What is the best scheme for mapping/classifying political ideologies?

Everyone who thinks seriously about such things seems to agree that the old labels “right” and “left” do not convey enough information about political views. Where on the left-right spectrum do we place the Libertarians? Who’s further left, the Greens or the labor unions?

But when we try to construct a more sophisticated “map” of political ideologies, agreement breaks down. It’s like we’re trying to map the landscape without prior agreement on a definition of “north” or “south.”

Fortunately, we do have some solid information at least to begin with – information about 1. the political views of the (American) people and 2. the views of the “political nation,” a subset of the people – those who are politically active and/or interested.

1. Political views of the American people.

The following typology was developed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. You can check it out at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=98. The Pew researchers divide the American body politic into the following ten groups:

(the OP message is getting too long – I’ll have to break it in half)

2. The "political nation."

The above typology is about the people – but even in a democracy, the people en masse don’t make policy, they react to the policy ideas and alternatives developed by a political aware and active minority. The way our “political nation” is divided up is rather different. This is merely my own set of impressions, not based on any scientific study, and I will welcom any improved model.

In my view, the words “right” or “conservative” in American political discourse can refer to any of the following groupings:

  1. Religious-social traditionalist convervatism – “family values,” the Christian Coalition, and all that.

  2. Racist, anti-semitic, white-supremacist conservatism – a declining force but still very real, being rooted as it is in the native political traditions of the American South, and having achieved national expression in certain (actually, most) branches of the “citizens’ militia” and “common-law courts” movements. Despite superficial resemblance, NOT a form of fascism, or militarist-authoritarian-nationalist conservatism, like they have in Europe. The American Nazis do belong in this grouping but they’re a small minority of a minority. Most American white supremacists are also very supportive of “states’ rights” or local-communal autonomy, and very hostile to any kind of national dictatorship or even a strong federal government – presenting a real problem to any would-be American Hitler. In some ways this grouping shades over into libertarianism or anarchism, the law no longer being on their side as it once was.

  3. Nativist, isolationist, anti-immigrant, populist conservatism – a more moderate form of the above. Best represented, at present, by Pat Buchanan and his America First Party. These people hate Wall Street as much as they hate the New World Order. Unlike the overt racists, they probably will not admit to hating Wall Street because there’s all those Jews in it. (Which doesn’t mean that isn’t on their minds.)

  4. Foreign-policy neo-conservatism – an updated name for imperialism. Dedicated to the proposition that the United States should expand its military power and global influence by any means necessary. This is an important faction as it’s pretty much running the country right now, in tandem with the pro-business conservatives, below.

  5. Pro-business conservatism – what’s good for General Motors is good for the country, etc. Corporate welfare, union-busting, all good. Military intervention abroad also good, so long as it helps business.

  6. Libertarianism, or classical liberalism – pro-market, which is not the same thing as pro-business. Opposed to welfare for poor people; opposed, for the same ideological reasons, to government bailouts of troubled businesses; opposed to American military intervention abroad.

  7. Respectable elitist conservatism – best exemplified by aristocratic intellectuals such as William Buckley. Combines elements of several of the above, as the occasion requires, while honoring the Old World Tory tradition of Edmund Burke. In fact, I’m going out on the limb classifying this group separately from the business conservatives – but, in principle, their tradition is much older.

Obviously there’s a lot of overlap between these groupings and a given “conservative” might identify with several of them. But no rational person could identify with all of them. And for any given “conservative,” there’s probably one of the above groupings that represents his or her politics better than any of the others.

On the “left” or “liberal” side we have:

  1. Neoliberals – dedicated to the efficient integration of the “global economy.” Clinton’s grouping.

  2. Left-liberals – dedicated to the conventionally “leftist” politics of the past 30 years, including “political correctness,” the upper-middle-class form of feminism, race-based affirmative action, and a moderate environmentalism. Led by an upper class that was described by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise.

  3. Labor leaders – still struggling to find political relevance although only a shrinking minority of the modern American labor force is unionized.

