Left or Right: Arguing in 2D

Justin Stapley
The Liberty Hawk
Published in
4 min readFeb 8, 2021

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There’s definitely a political Left and a political Right. But that political dichotomy exists within a broader and far more nuanced political spectrum.

The political spectrum is often viewed as conservative on the right and liberal, or more accurately progressive, on the left. Since this horizontal spectrum is more often used for propaganda purposes than for actual understanding of political thought, it’s viewed differently depending on which side you’re on.

If you’re on the Right, you think of the political spectrum as right towards freedom and left towards tyranny. Funny enough, if you’re on the Left, you think of the spectrum as exactly the opposite. So, who’s right and who’s wrong? Clearly, something’s missing here.

Let me throw another wrench into this idea of a horizontal political spectrum. Let’s say someone is socially conservative but fiscally liberal. Does that put them in the middle of the spectrum? But wait a minute, someone who’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal would be very different, wouldn’t they? Yet, wouldn’t they also be in the middle? And, how does the horizontal spectrum handle different means to similar ends?

I mean, I’m a social conservative. I’m very religious. I have very traditional views of morality and family. But I don’t want the government to force my views on others. I just want the government to leave me alone. I want to do what I want to do and believe what I want to believe. I believe truth endures on its own merits, and that using the government to assert what I believe to be true would only taint and corrupt that truth.

So, if someone who has the same moral values I have believes differently than I do about the use of government to assert those values, are we still at the same place on the political spectrum? We both agree on desired ends, a moral and traditional society, but we have very different views on the means to those ends.

I hope you see the problem with all of this. The horizontal political spectrum ignores some very real political nuances. It’s a gross over-simplification that enables some misguided and very foolish ideas. Worse, it masks the dangers of extremes. Neither side’s correct in believing that freedom is secured by going one way or the other to “purity.” Instead, freedom is a balance of just concerns.

So, how does a proper political spectrum look? Well, first off, there is no perfect presentation. We’re talking about very complicated philosophies that stretch off in thousands, even millions, of different directions. But the best presentation we can arrive upon is a dual-axis grid with four quadrants.

There are actually many different proposals for such political spectrum grids, with the horizontal axis and the vertical axis representing different types of political directions. The interpretation I find most compelling is one that has the horizontal axis representing tradition on the right and radicalism on the left, with a vertical axis representing liberty at the top and authority at the bottom.

Now, we have a political spectrum that can more accurately define different flavors of political thought. And, we can more easily see the extreme margins that exist on all sides.

Stray to the far to the right, and you have a non-plural society that Is hostile to change and different lifestyles. Stray too far to the left, and tradition and values are completely thrown down and destroyed. Stray too far toward liberty and away from the rule of law, and anarchy reigns. Stray too far towards authority, and liberty gives way to an all-powerful state that controls the lives of its citizens entirely.

And, each of these directions can combine with one or the other justifications for them. You can have both radical and traditional authoritarian governments. You can have anarchy that results from the consequences of one or the other type of authority.

Empowered by a better understanding of these nuances, we can more easily recognize that both the political Left and the political Right can feed authoritarian tendencies in their own way and for their own reasons. Each must be governed by limiting principles and adherence to civic virtue, or they will both seek authority over those they disagree with.

Effective and responsible politics, then, is far more than resisting your ideological foes. It is engaging in the crucial act of keeping your own side in check.

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Justin Stapley
The Liberty Hawk

Student at UVU, political theory and constitutional studies. Editor/Owner of The Liberty Hawk. Weekly newsletter and intermittent podcasting at Self-Evident.