Presidential Candidates on the Political Compass

I have paid very little attention to the presidential campaign so far, but a post on Chris Abraham’s blog reminded me of The Political Compass, and that in turn led me to this graphic showing where the presidential candidates stand relative to each other if we chart their political stances in two dimensions rather than a simple left/right “spectrum.”

US Primary Candidates on the Political Compass

(Spoiler alert: If you want to take the test, you can find it here, and you might want to take it before proceeding to the discussion below the fold.)

It’s not surprising that we find no candidates in the upper left-hand quadrant of the graph. People in that quadrant favor central planning of the economy as well as extensive government control over politics, culture, and daily life. It is the quadrant where we find Stalin and Mao. We may be a society in decline, but people in that quadrant are still unelectable, thank God.

What does surprise me is that there is no candidate in the lower right quadrant, in which political freedom is supposed to be coupled with the economic liberty that characterizes a free market. This is not a crackpot quadrant; it is the quadrant of Milton Friedman, for example, or Ayn Rand. (It is also the quadrant of Mark Grannis, though I am fairly near the center of the graph.) It is the quadrant for people who believe that individuals should be free to decide not just what car they drive and what soap they use, but also what they believe and how they live.

The creators of the Political Compass place all U.S. presidential candidates except Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, in the upper right-hand quadrant — in favor of a free market, but on the authoritarian side of the social axis. I suppose this is not that surprising; the widespread willingness to abandon traditional liberties in the interest of greater security, which has characterized our reaction to 9/11, may have run its course with a large slice of the electorate, but perhaps it is not yet considered “safe” with politicians.

Still, I find the combination troubling, particularly when I consider it in conjunction with the substantial and growing influence of large-check-writing interests on the content of the legislation Congress passes. The people I trust to make a really good toothpaste are not necessarily the ones I want to have in the room when FISA is amended or campaign finance laws are passed. (And of course, the people I trust to report the news are the last people I trust to decide whether news reporters should have to give evidence in court like the rest of us.) The people who make enough in our relatively free economy to be able to “donate” back to the politicians are still mere private interests, and if a relatively small subset of private interests are going to be so influential in making social policy (which I confess seems inevitable to me), then it is unwise to leave social policy such a broad field in which to run. The fact that nearly all current candidates show up in a quadrant that favors government over the governed is not a hopeful sign.

Of course, it could be that the test is flawed; in fact, I found myself quibbling with most of the questions, and in many cases I saw the possibility that my answer could be interpreted in a way other than the one I intended. So it goes with multiple choice. Nonetheless, I remember a time five or six years ago when this test made its way around my office, and the results people got back then basically comported with what we knew about each other’s opinions. If you’ve taken it, let us know what you think in the comment section. Publication of individual results is of course encouraged.

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13 Responses to “Presidential Candidates on the Political Compass”

  1. jim walsh Says:

    I am exactly where the Dalai Lama is.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    You refer, of course, to this chart of contemporary world leaders. I am where Chopin is, in this chart of well-known composers. Our social views (mine and Chopin’s you understand) are very similar to those of Britten and Shostakovitch, but we apparently differ with them on the right degree of government interference with a free market. Probably trade policy. ;-)

    Though the creators of the political compass state that the composers chart is largely for amusement, that one really raises red flags about the methodology. On the other hand, I do tend to like the composers closer to me on the chart better than those who are farther away. Hmm.

  3. Steve Mohyla Says:

    I am Libertarian Left, but Left just by a little bit. (Econ L/R: -0.38, Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.21) Pretty much where I would have expected my result. Having taken tests like this in other contexts, I have gotten used to the fact that what I would consider a poorly worded question is, in fact, purposefully so in order to elicit a more emotional rather than a factual response.

    Great fun!

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    I ended up almost dead center, which should come as a shock to most here. I attribute that to two things, (1) that I actually am centrist on a number of issues, and (2) that most of the questions in the survey were presented in such absolutist terms that any reasonable person finds himself avoiding “strongly” answers on either end.

    For instance, do I think literally every abortion where the woman’s life is not in danger should be literally illegal? No, I don’t. From a legal standpoint, I’m a “rape, incest, life of the mother” guy. So I answered “Agree” instead of “Strongly Agree”. This helped keep me near the center of the chart, I’m sure, but that’s hardly a “centrist” position on abortion.

    The way questions are asked has an enormous impact on the outcome of these “surveys”.

  5. Pat O'Donnell Says:

    Looks like I’m back to being “Red Pat,” as one of our colleagues here calls me: Economic Left/Right, -5.25; Social Libertarian/Authoritarian, -2.

    The test and resultant scale strike me as a modest improvement from the primitive and unenlightening left-right, liberal-conservative labels the media loves so well. But it’s really modest.

