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Navigating the stormy seas of politics with the Political Compass

September 03, 2008
It's presidential election time again. Yes, it's that special time that happens only once every four years where party lines are carved deeper than ever through the country by politicians who proceed to build trenches around their candidates while hurling smear after devastating smear at the opposition. We as the American public are forced to watch this display and to decide where our confidence lies based upon the positions and platforms held by each candidate. But before this can happen, we must know where we stand ourselves. This is where a political test can be a big help.

Political tests, when administered correctly, can accurately plot the test-taker on the political spectrum and indirectly show them which candidate, party or other political organization should garner their support. Over the years, I've taken quite a few political tests online and have found that unfortunately many of them tend to be too simplistic or too overly biased in one way or another to be considered accurate. There is one test, however, that I've found to be incredibly accurate and also quite user-friendly. That test is the Poltical Compass, which can be found easily enough at www.politicalcompass.org.

The positions of the 2008 US Presidential Primary candidates. (Courtesy of politicalcompass.org)
I stumbled upon the Political Compass around five years ago after searching for a good political test, and I have since returned to it again and again over the years to track my political position and to see where prominent politicians fall on the graph. In addition to my own praises, many of my friends whom I've recommended this test to have deemed it incredibly informative. But, of course, that's for you the reader to decide.

The Political Compass' design is different than most political tests you'll find on the Web or in print. Instead of functioning purely on a Left to Right horizontal scale, this test operates on two axes, a horizontal axis and a vertical axis. The horizontal axis represents economic views and the vertical axis represents social views. The economic views range from the economic left (socialism) to the economic right (capitalism). The social views range from the social right (authoritarianism) at the top of the axis and the social left (libertarianism) at the bottom. Differentiating between these two complex facits of political ideology makes this test far more accurate than any test that combines them.

The test itself is a set of statements with which the test-taker is asked to strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree. Each statement reflects the view of one or more ideology and nearly all controversial topics and dividing issues are brought up in the test. Your level of agreement or disagreement with each statement affects where you will end up on the graph. At the end of the test, the test-taker is shown the graph and where they fall on it by a bright red dot. They're also given coordinates of where the dot is plotted.

But even after you get your results, they may not make sense to you purely on their own. You may need to compare your own score to the scores of other historical or contemporary political figures that the site features in order to get a proper grasp of where you are on the spectrum. The scores for the candidates in the 2008 US Presidential Primaries can be seen in Figure 1a. I'll be returning to those scores in a moment, but first I need to provide some further clarification.

To provide more help in figuring out just what your placement on the chart means, I've taken the compass and divided each quadrant into two of the major ideologies prominent to that particular quadrant. This can be seen in Figure 1b.

This is not to say that these eight ideologies are the only ones represented on the compass. No, I could divide and subdivide each quadrant a dozen times with several varients of the dominant ideologies. Of course, we would be left with a very confusing chart full of overlapping philosophies that would be too cluttered to even read, let alone divulge information from.

The Political Compass divided into eight major ideologies for easier reference. (By Nick Simpson)
So, instead, I've decided on eight ideologies that more or less represent the majority of the bisections they're placed in. I decided the placement based upon the social and economic stances of each ideology and used the political figures that tend to represent those beliefs to double check my situations. Since words like "liberalism" and "conservatism" can mean very different things in different countries and in different points in time, I've tried to use a modern and Western definition of these terms while providing key qualifiers, like "classical" and "neo" and so forth, that serve to separate each branch of the parent philosophies from off-shoots.

For the sake of space, I'll only briefly explain each ideology, beginning with the-top right quadrant where a meeting of the social and economic right takes place and the philosophies of neo-conservatism and liberal conservatism are featured.

Neo-conservatism is a loaded term as it has been used as a somewhat pejorative word by some members of the left and has had its existence doubted by some members of the right. The context in which I use the word is the way in which Irving Kristol, the founder of American Neo-Conservatism, meant it. Originally, neo-conservatism was a reactionary anti-communist movement but has since grown into an ideology that basically favors a far more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy than classical conservatism, now dubbed paleoconservatism, and promotes the enforcement of traditional values by the government as opposed to merely supporting those values as conservatives had done in the past. The "neo" part of neo-conservatism is purely a social change as they still favor a free market economic system.

A majority of the Republicans in Washington at this time fall within the confines of neo-conservatism. The location of many of the 2008 Republican primary candidates in figure 1a support this claim.

The majority of Democrats in Washington are slightly more left socially and economically than the Republicans but not by much, as the chart suggests. They fall within the category of liberal conservatism.

As with all the ideologies on the right part of this compass, liberal conservatism favors a free market system, but it differs from classical liberalism, where the roots of the free market lie, in its support for traditional values and systems as well as the authority of the government more than its support for individual liberty. The result is basically a more moderate form of modern neo-conservatism.

