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The political spectrum: who’s in charge?

The political process is characterized by political parties. The party system lets us make a group of a small set of the myriad of options, usually based on some organizing pirate-logo-australiaprinciple such as personal liberty or obedience to authority. Australia’s Pirate Party, for example, is most concerned about freedom of speech, especially on the Internet. The Dutch Pirate Party has similar goals. The slogan says, “For a free information society.” The U.S. has a Pirate Party, too.

To visual this complexity, we use a tool called the political spectrum.

Too simplistic?

1D – too simplistic?

A one-dimensional spectrum is a line on which the options and those espousing them can be placed to the left, more progressive, or to the right, more conservative. This left-right metaphor is arbitrary but most common.

A two-dimensional spectrum creates a box (or diamond). Often one axis is economic options and the other is social options. That creates four boxes: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right.

Pirate Party Netherlands

Pirate Party Netherlands

A three-dimensional spectrum creates a cube of boxes. The axes can measure, as in the example below, the relative degree of economic, political, and personal liberty. That addresses with the complexity better. However, it is hard to represent three dimensions on a two-dimensional page or screen. It is also hard for humans to comprehend that complexity.

Politics is how we group a small set of those options. Who decides what options are included in the sets of options that politicians offer us? After they are elected, who decides what options they pursue?

In other words, who’s in charge?

That’s an important question, but it’s outside the scope of this one three-credit college course.

Here, we’re going to examine the options presented by 2016’s four major parties that are offering candidates for the U.S. presidency. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green. (There are a dozen others, by the way.) We’re also going to look at options that they are not presenting.


2D – most common

We can’t deal with all the thousands of optional ways of living and organizing society that have been tried for the last ten thousand years around the globe. But we should deal with some of them. To give some context to the process in the U.S., I have chosen two societies, far from the U.S. on different continents, that take advantage of some resources unique to this class.

We are going to look at:

Australia because two members of this class come from there.

The Netherlands because that’s where I have spent almost half my time in the last nine years and where I plan to live when I retire in 2019.

On the one-dimensional political spectrum, the line with a right (conservative) and a left (liberal), these two countries are to the left of the U.S.

Too complex?

3D – too complex?


In fact, the political spectrum in the rest of the WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) such as all of the countries in Western Europe and former British colonies like Canada are to the left of the U.S. By that, I mean that the farthest right political parties in those countries are to the left of the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. In the other WEIRD countries, President Obama would be on the right of center, but in the U.S., he is on the left.

What about a two-dimensional spectrum with different axes? On the right is a chart that shows the U.S. and Australia close together and the Netherlands is the outlier because of its greater emphasis on secular and rational values. That is, they are less religious and they are more likely to use data than emotions when making important decisions?


2D – countries, not parties

What about countries that are more conservative than the U.S.? On the chart on the right, they are lower, further on the axis toward traditional values.

In that sense, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, many countries in central Africa, and most Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are more conservative than the U.S. on economic issues and on many social issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, race, immigration.

What about religion? In the more conservative countries, people say that religion is more important to them than do people in the U.S.

In most of the more progressive countries, including Australia and especially the Netherlands, more people say that religion less important to them than do people in the U.S.

Why am I asking you to learn more about and write about your political options? What does that do with helping you get a job? That’s what college is for, right? It’s like vocational training.

Netherlands political spectrum 2012 election. Note the axes are different than the spectrums from the Political Compass. I rotated the image, but it is still not directly comparable.

Netherlands political spectrum 2012 election. Note the axes are different than the spectrums from the Political Compass. I rotated the image, but it is still not directly comparable.

Yes, but it can be much more. Medaille’s Mission, Vision, and Values (my italics):

Medaille’s Mission

The mission of Medaille College is to educate and develop empowered individuals for academic achievement, career success and civic engagement, thereby contributing to a healthy, diverse democracy.

Medaille’s Vision

Medaille College will be known as a leader in providing inspiration and opportunity for students, faculty, staff, alumni and community by supporting academic development, positive personal transformation and a strong sense of civic-mindedness.

Medaille’s Values

Curiosity (the first of four)

We are committed to inspiring intellectual curiosity and wonder as a foundation for academic, professional and civic achievement.

Learning more about and writing about your political options in this election year is fully in keeping with the mission, vision, and values of Medaille College.

to muse, ponder, consider or think

U.S. political spectrum 2016 election

U.S. political spectrum 2016 election

Where are you on the political spectrum?

An organization called Political Compass has a test to place you on the simple 2D spectrum we have looked at in class. Take the test.

Use this quiz from to learn more about the issues you may want to include in your party’s platform. The Pew Research Center has a Political Typology quiz that you can use for the same purpose.

This 20-question quiz at uses a chart that is a little different.

Why are you where you are on the political spectrum?

It may have something to do with your personality and beliefs.

Where are you on the vertical axis: authoritarian <–> libertarian?

Right-wing Authoritarianism Scale

Australian political spectrum 2016 election

Australian political spectrum 2016 election


Moral Sense Test

Moral Foundations questionnaire