March 25 (Saturday)

The Political Spectrum
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Introduction

Stop! Don’t read this page until you’ve taken the Political Compass test. After you finish the test, copy the results. After you finish this series of articles, you can take the test again, and see how your score changes.

In the last article of the Politix 101 series, we learned about the Left-Right spectrum, which is usually portrayed as a horizontal gradient. It’s a convenient aid, but it’s a little simplistic; remember the examples of liberals who are pro-war, conservatives who care about the environment, etc.? Some authorities maintain the Left-Right spectrum is fine for plotting economic beliefs but not the social dimension.

Political Compass Word Cloud

The Left-Right paradigm also makes it easy to carelessly lionize or demonize people. Would it be fair to give a student an A+ on her report card merely because she’s a liberal?

Fortunatey, there are more refined classification schemes that allow us to study and describe people in the political arena more accurately. One of the best known is the political compass.

Another Dimension

Libertarian-authoritarian spectrum

Another problem is that the Left-Right scheme makes it a little too easy to demonize one side or the other. But there’s a clever solution: Just add a vertical gradient, with authoritarianism at one end and libertarianism or anarchism at the other.

They [left and right] are only two roads to the same end. There is no difference between authoritarian government from the right or the left: the results are the same.
Francis A. Schaeffer

Authoritarianism is more or less the opposite of democracy (rule by the people, or the majority). The most extreme example of an authoritarian government is a one-man (or woman) dictatorship. Authoritarianism is generally regarded as bad, even evil, though there are some surprising exceptions. (Fidel Castro is one of the most admired revolutionaries in the world, and Muammar Gaddafi was probably Africa’s brightest star. Many people even express an admiration for Adolf Hitler, who they feel has been unfairly portrayed by historians.)

A libertarian is someone who is an advocate of the doctrine of free will. Libertarians believe in individual liberty, rather than authoritarian government. More radical, in most people’s minds, is anarchism (rule by everyone, or by no one). Many anarchists don’t believe in government at all.

Ideas like libertarianism and democracy are inspirational, but there’s a catch: Individual responsibility. If people don’t vote or don’t vote smart, a libertarian society won’t function the way it should.

A Values Compass

Political CrossPolitical SpectrumPolitical cross

Now if we combine our Left-Right and Libertarian-Authoritarian gradients to form a cross, things begin to get interesting. The horizontal (Left-Right) axis reflects economic values, while the vertical axis reflects social values.

The political compass does not plot morality or corruption.

But that’s still too simplistic. Rather than divide people into two categories (with intermediate stages in between), we now have four categories. That simply cannot represent the countless ideas, dreams and political experiments that are begging to be explored.

No problem, we just transform our cross into a chart, like the one below. Oops — it still lists just four political categories. However, there’s now room to add many more ideas. Besides, this chart is just one of several competing models.

Such schemes are commonly known as political compasses. There’s even a website called The Political Compass.

Political chart

Connecting the Dots

Political compasses get interesting when we start putting people’s names on them. The image below is adapted from two political compasses on the page About the Political Compass. A team of experts analyzed the words and actions of a number of world leaders, then plotted their presumed positions on the chart.

Political compass
Milton Friedman Adolf Hitler is considered the epitome of evil by the Jewish community, but many Latin Americans (and millions of other people around the world) have more hatred for the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, who was Jewish.

Two people you might find interesting are Adolf Hitler and George W. Bush. Amazingly, Bush is ranked farther to the Right than Hitler. Of course, that represents Bush’s economic policies, which wrecked the U.S. economy. Hitler killed far more people — but one can only wonder how many Bush would have killed if he had Hitler’s dictatorial powers. It would also be interesting to know where Obama would rank on this chart; many people have observed that his actions are little different than Bush’s — possibly even worse.

Other people listed on the chart

1. Robert Mugabe — Marxist and president of Zimbabwe (1987-)
2. Mahmoud Abbas — president of Palestine (2005-)
3. Pope Benedict XVI
4. Romano Prodi — prime minister of Italy (1996-1998) and the tenth president of the european commission (1999-2004)
5. José Zapatero — socialist and prime minister of Spain (2004-)
6. Angela Merkel — chancellor of Germany (2005-)
7. Kevin Rudd — prime minister of Australia (2007-2010)
8. Stephen Harper — prime minister of Canada (2006-)
9. Gordon Brown — prime minister of the United Kingdom (2007-2010)
10. Ehud Olmert — prime minister of Israel (2006-2009)
11. Jose Maria Aznar — prime minister of Spain (1996-2004)
12. Nicolas Sarkozy — president of france (2007-)
13. Silvio Berlusconi — prime minister of Italy (2008-)
14. Margaret Thatcher — prime minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990)

Notice, also, that the leaders of Europe’s most powerful nations — Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom — tend to be right-wing and authoritarian, similar to bush.

The person ranked farthest right on the chart above is Milton Friedman, an economist who is widely hated by the Left, especially in Latin America. Many argue that Friedman’s economic policies are largely responsible for countless deaths and widespread suffering throughout Latin america.

Yet the chart also reveals that right-wingers don’t have a monopoly on extreme authoritarianism (fascism) or tyranny. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Cambodia’s Pol Pot (not listed on the chart above) are two of the most reviled leaders in modern history, and both are considered left-wingers.

Then again, it depends on how you define left-winger. Their economic policies were left-wing, but they clearly didn’t represent the common people; they were very authoritarian.

Famous Left-wingers Pictured above are three of history’s most famous left-wingers, and they couldn’t have been more different. Mahatma Gandhi (left) is perhaps the most prominent symbol of peaceful resistance. Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin (right) was an authoritarian leader who is accused of killing more people than anyone else in history, with the possible exception of fellow communist revolutionary Mao Tse Tung of China. In the center is Che Guevara, a man who wasn’t afraid to kill the bad guys — and that’s precisely why many people revere him. Your opinions of famous people will change as you continue studying politics.

Political Compass Test

Political chart

So what do the results of your test look like? The first time I took it, I scored an almost perfect bullseye, right in the middle of the chart. That surprised me, as I consider myself a left-winger. The second time I took it, I expected to score a little farther north, as I’ve discovered some authoritarian leaders I admire. Surprise again — I scored very close to Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, or perhaps between them and the Dalai Lama (right).

Although I admire Gandhi, I don’t think his tactics would work very well today. Nor do I have a lot of respect for Gandhi’s fans; I’m a bigger fan of Latin American revolutionaries, like Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez. However, it’s important to learn to think for yourself; as they say, follow a great leader’s vision, not the person.

The test isn’t perfect; there were several questions that were very hard for me to answer; I wound up flipping a coin a few times. Nevertheless, the Political Compass test is a fun, simple way to see how you compare to the world’s greatest heroes and monsters. It’s even more interesting if you take the test a second time, just to see how your beliefs have changed. In fact, I recommend you take it again after reading the next article...

Congratulations!