A Political Compass for a New Millennium
The Need for a New Political Typology
Many Americans, especially those on the left, are overwhelmed by a stark feeling of political homelessness. Did the left change over time or did we? If we are now consistently allied with conservatives on major issues, does that mean we are now conservatives? Or libertarians? Many conservatives also seem to feel disenchanted with their political options. I suggest that a political realignment is underway such that the 20th Century political spectrum no longer applies.
Conflation of Political Ideologies With Political Attitudes
The usual political typologies are severely flawed in two respects. First, they conflate political attitudes with political ideologies. Americans are mired in the day to day political trivium but give little thought to the larger, overarching questions of political philosophy that encompass political ideologies. Our two-party system results in continually being stuck between two reductionist choices that only allow for the most shallow political expression, like only having the choices of French vanilla and vanilla bean in an ice cream shop and not realizing other flavors exist. Not only does our American ice cream shop fail to offer other ice cream flavors, but heaven help the patron who prefers cake or pie to ice cream!
Most patrons in America’s ice cream shop have no idea such options exist because shop management has a duopoly that quashes any possible competition. People’s political foundations encompass much more than just the sum of their views on the isolated topics of guns, abortion, climate change, health care, civil rights, and immigration. By focusing on just these few hot button issues all the time and forcing people into one of two camps, our society blunts political discourse and discourages people from developing a more nuanced and sophisticated appraisal of the entire political system. A typical political typology is too superficial to explain why, of two individuals who support abortion rights on the basis of bodily autonomy, one supports mandated vaccines and the other does not despite the fact that they are both supposedly on the same side.
Think of political ideology as the structures and rules of a game, and political attitudes are the personal strategy for how one should win within the rules of the game. In the United States, Liberalism as enshrined in our Constitution determines the rules for political engagement. Just as a Monopoly player is entitled to $200 on every turn around around the board and the option to buy whatever available property she lands on, every player in the game of American politics gets certain inalienable rights that include the right to political representation, the right to think and speak freely, and protection from unreasonable government interventions. Within that framework, people develop political attitudes about how to interact with government in a way they hope will contribute to a fulfilling life.
People today are so focused on winning the game for their side that they are are not paying attention to the fact that the rules of the game have been changing mid-play. One cannot win a game if the rules are unknown or constantly changing. The way you plan to win may no longer even be possible once the rules have changed. Returning to the example of Monopoly, if the banker unilaterally decided to pay himself $1,000 on every turn around the board and to deny other players the chance to buy property, the other players focus would quickly shift from trying to win the game to trying to reestablish the rules for fair play.
Similarly, the rules of American society have been changing over time. The freedoms guaranteed to Americans slowly eroded as the federal government grew ever more expansive, local governments were seduced by the financial incentives offered by the federal branch, the power of voting was diminished by the emphasis on lobbying and campaign contributions, much of the policymaking process was replaced by closed-door deals and executive orders, and digital technology co-opted the public forum. But most of us are continuing to try to play the game by the old rules instead of confronting the fact that the game itself is changing without our input.
That is why political ideology is important. If you are not asking and answering basic philosophical questions about our political system, then you could be suffering severe political losses without even realizing it. By only fixating on political attitudes, many people are trading in their long-term interests in political governance for superficial wins on short-term issues. People are allowing the two major parties to use their positions on short-term political issues to obliquely shift the political ideology of the United States towards a more authoritarian future.
This is what is driving the feeling of political homelessness for many on the left. The reason for this feeling of alienation is the gradual realization that those people who share our political attitudes do not necessarily share our ideologies. We can agree with our close friends that civil rights are a laudable goal but if we cannot agree that a person has a right to speech without punitive measures or that government must follow certain procedures to enact policy, then we are not working towards the same future.