  4. Socialists – of various branches and parties, still hanging around and waiting for the working class to finally get behind them, dammit!

  5. Greens – centered on serious environmentalism; also emphasize “social justice” issues that go way beyond what the “left-liberals” want to talk about.

  6. Multiculturalists – black and Latino racial separatist groups, Nation of Islam, La Raza, etc.

Can anybody think of any major grouping to add to either of these lists?

Be aware, even if these are in fact exhaustive lists of all the groupings now present in our “political nation,” they do not exhaust all potential groupings.
3. Conceptual models

Here’s where it really gets interesting. As I stated above, conceptual models or maps of political ideologies are so different from each other it’s sometimes hard to believe the authors are dealing with the same topic.

To start with, there’s the Libertarian Party’s famous “World’s Smallest Political Quiz,” which you can link to at http://www.lp.org/quiz/, and which will place you on a map with two axes: your attitude towards personal freedom, and your attitude towards economic freedom. This produces at diamond-shaped pattern with (predictably) Libertarians at the top.

Then there’s Jerry Pournelle’s Political Axes, which you can link to at http://baen.com/chapters/axes.htm. Pournelle also chose two axes: (1) Attitude toward the State (useful tool or necessary evil?) and (2) Attitude toward Planned Social Progress (or, more broadly, rationalism-vs.-irrationalism). This allows him to produce a map which shows the difference between communists and fascists – both worship the State, but fascists are one the “irrational” side and communists on the “reason enthroned” side.

Political journalist Michael Lind, in “Which Civilisation?” an article in Prospect on October 25, 2001, classified modern political traditions as follows (you can link to the whole article at http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=598):

By this scheme, all modern American political ideologies are part of the same tradition of “humanism,” except for the most radical, including communists, fascists, and religious-traditionalist conservatives. Within that humanist tradition, of course, there is still a lot of room for disagreement. Note that Lind’s model puts Karl Marx in the same “rationalist” category as Ayn Rand!

So, what do you all think? Can we come up with a better model than any of these – one that incorporates the facts of political demographics as well as purely conceptual notions about what “liberal” and “conservative” ought to mean?

Interesting categorizations, but they don’t seem to be doing a good job of mapping the results. There have been other threads on the idea that “left v. right doesn’t define political stances adequately.” One point often noted is the Pournelle axes; a board search on that term may turn up some interesting discussions.

There is another mapping system here:

It tracks individuals along two axes, one being economic and the other attitude towards authority/liberty so you end up in a quadrant rather then along a spectrum.

I looked up the “Political Compass” at http://www.politicalcompass.org/, but it’s not really new – it’s just the same as the Libertarians’ political map, only rotated 125 degrees to the right, so the “Libertarian quadrant” winds up in the lower right-hand corner of a square rather than the top corner of a diamond.

It does show one thing of interest, however. On the “International Chart,” showing where the most prominent world leader stand, the Libertarian quadrant is empty! Apparently there are no Libertarian leaders whose fame ranks with that of Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair or the Dalai Lama. To illustrate the nature of that quadrant in a demonstrative graph, they had to use an academic figure: Milton Friedman.

Where are the whigs? You folks ask for a new system and then sit around and just rehash the standard categories.

“If one were to construct a demand-led political system, one would not configure it along the lines of perpetually-antagonistic power blocs. What we need is a system that efficiently reflects and manages publicly-agreed policy. If we are trying to ensure that health or educational services are provided most effectively, we do not care to know whether one’s colleagues are Conservative or Socialist or Liberal, any more than we care to know whether they are Catholic or Methodist or Anglican, or where they live. We care only that they agree on what the job is that needs doing and that they can do it.”

Posted by Dogface:


Never mind.

The statement you are quoting might purport to be a viewpoint that transcends political ideologies, Dogface, but it isn’t; it is merely an expression of a point of view that is a political ideology in its own right: early-20th-century Progressivism. A more succint statement of the Progressive world-view is their famous slogan, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street.” Perhaps not, but there will always be a Democratic or Republican (or Green or Socialist or Libertarian or Populist) way to decide which streets will get paved and which won’t, and who gets taxed how much to pay for it.

