The Axes of American Politics
Seven ideologies underpinning today’s politics
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every time a member of a political party is criticized by members of their own party, the Internet will get very excited and angry. Don’t they understand that this threatens their own party’s future? some yell, while Don’t they understand that this person is betraying the party? is yelled back — and quickly things escalate and lead to long-simmering grudges which may at first seem odd.
Today, I want to divide up American politics not along the axis of Red and Blue, or of any of the popular variations on that, but to try something a little more extreme: to chop up American politics into a collection of basic ideologies that shape people’s political lives, and then see how ideas like “political party” sit uncomfortably on top of them — as they must, because people’s ideas change much more rapidly than large organizations ever could.
And to illustrate all of this, we’ll look at the latest run of Outrage on the Internet: Andrew Joyce’s piece arguing that Sen. Kamala Harris, one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, is being held back by regressive ideas and sexism from the Sanders wing. This piece has prompted all of the anger from both sides that you would expect, with Harris’ supporters saying how this is just like the way Clinton was torpedoed by Democratic sexism, and her opponents saying that they have perfectly good reasons to dislike her. Don’t worry, I won’t walk you through any of the details of this; they’re an illustrative example, not the interesting bit.
To begin with, I’m going to draw a diagram of my best guess of how to describe the major political ideas running around in the US today. These groups are far from mutually exclusive, and we’ll end up seeing how their overlaps can be very important. The picture also isn’t drawn to scale; it would be very hard to estimate head counts for any of these, further than to guess that the smallest of these groups probably represents well over ten million people, and the largest well over a hundred million.
I will freely admit that many of the details below may be wrong, and yet I think that understanding them (and critiquing them) can help understand what’s really happening in our country today.
This diagram really has two parts. The Outer Ring, comprised of six circles, represents groups with very strong political views. The inner region consists of one very varied (but very important!) group, the Comfortable Middle, defined by its shared commitment to not having politics be the center of its life. That group ultimately shades into The Uninvolved, the people who are entirely disconnected from politics for one reason or another.
It’s easiest to understand what’s going on here if we start from the groups with the most clearly-defined political views. I’ll arbitrarily start our journey on the left, where we first encounter the people focused on “economic justice:” that is, people whose political life is focused around equality of economic opportunity, taking into account the existence of social structures which create inequality. (This is as opposed to some similar-but-different groups we’ll see later) Bernie Sanders is probably the most recognizable political figure of this group. From the 1900’s to roughly the 1960’s, this was where the unions tended to sit (with a really important asterisk about race that we’ll get to when we discuss the “middle”), which made this group a significant political force; it waned with the collapse of the union movement, only to have a recent resurgence following the economic crises of the early 2000’s.
Next to them are the people focused on “social justice:” essentially, on the civil rights of minorities. This includes issues of race, gender, and sexuality, as well as a wide mixture of others. When it overlaps with the economic justice wing, it talks about the ways in which systems like racism exclude minorities from the economic life of the country; when it overlaps with the Western libertarians, it talks about being allowed to live one’s life in peace. This group has grown tremendously over the past few years as well, driven by a growing ability to organize; this led to events like the killing of Michael Brown, which in previous years would have been local news at best, to become national foci for steadily growing problems.
The next group over doesn’t naturally fit onto the “left-right” spectrum you may have been expecting, which is why it’s shown in green. “Libertarian” refers to a fairly wide range of ideas, and the next two groups, while they both use that word to describe themselves, mean fairly different things by it. “Western Libertarians” are, as the name implies, largely found in the American West; these are people whose main interest in politics is to keep everyone else away from them, and let them run their own lives in peace. While this movement is substantially less communitarian than the social or economic justice movements, it’s not radically individualist, either; instead, it talks about local communities as an organizing principle. (Readers from cities may be significantly less familiar with this movement, since it’s rural at its core and its ideas rarely find much purchase when there are more people around. I’ve suggested to my Western Libertarian friends that this is because those ideas don’t scale to larger communities; they’ve replied that maybe this means more people should move away from cities.)
