Friday, January 14, 2005

The Perils of Ideological Continua and Coordinate Systems

We use the words Left and Right to describe Liberal and Conservative ideological and political leanings. The phrases stem, if I remember correctly, from the seating arrangement in the first French Parliament in the late 18th century. That was a long time ago. By now, most people realize that a straight Left/Right continuous line does not represent the ideological spectrum very well, yet the terms are still in constant use and, more importantly, concept is still the bedrock of our gut understanding of politics (bad mixed metaphors, I know, sorry, but I love mixed metaphors!). This is how we instinctively think, except when we explicitely focus on this problem. It looks somewhat like this:

(for those of you with Macs who cannot see my images, it is a straight line. The left end is blue and labeled Liberal, the right end is red and labeled Conservative, while the middle portion is purple and labeled Moderate).

Well, solution to the problem is simple - deleting the middle portion altogether - but I will get to that later. What most people who thought about this noticed was that many people did not fall neatly on this continuum. A person may be quite conservative on taxes and liberal on the environment, for instance. The issues tended, or so appeared, to cluster together for most people in such a way that one would be consistent on most economic issues and again consistent on most non-economic issues. The way to represent this graphically was invented that looks somewhat like this:

(An XY coordinate system. X-axis represents economic issues, moving from liberal left to conservative right. The Y-axis represents social issues, moving from liberal top to conservative bottom.)

This has quite a few problems. First it assumes that economic issues are monolithic within each person. Second, it assumes that all non-economic issues are social (how about foreign policy?). Third, it assumes that all non-economic issues are monolithic within each person. Fourth, it continues the fallacy of the continuum, i.e., assuming that someone's view of an issue can be "moderate" or "extreme". There are no moderate stands on issues. On each issue, there are several possible stands. Some of the stands are consistent, and I mean 100% consistent, with a liberal view, and the other stands are 100% consistent with a conservative view of the world.

See my classification of foreign policy views (here:, for an example. Isolationism is a stand completely consistent with a conservative worldview, epsecially in the past. We are presumed to be better than the rest of the world (, we are safe from Canada and Mexico, and protected by oceans from the rest of the world, thus we can enjoy our lives in our big castle here smack in the middle of the North American continent and let the rest of the world go to hell if they are so inclined. Rabidly aggressive neoconservatism is also 100% consistent with conservative worldview. It is also more modern, as it takes into account the effects of globalization on our safety - intercontinental missiles, computer hackers, terrorists with box-cutters can all get at us easily - the oceans do not protect us any more. Thus, in order to keep the proper moral order in the world, i.e., the "we are better than them" way of thinking, we have to go around and bomb other countries all into submission, just like kicking a dog after someone beat you, and call it "spreading democracy". On the other hand, isolationism can be a 100% liberal stand, if it is inspired by the notion that we are one of 200 equal countries in the world and that, particularly due to our size, wealth and power, we need to be specially humble and benevolent. On the other hand, "the new military humanism" as insane as it is, is completely consistent with the liberal mind. There are no middle-ground, "moderate" stands.

Another problem with this scheme is a misunderstanding of what exactly are liberal and conservative economic stands. Common wisdom is sterotypical and wrong. It states that free markets are a conservative value, while governmetal control is a liberal value. I explained that in detail before ( and, but the opposite is the case. Liberals are for well-regulated free market. Conservatives are for monopolistic, top-down, oligarchic elite-controlled economics. And, since the money elites are de facto running the government, conservatism is the ideology of governmental control.

You will see in a minute why this XY-system scheme is unrealistic and wrong, but let me show you another way of graphical representation first, popularized by websites like Political Compass ( This one is most favoured by libertarians:

(Another XY coordinate system. X-axis is a standard Liberal to Conservative continuum. Y-axis is a continuum between "more authoritarian" on top to the "less authoritarian" on the bottom.)
Now, how do you do the math on this system? Liberal is already "less authoritarian" and conservative is already "more authoritarian" so you can have data points only in the lower-left and upper-right quadrants. This is exactly what you see if you do the test on Political Compass and compare your results with other US and world politicians, who ALL fall onto a pretty straight line cutting through the middle of these two quadrants at about 45-degree angle. This system is utter nonsense. Plus, it keeps all the wrong assumptions of the previous coordinate system described above.

