Problems with the Political Spectrum

Problems with the Political Spectrum

Common Conception of Political Spectrum

Golden Mean: Communism to Fascism

The political spectrum is both well-known and misunderstood. In fact, this will be my third (and hopefully final) attempt to explain it. It’s well-known because the most basic terms are used in common speech all the time. Even the least politically astute people understand that left and right have something to do with politics. Left is blue, liberal, progressive, and that it has regard for a “social safety net.” And right is red, is conservative, traditional, and that it has regard for capitalism.

But what exactly does the political spectrum represent?

A political spectrum is a system of classifying different political positions upon one or more geometric axes that symbolize independent political dimensions.

But what exactly are independent political dimensions?

Lumen Learning indicates that the two dimensions are different forms of totalitarianism. In most cases, the spectrum depicts communism on the extreme of the left, and fascism on the extreme of the right. This makes the middle this sort of golden mean. But are communism and fascism “independent political dimensions?” What makes them independent? Are there similarities between the two? Are the differences tantamount to mutual independence? Can they interact and ally with one another?

Mere Liberty

I’m not the only one who’s seen the inherent flaws in this representation of the spectrum. And there are many who suggest that the spectrum doesn’t have a single axis. Instead, they propose there are two axes, and so four independent dimensions.

While several alternatives have been proposed for the linear spectrum, we’re touching on the more popular alternatives: The Nolan Chart, the Political Compass, and what I call, the Wedge.

Nolan Chart

Mere LibertyThe popular alternative to the spectrum is the Nolan Chart. This chart was made popular by Libertarian David Nolan. It’s also used by The Advocates to plot your results from The World’s Smallest Political Quiz. (I’m certainly not knocking this quiz; it’s quite useful and if you haven’t taken it yet, you should.)

The Nolan Chart has two axes. One that plots degrees of economic freedom and one that plots degrees of personal (or non-economic) freedom. This distinction between economic and personal freedom seems quite intuitive. We grade states and countries on economic vs. personal freedom indexes. The individual knows that corporate taxes don’t apply to them. So clearly, there must be a difference worth measuring.

Political Compass

Mere LibertyAnother popular alternative is The Political Compass. It also measures degrees of economic to personal freedoms. This time, it gives negative values and so simply adjusts how the axes intersect.


This was the spectrum that I was first attracted to and have attempted to explain. Later, I turned the 2D wedge into a 3D wedge, as a way of accounting for the economic grid. But both of these are also erroneous. The wedge seems improved because it illustrates the growth of government towards totalitarianism. However, it still doesn’t illustrate two independent political dimensions. Like the communism to fascism spectrum, the wedge still distinguishes between two undesirable systems. In this case the extreme of totalitarianism and the extreme of anarchy. It is correct to draw a distinction between the two, but it doesn’t do so accurately. So, we’re still left with a sort of golden mean. Mere LibertyAnarchy is commonly conceived to be an environment that lacks order, justice, and civility. It’s basically portrayed as unfettered chaos – which is, of course, completely undesirable! Totalitarianism is also undesirable. And it’s also marked by a lack of order (the order favors the elite), justice, and civility towards the non-elite. So really these aren’t, as conceived, independent political dimensions because they are different manifestations of the same thing.


Problems with these four conceptions

Mere LibertyInherent in the problems with these iterations of the spectrum is that there’s nothing grounding a system’s place on the spectrum. On the visible spectrum, the color red is always the same wave range. You can’t move it because there’s a quantitative standard that grounds it. But this doesn’t exist and this problem is illustrated well with yet another grid alternative. The Pournelle chart simply moves the labels around. This chart uses a similar grid to the political compass. But now the personal opinions of the chart’s creator are revealed. Marx is placed as close to “reason enthroned.” Classical anarchists are “irrational,” and libertarians are left, pseudo-rational centrists.

