did find something correct with the R-factor and he applied his own perspective of human values onto studies, conducted by picking citations from political leaders and asking how much people agreed with it.

The conclusion Rokeach arrived at was that there was one sole difference between soviet communism and Nazism, and that difference was that Soviet communism believed that equality was more important than the Nazis believed. And thus, complications arise with Eysenck’s model. Rokeach did attempt a compass in 1976 in which the two axes, Freedom and Equality.

In later research, Eysenck would bring an economical factor into his political compass. But this is a symptom of how politics would evolve. The more time passes by, the more conflict and two positions topics exist.

Examples of this is the continuous attempts at creating a new political spectrum, be it political compass or just multiple axis. Just to name a few we have the Nolan Chart, Pournelle Chart, Inglehart: traditionalist-secular and self expressionist-survivalist (which in my opinion is one of the most interesting since it is more of a political map of countries beliefs in two axes with four points), Mitchell: Eight Ways to Run the Country.

The more one does research, the more one starts to understand that a simple chart with axes gets too complex to describe positions, especially if we take in consideration other aspects of political life, such as the fact that American and European politics have different key issues with different aspects.

There is also the fact that depending where one is in the world; the political centre is wildly different. For Americans, the centre is what Europeans would call right wing, or even somewhere inside the right authoritarian quadrant of a political compass.

I think that we can conclude that a political spectrum that will accurately depict everyone’s positions is not going to exist any time soon. But to argue that the idea, and tradition, of a political spectrum is unfruitful, is wrong. We can still use somewhat of a spectrum to understand where our ideas are leading us to, and what literature surround us at a specific political moment of our lives. If we start believing that the state should have control over the production of the essential goods, then to know where such idea is positioned may point us into the right political writings.

My argument in this regard is that we should ditch the political compass, but only partly. Like I mentioned before, it can be a very useful tool, but it also has many disadvantages. Not only it cannot accommodate the increasing different views of the world, it may also leave people with contradicting ideas alienated. And just because a political compass says that two ideas are of different quadrants, that does not mean that they cannot come together due to a third power such as technology.

I believe that when presenting ourselves in terms of politics, we should use terms that correlate with the ideologies we believe. For example, a Social Democrat, or a Social Liberal, or a Neo Conservative and a Conservative. Labels have served us for thousands of years and a left-right divide is just a generalization and grouping of similar, yet different, political opinions.

Simple labels that bring more certainty to discussion than vague terms like left right. Of course, all these terms have political baggage that would leave any newcomer to politics lost, but that is when the compass enters. It is a rigid map of a vague and fluid world, and even if the map is not 100% correct, it helps us recognise which ideology is where. Once the newcomer becomes an amateur, that map should be dropped and the fine nuances between political positions can be studied.

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