An American Political Spectrum


The mainstream media would have you believe that all American politics come down to a single spectrum: from liberalism on the left to conservatism on the right:

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That spectrum gives the simpleminded something to argue about—Republicans each trying to convince the other that they are the more conservative, and Democrats trying to convince each other that they are the more moderate. It also permits politicians to avoid inconvenient thought: on this spectrum, American thought is weighted toward the right—we are a fairly conservative nation, considering our birth in fire and revolution—and American politicians follow American thought like shops setting up in the middle of town on the one main drag.

There is a more important spectrum, though, one extreme end of which would have totalitarianism and the other extreme end of which would have anarchy:

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Call the right end of the spectrum “authoritarianism” or (as my friend Michael would have it) “statism”; the left end of the spectrum is libertarianism or egalitarianism.

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This spectrum is much more important in jury selection than the conservative-liberal spectrum. Give me a conservative egalitarian over a liberal authoritarian any day. It’s also more important to freedom in the broader context: the more people think about how much government is acceptable to achieve their (liberal or conservative) goals, the less government we’ll have and the freer we’ll be.

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Liberals can be more or less authoritarian (from Stalin to Jesus), as can conservatives (from Hitler to someone who never became famous because he minded his own business and didn’t make any waves). But the more egalitarian a person is, the less important his position on the left-right liberal-conservative spectrum. You might be very conservative in your personal life and your neighbor might be very liberal in hers; you and your neighbor might not like hanging out together, you might argue about right and wrong, you might not like your kids hanging out next door, but if you’re both very egalitarian your disagreement isn’t a political one—you agree that it’s none of the government’s damn business what you do in your personal lives. So the political spectrum takes this rough shape:

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Disputes about liberalism and conservatism are relevant only in proportion to the power that is to be given the state. There is negligible public support for downright totalitarianism in America (at the moment), and we are more conservative than we are liberal, so the spectrum could be redrawn a little:

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Further, while there is a growing body of absolutist libertarians who think we can get by with no government at all, there is little public support for anarchy or even minarchy (witness Republicans’ response to Ron Paul; the media and most voters don’t know what to make of Paul because he doesn’t fit well into their liberal-conservative view of the world). So in our descriptive representation of modern American political thought we can truncate the top of the triangle:

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Notice that the farthest-left libertarians are politically much nearer the farthest-right libertarians than their more-authoritarian equivalents are to each other.

Authoritarianism is naturally not a trait that Americans like to see in themselves. The most authoritarian person will deny with his dying great that he is authoritarian. A key component of authoritarianism is submission to established authorities, and authoritarians don’t see themselves as submissive—they just follow the law.

Another component of authoritarianism is conventionalism. When the authoritarian learns that his views are outside those of the in-group, he will present himself as closer to the in-group’s:

You can also gauge the conventionalism of authoritarian followers through my “feedback-conformity experiments.” I simply tell a group who earlier had filled out a scale for me what the average response had been to each item, in the sample as a whole…. Then I ask the sample to answer the scale again….High RWAs [Right-Wing Authoritarians] shift their answers toward the middle about twice as much as lows do.

Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians (pdf).

So, given that authoritarians’ conventionalism makes them present themselves publicly as not-authoritarian, how do we tell the more authoritarian from the less?

Tune in later.


10 responses to “An American Political Spectrum”

    • I don’t claim to have invented the idea of a two-dimensional political spectrum. But Nolan’s spectrum isn’t quite right. He has statists of no particular social leaning (that is, neither conservative nor liberal). I don’t think such creatures exist: those who want more government want it, as a practical matter, to advance their personal agendas.

      In my fifth diagram (the big triangle) I even thought about leaving a triangular gap at the bottom, because people who favor more of a state are less likely to be socially moderate.

  1. Maybe we could reconcile your political spectrum diagram with Nolan’s by recognizing that the liberal-conservative axis is a simplification of a multifaceted array of political opinions. I’m thinking of oppressive regimes, for example, which suppressed free markets and free speech, gays and guns, pornography and religion. It’s not that their authoritarianism has no particular social leaning, it’s that their authoritarianism has no bounds. They just average out in the middle.

    On another note, I am awed by your command of web-based presentation graphics.

  2. Alex,

    initially I was referring to the old T.V. game show Jeopardy hosted by “Alex Trebeck” and meant to say TUTOR. Guess I now need two…..tuTors…!

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