The “free-market purists” are a more radically individualist brand of Libertarian. This is where you find people like Grover Norquist and modern acolytes of Ayn Rand, major political figures like Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul, and major moneymen like the Koch brothers. These are the people who believe that government is an evil per se, and should be eliminated with only a few exceptions. Like the economic justice wing, their political life is focused around the idea of equality of economic opportunity; but unlike them, their unbelief in the importance of social structures which create inequality is core to their politics. The idea here is that individuals, unless hampered by a force like a government, can overcome any disadvantages they may have been born with and succeed based on merit alone. (This has predictable correlation with the ethnic breakdown of the groups, as we’ll get to later)
Now we find ourselves among groups that are firmly in the traditional Right wing of American politics. The term “Christian conservatives” doesn’t mean that this is where all the Christians hang out, or even all the Christians who are also conservative; in fact, the majority of all of these groups are Christian. Rather, this group is defined by its belief that the country ought to be a Christian country by law and custom, that Christian principles ought to underpin all policy, and that these same principles are under attack by secularist forces. While the concept of “Christian principles” is very broad in general, within this group it is not: it refers to a very specific ideology, tied primarily with Evangelical Protestantism and places like the Dallas Theological Seminary, which places great emphasis on sexual purity (especially opposition to abortion, to homosexuality, and to anything at all involving gender identity), as well as on the importance of authority. This group has been a steadily growing political force since the 1940’s, with their political zenith being in the 1980’s with the rise of the “Moral Majority” (that being the name of the group, not a description). This group currently faces a demographic threat, as younger generations are moving away from it, not least over its very strong focus on fighting LGBTQ rights.
The last group on the right was the hardest to find a name for. I chose “White Americans” not because this is where White Americans hang out (as with Christianity, the majority of all of these groups are white) but because this group sees its whiteness as core to its political identity. While overt white supremacist groups and the “alt-right” are part of this group, they aren’t the majority of it either; these are “ordinary people” who view the chief threats to this country as immigration, or the spread of crime and various other social ills, which they associate with the presence of minorities. This group has varied in its political visibility over the years, but we know it today most of all as Trump’s political base.
Before we talk about the largest group, it’s worth taking a look at the social, economic, and geographic breakdown of the groups we just talked about. All of these groups, stereotypes to the contrary, represent a very broad range of economic status and educational achievement. The social and economic justice wings count everyone from starving radicals to titans of industry as their members; the core votes for Trump came not from depressed former industrial areas (as the press often suggests), but from middle-class exurbs. The one exception may be the free-market purists, which average wealthier than the others — you won’t see many people wearing unfashionably worn-out jeans at a Heritage Foundation event.
The racial breakdown, however, is more interesting. While some of these are easy to guess, there are plenty of surprises in here. The social justice wing is probably the least unexpected: it’s racially very diverse, as you would expect for the natural landing place for anyone for whom racial issues in society are primary movers in life.
The economic justice wing, however, skews significantly whiter, something which was highlighted during the 2016 election with Sanders’ difficulty rallying non-white voters. The reason for this is likely historical: the economic justice wing evolved out of the union movement, and that movement was racially segregated from its early days. (In fact, attempts to form integrated unions often led to mass violence, as in the 1919 Bogalusa massacre.) The rise of “white socialism” in the 1930’s-1960’s — the system of public benefits from Social Security and Medicare to the G.I. Bill and Fannie Mae — acted as a meaningful response to the growing popularity of Communist ideas among workers, but was also explicitly restricted to white recipients. Relationships with Latino unions were complex, given the tremendous organizing success of people like Cesar Chavez. The net result was that these groups were racially segregated, and while white groups focused purely on economic justice, non-white groups had to exist in the overlap with the social justice wing.
On the right, we see a different breakdown. You might expect the “White Americans” group to be exclusively white, but that isn’t actually true: for example, Donald Trump won 29% of the Latino vote in 2016, and these people weren’t unaware of who he was. What this shows is that “Latinos” aren’t a monolithic bloc; rather, there are groups like first- and second-generation immigrants who have achieved substantial economic success, and who are at pains to highlight their “Americanness” to their neighbors and new socioeconomic peers. These groups tend to spread between the free-market purists, the Christian conservatives (often, but not exclusively, via Catholicism), and even “White Americans,” now actively espousing nativism. That said, non-whites are a very small minority in this most whiteness-oriented of groups.