The New Political Compass
The second problem with political typologies is that they are outdated. Technology rapidly changes society, and the changes over the past 20 to 30 years happened at a breakneck pace. Any political metrics that do not include technology as a factor are going to be severely flawed at understanding responses to current events (Thanks to David Cayley for inspiring me with this suggestion on the Accad and Koka Report podcast.). Accordingly, the axes for this new political compass are government power and technology. Views on government power range from personal sovereignty on the left to authoritarianism on the right. Views on technology range from humanism at the top to technocentrism on the bottom.
I excluded an economic axis because questions of economics tend to be extensions of the more central question of how much control the government should have over individuals and private property. I excluded the commonly used social freedom axis for the same reason. The person who supports freedom for gun owners but wants the government to outlaw abortion is often in the same ideological camp as the person who wants abortion to be unrestricted but wants the government to ban guns. They both want to use the government to restrict the individual freedoms that they personally disagree with. It is only their political attitudes within their shared ideology of government paternalism that differs.
Humanism (Top Half): These people are focused on individual autonomy and self-reliance. They believe there are uniquely human qualities that should not be obstructed by society. They are more communal and less dependent on bureaucratic institutions. They find technology alienating and limit it to intentional use. Because of their focus on self-reliance and community, they are less fearful of risks. They try to live in harmony with the natural order as they see it, which tends to mean a slower, more reflective pace of life with robust social connections.
They feel an intrinsic sense of meaning in life and have a higher sense of personal efficacy. They are generalists who are grounded in the material reality of their world. People in this half tend to prefer relationships with technology that model ecocentrism (nomadism or pre-industrial agrarianism) or anthrocentrism (industrialism or post-industrialism).
Technocentrism (Bottom Half): These people prefer the civilized and artificial to the natural and find social constructs more profound than the material world. Technocentrists see technology as an absolute positive and desire few to no limits on its use. They believe it is incumbent on humans to adapt themselves to technology. Rather than individuals following an intrinsic sense of purpose, goals are imposed in a top-down fashion by highly specialized experts. They see humans as tabula rosas who can be engineered to become better members of society.
Technocentrists are highly dependent on technology and institutions for survival, which results in a low sense of personal efficacy and a more atomized and isolating society. Consequently, they are very risk averse and security-oriented. They can be fearful of nature, which they see as risky and too uncontrolled.
They believe in a faster paced life with a lot of conveniences to maximize human performance and financial profit. At the extreme, they may believe that humans have a duty to be electively “improved” with technology. People in this half tend to prefer relationships with technology that model anthrocentrism (especially post-industrialism) and technopolism (digital modernism and transhumanism).
Personal Sovereignty (Left Half): These people accept a very grudging use of limited government, if at all. The focus is on the individual pursuit of happiness. The government exists to serve individuals in a decentralized fashion with little to no authority over their actions. Government, to the extent it exists, should be limited to macro functions like foreign relations, printing currency, and possibly limited police powers.
People on this end of the spectrum desire government to have little regulatory power, and the individual’s inalienable rights to speech, religion, association, and movement trumps government power in all or most instances. What private property exists cannot be seized by the government ever or, if it can, it is rare and requires due process.
People are free to assess and assume risks for themselves. There is no expansive bureaucracy and people have minimal to no contact with government in their daily lives. The relationship between citizens and government is an adversarial one, and the people have the power to check and change government through their participation in the political system. This includes anarchism, tribalism, confederalism, and classical liberalism.
Authoritarianism (Right Half): A very centralized government has minute control over individuals’ lives. Political culture tends to be more collectivist, with citizens serving the state and living according to objectives set by the government. An expansive bureaucracy surveils and regulates what people can and cannot do in their daily lives. Consequently, people have daily contact with government; their housing, work, food, education, utilities, purchases, etc. may all be regulated, taxed, or sponsored in some way by the government.
It is up to government to decide what risks are acceptable. There is compulsory participation by individuals in various social and economic programs, and it may not be possible for a person to opt out of the system. At the extreme end, individual speech is highly controlled and there are limited due process rights, if any, so it is difficult to criticize or oppose government. The relationship between the people and the government is a paternalistic one in which people can be penalized for disobeying government. The government may be too behemoth and complex for meaningful participation by citizens.
