As Canadian election fever burns on, I feel I must confront a very prevalent myth about politics. This myth, known as “the political spectrum”, claims that all political beliefs, parties and individuals can be charted on a single line. This single dimension of political thought tells us everything we need to know about ourselves and everybody else. Or so it claims.

Light has a spectrum. Photons (light “particles”) always travel at the same speed and are always roughly the same size. The only major difference is wavelength, which decides whether that photon is an X-ray, a microwave or a colour of visible light. This tells you almost everything you need to know about a photon. Politics, though, are not so simple. There’s a million different opinions involved, and hence a million variables. You can’t assume based on a single variable that you can work out the rest. Two people can have a very similar position on the “spectrum” and very different beliefs. And more importantly, two parties can have similar platforms and positions and govern very differently.

The first and most obvious problem with “the spectrum” is that there isn’t one. There’s many. And what’s being measured depends on who you ask. Some would say it’s an economic measure – how much one supports “free markets” versus a command economy. Others claim it’s a measure of how “progressive” or “reactionary” somebody’s policies are (a totally subjective measure). And then there are those who measure it as a leaning towards extremist endpoints – are you more a communist or a fascist at heart?

And what if you don’t “fit”? Well, there’s a simple answer – you’re wrong. Maybe your ideas aren’t “consistent”. Maybe you don’t really understand them. Maybe you’re lying. But the spectrum must be absolute. No matter how clearly defined somebody’s position is, any criticism that relates to anybody else nearby on the spectrum applies to them. All leftists, deep down, are socialists, and all rightists are closet fascists. It’s a great way to invalidate other people’s arguments – but a very poor way to understand them.

So what about the market socialists? Quakers? Muslims? Right-wing Libertarians? Fascists? Regional Separatist groups? Indigenous peoples? Technophiles? Luddites? Mennonites? All of these philosophies could be plotted on “the spectrum” just as their followers could be plotted on a graph of height or shoe size. There’s correlations everywhere – but anybody in science knows that trying to find a single correlation that explains the world is a dead end.

Circles and Centres

The shape of the political spectrum, in concept, is crucially important. It isn’t just a line which goes on forever. It has a middle, and definable length. Some might even say that it’s more of a circle.

The concept of the centre is very important. It presents a rational, moderate, middle ground which gives people “the best of both worlds” and allows others ground for compromise. Many people define themselves and their philosophy as “centrist”. But where is the centre? America’s “centre”, between the Democrats and Republicans, would fall in Canada at least as far “to the right” as the Conservatives, if not moreso. Centrists in most of Europe, though, would be substantially to the left of our NDP. The concept is constructed, and serves whichever groups can paint themselves as the most “moderate” and expel their opponents to the margins.

The circle concept holds that instead of having endpoints, the extremes the line curves back on itself and meets the other extreme. both ends are pretty much the same, and if you travel far enough from “the centre”, you’ll end up on the other side. Chiefly drawn from observations of various totalitarian governments which have tried to institute these ideas, like Communists and Fascists, and have ended up with (surprise) totalitarian societies. This idea serves as the basis of the notion that all extremes are dangerous, and only the centre is safe.

The problem is that as far as actual death tolls go, “centrists” kill people all the time. JFK, Clinton, Obama – any of these presidents have bombed and killed more people with single words and keystrokes than all anarchists ever have. This is particularly true since notions of the centre relate so directly to who has power at the moment, and the power they’re speaking about is fundamentally rooted in violence. Centrism is a great means of legitimizing the violence used by states (police, wars, sanctions, military aid to despots etc) because if both the “moderate” left and right support it, then the policy simply drops from mainstream discussion. And while one might wonder how a “leftist” or a “moderate” of any kind could be in favour of, for instance, going to kill a few hundred thousand Iraqis, it only shows how stretched the definitions become.

Politics, Power and Violence

If we assume that success equates with power, rather than support, then violence becomes implicit at all points in the political spectrum. Extremists will use terrorist violence to get their point across, and those in power will use it to maintain their power. But is a Muslim who makes bombs “more of a Muslim” than one who takes part in non-violent demonstrations? Is a radical who breaks windows more “radical” than ones who don’t? And perhaps most importantly, can you still be a part of the moderate, rational and pragmatic centre if you don’t share the major parties support for our latest imperial adventure abroad?

As Bookchin reminds us, “politics is not statecraft”. There’s a difference between those who seek to live in a certain way, relating to some philosophy, and those who seek to force it upon everyone else. By confusing questions of popular will and philosophy with issues of the state, we risk coming to the conclusion that might makes right, and that violence is natural and inevitable, and power over everyone is the ultimate goal of all philosophies.

At least as fundamental as any question, right or left, is one’s willingness to trust individuals and communities to run their own affairs, versus the need for centralized control.

Another Axis?

The most common means of coping with the obvious problems is to use a graph which has two axes, or dimensions. In that way, you can put libertarian leftists and rightists, like Ayn Rand or Kropotkin at one end, and authoritarians like Stalin and Mussolini at the other. But if we’re going to add another axis, why not two? Three? There’s often a division drawn between social issues (gay marriage, gun control etc) and economic (taxes, budgets) when it comes to the spectrum, so why not add a “social” spectrum as the third dimension? And while we’re at it, why not a measure of how “progressive” someone is – we all know many conservatives are nuts about “progress”, as well as we know than many “left” organizations, especially rurally and in indigenous communities, are deeply traditional. And then of course there’s religion and spirituality. Are buddhists leftists? Conservatives? Libertarians? Authoritarians?

At the end of the day, we must admit that the range of human beliefs, political and politically influenced, is far more complex than any set of lines we could draw. There’s at least as many beliefs and philosophies on this planet as people, and any real understanding of the range of philosophies needs to reflect that.

Settling for Less

The political spectrum, much like the CBC’s famous “vote compass”, is a collective exercise in settling for less. It presents a lowest common denominator for your own side, as well as a way to make lots of clever generalizations about your opponents. It doesn’t really leave us much choice, and our major parties reflect this. Most of the organized “left” is behind the NDP, a party which defines old-school leftism in the purest 1950s sense. The “right”, is now united behind the new conservative party, which now seems to be a Canadian franchise of the American Republicans. By presenting these caricatures of political beliefs, we’ve given parties nothing else to aspire to. The core message is: these are your options, and you have to pick one.

The political spectrum is a model. It has it’s purposes in a tenth-grade civics courses and background paragraphs of news articles. But it also has very serious limitations. You can’t simply “map out” people’s political beliefs then forget about the individuals involved. That isn’t democracy. Only extensive and inclusive involvement of “people” can determine how they actually feel, and there are no simple substitutions for that.