The Progressives were mostly upper- and upper-middle-class reformers with a Puritan view of politics and a distaste for the compromises of legislative logrolling. They had the most influence in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. They were very effective in municipal-level reform. It’s mostly thanks to the Progressives that most city and town governments are now in the hands of a “nonpartisan” council, and the patronage system has been replaced by civil service almost everywhere.

Actually, there were three different “Progressive” parties in America in the 20th century (the following is from an encarta article, http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/refarticle.aspx?refid=761558633):

I can’t put my hands on it, but in 2000 or thereabouts Michael Lind wrote an article about the internal split in the Reform Party. his theory was that the conflict came about because the Reform Party was a coalition of two very different third-party political traditions: Progressivism, represented by John Anderson, and Populism, represented by Pat Buchanan. At present, the Populist wing is pretty well represented by Buchanan and his new America First Party (http://www.americafirstparty.org/). That leaves the Progressives to find an expression, somewhere . . . perhaps some of them will join the Greens. Or perhaps they’ll flock to Jesse Ventura’s new Independence Party (http://www.mnip.org/), but that seems to have established no presence, as yet, outside Minnessota. And, of course, the original Reform Party (http://www.reformparty.org/) still maintains at least a nominal existence, and there is also a splinter group called the American Reform Party (http://www.americanreform.org/), which broke away from the Reform Party in 1997. Who knows, maybe we’ll be hearing from the Progressives again.

You can read about, and link to, these and many other American third-party organizations at the Politics1 website, http://www.politics1.com/parties.htm.

Any complete map or model of political views in America should have fairly obvious places to pigeonhole both the Progressives and the Populists.

As a theoretical model, might I suggest multple axes resulting in something like the Briggs-Myers personality test http://www.skepdic.com/myersb.html

So you might have the “govt interference in economy” axis, the “govt control of public morals” axis, and so on, so you can say the “I’m a SFTR (or some such), and I support politican X because he shares three of those.”

Of course, this would imply that people’s politics are more like personalities rather than logically-derived principles… then again, I think that’s probably true anyway.

Steven Den Beste’s article suggests some possible candidates:

I should have mentioned in my last post: Nowadays the word “progressive” is more often used to mean something entirely different, the equivalent of “left-liberal.” E.g., Congressman Bernie Sanders’ leftist party in Vermont is called the Vermont Progressive Party (http://www.progressiveparty.org/).

There is some justice to this, I suppose, as one of the old Progressives’ planks, the one from which they took their name, was commitment to a progressive, redistributive income tax, which modern left-liberals also favor. Apart from that, I think the leftists just grabbed onto the word because nobody else happened to be using it, and it sounds cool and optimistic and expresses their commitment to social “progress.”

I quite like the libertarian two-axis system (with axes adjusted according to taste, naturally).

Simple, elegant, and quite effective given the rather narrow standard deviation in pure political views.

The problem I have with all the two-axes charts I’ve seen, including both Jerry Pournelle’s and the Libertarians’, is that there’s no place to express differences of opinion outside of domestic social or economic policy. Specifically, there’s no place to show how one feels about foreign policy.

In my own case, I’m somewhat liberal on domestic social policy but quite conservative on foreign policy. I wonder where that puts me?


Well, there’s an obvious problem there, suranyi. Two axes are the most you can have on a two-dimensional chart or map. There might be several other relevant axes but it would take a cubic or hypercubic display to properly map all of them.

Perhaps that is telling you something.:slight_smile:

That is precisely my point. Any two-dimensional chart must be too simple to reflect the real-world variance of political opinion.


Just wanted to pop in to grind my usual axe and point out that to talk of the “green” party is disingenuous: “environmentalists” will never agree with each other, ever. You can have environmentalists all along the present left-right continuum, and will have them at any point along any map you choose to draw. So-called “green” values do not “naturally” correspond to any other values.

This illustrates why any attempt to map political ideologies will be inadequate.