Libertarians love this scheme for their own emotional reasons. Their core value is anti-authoritarianism (frankly, it is also mine, but I am a liberal). But, if you follow the libertarian logic to its full conclusion, you will end in tragedy. If libertarians ever took control of the government, there will be two possible outcomes. First one will start with anarchy, leading to dog-eat-dog world, leading to nationwide murder-fest, leading to emergence of a few most unscrupulous murderous thugs as "leaders" of the new totalitarian regime. We've seen this happen in many places, including in post-communist Eastern Europe. The second possible outcome is a more ordered system, something I like to call "dictatorship of the proletariat", an illusion of personal freedom similar to that fostered in the past by Mr. Stalin and Mr. Zedong. For more on libertarians, see

I have played before with (and saw others do, too) circular representations of ideology. But all such representations seem to reflect the amount of aggression one is willing to exert for one's cause. Thus on one end of the circle are the fearful middle-class "status quo" people. Go around the circle 180 degrees and you meet anti-abortion doctor-killers, animal-rights lab-rat-killers, classical neo-Nazis, virulent wacko-environmetalists, militia-men, anti-war protesters, etc. - a strange assortment of both liberal and conservative extremist people with more emotional problems than common sense. Circular graphs, apart from also buying into the "continuum" fallacy, and mapping political methodology rather than ideology, are so useless I will not even bother drawing one - - you all know how a circle looks like: it's round.

Now, after all these months of thinking (following my reading of Lakoff's "Moral Politics" and "Don't Think of an Elephant", Ducat's "The Wimp Factor" and Parenti's "Superpatriotism"), I prefer something that looks like this:

(a blue dot labeled "liberal" with radial "spokes" of different lengths coming out of it, some spokes labeled as "DLC", "postmodernists", "animal rightists"; etc.; and a red dot labeled "conservative" with radial spokes labeled as "libertarian", "old GOP" etc. The spokes emenating from the two centers never touch, cross, or overlap, as they are not in the same plane - which is hard to draw in MSPaint!)

According to this bimodal scheme, one is, at one's core, either a liberal or a conservative. There are no intermediates or moderates as such. However, members of one "tribe" may disagree on a particular issue, or even a particular piece of legislation, due to a multi-step thought process emanating from one's ideological core, but modified by one's personal experiences, particular expertise, or acces to special infromation. These multi-step thought processes lead individuals to diverge away from the core along the radial spokes. Just as in the case of foreign policy I described above, one can start at the same core and reach different, even completely opposite conclusion on the issues, thus choosing to support or oppose a particular piece of legislation. Thus some liberal groups and some conservative groups may occasionaly join forces in pushing for or against a particular law, although they are ideologically so different they may just as well belong to different hominid species. The fact they agree on particular piece of legislation does not mean they see eye to eye ideologically. The two groups did not reach their conclusion following the same kind of reasoning and they most definitely did not start from the same core set of beliefs about human nature and the way world works.

Now, to this complexity, add another level. As Lakoff points out, many people are capable of switching, at moment's notice, between liberal and conservative modes. One may be a liberal at home and conservative at work (in a derived sense, of course, as in Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent modes), thus it is possible for one person to have a view on an issue derived from his or her liberal core, while holding views on other issues derived from his or her conservative core. It must be awfully conflicting being such a person, almost like being a pious Christian and an evolutionary biologist - you have to work hard to keep two persons within you apart.

So, every person's ideology can be visualized as a jigsaw puzzle in which every piece represents a stand on a single issue. Some people will have puzles with very few pieces as they generally do not care or pay attention, do not have opinions on many issues, or are rabid about one single issue and ignore the rest. Others, usually better educated, will have one of those 1500-piece puzzles. Very few people will have all puzzle pieces blue, or all of them red, even if different hues denote radial deviations from the cores. The deeply ingrained erroneous stereotype of free-market conservatives and government-control liberals will produce a mix of blue and red puzzle pieces in many Americas' puzzles. An occasional grey piece may be found here and there, denoting a strong and complete indecisiveness on a particular issue (as many have about guns or abortion, for instance).

Having one's jigsaw puzzle all of one color makes one feel good - the puzzle is "solved" and there is harmony in the world. Political campaigns are efforts to get the people to exchange puzzle pieces: red for blue or vice versa, in order to make a more consistently colored puzzle. Republicans want more people to have more red-colored puzzles and they have been very good at this lately. Democrats have to find a way to get people to buy more blue pieces. Good understanding of what is a red and what is a blue stand on an issue is crucial (as opposed to the meaning of various hues of the same color). Clear understanding that there is no such thing as a purple puzzle-piece is another key to winning in the future. There is no such thing as "moving to the Right" - you just fall into the Nth-dimensional empty space between the two core ideologies. You are selling transparent puzzle-pieces that nobody wants - they want color: red or blue.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 1:27 AM | permalink | (3 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink