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The Political Spectrum

Dan Knight
2001:06:26

We've had some interesting discussion of politics recently. It all started when Dirk Pilat wrote Are Apple Users Lefties?, which led to Charles W. Moore writing Not All Mac-Heads Are Lefties. As follow-up, Moore posted some reader feedback yesterday, and Pilat shares his today.

I've never been terribly comfortable with the right/left or conservative/liberal labels. They've always seemed too convenient, too idealistic, and too polarized. Besides, I don't think they apply terribly well to politics here in the States, one of the most individualistic nations on the planet.

Two Parties or Many?

A lot of Americans might not know this, but political systems around the world tend to be quite different from ours. Instead of a two-house legislature and a President, many nations have a parliament and a Prime Minister, sometimes combined with a second legislative assembly. That leads to a very different dynamic.

Here in that States, we haven't seen a successful third party launched since the Republican Party - about 150 years ago. The rise of the Republicans signaled the demise of the Whigs, retaining the two-party system we're all familiar with. It's not that third parties cannot exist in this system. The reality is that they can throw an election, often in the direction opposite of their leaning, but they never have much real political power.

In a parliamentary system, on the other hand, the whole game of politics is different. While one or two parties may dominate the system, there are often several minority parties with some representation. If the leading party doesn't have a majority, and that's not uncommon, they must form a coalition with one or more parties that will give them a parliamentary majority. Only then can they appoint their Prime Minister and create a government.

Because of this, third parties can become disproportionately powerful, since the threat of their walking out of the coalition would bring down the government. That's part of the reason some of these countries seem to have frequent elections. It's also part of the reason political parties have a very different nature outside the U.S.

In the States, we don't make a big deal if a Senator or Representative votes with the opposing party once in a while; in a parliamentary system, that is almost unthinkable. We've developed a very pragmatic system that's more concerned with individual laws and individual elections, while the rest of the world is used to a more philosophical system and overall party success.

For an American, that system can seem pretty alien. It certainly did when my folks moved back to Canada. I'd live in the States since the age of four; after 13 years exposed to American politics, I found the Canadian parliamentary system almost incomprehensible. Fortunately, I took political science my senior year of high school - and another course in college.

I ended up with a B.A. in English, history, and philosophy, which may help explain my love for writing, my tendency to approach things from a historical perspective, and my desire to get to the core meaning of things.

The Range of Opinion

That brings us back to politics. I've long held the theory that on most issues, popular opinion starts weighted toward the middle (like a bell curve) or randomly distributed. Some people are strongly for and against, but a lot are undecided. As proponents of each view influence the public, individuals tend to leave the undecided camp in favor of one side or the other. The longer and more impassioned the debate, the less tolerance either side has for the undecided. "He who is not for me is against me."

We see that in the computing world, too, where Mac zealots and fervent Wintelians battle each other, making it seem there is no room for both platforms to coexist. The same is true in politics, whether the issue is civil rights, women's suffrage, slavery, reproductive rights, fiscal policy, health care, biotechnology, the environment, etc. Because Americans are used to a two-party system, we are used to dividing everything into right and wrong, my way and the highway.

Of course, that assumes there really is a left/right, liberal/conservative axis that defines every issue, which simply isn't the case. Instead, there are a number of axes defining a multidimensional space of political views. A multiparty political system tends to better represent this reality.

For instance, we might have one axis which defines our ideal level of government, ranging from "hands off" to "take care of everything." This will tend to correlate with the tax axis, which would range from "hands off" to "take what you need." Those axes correlate, but they are not identical. And a third axis might cover who to tax, starting at "tax everyone equally" and running to "stick it to the rich." Again, there would be some correlation between this and the other two axes, but one's position on the tax axis might not predict a position on the "who to tax" axis.

One area of great frustration to the experts today is "life" issues. There's an axis for abortion, which runs from "it's murder" to "it's just tissue." There's another axis for the terminally ill, which runs from "do everything possible" to "pull the plug at this point." Yet another quality of life issue has to do with various levels of handicap, which in turn impact the education axis.

Another challenging issue is execution, which some see as nothing less than state sanctioned murder and others view as the proper penalty for those who commit murder. If life is valuable, dare we deprive a murderer of her life? If life is valuable, can we justify not exacting the ultimate price for premeditated murder? Here was have another "life" axis that may or may not correlate to one's view on abortion, euthanasia, or quality of life issues. (So much for a "consistent pro-life position.")

We haven't even touched on issues such as nonviolence, gay rights, the environment, energy policy, or the place of religion in the public realm, which are just a few of the other axes. We have different views, and a just political system should accommodate diversity without infringing on the rights of the populace any more than necessary. (Is my bias showing?)

It is this very multiplicity of axes that the American political system quietly recognizes in allowing Senators and Representatives to vote their conscience rather than be tied to a party line. The freedom is necessary in a system that cannot support more than two strong parties.

That multiplicity of axes also explains why a parliamentary system rarely remains a two-party system. People have divergent views; political parties come into being to reflect that. Of course, that leads to the opposite problem of so many political fragments that the system may no longer work.

In the U.S., Republicans tend to want less government, less taxes, and a flatter tax code. Democrats tend to want more justice, more money to promote justice, and a higher share of taxes from those more able to afford it. But what of the Greens, the Natural Law contingent, the Reform Party, and the Libertarians? And what about the completely different ranges of parties in other countries, such as Christian Democrats and Socialists?

In the end, we have to dispense with the simplistic view of liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right. There are too many axes to consistently label each position as liberal or conservative. This is why a lot of us find it difficult to simply call ourselves conservatives or liberals - those labels say nothing about many issues that are important to us. (This may explain Dubya's label of "compassionate conservative" to describe a matrix of opinions that are not strictly conservative.)

I tend toward moderation, which some might label centrist. I believe in just enough government, although I would be hard pressed to define that. The same goes with taxes - I'd like to see taxes reduced for everyone, but I'd prefer reducing the national debt first.

Yet on some issues I'm not in the middle. I despise the laws that not only allow abortion in the United States, but then deny the father any say in that decision. I believe the death penalty is a necessary response to some crimes, not because I don't value life, but because of the value of the lives taken. Likewise, I believe we need a strong enough military to protect those who cannot protect themselves from foreign invaders or their own unjust governments.

I believe that the Earth is essentially a self-correcting environment (the Gaia hypothesis), but also that we have the power to push it too far out of balance and must be responsible for the planet's health. Resources are limited; we can't rape the planet today because "Jesus is coming back tomorrow."

You can't map all these views on a single liberal-conservative axis, nor in two- or three-dimensional space. We human beings aren't as simple as that - and that's not true just in politics.

Tangentially, we can use the same kind of model to look at computing. We have an axis for horsepower - some need a lot, others very little. The axes for hard drive size and RAM configuration will tend to correlate to that axis, but they won't match it. Still another axis would deal with display size, and another would cover portability. The price axis is usually an important one and tends to correlate to the horsepower axis, but not precisely.

And then there are the OS axes, which aren't as simple as Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux. One axis would be ease of use, another stability, another familiarity, another the expertise required to get work done, and so forth. That's why there's more than one computer and one OS on the market.

We might consider several axes when choosing a new vehicle, stereo, camera, or home. We may use several factors when deciding which restaurant to visit, where to go on vacation, or what movie to see.

Back to politics - that's why parliamentary systems often end up with a lot of parties, why the U.S. system results in a lot of diversity within a party, and why the liberal-conservative spectrum is totally inadequate to describe political behavior. It's too simplistic a model and denies our multifaceted human nature.

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