For example, look at the following people:

  • The rich man who doesn’t want the lovely old trees outside of his country home destroyed

  • The immigrant family who doesn’t want to live beside a hazardous waste dump

  • The aging hippies who want to keep the killer whales and old-growth rain forests alive for future generations

  • The working-class person who wants the local wetland preserved so s/he can continue hunting ducks

  • The college student who avoids purchasing products from companies that cause environmental damage overseas

  • The Inuit woman whose breast milk contains toxic levels of PCPs

  • The middle-class urban family who is sick and tired of smog and wants to stop financially supporting dirty energy sources (eg coal-fired power plants)

From this, what can you conclude about their opinions towards fiscal or social policy, or labour unions, or what newspaper they read? My hypothesis is that the answer is “Nothing.” Therefore any system which tries to group people together on the basis of their “opinions” will always be inadequate.

Note that environmental issues are the ones I know most about: I’m sure that there are other types of issues that transcend political alliegances as well.

Maybe something like the color wheel? 3D alteration of the 2-axis model.

Posted by cowgirl:

Perhaps not, cowgirl, but there is an organization calling itself “The Green Party,” whose members share enough views about ecology and other matters that they can work together for common goals.

Actually there are two such organizations: The Green Party of the United States (http://www.gp.org/), which ran Ralph Nader for president in 2000; and the Greens/Green Party USA (http://www.greenparty.org/), which has been described as “the older, smaller and more stridently leftist of the two Green parties.” You can check out these and more at the Politics1 website, http://www.politics1.com/parties.htm.

Which perhaps goes to reinforce your point – environmentalists are internally divided – but it does not detract from mine: Environmentalists constitute a very real voting bloc, whenever the issue at hand is relevant to the environment; and the majority of them share a certain world-view, to an extent, with the result that they also form a voting bloc with respect to “social justice” issues that are not directly related to ecology.

You know, perhaps we shouldn’t assume that the best scheme for graphically representing the range of political views in the United States should be a map, with axes. Perhaps it should just be some kind of chart with rows and columns. That frees us from having to try to fit every viewpoint into a two-value description. Does anyone have any ideas?

I decided to revive this thread because, in this week’s (1/19/04) issue of In These Times, I came across a “New Political Compass” devised by one Paul H. Ray, Ph.D. – not sure who he is, except that he’s a “social researcher” and co-chair of an organization called the Forum for a Wise Civilization in San Francisco, and his politics are obviously left-progressive. By his analysis, the biggest, baddest new political grouping is the “New Progressives,” which are not the same as the “Liberal Left” even though they share many of the same views. The other groupings are the “Social Conservatives” and “Business Conservatives.” Ray places them on a compass-like diagram: Business Conservatives (14% of the electorate) at the bottom; Liberal Left (12%) on the (of course) left; Social Conservatives (19%) on the right; New Progressives (36%) at the top; and the “Alienated” (20%) at the center.

Check it out:




What do you think? Profound new insight or New Age-y wishful thinking?

i always have been trying to find some simple model of the ranges of political thought… i’m in college now and am taking a class where i’m finally getting this clarified…

this will be a very simplistic chart; it concerns only order, equality, and freedom. But the very broadness of those three ideas makes the chart very far-reaching in the attitudes it is able to classify… though i can see how it might be difficult to determine how international issues fit in. But anyway, here goes…

first, to define order-- equality and freedom can stand on their own-- but order in this illustration will signify mostly social order, such as marriage=man+woman, abortion goes against inherent aversion to murder, nationalism is good, etc.

as for the graph itself…

On the x-axis is order, and on the y-axis is equality. Total freedom-- anarchy, i guess-- would go at point of origin. Conservatives value order, and not so much equality, so they’re at the bottom right quarter of the graph, if we’re dividing this into quarters.
Liberals value equality, not so much order, so they get the upper left square.
Communitarians got the upper right square… lots of order, along with lots of equality.
And libertarians obviously, valuing freedom more than both order and equality, get the lower left.

That may be a little elementary, but i hope it helps. I liked the idea of establishing both order and freedom in opposition to freedom.