Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Left and Right and Right and Wrong

If you've never stumbled across the "Political Compass" and given it a spin, I highly recommend doing so. I do not know the motivations behind the site - if any - except that they clearly are trying to offer a better picture of political persuasion than the general discourse we're all surrounded by every day. The essence of their insight is this: it is silly to delineate politics on a simple, one dimensional, left-to-right scale, because there are (at least) two dimensions at play. While I would argue that even a two dimensional representation is limiting, it is at least better than a one dimensional representation.

In the case of the Political Compass, they have selected economic "neo-liberalism" and "communism" as the extremes on the x-axis, and have juxtaposed on the y-axis "fascism" and "anarchism." Those, of course, are over-charged catch phrases-cum-insults that we like to throw around all too often, and so I tend to replace those extremes with their actual meaning. The x-axis, instead, ranges from strict government regulation of commerce ("Communism," as they call it, though Socialism might be a more proper label) to non-regulation (their "Neo-liberalism"), while the y-axis ranges likewise from strict regulation of people ("Fascism") to non-regulation ("Anarchism"). As you can see, the labels they apply make sense, but the connotations that we carry around make the labels too incendiary and, in a way, self-fulfilling. Better to look instead at the meaning.

So what is the meaning? Well, I will not hide from you that I register strongly on the side of government regulation of commerce, whilst also believing strongly that the government should not regulate people. I am joined, internationally and historically, by figures like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the current Dalai Lama (which makes me happy, because I respect all three).* I am not joined, incidentally, by the vast (I mean vast) majority of American politicians, who almost exclusively occupy the upper-right quadrant of unregulated commerce and highly regulated society.

* As you can see, here is where the labels break down. Am I a Communist and an Anarchist? Hardly. Was Gandhi? Mandela? Is the Dalai Lama? Of course not.

What's that? American politicians are social authoritarians?! Believe it or not, the land of the free ought to be called the land of the free enterprise, because we the people aren't seeing the freedom. Consider this map of the major players in the 2008 Presidential primaries:

There's a great Noam Chomsky quotation that I feel like I've mentioned before in this space, but it bears repeating: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Consider that quotation alongside the above graph. We get all caught up, in America, about how "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-liberal" our politicians are. But, really, with the exceptions of Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich (notably all considered "unelectable" and "outside the mainstream"), not a single one of our Presidential candidates in 2008 was off of the stubby trendline we might draw in that upper-right quadrant. On a scale of -10 to +10 in both dimensions, John McCain and Barack Obama are roughly 2 or 3 steps away from each other in either direction.

Also stunning is this map of the states, by Senator, which you can play around with if you like. The tendencies in our Presidential elections are corroborated by our senatorial representation, as you can see.

Most Americans, I suspect, believe that they live in a country that stands at the pinnacle of both social and economic freedom. That is simply not the case. It is also not the case that Europe is a relative bastion of seedy, left-wing socialists. Most European leaders fall somewhere near where Obama and McCain fall, in the lower part of the upper-right quadrant.

Who, then, falls in the other quandrants? Or, in other words, what good is this spectrum if all the notable people in politics fall in the upper-right? Well, the rest of the graph would be filled in, I expect, by ordinary human beings. In our globalized world, success in politics almost depends upon being, to some degree, a social authoritarian and an economic libertarian. Economic regulation is, simply put, not popular with the companies that, in the end, fuel political campaigns, while social freedom is not popular, ultimately, with the mass of voters who hold fairly strict and Puritanical social virtues.

What is interesting to me, though, is not the phenomenon of the upper-right quadrant, so much as the linearity that exists in that quadrant. With few outliers, most American politicians lie not just in the same approximate place, but along the same approximate line. There is not, in America, much of a debate within each party, because each party is itself content to exist on a linear continuum both with itself, and with the other party. Linearity rules our discourse because, ultimately we are politically linear. The Libertarians - who tend towards both economic and social freedom - are marginalized because we don't have any mechanism for understanding where they stand on our political line.

In short, we have conflated, in America, economic deregulation with social regulation, and have called those two things together "Conservatism." I have known a great many conservatives, few of whom actually believe in social regulation, but they don't realize, often, that the Libertarian and not the Republican Party represents their values. Likewise, I've known many Democrats who would score, like me, in the lower-left quadrant, but who "compromise" on Barack Obama, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, or the Democrat du jour because, damnit, at least it's better than the Republican. Of course, at a certain point, if you score -5 and -5, what's the difference between +2, +3 and +5, +6?

We get so caught up with the language of "left" and "right" in America that we often forget to talk about right and wrong. Those are loaded terms, of course, but they represent a real conversation, rather than an ideological - and unexamined - shouting match. Recalling Chomsky, part of why our current shouting matches are so violent (I'm thinking of the health care debate) is because we're so close to each other. Ironically, it's a lot harder to compromise when you start off in the same room than when you start in different houses, because there's so little distance that either of you can move, and because your motions become so perceptible.

As I said at the outset, I am not personally persuaded by a two-dimensional model of political opinion. It seems to me that human social morality - which makes up the impetus for politics - is far too complicated to capture even on a Cartesian graph, but at least it's better than a straight line. In the long run, the practice of setting ourselves up as foils to each other (I am a Republican, which means I am not a Democrat, or vice versa) serves only to obscure the conversations we should be having, and serves only to help both sides elect politicians who represent, not the breadth of opinion in this country, but a narrow, and therefore uncreative and uncompromising sliver. I challenge you to think outside the quadrant.

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