Down With One-Dimensional Politics!

Last Sunday, ABC’s This Week ran a new segment titled “The Great American Debates.” It featured George Will and Paul Ryan debating Barney Frank and Robert Reich on the question: “There is too much government in my life.”

It was a fun and spirited debate with lots of good lines from both sides. In my view, Barney Frank was at his strongest when he was pointing out the inconsistencies in the conservative positions on foreign policy and personal freedom. He noted that while the conservatives are happy to permit greater freedom when it comes to economic matters, they are the first to “tell us that an adult shouldn’t be able to gamble on the Internet” and they are the first to want to regulate personal matters from the bedroom to recreational drug use. Moreover, while conservatives are skeptical of government’s role in the economy, Frank noted that they are often eager to use the government to rebuild other societies, something “we’re not very good at.”

Having pointed out the inconsistencies of conservatives (more freedom in economic matters but more government in personal and foreign affairs), he might have embraced a more consistent approach: freedom in all spheres. Instead, he ended his opening statement by declaring that he, too, was inconsistent:

And so my answer is yes, I want more government involved in economic regulation and environmental cleanup and for reasons of public safety. I want less government telling me what personal choices to make as an individual.

This answer, I believe, highlights the inadequacy of one-dimensional political thinking. Try as we might, it is pretty difficult to describe many peoples’ political beliefs without making them seem inconsistent.

That’s why I think it is much more helpful to think in terms of (at least!) two dimensions. Consider the animation below.

The common positions of “left” and “right” on economic and personal matters seem inconsistent when viewed on a conventional one-dimensional spectrum. But if you allow for a little richer information, you can think in terms of two dimensions: a) more or less economic
freedom as shown on the horizontal axis and b) more or less personal freedom as shown along the vertical axis. You can think of “libertarians” as favoring freedom in both spheres and “statists” as favoring intervention in both spheres. And you can think of “left” and “right” as favoring freedom in one sphere but not the other and vice versa.

Of course, you can take it one step further and think of a third dimension coming straight out of your computer screen. It would show more or less intervention in foreign matters. (Sadly, my animation skills are not yet advanced enough to render such an image).

I understand why U.S. political parties feel the need to conform to the tired, old one-dimensional view of politics. Long ago, the political scientist Maurice Duverger asserted that two and only two political parties are likely to be viable in democracies that employ the type of voting rules the U.S. employs (one member represents each district and that candidate with the most votes is declared the winner). With such voting rules, third parties rarely win and so their financial and political support tends to dry up over time. Conversely, in countries where, say, the top three vote-getters each get a seat in parliament, third parties are much more viable. Given the fact that the U.S. is likely to have only two parties, these two parties must, by default, simplify matters and pretend that politics can adequately be described with a simple dimension.

It is unfortunate, however, that the media and pollsters play along. ABC, for example, could have easily invited guests to defend the libertarian and the statist position. And pollsters could easily make room for two questions. Instead of asking people if they are liberal, conservative, or moderate (how is a libertarian to answer?), they could ask people separate questions about their positions on social issues and economic issues.

There is ample evidence that people are smart enough to think in multi-dimensional terms. According to Dennis Mueller (p. 242):

Most observers of politics outside of the United States identify at least two salient dimensions to the political party space.

He cites research by Budge, Robertson, and Hearl (1987), Budge (1994), Laver and Schofield (1990), Schofield (1993, 1995), and Schofield, Martin, Quinn, and Whitford (1998).

Here is a fun, short quiz to help you think through your own position in multi-dimensional issue space.