Noah Millman's three-dimensional political spectrum

This may be the wrong forum for this, so if you want, feel free to move it. Noah Millman is a writer at the American Conservative, which I quite like, and a few years ago he penned this. It purports to be an alternative, three dimensional ‘political taxonomy’ to classify where people might fit ideologically. He claims (and I agree) that it’s more meaningful than the ‘liberal vs. conservative’ spectrum, and also more so than the political compass. His three dimensions, loosely speaking, correspond to “do you side with authority or with individual freedom”, “do you side with the successful or the downtrodden”, and “do you draw more inspiration from the future or from the past.”

He applies it to some figures in the modern Anglo-American political landscape, but I think the three-dimensional political taxonomy is especially useful in parts of the world like Latin America and Eastern Europe, where authoritarian vs. liberal and progressive vs. reactionary debates often don’t line up neatly with ‘left vs. right’. (Communists, for example, are extremely left-wing without being remotely liberal, and Christian socialists are left-wing without being either liberal or progressive).

What do you think of this political schematic, and where do you classify yourself? (I’d consider myself a conservative, left-wing reactionary by his definitions).

I’d be a conservative, left-wing progressive by his definitions.

Which I don’t think are that helpful - yes, there’s more scope for difference, but only really because he’s just added a new axis to measure against. I don’t see any of his definitions or the axes he uses as adding much to the accuracy or usefulness of labelling in and of themselves.

I think a more useful measurement is an ideological assessment that rates how “in bed” each political ideology you are, instead of a left/right/third leg assessment.

For instance, a person may believe that we should have a social safety net without believing that we should be a completely socialist society. They may rate as 5-10% on-board with the socialist ideology. Then, their views on how the environment should be treated may make them 50% on board with the green ideology.

And so forth. It’s more difficult, but also much more useful than the left/right spectrum that most people try to apply to things.

I don’t know if I agree. I think both conservatives and progressives are pro individual freedom and pro authority to restrain threats, we just define freedom and threats differently. A liberal generally wants a strong state to restrict the power of plutocrats, polluters, corporate abusers, etc. while a conservative may want a strong state to restrict what they feel is moral decay (sex, drugs, secularism, etc) or dangerous groups (disaffected minorities, communists, etc). Liberals view drugs as individual freedom and are pro freedom, conservatives may view drugs as moral decay and want an authoritarian state. Liberals may feel plutocrats are a threat to democracy, conservatives may just see them as the most successful at the economic game.

I don’t think you can say one group is pro authority and the other is pro individual.

I think the idea is good and I’ll give him a B+ for a first time effort, but I don’t think it is very well done, and I suspect this has to do with they way he would like to stack the deck. A better approach, imo, is to come up with political themes that people find interesting/important regarding policy, and use those to draw the spectrums. For example, obedience to authority. I don’t find this to be an especially important theme in politics regarding policy decisions.

So what themes, for lack of a better word I can think of at the moment, are interesting with respect to policy? I can think of a few: taxes and their relation to supply side or demand side programs; isolationism vs. the US military as the world police force; and, privacy vs. safety. All three of these can be drawn up on spectrums of more or less and you could develop a three-variabled map for where people may stand. The difficulty is developing themes that are not interdependent. You want to get pure themes that don’t affect one another for best results.

By setting these factors up as A or B, there’s a clear bias and improbable results. I side with authority in some situations (arresting serial killers) and with individual freedom in others (freedom of speech.) To be meaningful, there needs to be some sort of 5-point scale, or something less .

The Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede came up with some dimensions to differentiate national cultures. He called it "power distance"and clearly some national cultures are more respectful and even worshipful of power as innate rather than simply based on position. Most Americans would tend to side with “individual freedoms” where most Japanese would tend to side with “authority.”

Another such dimension was individualism vs collectivism. Again, most Americans will tend to side with individualism, most Japanese with collectivisim. But if it’s not all-or-nothing but a five-point scale (or whatever), that would allow me to side with individualism in some situations (like human rights) and collectivism in others (like interstate highways.)

To some extent, I like what he’s trying to do, but I think some of his direction is misguided. First, we don’t need yet another definition for some of these words, particularly liberal/conservative; while I can see why he might choose those alignments, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use them like that, and it makes the discussion confusing. I do, however, like his reuse of reactionary/progressive, since that fits well with their actual uses (other than the currently existing ties between progressive and liberal) and it makes sense. Still, especially in the political realm, he’s not going to gain any traction trying to reuse words that have the kind of history that these words do. Hell, trying to convince someone that would use the words liberal or conservative as a pejorative that it now describes them in this context… good luck.

Second, I’d like to see a better way of describing politics than the one-dimensional spectrum we’ve grown accustomed to that doesn’t translate well from one culture to another, but I’m not sure I can agree with the dimensions he’s extracted. I’d agree with the first one, which strikes more more as authoritarian vs. libertarian than liberal vs. conservative, but it seems like it’s a point that comes up a lot in various areas, about whether it makes sense to decentralize authority, either to lower governmnents or the individuals or to do the opposite.

I don’t really agree with the other ones being fundamental dimensions though. He says the political compass dimension of economic regulation is too idealistic, but it isn’t about siding with winners and losers either, that seems like how each side paints the other side to look bad. Rather, I see it as an idea of where the balance lies between personal and social property. That is, on one side, the “low regulation” “winners” side would argue that property is an essential right, it’s what drives us to succeed, and no one else has any claim to something that belongs to someone. On the other side the “high regulation” “losers” side would argue that social well-fare and some degree of collaboration are important, that providing a social safety net and common needs for all trumps an absolute property right.

And for his third spectrum, I somewhat agree, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say the one side says the future is better and the other says the past is better, but rather one is striving to always improve things and make the world a better place, whereas the other side is concerned that change for the sake of change, without purpose, can be disastrous and they want to make sure it makes sense and that they minimize the harm it can do.

So, I guess I’d go more with authoritarian/libertarian, left/right, and progressive/reactionary, but with some revised views on it all. Even still, I think some people will vary on where they’d fall on whatever spectrum depending on the issue, and it’s really more about clarity of language. I think part of the reason politics has gotten to be so toxic is because everyone just gets shoved into one of two boxes, and it forces that polarization, when the actual landscape is much more interesting.

Frankly, I think this TVTropes UsefulNotes page offers a better taxonomy, though it makes no effort to organize it along a spectrum.

It’s helpful in that I haven’t been able to call myself a liberal left-wing progressive since I was 17 or so.