A Basic Map of Political Positions

The political positions on a simple grid.

Posted Oct 07, 2015

As the world gets ever more complicated and as our political system seems to be ever more dysfunctional and polarized, more and more people are either simply choosing sides in politics or are opting out of politics altogether without really having even a basic understanding of political philosophy in this country. That is, folks might have a vague notion that Democrats tend to support universal health care and other broad government initiatives, are more pro-choice, and are demographically supported more by women and people of color, whereas Republicans, as a group, tend to be more critical of big government and taxation, are more devoutly Christian, and tend to be more pro-life. But beyond this vague awareness there is often very limited understanding, even among thoughtful, well-educated folks. For example, I recently ask my doctoral students in professional psychology to offer a brief summary of the political philosophies that undergird the left relative to the right and they had a very hard time explicitly stating the philosophies, as opposed to simply listing some of the major platform positions.

Here I offer a quick 2 x 3 guide to understand the major dimensions that frame political debate. The first dimension (the 2) refers to the Left/Liberal/Democrat versus Right/Conservative/Republican divide. The second dimension (the 3) refers to major domains of policies and attitudes that are or should be related to one's political positions and voting.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

My hope is that in seeing this grid, folks quickly grasp two things. The first point is that each of these positions can be intelligently defended. That is, at the ideological level, there is potentially much sophistication across the spectrum. That does not mean that current advocates are themselves sophisticated or competent. Indeed, my sense is that we have more incompetent politicians than ever. But it does mean that the philosophical positions that undergird the political parties should not be summarily dismissed without study.

The second point I hope is made clear is that political positions are potentially far more complicated than our current polarized state of government tends to suggest. That is, it is very possible to be highly conservative/right/Republican in some domains, and highly liberal/left/Democratic in others. For example, many in the libertarian party line up strongly on the right when it comes to government and economic policies, believing for a host of practical and ideological reasons that a government funded by high taxes is a bloated “beast” that does far more harm than good in constraining productive growth and needs to be hemmed in. At the same time, such individuals might be very much to the left on social issues, like gay marriage or the legalization of marijuana. In contrast, there is nothing inherently inconsistent about being a deeply Christian individual who supports a strong centralized government that focuses on entitlements and assistance for the poor.

The point of this brief blog is to emphasize that our current political system is functioning poorly and, as such, it is more important than ever that the people develop a greater sophistication in understanding what the issues are and how to move our country toward a healthier state. If you are curious about learning more about what political position you are inclined to support, you might want to explore some of these sites (see here and here), which offer self-assessments to help you to decide the kind of candidate that aligns most with your values.