Graphic: The American Left-Right Political Spectrum
Several conversations since I originally posted the spectrum have made clear that some elaboration and refinement is in order. In this update I add elements for context and present a revised spectrum graph that more accurately reflects the US political-economic spectrum with respect to the global “left-right” divide.
There exists a sort of consensus among Americans about left-wing vs right-wing (vs “moderate” or “centrist), but this narrow popular view fails to account for historical shifts and the global context. In short:
The US is significantly more conservative than the rest of the industrialized West and we have shifted dramatically to the right over the past 50 years.
This illustration describes the US spectrum at present.
The chart displays today’s primary factions – Democratic Mainstream and Left, GOP Mainstream/Conservative and Moderates – in gray. Other entities – individuals, organizations, movements, current and historical – are also noted for reference.
Assumptions, Caveats & Observations
1: The analysis focuses on Western political-economy since the ascendance of Lenin. Socialism as an applied organizing principle for nation-states established the Socialism vs Capitalism dynamic as the primary political tension of the last century and it remains – both as policy and ideology – the defining conflict of our time.
2: The United States spectrum exists almost entirely on the right of the global Socialism/Capitalism continuum. A handy Marxism 101 discussion from azureScapegoat delineates the various types of Socialism and paints a clearer picture of the complete dynamic than most Americans are familiar with.
Since the relative power of American Socialists is nearly non-existent (the largest such organization in the country has barely 50,000 members (~.015% of the population), any informed discussion of the US spectrum (and the US/2020 chart above) lies entirely in the right half of this model (see shaded area).
The red and white striped shaded area on the left of the spectrum continuum indicates the main body of Socialism as detailed by azureScapegoat.
3: Political positions are charted along a simple left/right continuum, although an accurate understanding of political beliefs is far more nuanced. The Political Compass, for instance, rates respondents with a 2×2 matrix scoring for both social and economic factors. Even this is unsatisfying, though. I can imagine several other dimensions that would be useful in helping understand political positions in depth (including, for example, hawkishness [personal tolerance for violence as well as geopolitical] and empathy).
The mission, though, is to tackle the country’s left/right mindset head-on. The lack of sophistication is therefore intentional.
4: There are certainly arguments to be had that I’ve misplaced organizations and individuals. For instance, John F Kennedy is regarded as a liberal icon. He was extremely hawkish, however (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam), and folding that into the equation moves him further right than some may expect. Elizabeth Warren may also be positioned further right than some think she should be. Among current progressive figures, though, she’s one who has been vocal in asserting her commitment to Capitalism.
In the wake of January 6. we need to push Trump and the GOP to the right several clicks.
5: My assessment of Bernie Sanders and the Greens is necessarily limited by their position outside of power. Sanders, for example, has never had the opportunity to be a major leader in policy and development. His tenure has been marked instead by his stance as an outlying critic. We know what his proposals are, but we cannot say for sure what his actual policy record would look like once subjected to the realities of partisan negotiations.
6: Despite his self-identification as a Democratic Socialist, Sanders’ positions and policies make clear that he’s actually a Social Democrat, which is a distinctly different thing.
In the US there is, practically speaking, no meaningful political presence left of the Sanders/AOC/”Squad” cohort of the Democratic party, even though they’re substantially to the right of the Socialist/Capitalist global/ideological center.
7: While many Americans use the term “Socialism,” often as a pejorative, in truth very few have an informed idea of its actual meaning.
Qualitative “connoisseurship” (aka studied, informed opinion).
This is a topic I’ve been fascinated by for several decades, during which I’ve read, discussed and debated extensively with people from across the spectrum, focusing on both rhetorical platforms and actual policy.
Additionally, my personal political journey began with me as a vocal young Reaganite and has progressed, through the years, to a place in the neighborhood of Social Democracy on the spectrum above. As such, my study has been informed by an unusually broad range of personal perspectives.
I also invited comment from a number of friends and colleagues, and made some adjustments in light of their insights.
I wonder where you get your info of the Center – Global, Historical, seeing how most historical is monarchy or some variation thereof. If you are thinking of 20th century England and maybe France, I can see where some of that might come from. I’d say currently there’s no question we are more conservative with maybe only Australia being close.
I tend to lean right because I think too much government is a bad thing. However, I have shifted left on things like healthcare. I guess this is my thinking; I don’t like being out of control of what happens to me and Big Gov can run over you like a bit of sand at the beach. Healthcare also tends to run over you. Government’s job is not to run everything, but keep others from running over us. Banks, hospitals, corporations, etc.
