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America's Two-Dimensional Political Spectrum

Updated: Jul 5

In addition to the right/left paradigm, American politics has another dimension. [Photo by Kelly Sikkema]

There is an innate tendency to place a person or group's political standpoint on a linear spectrum. In popular politics, a person or a party is placed on the political spectrum that is thought of in terms of being somewhere between the extreme left and the extreme right. However, this orthodoxy is outdated and oversimplified. For people to become engaged with politics, they need to be aware that it is more than a one-dimensional subject.


The idea of the "right" and the "left" in politics dates from the French revolution. In parliament at the time, the supporters of the king sat on the right side of the chamber, and the supporters of the revolution sat on the left. This has translated into a modern view of politics where those supporting an authoritarian view that favors the wealthy are considered to hold right-wing beliefs, while those who favor social mobility and more personal freedom are considered left wing.


In actual fact, the left/right paradigm only applies to an individual or group's economic viewpoint. A person on the left supports regulation of economic markets up to and including pure communism, while a person on the right supports market deregulation, including unrestricted free-market capitalism. The extent to which a person or group supports an authoritarian or libertarian approach with regards to individual freedom belongs on a different scale.


Thus, an individual or group's political standpoint is two-dimensional, and their view of economic regulation and personal freedom will place them somewhere on a two-dimensional X/Y axis depending on their political outlook. For instance, while Adolf Hitler was high up on the vertical "authoritarian" scale, he was actually centrist in his economic viewpoint.


Similarly, while Joseph Stalin was to the left of Hitler by imposing economic collectivism on the population, he was in a similar position with his approach to personal freedom -- both he and Hitler were absolute dictators. 


The problem is that left/right economic views and authoritarian/libertarian outlooks have become conflated in the public mind. It's easy for people to draw an unfair comparison between political groups and extremist groups due to them sharing an economic outlook. Extremism is authoritarian by nature; it cannot meet its aims without a degree of control over the population.


For instance, a corporate dictatorship based on complete market deregulation favoring large organizations is vastly different from a true free-market economy, which has to have some sort of libertarian outlook to function.


Similarly, the concept of socialism differs from communism by looking to benefit the population rather than exert control over it. While Hitler was actually a socialist in that he believed that free market capitalism should benefit the people, his authoritarianism created a very narrow definition of "the people." For this reason, socialism should not be conflated with National Socialism.


The fact is, few individuals or political groups are on the extremes. While many may tend toward authoritarianism or libertarianism, there are few who believe in a political dictatorship and few pure anarchists. Similarly, the economic left and right often borrow ideas off each other, creating a tendency towards economic centrism.


Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of the two-dimensional political model has reduced the amount of tolerance between those who, on the face of it, have opposing views. This has lead to a polarization of political viewpoints, where there would otherwise be common ground. Ironically, this is the perfect breeding ground for extremism, as intolerance is also authoritarian by nature.


It is time people re-evaluated their politics along the lines of the two-dimensional model. In a democracy, political parties are often a reflection of the views of the voter base, owing to the nature of the electoral system. When views become polarized by an increasingly dogmatic political outlook, the political parties will follow, leading to partisan politics.


When this happens, power is often weighted in favor of one party over the other. This can make regime change difficult, leading to political stagnation. If a lack of ability to find common ground on the part of the populace leads to a breakdown of democracy, it's a situation that benefits no one. 


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