Non-white presence among Christian conservatives is complicated by the significant overlap between that group and White Americans. There are several non-white groups which might seem obvious candidates to join the Christian conservatives; the churches which formed the backbone of Black society for so long are notoriously conservative, especially around homosexuality, and Latino immigrants are frequently either Catholic (of a fairly conservative variety) or Protestant (of an even more conservative variety).
But as I mentioned above, the “Christian conservative” movement isn’t a place where people who happen to be both Christian and conservative gather; it’s a specific political movement produced by a specific political time, and that time was the war against first Communism (in the 1940’s and 1950’s) and then civil rights. In the 1960’s, for example, the formation of religious schools which would be exempt from integration orders — the so-called “Segregation academies” — was a major impetus for the formation of a Christian conservative political movement.
As a result, this group has had surprising trouble attracting either Black or Latino members, despite persistent outreach efforts over the past few decades. Ultimately, it’s very hard to attract people when your political compatriots are yelling very loudly that they’re the scum of the Earth.
The two Libertarian groups skew whiter as well, but for different reasons. Western Libertarians do mostly because this group is geographically centered in the rural West, a place which resisted Black immigration after the Civil War; the racial skew of the political leaning simply mirrors that of its region. Free-market purists, on the other hand, skew very white not merely because of their economic skew, but because their core ideology that anyone can overcome disadvantages like race to succeed if they just try hard enough is an unsurprisingly hard sell to people who have actually had to overcome disadvantages like race.
The geographic breakdown may be the most interesting of all, because it’s both the least uniform and the barrier across which communication is often the least reliable.
The Social and Economic Justice groups are, above all, urban: they are not only concentrated in cities (not just along the coasts!), but their approaches are fundamentally tuned to the problems you encounter when a large number of people are living in close proximity. Western Libertarians, by contrast, are fundamentally rural: their approaches are fundamentally tuned to the problems of living in a sparse region. Geographically, their main nexus is in the West, but the ideology actually has its deepest roots in the Appalachian East, and very likely spread Westward along with the flow of internal immigration over the centuries.
The other groups are more spread out geographically. Christian Conservatism has its nexus in the South and the Rural Midwest, and tends to be strongest in mid-population suburbs and exurbs, even though it’s traditionally associated with rural areas. White Americanism likewise appears to have its greatest strength in the mid-population regions, with its historical nexus being in the Industrial Midwest. Both groups have, however, spread far beyond their centers, and are present in appreciable amounts across the country. (Although they quickly become small minorities as population density increases to urban levels) Free-Market Purists have the least correlation to geography and population density; they appear to be fairly evenly spread across the country.
When discussing these regional differences, it’s worth being aware of their origins. Minorities, for example, cluster in cities because historically that’s the only safe place to be a minority: if you can’t establish a critical mass of population for mutual defense, you are tremendously vulnerable to depredations by locals who don’t like the way you look. Along with the fact that urban areas tend to grow around interchange points like ports, this means that cities tend to be very diverse, and the fundamental social adaptations required for urban life are built around toleration of very different people living next door. This is in contrast to rural life, where the fundamental social adaptations are built around everyone being able to cooperate and work together as a single society — so that difference is accepted so long as it falls within a particular broader envelope, but is very dangerous beyond that. Combined with the simple infrastructural differences between cities and countryside (things like the number of miles of sewer pipe required per person), it shouldn’t be surprising that these areas tend to be politically and socially different. The emergence of mid-population zones as a third political region (Orange County in California, a very conservative area near Los Angeles, is a classic example) is an interesting development: there’s an argument to be made that this is geographic sorting in action, with people who want proximity to urban economies without urban society picking these sorts of suburbs.
The Center of US Politics
With this in mind, let’s look at the largest group of all: the “Comfortable Middle.” This is the group that the majority of Americans belong to, and it’s the one that we only seem to talk about politically when one group or another claims that a “silent majority” supports them. Unlike the other groups, this group’s most salient feature is that politics is not at the center of their lives. It is economically and ethnically fairly diverse, but that diversity is skewed towards the middle: people who are very rich or very poor, or people whose race or ethnicity deeply affects their lives, are likely to be politically activated by those things.
