The Political Spectrum
Let’s start where everything politically-motivated starts – with your understanding of the political spectrum. When reading this, I want you to make sure you fully understand where you stand on this spectrum so you can understand many of these political motivations and where they come from. The fact is, your understanding of the political spectrum is wrong. The people you talk to about their political leanings don’t understand it, and even our politicians have failed to comprehend their true standing on the scale.
As you know it, the political spectrum is a left-to-right scale with liberals (Democrats) on the left, and conservatives (Republicans) on the right. As a very basic level, this does an adequate job of capturing where you stand on the social scale. I’d like to make sure you understand where this left-right idea came from.
In the late 1700s, France was the first European colonialist nation to overthrow their monarchy and install a democratic government. Their new assembly was still violently divided. In the center of their newly formed legislature, much like a modern day parliamentary system, the speaker of the assembly sat in the front of the room, with the commoners seated to their left, and the Aristocracy on their right. At the most basic level, this symbolized the division between individuals representing civil liberties of the common man and woman, and their distance from the aristocrats representing the values of the wealthy, the royal, and the church interests. You may find many parallels with today’s American legislature.
After the falls of our original democracies in Greece in 529 and Rome in 1453, a period of dominant European colonialism saw the most powerful nations in the world being led by monarchies, aristocracies, and plutocracies.
For those of you a few years removed from middle school history classes, constitutional and absolute monarchies are nations run by a noble blood line. A very common example of an absolute monarchy would be 18th century Great Britain, in which one leading sovereign, a king or queen, of a specific noble blood line, would lead the government and have absolute power over governmental operations. Britain later became a constitutional monarchy, in which the sovereign represented a head of state, but all governmental decisions were made by the legislature and carried out by the prime minister.
The concept of an aristocracy was developed by the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and is the empowerment of a small social class, viewed (typically only by those in power) to be elites and of moral and intellectual ascendency, to govern and rule in the interest of the entire population. In many historically aristocratic societies, the elites were often those with the most money or the backing of the church at the time the government was installed. Many modern nations still have remnants of aristocracies at their helm – Denmark, England, Spain, Nigeria, and the United States.
I know you’re asking, “America? Really?”
Absolutely. A 2010 supreme court case entitled ‘Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission’ pitted a conservative nonprofit against the nation’s federal election regulation agency, which had stated an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary Citizens wished to air and promote prior to the 2008 election would give the nonprofit undue influence over the outcome of the election. The Supreme Court decided five to four in favor of Citizens United and therefor unlocked the opportunity for nonprofit and for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other associations to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns. While this doesn’t directly result in aristocrats gaining political power, it gives them financial power over the election process and therefor heavy-handed influence over the result of those elections. This is a hybrid oligarchical system, which leads us to our final common form of early colonial European governments – the plutocracies.
A plutocracy expresses a civilization controlled or organized by the tiniest fraction of its richest peoples. Because of the Citizens United decision, one could argue the United States is an aristocratic democratic oligarchy – in which a small minority of the richest Americans and corporations have significant influence over our democratic elections.
It’s important to remember the political spectrum of the 18th century was much more conservative than the modern-day spectrum, but its tendrils still reach into and manipulate the workings of today’s governments. Historically, we’ve seen the spectrum continually shift toward the left as elitist systems have grown slowly into empowerment of the people. For example, the shift from Britain’s absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchical system. One can also point to Abraham Lincoln’s Republicanism being incredibly left-leaning and anti-aristocratic at the time, but of a party now viewed to be on the right side of our 21st century political spectrum. In the modern age, the Affordable Care Act of 2009 saw considerable opposition from the conservative party due to its federalization of healthcare, yet an attempt from conservatives to repeal and replace the plan in 2017 with the American Health Care Act saw federalization now as the backbone of the conservative plan.
It is safe to say our political spectrum is growing to the left and our Democrat-Republican slice is only a small portion of a long line to the right, including many older, and commonly unaccepted as outdated, forms of government. Decoupling from elitism-based governments will move you further toward the left of the social scale, and empowerment of the common man and woman.
To give you an idea of our modern slice of the spectrum, imagine Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter mid-left, Harry Truman slightly left of center, Nixon slightly right of center, and George W Bush on the mid-right. If you add in important modern fixtures of our government, Bernie Sanders would be on the far left of the spectrum, followed by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz on the far right. Here’s an easier way to visualize it:
If you’re in-tune with the politics of modern day, you’re probably curious why Barack Obama campaigned as a centrist, but let as a much more liberal president. The idea his campaign (and later, his administration) followed is something called campaigning toward the moderate center. In a two-party primary election system, you often find candidates work to mobilize the strongest supporters of their ideals, commonly called their base. In the 2016 primaries, for example, Clinton and Sanders both campaigned much farther to the liberal left of the political spectrum in order to capture as many liberal votes as they could in each state’s primary elections. This is a delicate balance of catering your message to your base just enough to capture the most votes, but not so far out there that you alienate any more moderate voters within your political range.