The position of the majority of the American Public. (Courtesy of politicalcompass.org)
The bottom-right quadrant is a combination of the economic right and the social left, and since I've already touched on a bit with the above descriptions, I'll breeze through it quickly. Classical liberalism is a philosophy that believes in individual rights, the free market system and limited government. Paleoconservatism is the representation of the anti-authoritarian right wing and serves as a foil to a neo-conservatism in its support for limited government on the federal level and a more isolationist foreign policy.

The bottom-left quadrant combines the social and economic left. Social liberalism promotes the same individual rights as classical liberalism but favors a more mixed economy that seeks to guarantee such public services as universal health care. Social liberals also favor more regulations on businesses to prevent the development of monopolies or oligopolies and generally favor more government-imposed environmental restrictions.

Libertarian socialism is a classic anti-state, anti-capitalism philosophy that believes the means of production should rest solely in the hands of the worker and oppose managerial hierarchies within industry and government. As opposed to communism, libertarian socialism believes a socialist economy can be maintained on a more local level through the use of labor unions, trade unions and citizen councils rather than a large centralized government. In other words, communism is "top-down" socialism and libertarian socialism is "bottom-up."

The last quadrant at the top-left combines the social right with the economic left and features communism and social democracy.

Communism's end goal may be similar to libertarian socialism, but its way of getting there is far different. Application of the pursuit of a stateless, classless society through communism has historically involved a large authoritarian state that dictates socialist policy and the use of a command economy where all business is controlled by the central government.

The last ideology, social democracy, can be seen as a more moderate Marxism that believes in the mixing of socialist and capitalist economic policy while laxing the control of the central government. Social democrats favor a democratic welfare state with a government that fulfills a more managerial rather than authoritarian role.

So, by now you should be able to understand your position by comparing it to prominent political figures and the dominant ideologies surrounding your coordinates, but if you're still curious, as I was, as to where your score falls in with the rest of the American public, you're in luck.

Just for all of you, I spent almost two weeks going through opinion poll after opinion poll looking for questions that were similar to or expressed the same sentiment as the statements on the political compass test. I used only credible poll sources with random samples of enough people that would guarantee a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent or lower. It was a lot of hard work, but I feel pretty confident in the plotting of the majority of the American public displayed in Figure 1c.

As you can see, the majority of the public comes very close to the actual political center while still falling within the confines of social liberalism. This shouldn't come as any big surprise to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to opinion polls over the years. The majority of Americans tend to support some sort of universal health care system as well as environmental regulations on businesses and protectionist practices that shift their economic score quite a bit left from the absolute free market. What is a bit surprising is the visual representation of the distance between the majority of the public displayed in Figure 1c and the prominent political figures that tend to represent the two major parties at large in Figure 1a.

I've already explained the economic reasons, but it's really the social scale that separates the public more from those that represent them. It's true that no political party is static and that they all fluctuate in economic and social stances over time. The current social shift towards authoritarianism by both parties came gradually after WWII when the United States began to adopt an increasingly aggressive and interventionist foreign policy. However, there have been markedly sharp movements towards the social right over the years with the most recent one occuring after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the following years after the attack, legislation enacted to fight the War on Terror resulted in passing of laws such as the Patriot Act that gave the government much more leeway in domestic surveillance. The Homeland Security Department was created to enforce these provisions within the act.

The other bump to the social right came with the Bush Doctrine of preventative war, which basically states the United States reserves the right to invade a country in pre-emptive self-defense based on the threat of a future conflict. This was best demonstrated by the Executive and Congressional backing of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

According to opinion polls (some of which are referenced in the methodology), the majority of the American public opposes legislation they see as curbing civil liberties and does not support the doctrine of preventative warfare. Hence, there becomes a separation between the public and Washington.

What's even more interesting than the apparent lack of proportionate representation of the majority of the public's views is the way in which people holding views outside of that top-right section are treated both within Washington and in the major media. Sticking with the figures I've provided, let's use Dennic Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Ralph Nader in Figure 1a as examples. Often the views of these men are deemed "too radical" or "too extreme" or "out of step with the rest of the country" by many of those in Congress as well as by other critical voices within the larger media. This can directly influence the number of votes these men receive in any sort of election because people tend to vote for a candidate they think can win, i.e. appeal to the majority of the people. What's sad is that public opinion on many important issues, with the exception of approval ratings, gets so little coverage that people really can't tell how the rest of the country will vote and so they simply choose the frontrunners of the parties, determined by the amount of money spent on campaigning and overall media coverage. This is where political tests, discussing views with your fellow Americans and studying public opinion can come in handy. I recommend visiting www.pollingreport.com for that last one.

Hopefully, this column has been somewhat informative to all you readers out there and will help you in all your future election decisions or even political ventures of your own.

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