This group is also politically diverse, representing the “purple middle” of the red/blue division; it includes people with sympathies pointing at any or all of the outer circles. It may include people concerned about economic and social issues, but not wanting to make too big a fuss over them; people who care about abortion, but aren’t going to decide their vote purely on that basis. They may be immigrants or they may think immigrants are basically scary. In short, they have all of the political ideologies we’ve talked about above, but what distinguishes them from each of the prior groups is that these are ultimately secondary in their lives to just getting on with things. Their primary political goal, you may say, is to have things work well enough that they can just live their lives, and not worry about it beyond that.
The existence of this group may seem obvious to you, like it’s the natural baseline of any political world, with only a few dedicated “political people” moving to the outer circles. But it’s a very American phenomenon: in countries where politics can be a matter of life and death, where civil war or foreign invasion is a real possibility, “not caring about politics” makes you sound mad, not normal. The existence of a large, comfortable middle is the product of a combination of geographical isolation and over a century of careful social engineering to create a happy, stable, middle class.
But to understand the political dynamics of this comfortable middle, you have to understand how it was built, and that goes back to something I touched on earlier: White Socialism.
Today, we’re facing a great deal of political angst over the fact that manufacturing jobs — the jobs which could take someone with nothing more than a high-school diploma and give them a chance to work up to a comfortably middle-class life — are vanishing. But phrase this more compactly for a moment: these jobs allowed factory workers to become part of the middle class. The phrase “working class” didn’t come out of nowhere; for as long as employment at jobs has been a fundamental aspect of society, factory workers were pretty much by definition not part of the middle class of managers. When we phrase it this way — that we had an entire system by which factory workers could join the middle class — we realize how historically shocking and unusual this was.
How did it happen? It wasn’t always like this; during the Great Depression, workers weren’t demanding a chance to become part of the middle class. Instead, this was the outcome of a series of economic events from the mid-1930’s through the present day, especially up through the 1960’s.
Many of these took the form of direct government assistance — e.g., in paying for education through the G.I. Bill, in buying a home through Fannie Mae, or in retirement through Social Security and Medicare. Others were done via employers, most notably health insurance and pension plans. (This had another significant consequence: since these benefits were government-funded but employer-mediated, and not transferable, access to them was contingent on remaining at your employer, giving them tremendous leverage over workers!) Many of the largest ones were invisible because they didn’t go directly to people: these were the infrastructure investments like the Interstate Highway System which fundamentally shifted the economics of business. And the most important driving force of these didn’t come from inside the United States at all: it was the fact that World War II had blasted much of Europe into rubble but left America mostly intact, creating tremendous demand for products just at a time when the US was best-placed to satisfy it.
But there is a darker side to the creation of this “comfortable middle” as well, and it’s hinted at by the name I gave to many of these programs above — White Socialism. What these programs all had in common was that their social benefits were strictly limited to “acceptable” recipients. In the case of direct government aid, this restriction was very explicit, taking forms such as redlining of mortgage eligibility, restrictions on how G.I. Bill funds could be used for school, or more complex racial restrictions built in to nearly every aspect of the New Deal. The result was not merely a denial of benefits; it created plentiful opportunities to directly plunder those who did not have access, e.g. by offering nearly-criminal “contracts” to those who could not get mortgages. The profits of that plunder, like the profits of slavery before and after the Civil War, directly funded White Socialism.
All of this is to say that the existence of the “Comfortable Middle” is not an accident; it was the product of both a great deal of hard work to create a safe enough environment where people could be comfortable enough not to care about politics, and a great deal of culpable evil in building that system.
And with that understanding, we can finally talk about the role that the Comfortable Middle plays in modern American politics. As noted above, the central political aim of the Comfortable Middle is to not have to make politics their main priority. That means that the system has to keep working well enough to maintain economic stability; the Comfortable Middle isn’t going to be voting for any kind of revolution, Left or Right. It also means an aversion to the issues raised by the groups on the Outer Ring, because each one of those raises the risk of destabilizing this system. Any discussion of race, for example, whether it be from the perspective of social justice or of white nationalism, raises the spectre of reconsidering the basic social contract. Instead, the idea that many of us (including me) were taught in school — that race used to be a serious issue in the US, but was largely resolved through the Civil Rights Movement — is highly preferable.