The Golden Mean problem (the fallacy of ambiguity)

The point of the Golden Mean is to find a balance between two immoral/undesirable poles. (Read More: The Golden Mean in Politics). We often treat the “left/right” spectrum as though it’s a Golden Mean and the right sort of civil governance is one that balances left and right. Terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ carry heavy contextual and emotional baggage, because they’ve become largely a practice in pejoratives. Not only are they merely directional terms, but they (along with all the other terms associated with left and right) have developed ulterior colloquial meanings. As such, placing dimensions on the spectrum usually occurs as a result of bias rather than impartiality. If someone believes left has a more positive connotation, they’ll project onto the spectrum political systems that they want associating with the positive connotation. Take the term “progressive” for example. It implies progress, and what human being doesn’t want progress? What human being wants the opposite of progress, regress? It’s usually placed on the left, painting ‘left’ (and all associative terms) as though they represent progress. The implication, of course, is that regress exists *only* on the right. But in neither case are terms properly defined, and the position on the spectrum gives no sign about what is progressive about that position.

The “all possibilities” problem (the false dichotomy)

In all illustrations of the spectrum that I’ve seen, only one form of legal order is presumed possible. Authoritarian systems are presumed, with libertarianism presented as a lesser degree of authoritarianism. Anarchism is painted as a complete lack of legal order. So the false dichotomy presented on the spectrum is that dimensions on the golden mean are between legal order or no legal order. Why is this false? A spectrum classifies something in terms of how that thing relates to opposite points. The visible spectrum is a good model with the extremes of infrared and ultraviolet. These two areas of the spectrum are nothing like each other. They are mutually independent, though not mutually exclusive. The problem with placing communism on one end of the spectrum, and fascism on the right, is that it presumes mutual independence. But this is not so. There is a political theory of social fascism that which is supported by a communist-fascist alliance. They can coalesce, thus they cannot be independent political dimensions. So the political spectrum cannot be between the two. The two dimensions must necessarily be mutually independent of one another. They must be opposites. They cannot interact or ally with one another in order to account for all possibilities and not exclude them through a false dichotomy.

The legitimacy problem (the middle ground fallacy)

They do not address the question of legitimacy. Entailed in creating a spectrum that allows for all possibilities, is addressing the issue of legitimacy. Although there is obvious disagreement over what constitutes a legitimate civil governance, the spectrum must be able to identify the point at which civil governance steps outside its legitimate role regardless of what particular system it is. The implication from the spectrum though is that all forms of government are legitimate, while some are undesirable. The visible spectrum not only indicates all possible wavelengths, but it indicates what is legitimately visible to the eye and what is not. In other words, legitimacy is entailed in the spectrum, by virtue of illustrating all possibilities. We can have a debate over what constitutes legitimacy, but we cannot debate that there are some systems that are legitimate and some that are not.

The economics problem

Economics is treated as a mutually independent form of freedom from personal liberty. But this is not the case. There are certainly personal liberties that cannot be described economically (like the freedom to walk from point A to point B, or the freedom to simply think). But limitations on economic liberties will always impact the personal liberties of those affected by the limitation. I may be free to do hair braiding, but I need a license to sell my skill as a service. The limitation of exchange is economic, but it limits what I can do with my skills, in this case, make a living from it. So while we can differentiate between economic and personal liberties, we must understand the political spectrum in broader terms than merely economic to personal freedom.

Any economic system can exist under any legal order. It’s the nature of legal order, however, that changes the dynamics of that economic system making it oppressive or not. This is why we can’t use economics in determining standing on the political spectrum. Economics and Governance are also mutually exclusive and so can’t be described on the same spectrum. Economics is praxeological while governance is ethical. There are ways in which the two interplay (and this is where the grid can become useful), but economics is not helpful on the political spectrum itself. What makes certain economic systems oppressive is not the economic theory itself, but the monopolized aggression driving it to oppress.

In part 2, I will consider these problems and re-imagine the political spectrum.

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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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