The Big Misconception about Politics

Here, in the United States, and indeed, throughout much of the world, the common measure of political leaning is a 1-dimensional spectrum from Left to Right. The Left is generally described as favoring economic redistribution programs, social freedoms, and environmentalism. Socialism and Communism are generally described as the moderate-extremes and far-extremes of the Left, respectively. Fascism, favoring a society dependent on corporations and corporations controlled by the government, is generally described as the extreme of the Right.

However, this rendition of the political spectrum doesn’t completely make sense. Socialism and Fascism are actually quite similar to each other. While one exerts control and provides services by creating programs and nationalizing property to be in the hands of the government, the other exerts control and provides services by extending the government into the corporate sector, putting CEOs at the mercy of the government and people at the mercy of the CEOs. If you think about it, the only real difference between the two in the extreme case is a matter of where you say the government ends and the corporate power structure begins. But of course, that’s just a matter of semantics once the government regulates the corporations heavily enough.

Another way to look at the problems with the 1-dimensional rendition is to consider how you’d characterize someone who just loves all forms of government power. If you’ve got someone who’s just as happy extending the fingers of the government down into the corporations through regulation as he is bringing the corporations up into the government through nationalization, where do you place him on the political spectrum? He would be just as fascist as he is socialist, and if we diametrically oppose these two definitions as the 1-D spectrum does, then we can either average it out and call him a centrist, or say he’s on both ends at the same time. This isn’t a very satisfying conclusion, since we’d either be grouping a social fascist in with the moderates, or we’d be violating the single-valuedness of a person’s position on the spectrum.

So what’s the solution? There needs to be another axis on the political spectrum. We already have our left-right axis, which vaguely describes a continuum from favoring the lower classes of society to favoring the empowered upper classes. We can then add an orthogonal Libertarian-Authoritarian axis, which describes the continuum from favoring less government power to favoring more government power. Finally, we can put this new 2-dimensional spectrum in the form of a diamond, representing how transition towards the extreme authoritarian or libertarian corners will decrease the left-right distinction.

So, this actually resolves our problem fairly well. If someone favors all forms of government power, then we put them at the Authoritarian corner. If someone opposes all forms of government power, then we put them at the Libertarian corner. If someone favors only those forms of government power which help the poor or the lower classes, then we put them at the Left corner. If someone favors only those forms of government power which help the well-established members of society, then we put them at the Right corner. Everything else is somewhere in-between.

As a good example of the strength of this model, we can figure out where on this spectrum US President Barack Obama sits. Obama is a bit of an enigma, in that he’s often contentiously described as being politically center-left while differing drastically from many moderates in policy. This description may be true of his position on the Left-Right axis, but it doesn’t say anything about his positioning on the Libertarian-Authoritarian axis. To evaluate that, we have to consider his views on government power.

Let’s look at some of the major actions of Obama’s presidency: He raised taxes on tobacco products as part of a health care bill. He passed the transfer of $800 billion in taxpayer funds to struggling, failing corporations to bail them out (at the same time, making them highly government-dependent). He had the government, under TARP, buy out GM, the largest automaker in the US, to become the major shareholder, establishing direct government control over the corporation. He’s directly favored specific corporations through the Cash For Clunkers Act. He’s sought a national, mandatory health care system, though he has expressed a willingness to settle for a highly regulated, government-controlled, mandatory private health insurance system.

If we consider the bulk of his actions, President Obama has spanned the left-right gap pretty extensively, favoring both extensive social programs and massive corporate support and regulation. This justifies his center-left placement. However, on the Libertarian-Authoritarian axis, pretty much every action he’s taken has favored expansion of government power. His most well-known “victories” and goals include the distinctly fascist acquisition of GM and corporate stimulus plan, as well as his strongly socialist attempts to nationalize health care and expand government spending on what he believes are public services.

So, it’s pretty clear that Obama is extremely authoritarian. He has expanded US government control and micromanagement of our lives beyond anything it has seen at least since WWII. And since this is peacetime, and his actions are meant to have permanent effect, I’d say what we’re seeing now is more authoritarian even than what was seen under FDR. Thus, we place him very far along towards the Authoritarian end of the diamond, and just a little bit towards the Left of the central axis, distinguishing him from center-left libertarians, as shown at this site I already linked to.

The more complicated political philosophy of President Obama makes very clear the need for a 2-dimensional political diamond to capture the distinctions between Authoritarians and Libertarians.

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11 Responses to “The Big Misconception about Politics”

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