The Political Compass: just how "liberal" is S&R, anyway?

Three years ago the S&R staff took the Political Compass test, an interesting survey that seeks to get past our simplistic either/or sense of American political life. Red or Blue? Liberal or Conservative? Left or Right? Metro or Retro? Coastal or Flyover? With us or Agin’ Us? And so on. While their approach is hardly comprehensive, there’s certain a good deal of value in separating our economic and social beliefs, because the truth is that some “conservatives” are socially libertarian while some “liberals” are far more fiscally reserved than the left-right stereotype would have us believe. (You can learn more about the Political Compass here.)

Since then we’ve had some folks move on and new people have joined. The US has also seen a new president elected and an apparent worsening of everything we all thought was wrong in the first place. Or maybe things have all gotten better, depending on your perspective. In light of all this, we decided we’d all retake the test to see where we stand today. Here are our results.

At a glance, this is probably what you’d expect from a “liberal” blog like S&R. All of us except Gavin, the house Libertarian, reside in the lower left quadrant – the Left/Libertarian sector – with the likes of Gandhi, Mandela and the Dalai Lama. (Big hitter, the Lama.)

But are these results misleading? Regular readers will quickly note that at least a couple of our writers (Wufnik and Lex) have a great deal in common with “crunchy conservatives.” Some of us are unrepentant by-god liberals in the 1960s/SDS mode (Jim Booth, for instance). Sam Smith looks pretty liberal on paper, but in fact sifts everything through the filter of education policy and does so in ways that are rarely partisan. Chris Mackowski, like Sam, grew up GOP and both still find much of merit in what we might call traditional Republican values (as opposed to contemporary GOP values, which they see as having almost nothing to do with actual conservatism). And so on.

We asked the staff to chime in with their particular thoughts on the Compass, its uses and misuses and how they think it reflects their view of the political world.

Cat White:

When you look at the grid of leaders in the graph above, the lower right corner, Economic Right/Social Libertarian, is blank.

I find that really weird.

You have all these people spouting “personal freedom,” “free market,” “free speech,” but no world leaders fall into that category.  Why?  Is it:

A)  Just happens that none of them are in power at this time
B)  You can’t really rule that way
C)  The people who say they are that really want that for themselves and want to tell everyone else what to do
D)  Something else

Experience says the answer is C, but nature abhors a vacuum, so there are probably people in the ER/SL quadrant, maybe they’re just invisible. . . .


I would point out that the right hand side of the graph at political compass is labeled “neoliberalism” and is exemplified by Milton Friedman. It’s not “libertarian/statist” in both directions.

Also, look at the questions. E.g., “Multinational corporations are stealing common medical knowledge from the developing world.” (or something close to that) It’s true. Pharmaceutical, bioscience and agricultural firms are developing common knowledge cures, etc. from the developing world. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that then these companies patent the “discovery.” So if you “strongly agree” with the statement you’ll tilt towards being a “communist,” when that’s not really the case. Or if you believe in government regulation of multinational corporations you’re a Communist.

I’m sure that with a slightly different question set i’d be economically libertarian, but i fail to see how being for untrammeled behavior of mulitnational corporations is “libertarian.”

And that’s why all the political leaders used as examples end up in the upper right hand corner of the graph, because they are authoritarian statists and neoliberals. There’s no contradiction, because neoliberalism has nothing to do with libertarianism. In fact, it requires an authoritarian state to keep the people in line while the megarich/corporations have their way. Put it another way, the upper right hand corner of that graph should be labeled “fascist.”

Gavin Chait:

I have a similar problem with the very first question:  If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.

As usual, I regard people as both consumers and producers, not one or other.  I don’t see how you can serve the interests of humans without also serving the interests of corporations.  Globalisation is not a choice of “people” or “companies,” but of monopolies (either local or foreign) vs open markets where there are no monopolies.

So, if one “strongly agreed” with the above you end up being against the interests of globally oriented companies.  And what happens if you want both?  A lot of the questions seem to present concepts as being polar opposites when they might be mutually acceptable.

Chris Mackowski:

What I find particularly fascinating is that these are STILL the very issues the Founders struggled with more than 225 years ago.

Jefferson, for instance, believed “The People” would behave reasonably and could be trusted to act in their own best interest; Adams believed that government needed a degree of protection from the ever-changing passions of the mob. In other words: Individual rights vs. government control. And history shows us that they were both right–and both wrong.

Hamilton strongly advocated a central bank and a national debt (which he called a “national blessing”), while Jefferson felt a central bank consolidated too much power in a central authority. In other words: Free market vs. regulation. And history shows us that they were both right–and both wrong.

Of the bunch, Madison’s genius was to be the great compromiser, finding ways to institutionalize our national discussions about and tensions over those contradictions. The debate has become especially rancorous and unconstructive of late…but then again, anyone who’s studied the election of 1800 knows that was no love-fest, either.

For further reading, I recommend The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country by Howard Fineman and, of course, Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers.

