There exists a sort of consensus among Americans about “left” and “right” and “moderate,” but this narrow view fails to account for global and longitudinal contexts. 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 abstracted illustration describes the US spectrum at present, visualized against a longer historical and broader global view.
The chart displays today’s primary factions – Democratic Mainsteam and Left, GOP Mainstream/Conservative and Moderates – in gray. Other entities – individuals, organizations, movements, current and historical – are also noted for reference.
Assumptions and Caveats
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.
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. Others, like Bernie Sanders, is more avowedly Socialist-leaning.
Finally, my assessment of 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.
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.