The Political Spectrum

Patrick Henry
4 min readMar 9, 2018

I had the good fortune to spend my undergraduate years at a small Jesuit college. The mission of the Jesuits who taught there was education of undergraduates. The non-Jesuit professors were refugees from the “publish or perish” world of tenure striving that characterizes academia. I did not even know what a TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant) was until I became both as a graduate student. Some of my undergraduate instructors even lacked traditional credentials. They were chosen for their ability to teach as opposed to their ability to do obscure research on obscure subjects. Those suffering from severe insomnia would do well to spend time reading scholarly journals–especially of the social science variety.

One of my Poly Sci professors, who was not academically credentialed, was from England. He had lots of non-traditional ideas about the political process. One was his view of the political spectrum, which is usually depicted as a horizontal line from the far left (Communism) to the far right (Fascism). His visual was a horseshoe. His point being that Communism and Fascism were not opposites but siblings–both totalitarian. He graded the political spectrum based on the level of control any form of government attempted to impose on the citizenry. In thinking about the concept, I have decided that the best visual is two vertical lines that converge at the lower end or a steep V. This is certainly not a concept that explains all variations of political organization or completely explains any of them, but it is still a very useful construct.

Thomas Hobbs explained to us that government is a trade-off between liberty and security. We give up some liberty in order to increase our chances of dying of old age instead of Viking looting. The question is how much liberty we want to give up . . and in trade for what.

For purposes of this analysis, we’ll ignore Anarchists. They want no government at all. There was a time when Anarchists were throwing bombs in support of that position, but that hasn’t happened in awhile, and I am unaware of any significant Anarchist presence in today’s political landscape.

On the left hand line, we start with DLC/blue dog Democrats. They are usually fiscally conservative and somewhat socially liberal. They favor a social safety net within the limits of affordability, and they don’t push for higher taxes most of the time. Jack Kennedy was in this camp. So was Bill Clinton after he lost the House. Next are New Deal Liberals (FDR minus the NRA, which was FDR’s socialist moment). They favor a higher level of social spending and a greater degree of regulation. Social engineering moves up several notches with Progressives. They want to micromanage large segments of the economy–housing, education, energy production/consumption, health care. They want to mandate/nudge all kinds of behavior. Abort any time and anywhere; outlaw plastic bags and Coke; drive a Prius; and ration red meat. Socialists, who are coming back into vogue in England and the U.S., want government to own large parts of the economy and regulate the rest. Communists want to own everything and control thought. My model for Communism isn’t Russia or China, but Cuba. Castro envisioned and partially executed a social model in which everyone worked for the government, and the government provided food, shelter and medical care at no cost. As long as Russia was paying a large part of the bill, it kinda worked.

The line on the right starts with Libertarians. They believe that government should restrict its activities to national defense, a judicial system and some referee style regulation. This Libertarian believes any local jurisdiction should enact any level of safety net/social engineering approved by its voters that doesn’t violate basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Tea Party folks are fiscal jihadists and some are social conservatives. Next come classic Liberals. They strongly support free expression and free trade. They usually favor a relatively robust safety net and regulatory regime. The Economist is their Bible. Country club/Chamber of Commerce/Rockefeller Republicans are barely distinguishable from blue dog Democrats. Social conservatives/evangelicals favor the same level of mandates/social engineering as Progressives. They just favor very different behavior. Red meat and Big Gulps. At the point of convergence are fascists. My model for fascism is not Hitler’s Germany but Franco’s Spain. Hitler was consumed with racial superiority and anti-Semitism. There may have been some racial bigots and anti-Semites among Franco’s followers, but that was not the heart of his movement.

I believe that this view of the political spectrum, based on the level of behavior control, is a useful way to judge public policy. It doesn’t explain everything, especially in the foreign policy realm, but it provides illumination.

In parliamentary systems, many of these viewpoints/ideologies are represented by political parties. In America, the system is rigged. Anyone wanting to get elected pretty much has to be a Democrat or Republican. The last third party that made any headway was Ross Perot’s effort. Before that, George Wallace. No third party since the formation of the Republican party swept the Whigs away has lasted more than two election cycles. I’d like to think that Libertarians could get traction, but no more that 15% of the population supports their principals on a given day. None of the factions cited has ever approached a majority. In parliamentary systems, coalitions are formed. In America, tents are erected to gather enough factions to form a majority. If you are part of a faction, you pretty much have to choose a tent. If you are one of the major parties, you have to decide who to invite into your tent. Usually, the party that strays too far down the spectrum does not win. We should be very thankful for that outcome.