Brian Angliss:

After having some arguments with Lex recently, I think that we’re missing at least one axis. Yes, the compass is “better” than the standard political dichotomies we’re used to (left/right, liberal/conservative), but foreign policy could easily be another axis.  Exactly how that axis should be formulated is certainly up for debate, but “interventionist vs. isolationist” presents one possibility.

Other possible axes could be based on technology, science, education, or the environment, for a few examples.  Each has some relationship to the social/economic axis presented by the Political Compass, but neither can necessarily predict whether someone is interested in protecting vs. exploiting the environment or opposes GMO foods or refuses to buy items online due to credit card security concerns.

Sam Smith:

I have lots of issues with the construction of the Political Compass test, as well. In a nutshell, it doesn’t measure you on principle, it measures your stance with respect to the status quo.

For instance, if you look at my answers on the questions relating to corps vs governments, I look like Marx. But that’s not really who I am at all. If I answered in a vacuum, with no regard paid to our present system and its effects, I’d be much further in Gavin’s direction. In fact, the first time we did this I took the test twice, and in the second one I tried, as best I could, to reply in a vacuum, on purely philosophical grounds. My results there: off the chart social libertarian and further right than Gavin economically. That’s who I’d be if people and corporations would behave themselves, but their refusal to do so necessitates a pull upward (slightly) and to the left (dramatically).

We live in a world where corporations won’t behave and where governments understand that they’re wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America. The abuses are epic and they occur on a daily basis, and sadly these forces are arrayed in direct opposition to the best interests of the citizenry.

If it weren’t for all this, you couldn’t even ask the questions the way you do. I mean, ideally business and government work in partnership in ways that benefit the collective – all of it, not just the short-term interests of shareholders. So you couldn’t even write a question that opposed corps and governments and individuals without sounding a bit silly.

Gavin (responding to Sam):

I believe you have to answer the questions in this fashion.  The full extent of a person’s commitment to principles is not when those principles are abused.

Ask a person whether they believe in free speech after they’ve sat through three hours of xenophobic hate-speech and they may have different thoughts than if they had just watched a fun movie.  The point is to believe in certain principles irrespective of abuse.

I promise that even if you came up with the most water-tight system in the world someone would find a way to exploit it.

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. – Noam Chomsky

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin

If you can believe in that for social freedoms then why do you believe it is any different from economic freedoms?  There are still fundamental laws regarding the liability for causing harm.  If these were more regularly enforced instead of trying to come up with special rules for infrequent circumstances then liability might be a bit clearer…

Sam (responding to Gavin):

Well, we could go forever on this, I suppose, but I tend to reject out of hand the idea that social freedom and economic freedom are inherently equivalent concerns. That they are is an assumption in too many cases, and not one that’s easily demonstrated. Rather than try and make that case myself, let me point everybody to Tony Judt, who addresses the issue more persuasively than I’m likely to.

We encourage our readers to head over and take the Political Compass test for themselves. Then come back and let us know how you scored and what comments you have about the test itself.

6 replies »

  1. This is very interesting. I took the test and I came out almost exactly in the middle, the outline of my red dot touching all four squares. Just a hair to the left and down. Does that mean I’m perfect? I can’t show this to many of my friends here in Kansas, they’ll be appalled. Some of the questions were interesting and I wonder how they were applied. For example, education. Do my opinions on education make me an anarchist or a fascist? Or what?

  2. It’s a well-done piece and I appreciate the discussions here.

    Politics is sausage (you all know the Bismarck quote). Sure, it may be chorizo or andouille as opposed to the Jimmy Dean variety. But it’s still sausage. Especially in a democracy. By nature we’d probably prefer prime cuts (or just vegetables, for all you vegetarians out there). But that’s not an option–not in a democracy. We know that, but we struggle with it anyway. I believe that the framers understood what they were imposing on us.

    What they probably did not foresee (or, if they did believe it was possible, they probably thought it was avoidable) was our decline as a nation into a preference for ignorance over education, sloth over industry, deceit over integrity, apathy over involvement. They probably thought we would continue to pursue education (which Jefferson and others felt was the guarantee of a democracy). They probably did not count on the belittling and disparagement of education that has taken place.

    They understood ugly politics (and participated in them). They understood compromise (and participated in those, too). Would we, who are so easily disillusioned by officials who cannot deliver on every syllable of every campaign promise, have turned on and turned out the “Founding Fathers” who compromised on slavery, representation, federalism, and so much more just to get this country off the ground? Actually, they had to worry about that back then, which is why they met in secret.

    The only way to avoid the inherent problems in a democracy is to not live in one.

  3. Now THAT’S an interesting result – I wonder how common it is? Not very, I’d imagine. I wish there were some way to compare, say, Wufnik’s and Retro’s answers on specific questions.

    Oh, and Booth’s a Commie bastard. 🙂

  4. I’d write more for this blog if ya’ll weren’t such a bunch of frickin’ right wingers.

    That said, I love me some Gavin….I gotta show the love to brilliance on either side of the aisle….

    Oh, and Ann’s a right wing shit kicker… 😉

  5. While we generally seem clustered in the same quadrant, it’s still amazing to me how much variety we’re able to generate, which is what always makes it so interesting for me when I visit the site.