The Banality of the Ideological Spectrum
Political labels become more about power and less descriptive the more we use them
It’s easy to fall into the habit of treating common cultural references as though they represent some well-established truth. They can even approach self-evident status over time. However, it is often the case that the ideas we tend to take most for granted are the ones worthiest of examination.
In the current highly polarized political environment labels like “liberal”, “conservative”, “centrist”, “moderate”, “left” and “right” are tossed about as though what is meant by them is as likely to be understood by anyone happening to hear or read them as a list of the colors of the rainbow or adjectives like wet and dry. Even when it comes to ideologies with far more specific historic and philosophical meaning — to say nothing of baggage — we seem to feel little need to spend any time explaining ourselves. When it comes to identifying either ourselves or others as “capitalist” or “socialist” we frequently even express annoyance if asked to define our terms.
Presumably, the concept of the political spectrum emerged as a tool intended to help researchers identify where people stood in the contemporary philosophical milieu. With the advent of the Internet these tests and less well thought out copies of them quickly went public. It takes virtually no time at all to find a website set up to help you identify your political ideology. By answering a list of questions on everything from capital punishment to public education funding an algorithm will place you somewhere on the spectrum in relation to everyone else.
But just how useful is the political spectrum as an idea? Do most people really see themselves as fixed points along a linear trajectory that stretches, at least under most common formulations, between full blown totalitarian communism and extreme fascism? Even the oft used quadrant system of analyzing our individual and collective place in the political universe seems at best only slightly less simplistic.
That we should want to know where we stand both as individuals and in relation to others within our communities, countries and planet is understandable. The more complex our world becomes the more appealing it feels to have this information. Unfortunately, this knowledge is a dangerous illusion. Without any of us intending for it to happen it has become just one more means of othering those around us.
Even assuming there’s an algorithm out there that can accurately tell us exactly where we stand in relation to everybody else, it will provide us with no insights into how or why we each came to answer the questions the way we did. We will be just as ignorant as we were before taking the test about which results a different set of answers would have produced, to say nothing of the life experiences that produced those answers in the first place. In a world that depends more and more upon cooperation to solve its problems that’s the kind of information we should really want to have about each other.
Ultimately, what these tests are promoting is the illusion that the actual depth of our opinions can be objectively measured in any truly meaningful way. To the extent there is such a space in the political universe, the ‘mushy middle’ of the spectrum is where things are most interesting. It’s where all the personal and collective contradictions and nuance that comes with being human exists. It’s where we will find the people that support a woman’s right to choose but still find abortion repugnant on moral or religious grounds, the supporters of the Second Amendment that feel contempt for gun owners that don’t properly store their guns and ammo, the self-described capitalists that feel polluters that fail to pay to clean up their mess are giving capitalism a bad name and the proud socialists that nonetheless appreciate there’s a role for the market.
Worse still, the portrayal of the political spectrum as some sort of objective measurement of the range of public opinion facilitates our increasing tendency to place those with whom we disagree into one or the other of the supposedly descriptive political categories being offered. Once we’ve done that, it’s that much easier to simply dismiss their point of view as “right wing”, “liberal” or “moderate”, with at least two of the three being repugnant to just about everyone. As a result, the hard work of listening and evaluating our fellow citizens positions on their merits never gets done.
One need only spend one or two minutes on Twitter to see this phenomenon at work. Find a politically oriented Twitter feed then start a stopwatch and you’ll see just how little time it takes to find a post in which someone dismisses another person’s position on the grounds they belong to one ideological camp or another and simply leaves it at that. Of course, we can find plenty of similar examples on TV and in political speeches too, albeit couched within a lot more words than Twitter allows. It’s what Trump is doing when he tries to reduce the entire Democratic Party to four newly elected congresswomen from “liberal” districts and it’s what Democrats are doing to themselves as they increasingly place their candidates into “progressive”, “liberal” or “centrist” bins, as though the label rather than content and context is the signifier of truth and virtue.
Ideas neither have merit nor lack merit because they are attached to a particular part of the political spectrum. They have merit (or not) because there are good reasons to think so. Evidence should matter, particularly for those claiming that science ought to inform public policy. Whether someone self-identifies as or is perceived as being somewhere right of center on a spectrum is no more reason to dismiss them than is the fact or perception someone lies further to the left. We should be asking ourselves what works and under what circumstances, not whether the idea originated with a liberal or a conservative.
The old but familiar line between extreme left from extreme right has become a better metaphor for tug of war than a descriptive model of the political landscape. In this context is it any wonder so many people from all walks of life are feeling increasingly exhausted by and alienated from the political process? When expressing an opinion means to risk the labelling, ridicule and shaming that now defines politics online and across other media we shouldn’t be surprised that those willing to do whatever it takes to pull those elsewhere along the line into the mud so they can have the rope all to themselves increasingly dominate the political landscape.