    The weakness is partly due to vagaries of standardized testing. (What lawyer, regardless of his substantive abortion views, is going to respond “Strongly Agree” to the abortion question Mr. Peach discusses above?) I ended up hitting “strongly disagree” for several questions because they were so clearly wrong compared to some others I found to be worded more ambiguously; but I suspect the authors may have wanted to distinguish degrees of feeling rather than clarity of wording. And shouldn’t there be some version of “it depends” as an option?

    I also wonder how the test questions compare to whatever basis the Compass people used to place the various politicians. The politicos surely didn’t take the survey. Equally surely, they’re not putting out position papers that neatly correspond to the survey questions. One of the problems with modern democracy is that mush is pushed down to us through the strainer of the modern media. Maybe Jefferson would have told you what he really thought about whether first-generation immigrants can never be *fully* integrated within their new country, but would Joe Biden?

    As to Mark’s substantive point about the dearth of conservative/libertarian types, it’s partly a dearth of libertarian types from either end of the economic left/right. Which makes sense to me practically if not philosophically, given that we’re dealing more or less exclusively with folks whose life work is the pursuit of political power. To re-use a favorite saying, “if your only tool’s a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” It might be too much to hope that folks so devoted will hold and maintain the view that such power ought to be used sparingly. They have to pass laws about something, right?

    Of course, that may leave Mark feeling like the nail….

  6. Mark E. Says:

    I took the quiz twice and the results (I think) confirm what others have noticed about the weakness of some questions. The first time I completed the questions, I came out somewhere around -5 on the economic axis and -5 on the social.

    A couple of days later I took the quiz again and came out 0 on the economic axis and again -5 on the social. The different answers were primarily of degree; softening some, hardening others. I don’t recall a complete switch of direction on any.

    In my own mind, the second result was more correct. The libertarian bent was correct in both cases, but I don’t think of myself as that leftward leaning economically.

  7. Mark Grannis Says:

    Pat, your explanation for the authoritarian bias is a sensible one; it does make sense to think that politicians will in general think more highly of political power than the general population. But we don’t have to vote for that kind of politician, do we? If you’re a nail, it seems to me possible that you might get what you expect from a hammer without necessarily endorsing it.

    As for my own personal “nailness,” I think I am pretty unlikely to suffer in any material way from the steady curtailment of our freedoms. But as I have said before: That’s not liberty, it’s just statistical probability.

    Mark E., your “second test” experiment intrigued me so I tried it. I came out in about the same place socially, but two ticks to the right economically. Interestingly, I’m in the middle of Atlas Shrugged. New evidence for the importance of literature?

  8. Mark Ouweleen Says:

    I’m with Jim Walsh and the Dalai Lama. Economic -4.5, Social -4.77. It surprised me a bit, but I’m happy to be in good company.

  9. John Brown Says:

    I strongly disagree with Ron Paul’s placement. Common sense and 1/3 a cup of understanding of the man’s positions would put him well into the lower right quadrant.

  10. Mark Grannis Says:

    John, I assume Paul’s placement is based not on Paul’s answers, but on what the designers of the compass thought Paul would say. Are you a Ron Paul supporter? If so, then I would certainly be interested to see where Paul would end up if you, rather than the compass designers, took the quiz on his behalf. The same goes for the other candidates’ supporters: consider this an open invitation.

    As for me, I think it’s almost time to start paying attention to presidential politics. Almost.

  11. Sam George Says:

    I agree with John–Ron Paul should be in the lower right quadrant. I’m not a Ron Paul supporter, BTW.

    I would tend to put Giuliani higher on the authoritarian scale, too. Yes, while his views on abortion and gay equality are less authoritarian than most of his Republican rivals, he was also infamous in NYC for refusing to meet with opposition groups or even individuals who disagreed with him. His recently noticed lack of transparency on financial dealings and personal health would also tend to place him higher on the authoritarian scale.

    Mark, as a political junkie, I’ve been following this race since election Day 2004! ;)

  12. Byron in TX Says:

    The test is entertaining and helps us to examine our opinions honestly. However, if the test is at all an accurate representation, then I have been fooling myself (about myself) completely for all my adult life. Also, it would appear that I have no idea where center really is!

    Now, who created the test? Does he/she/they have a real grasp on where political center lies. If I was so wrong, what makes the author(s) such good authority? After all we all see the world from our personal perspective, no matter hard we try to be objective.

    I admire Ghandi, but I am no Ghandi. I agree George Bush’s position on the graph is about right, but…. Did he take the test. It’s a fun game but don’t take your results too seriously, especially if you agree with them.

  13. Timothy Peach Says:

    Holy S! This place is dead as a doornail.

    Are you all in stunned belief over the resurgence of McCain? I have been long and strong the surly Senator from the Southwest since last summer, when he spent himself into oblivion. He is the Man with the Plan, and he’ll be staring down our enemies (and allies) starting January of 2008. Get ready for greatness!


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