This encompasses modern liberalism, socialism, unitary states, and totalitarianism. While communism and socialism are typically considered on the “left,” they would likely fall on the authoritarian side of this compass because of society's high level of control over the individual that is inherent in such theories when operated on a mass level for a large, heterogeneous population.
The Quadrants of the New Compass
Q I: Radicals
1. What is the purpose of human life? To achieve health, happiness, love, and fulfillment in accordance with one’s values and natural inclinations.
2. What is the good life? To live in accordance with natural laws and to have the time and space to form community, engage in fulfilling activities, and enjoy life.
3. What is the relationship of the individual to government? Government, to the extent it exists, should be extremely limited so that individuals and communities can pursue the good life. Citizens have inalienable rights that cannot be abridged. Preservation of these rights are paramount, and Radicals also often seek to limit the coercive effects of monopolistic, private entities and institutional “solutions” as well as government. Radicals tend to be anti-establishment and will question the utility and undue influence of institutions that the establishment-minded feel are necessary.
4. What is the relationship of the individual to technology? Technology is used intentionally and sparingly only to the extent that it helps achieve the good life. The emphasis is on controlling technology as tools for specific, limited purposes and disdaining technologies that could have a controlling effect on the individual and community. Each person must be free to reject any technology offered. Humans have an intrinsic wisdom or genius that cannot be supplanted by technology.
While Radicals often tend to have primitivist tendencies, they are not necessarily stuck in the past; they make use of modern technologies whenever they personally find that the usefulness outweighs the alienating effects on their growth and ability to form community.
Technology is peripheral to culture, not central. Radicals will make use of expertise, but do not support having a formal, entrenched, expert class that individuals must submit to.
5. How do they assess security versus freedom? They accept risk as a normal element of life and feel competent to deal with risks. To them, true security comes from having the freedom to develop resilient individuals and communities who can confront risks head on, which results in further growth. Thus, risk is viewed as something constructive to be embraced, and freedom is what ultimately insures against harm.
Examples: Henry Thoreau, anarcho-primitivists, Ivan Illich, the Nearings, Wendell Berry, ecocentrists
Q II: Traditionalists:
1. What is the purpose of human life? To serve one’s community by following tradition and the authority figures who are the keepers of the tradition.
2. What is the good life? To live in a close, regimented community and follow the values and dictates prescribed by the community even if it means sacrificing individual fulfillment or happiness.
3. What is the relationship of the individual to government? Traditionalists support government to the extent that government honors tradition and seek to use government to enforce traditional values for the entire populace, often with disregard for whether all the individuals in the populace subscribe to the same tradition. It is acceptable for government to regulate the activities of the individual directly if the exercise of power is in furtherance of upholding tradition.
4. What is the relationship of the individual to technology? Similarly, they accept technology to the extent that it does not undermine their traditional values. They are comfortable adopting modern technologies, but will eschew certain medical procedures, forms of media, and other technology that are seen to violate their belief system or have a corruptible influence on community members. They seem humans as divine creations who do not need to be improved by technology.
5. How do they assess security versus freedom? They strive for the security to maintain their way of life and beliefs, but they are not totally risk averse. Like the radicals, they find a sense of security in their close-knit communities. They are more concerned with existential threats than practical threats, and will limit freedom substantially to prevent those risks that threaten tradition.
Examples: The Vatican, the Taliban, the religious right, Anthony Comstock, the Hasidim
Q III: Libertarians
1. What is the purpose of human life? To live a productive and happy life in accordance with one’s own wishes.
2. What is the good life? To freely and individually determine one’s own course of action and to freely associate with others of one’s choosing in order to maximize one’s potential.
3. What is the relationship of the individual to government? Government, if it exists at all, should be extremely limited and not have control over individuals’ actions except perhaps in the most extreme emergency situations. Government may handle some collective societal tasks like garbage collection and air traffic control, but should avoid regulating day to day affairs of the citizens. Libertarians prefer solutions that result from private cooperation to state actions.
