February 26, 2018

The standard political spectrum is one-dimensional – a single line running from left to right. This is rather restrictive, hence the most popular alternative – a 2-D space defined by an economic dimension and, at right angles to it, a social and cultural dimension.

The economic line runs from left to right, i.e. from a centrally planned socialist economy to laissez faire capitalism. The social/cultural line goes from top to bottom, i.e. from dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism to let-it-all-hang-out radicalism.

The intersection of the two lines divides the space into four quadrants.

With that established we can start asking some interesting questions. For instance, about the distribution of public opinion over the four quadrants – and whether the mainstream media and the party systems in different countries is representative of that spread.

In a must-read article for the New Statesman Matt Singh provides some answers from a UK perspective:

“Last week’s once-in-a-parliament publication of the British Election Study’s (BES) 2017 random probability survey provides us with one of the most reliable barometers of public, across a wide range of topics.

“Views that can be characterised as left-of-centre in an economic sense (in terms of the size and role of the state) are relatively popular. For example, 63 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that ‘ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”.

So far, so good (for the liberal left, that is). However, on social issues, there are some decidedly un-PC views out there:

“51 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that ‘for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence’”

62% took the view that “too many immigrants have been let into this country.”

On these and other issues Singh implores liberals to look beyond their bubbles:

“The illusion that liberal viewpoints on these issues are ‘mainstream’ may be reinforced by social media, which the BES separately shows is wildly unrepresentative of the wider population – with a strong left-of-centre and socially liberal lean ­– and to an even greater extent than in 2015.

“It is also worth reconsidering, in the light of this data, the anger and resentment expressed in focus groups and on doorsteps about such prevalent socially conservative views being painted as bigoted, extreme or niche, when they are in fact held by majorities of British adults.”

To what extent do these socially conservative views overlap with left-of-centre views on economic matters (thereby falling within the top-left quadrant on the political matrix)?

A fascinating report by Lee Drutman for the Voter Study Group, suggests that the overlap on the other side of the Atlantic is a big one. It’s the subject of an article by Jonathan Chait for New York magazine.

This shows that there are plenty of voters – both Republicans and Democrats – in the top-left quadrant (people that Chait describes as “populists”).

However, the diametrically-opposed quadrant is almost empty. Chait refers to this small minority as “libertarians” (though in European terms they’d be better described as economic and social liberals):

“It’s not just hardcore libertarians who are absent. Even vaguely libertarian-ish voters are functionally nonexistent.”

Economic and social liberals are rare but influential. Greatly over-represented in the media, they present themselves as centrists and moderates, but in fact support rapid and radical changes like globalisation, mass immigration and the redefinition of things like family and gender.

Far from being unrepresented by the party system, mainstream politics and culture is almost exclusively defined by their values:

“…the truth is that the underrepresented cohort in American politics is the opposite of libertarians: people  with right-wing social views who support big government on the economy.”

These are the people that Hillary Clinton called ‘deplorables’. Left behind economically and culturally, they’ve also been left behind politically – prey for extremists and opportunists all too willing to step into the breach.

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