If you remember, when I took the quadrilateral(?) quiz, I came out almost dead center. Therefore, I determined, I am the ideal person, political wise. 😉
You’re right about the historical – and I should have probably noted I’m thinking post-WW1, mainly. Or post-WW2. And the global is the developed West.
On the Political Compass I’m lower left, maybe just lower and lefter of the center point of the quadrant. However, that’s the current point on a journey that saw young me voting for Reagan twice. So I’m anything but a fixed point.
By the way, I posted a comment yesterday. It said it was in moderation, but now it has disappeared. I’d appreciate if you’d check the spam or trash, as that is where WordPress sometimes puts stray comments. Thanks!
I assumed this post was primarily focused on the post-WW West. The only thing I might add is that the Scandinavian social democracies, to my mind, are significantly to the left of the US democratic left, as defined by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. The closest comparison in US history is that of the Milwaukee sewer socialists (1892-1960).
As another example of the American left, I’d include the Rainbow Coalition of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers. That coalition included not only blacks but also Native Americans, feminists, poor whites, etc. It was such a threat to power that Hampton was assassinated and COINTELPRO targeted these groups. There needs to be some more historical context to the backlash of the reactionaries, both Reaganites and Clintonites, It was because there once was a powerful left-wing that the mainstream, in seeking to maintain power, pushed so far right.
Also, we could use more context in how public polling show that the silenced majority of Americans are quite a bit to the left. What you call the democratic left is basically the center of public opinion. Are we to have a spectrum that is defined by power or defined by the people. The Overton window has been pushed so far right partly because the public is kept ignorant that the majority is so far left. I don’t know about public opinion elsewhere in the developed West, though.
In response to RetroHound, I might note that I tend toward left-libertarianism and I also might note that historically liberarianism originated on the European left, as part of the workers movement, anarchists, Marxists, etc. Like human biodiversity (formulated as a critique of genetic determinism), libertarianism was co-opted by right-wingers who fundamentally altered its original meaning, not entirely unlike how the word ‘democracy’ has become so cheapened as to be near meaningless in our present banana republic.
I have to disagree that libertarianism was co-opted by the right. It is the same base (individual rights), just taken a different direction with regard to means of production and natural resources.
I agree with you about democracy. I cringe every time I hear someone say “democracy” because most have no idea that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a representative republic.
And I certainly disagree that the majority is “so far left.”
I speak in historical terms. Libertarian originated as a left-wing ideology. Noam Chomsky discusses this history and so have others. It is fairly well known info and not an issue of debate.
Murray Rothbard, infamous right-winger, wrote:
“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.”
Roderick T. Long, in The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy, wrote:
“In the meantime, anarchist theories of a more communist or collectivist character had been developing as well. One important pioneer is French anarcho-communists Joseph Déjacque (1821–1864), who argued, against Proudhorn and the individualists, that what workers have a right to is not the product of their labor but, rather, the satisfaction of their needs. Déjacque appears to have been the first thinker to adopt the term “libertarian” for this position; hence “libertarianism” initially denoted a communist rather than a free-market ideology.”
The same basic info is stated in a conventional source like Wikipedia that cites these and similar sources:
“Libertarianism originated as a form of left-wing politics such as anti-authoritarian and anti-state socialists like anarchists, especially social anarchists, but more generally libertarian communists/Marxists and libertarian socialists.”
About representative republic, as with libertarianism, it’s essential to know the historical background:
A republic simply means a government that is not a monarchy. The Soviet Union was a republic and the Chinese government is a republic. But the only way a republic could be representative is to the degree it is a democracy. The main element of democracy is in the word itself, demos as the people. If a republic genuinely represents the people rather than a ruling elite, it is a democracy by definition.
As for the American majority being more left than the political elite and corporate media, I’d suggest you do as I have done and look at the polling data for yourself. I’ve collected and analyzed info on public opinion over the years, starting with a massive survey from a decade ago. I also have some other posts that go into the issue of ideological labels.
I mentioned how right-wingers appropriated the label and rhetoric of libertarianism that for more than a century before that described extremely left-wing politics. But this isn’t the only time that such ideological theft has happened.
There is a long history of this reactionary co-opting from the political left, another example being how race realists redefined human biodiversity that originated as an argument against race realism. This is not only an amnesia of history but an erasure of meaning, and so makes public debate almost impossible.
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On the One dimensional spectrum above, where do CANADIAN current & historic Political Parties fit??
Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Canadian politics to answer this.