Some candidates find much more success at campaigning to the moderate center than others, and I often point to George W. Bush as a cautionary tale. When Bush first entered the 2000 primaries, he ran as a much more hardline conservative than we had seen in recent history. This was to garner more votes from his conservative base than his next-strongest opponent: John McCain. In doing so, he mobilized a Republican base so deeply in need of conservative leadership and heftily won Republican primaries in forty-four states.
Bush was very successful at campaigning to his conservative base, but would struggle when he ran for office in the general election. He would have to overcome a strong opponent in the well-admired Vice President Al Gore in order to win the popular vote. This would be the real challenge. Governor (at the time) Bush would have to make some begrudging policy and rhetoric concessions to moderate voters in America. With those concessions, his campaign slow meandered toward the left, and much closer to the center of the political spectrum than his far-right primary campaign. It was in making those changes to his talking points that the Governor won the victory he sought, and became the forty-third president of the United States.
President Bush may not have won the popular vote, but he did successfully navigate the politics of the electoral college to win the Presidency, and with it, a chance to run again for re-election four years later. What followed was a drastically moderate presidency. Please note, I say his presidency was moderate only when compared to how devoutly he catered toward the evangelical Christian right during his first primary campaign. He also, whether it was failure to capitalize upon the opportunity or lack of will to do so, could have led a much more conservative administration, considering he had both a Republican Congress, and a national crisis of terrorism and public safety he could manipulate and politicize for his causes. When compared to the actions of a Trump administration, we see in much more dire clarity how conservative, dangerous, and frankly erratic a Bush administration could have been.
By the end of Bush’s first four years, he had enough votes to garner a solid victory over Democratic candidate John Kerry, but the damage was already done to his party. A conservative base so devoutly praying W. Bush was the real deal for their Christian right ideals and family values had already been mobilized to find candidates more in-line with their values. That voter block, along with millions of empathetic conservatives, birthed what became known as the Tea Party, a saga well documented in the book The Strange Death of Republican America by Sidney Blumenthal. These new far-right conservative candidates, like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, and, to the dismay of many liberals and forward-thinking conservatives alike, Sarah Palin, threw out many of the tried and true long-standing platforms of Grand Old Party rhetoric in favor of “gosh darn” wholesome Christian values, outdated classic family structures, and unapologetic gun ownership.
By the 2008 election, America witnessed a very different Republican party – one torn by in-fighting between the super conservative Tea Party, Conservative Libertarians, and the contemporarily electable moderate right. Blumenthal was right: the party was fractured, and the divide found its roots to those who felt disenfranchised by the horizontally-flexible and electorally pragmatic approach of the second President Bush. But what The Strange Death of Republican America didn’t predict, was as politically-confused a candidate as Donald Trump in 2016. While Bush’s campaign strategically positioned its message along the political spectrum, Trump forwent any strategy in favor of walking up and down the political spectrum at any time it was politically expedient.
This is where the liberal story comes in. An awakening of social America wanted Senator Bernie Sanders and his message of social and racial equality over the known force that was Secretary Hillary Clinton. Regardless, the moderate liberal voters across America rose up, made sure their voices were heard, and ultimately nominated Clinton for the general election. In doing so, and due to a very strong campaign of demonizing rhetoric from Republicans, Democrats had nominated one of the only long-standing politicians in their ranks that nearly one hundred percent of politically illiterate moderate voters, especially previously swing Republicans, would never vote for. This essentially left a previously torn Republican party unanimously united against the Democratic candidate, in addition to a strong Democratic machine torn into two groups – those with a base of left-leaning social ideas, and those with moderate pragmatic productivity on their minds.
This is only one highly simplified reason in a myriad of causes that forced the 2016 election debacle, but is a poignant one. To understand how this relates to our common misunderstanding of the political spectrum, we must, once again, go back to the basics.
In the modern political spectrum, the X axis (left to right portion) of the scale is what we call the ‘Social Scale’. This portion of the spectrum ranks how individuals feel about government-protected economic equality. The more left you are, the more you support a federally-mandated social contract protecting every human’s right to programs like healthcare, employment, a livable wage, and a protected retirement. The further to the right you are, the more you believe individuals should take responsibility for their own healthcare costs, allowing the market to dictate wages, and save adequately for their own retirement.
Where I’m lost on the idea of conservative values is when an individual is diagnosed with an illness they cannot afford or has a child that is, the corporations dominating the market predatorily price out small companies and pay lower wages, and when a retiree runs out of retirement savings due to bad market conditions or an un-livable wage earlier in life and have no alternative income to guarantee a basic quality of life when they are no longer able to work. Social programs guarantee human decency and prepare society for the situations beyond their control.
What we commonly forget, and the absolute most important part of this chapter, is that there’s another axis to the political spectrum. While we often picture the spectrum in two dimensions with a left-right axis, it actually exists in three dimensions (four, if you want to get technical). The north-south axis of the political spectrum deals with how much liberty you believe a person should have and therefor how much say the government should have in a person’s day-to-day decisions.
Should an individual be free to make their own decisions regarding everything? Probably not. You’d be hard pressed to find an individual who wasn’t for having a criminal arrested or punished in some way for committing a murder. You’d like to see manufacturers of food regulated so they aren’t using harmful chemicals, and restaurants checked for cleanliness. We’d feel much less comfortable riding an elevator up to the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper if we knew the elevator brakes weren’t checked by an inspector and the builder of the skyscraper wasn’t trained and licensed in solid building practices.