“Tough on Crime” rhetoric is a good seller in the Comfortable Middle, because crime represents a real risk — and distinguishing between kinds of crime is unnecessary because all of it really represents social disorder, which is the real thing that the Comfortable Middle opposes.
Many of the most familiar names in politics represent not one of the Outer Ring, but the Comfortable Middle: both Clintons, both Bushes, Kamala Harris, Mitt Romney, and many more. These people are far from ideologically uniform; I’m not one of those people yelling “they’re all the same!” about people who manifestly aren’t. Only someone so far on a part of the Outer Ring that the world breaks entirely into their immediate allies and everybody else could make that mistake.
But that spread of ideologies is very consistent with a shared commitment to the core ideas of the Comfortable Middle. To understand the differences and how they play out, we need to add one last ingredient: political parties.
The United States has two major political parties for a very simple reason: in almost all its elections, people vote directly for candidates, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. That means that a party which can get one-third of the vote is irrelevant, and a party which can get two-thirds of the vote has spent too much effort broadening its reach at the expense of its goals. The ideal party in such a system should be one that can appeal to just over 50% of the voting population.
(This differs from systems where people vote for parties, who get a share of seats proportional to their share of the vote; but to make that work, you can no longer vote for single individuals like a President at all, but instead vote for a Parliament who in turn votes for a leader.)
In America, there have always been roughly the same number of ideological groups of the sort drawn above, but their identities, alignments, and relative sizes have changed over time. In the post-Civil War era, for example, the “Radical Republicans” — founders of the Republican Party just a few decades earlier, and ancestors of today’s Social Justice wing — were generally marginalized by a strong “return-to-normalcy” movement which joined Southern and Northern business interests, and swayed the late 19th-century equivalent of the Comfortable Middle with an offer of a return to the antebellum status quo for most of their daily lives.
From roughly 1980 to 2016, we saw an alignment where the Democratic Party had the Economic and Social Justice wings at its fringes (a “base” that had nowhere else to go politically), but its central leadership in the Comfortable Middle. The Republican Party, meanwhile, started the 1980’s with White Americans, Western Libertarians, and Christian Conservatives at its fringes, with Free-Market Purists increasingly in ascendance. Prior to the 1980’s, the Republican leadership had come from the Comfortable Middle as well; Richard Nixon was perhaps one of its greatest political exponents, apart from the entire Watergate disaster. Reagan’s election brought Christian Conservatives into the center as well, with their uncomfortable alliance with Free-Market Purists (a side benefit of shared anti-Communism in earlier decades) letting them elect their favored leader.
But Reagan wasn’t elected because Christian Conservatives and Free-Market Purists were suddenly the majority of the country; rather, those two groups managed to find and put forward a leader who could animate the Comfortable Middle with a clear and compelling vision, the one he called “Morning in America.” This was the cornerstone of Republican political power until 1992, when Bill Clinton proceeded to do the same in reverse: based on the Social and Economic Justice wings, he spoke to a broad public about a “Third Way.”
What’s interesting about both Presidents Reagan and Clinton is that the platforms which they used to power their popularity were often at odds with their respective bases. Reagan substantially grew government spending; Clinton’s “Welfare Reform” and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies were no friends of minorities. But all of these policies were broadly popular with a Comfortable Middle that didn’t want to eliminate government, or to encourage so much economic mobility among minorities that existing power structures might invert.
In this context, we can finally come back to where we started, and understand the roots of Sanders supporters’ opposition to Harris. Some of it, certainly, is based in sexism; but to reduce it to that is to ignore the fact that Sanders and Harris represent two completely different political movements in America, ones which are frequently at odds with one another. Harris, in particular, has actively allied with various policies in her earlier career (such as support for private prisons) which are actively at odds with core interests of the Social and Economic Justice wings, and so it should not be surprising that the same people who disliked Hillary Clinton would also dislike her.
These “curious misalignments” — people naturally on the political Left opposing rising stars of the Democratic Party, or vice-versa — only seem strange if you try to understand American politics through the lens of party rather than of political ideas. Once you separate our politics into its more basic components, the origins of these differences become clear.