They differ from radicals in that they see private businesses as an extension of the individual and are less concerned with mitigating harms caused by powerful, private entities. As long as government is not involved in an action, Libertarians assume the individual is free from duress and empowered to respond appropriately.
4. What is the relationship of the individual to technology? They often support technology whole-heartedly as a way to increase growth, productivity, and efficiency. Technology is a positive tool that can aid the individual in his goals. They assume that if a given technology’s costs outweigh the benefits, people will not use it; thus, the popularity and ubiquity of any technology is proof that its value outweighs its costs.
Libertarians also prize experts and specialists and see such expertise as objective and value-neutral. Though not usually required, it is prudent for the individual to defer to expert judgment.
5. How do they assess security versus freedom? They believe that individuals should be free to decide what risks they feel comfortable accepting and handle the consequences accordingly. Government has no business trying to keep the individual “safe.”
Examples: various anarchist theories, the Libertarian Party, 19th Century United States, John D. Rockefeller
Q IV: Progressives
1. What is the purpose of human life? The individual exists to serve government and society. Outside of government prescribed goals and regulations, the individual can make use of any freedom that remains to achieve fulfillment.
2. What is the good life? To live a materially easy, safe, and comfortable life through active regulation and management by government and other bureaucratic institutions.
3. What is the relationship of the individual to government? Government is an expansive, centralized, paternalistic figure with direct control over the day to day lives of citizens. Government is responsible for providing and ensuring education, child care, health care, safety, nutrition, shelter, conflict mediation, transportation, and employment. It is easier to ask what doesn’t government control. Government essentially has a monopoly on most aspects of life. There is little community because people are conditioned to rely on government for support rather than each other.
Government sets overarching goals, and it is the individual’s duty to help fulfill those goals. Because government has such an outsized role, its actions dominate the news and social discourse. Consequently, the citizenry often cannot conceive of a non-institutional, non-bureaucratized life. Being dependent on institutions, Progressives are strongly attached to upholding the establishment and see questions and challenges to the establishment as dangerous.
As I noted in earlier writings, Progressives are increasingly illiberal. At the extreme, Progressives may desire to subject the entire world to the totalitarian control of one global governing body.
4. What is the relationship of the individual to technology? Technology is central to culture. They see technology as unquestionably beneficial, and they often do not believe that people should have the option to resist or opt out. They believe digital life is an adequate substitute for the material world and have little concern for privacy, assuming only guilty people have something to hide.
There are few to no bounds to what they think technology should try to accomplish, and they do not worry about possible collateral damage or possible alienating effects. Playing god with nature is the highest aspiration, not a sin or folly. In fact, combining humans and technology so that humans become an extension of technology thrills them. Humans are deficient until improved with technology. They view transhumanism as a positive aim.
They see experts as completely objective and infallible, and they believe that every person has a duty to obey experts even to one’s own detriment.
5. How do they assess security versus freedom? Nearly all risk is to be avoided, and freedom is a threat to society and government. Consequently, government is called upon to make society safer by restricting the ability of individuals to take risks. The goal is ultimately to create a perfectly safe world where no one is ever harmed or killed by natural causes nor is the establishment threatened by dissentious viewpoints.
Examples: contemporary Democrats and Republicans, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, People’s Republic of China
Currently, our political leadership and major media output exclusively endorse the Progressive ideology to the point that most people do not even realize that the ideology can be questioned or dissented from. I suspect that most people would reject many elements of Progressivism if they were given the space to question it and think through for themselves what they believe the proper relationships of people to government and technology should be. But because they are force-fed Progressive ideas on a daily basis and alternate ideological viewpoints are strenuously censored, many people are going along with agendas that are not necessarily in their interests.
We need to inject political philosophy back into the political discourse so that today’s political issues can be seen in the context of the bigger picture. If our social contract is being renegotiated to make a more hegemonic government, then such renegotiation needs to be performed openly and directly with the appropriate due process and constitutional amendments to allow citizens to assent to the proposal, if indeed that is the way they are inclined, with full informed consent.