A government can also go too far. A federal office that tells you how many kids you’re allowed to have, enforces a national curfew, requires all citizens participate in the military, and heavily regulates immigration, protests and public media outlets would be viewed as overstepping its bounds. This is what’s known as totalitarianism. It’s the idea that the government should have end-to-end control over our lives and our decisions.
Why is this second axis important? Because, we don’t group our politicians correctly. Many want to say only a Republican will secure our borders and adequately fund our military. Others would argue voting for a liberal is the only way to ensure predatory banks and corporations are regulated, the environment is protected, and corruption is properly investigated. These may all immediately be the case for popular Republicans and Democrats, but none of them are truly the case for the left-right social scale of the political spectrum. The issues I just mentioned have to do with how much say the government has over the daily lives of its citizens and their businesses – they have nothing to do with the social protections that dictate whether we’re a Republican or Democrat.
Let’s look at Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. Both are Democrats, both believe in socialized healthcare, both want to invest in education, and both agree we need to do more to support retirees, veterans, those with disabilities, and those unable to work. That being said, Obama is a libertarian Democrat and Clinton has a much more totalitarian-leaning belief system. You can see this manifest in things like Obama’s initiatives to tear up the mandatory minimum sentences installed by the Clintons in the nineties. The behavior exhibited by Obama in replacing those policies represented his interest in rolling back said regulations in order to allow judges to create sentences in proportion to the crime and the circumstances, instead of creating a generic production line-like stamp that would often target minorities and the disenfranchised with harsh sentences for less dangerous drugs and crimes they were much more likely to be involved in due to the places they grew up, the schools they went to, and the lack of significant employment opportunities in those neighborhoods. At the same time, we saw a shift in the justice department to help build outreach programs for things like drug addiction. These programs would treat the crime at the source (the addiction) instead of punishing the results (the drug purchasing and use). Both programs – the creation of mandatory minimums by the Clintons and the creation of recovery programs by the Obama administration – were targeting the same problem, but Obama’s existed as a social program and the Clinton’s approach existed as a totalitarian crackdown on crime that made it more dangerous to deal drugs, but never removed the incentive for buying and selling them.
At the same time, on the other end of the social scale, we can compare two candidates like Rand Paul and Donald Trump. Both would agree we need to spend less money on social programs, expand the military, and do away with multi-lateral trade deals. Beyond those social issues, you’d be hard-pressed to find two ideals where the two overlap. Rand Paul is one of the most libertarian candidates to serve in the modern federal government, while Donald Trump is one of the most totalitarian. While Paul would have us completely deregulate marijuana use, Trump would have us crack down by banning use by those states that have passed relevant legalization laws, and has reinstated Clinton-era mandatory minimum laws to ensure non-violent crimes such as marijuana possession are enforced to the full extent of those laws.
Allow me to clarify, though. Donald Trump is a very confused individual when it comes to the political spectrum. His tendency to proffer what is politically expedient has caused confusion on where he stands with issues more frequently than not. He has had a number of immigrant spouses, but would crack down on anyone entering our country. He feigns Christian values, but uses the “locker room talk” defense when caught talking about openly sexually harassing women. His rhetoric about lowering taxes and paying off the national debt has also coincided with a trillion-dollar proposed infrastructure bill and tax cuts that only benefit individuals in his tax bracket.
It is important we don’t confuse Trump's idiocracy with our own confusion about how politicians weigh in on the political spectrum and remember that no politician is held fast to their location on the spectrum. This is why a Republican like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell can introduce (mediocre) universal healthcare bills that would have been preposterous to see come from a Republican ten years ago, and why a Tea Party senator like Ted Cruz can write the bill authorizing NASA’s next big budget.
Yes, Barack Obama was a liberal president. But his approach to civil liberties was to let those not treading on each other have the freedom to carry about their lives unconstrained. A libertarian approach. Yes, Donald Trump is heavily conservative with his policies, saying he believes in personal responsibility. But his approach to the north-south scale is drastically totalitarian, and for revoking the rights of anyone not in-line with his belief system. Adolf Hitler, while claiming to be from a leftist party, was heavily conservative and operated a totalitarian state much like the policies of Trump, while a conservative like Rand Paul is the vertical opposite, believing in elimination of a federal government. Hillary Clinton is an advocate for some of the law and order rhetoric that would put her slightly more totalitarian on the scale than Barack Obama.
We have such an oblique drive to fit two-dimensional labels onto a three-dimensional candidate. I’m a Democrat. But I believe not a single dollar should be spent outside of a balanced budget. I believe personal freedoms are just as important as protecting us from crime. But this does not make me a Republican. I believe we should focus the majority of our efforts on funding our schools and our sciences to our next generations can be the greatest generations in American history. But this doesn’t make me a Democrat. I also believe we have a lot we can do to eliminate a drastically overgrown federal government without cutting the teeth out of our agencies that protect Americans from predatory corporations. I’m a liberal democrat that believes in social liberty. What are you?