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.