The problem of mapping or classifying people’s political attitudes is more complicated than it looks. Placing people on a spectrum from left to right is convenient but over-simple. It assumes that there is a single dimension of political difference, ranging from conservative to liberal, and that everyone can be placed somewhere along that spectrum. But social and political attitudes aren’t single-dimensional. So we’d like to have a way of mapping the space of attitudes that captures the separate dimensions that go into political attitudes.
Most of the schemes above take a step forward by hypothesizing two dimensions reflecting attitudes towards the involvement of the state in the economy and in individual social and moral life. An economic conservative opposes state involvement in the economy. A social liberal opposes state involvement in individual choices and lifestyle, while a social conservative favors intervention in individual behavior when it comes to certain “social” issues. A libertarian opposes both forms of state intervention and an authoritarian supports both.
This kind of classification is an improvement, but it doesn’t fully satisfy. It doesn’t really capture the substantive moral ideas that might underlie these attitudes, the political philosophy that might underlie political preferences.
A more substantive effort at classification might take the form of a cluster of values shared by various groups. Conservatives favor maintaining traditional values (religion and morality), maintaining an existing system of wealth, power, and prestige (market and social inequality), and limiting the use of state power to these functions. Progressives favor greater social equality and opportunity; they favor the free expression of individual life choices; and they favor using the authority of the state to increase the equality and freedom of ordinary people. Conservatives defend existing inequalities and oppose redistribution. Progressives condemn certain kinds of inequality and justify redistributive measures to redress these inequalities.
Yet another approach is to consider a diagnostic set of issues and classify the individual according to where he/she falls on these issues. For example:
- Guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose
- Restricting the sale of assault rifles
- Carbon tax
- Inheritance tax
- Immigration reform
- Affirmative action
We might imagine grouping the population into a sort of Venn diagram. Suppose that each circle represents individuals who include the specific issue within his/her top five issues. Overlaps indicate the circumstance of individuals who share the issues of each overlapping circle. So region A represents individuals who rank civil liberties, social justice, and environmental issues in their top five; region B represents individuals who rank markets, guns, right to life, and religious fundamentalism in their top five priorities. On this diagram, there is no one who is a militia activist and a social justice advocate.
Several questions arise here: are there correlations across individuals with respect to these issues? Is there a set of philosophical principles that underlie the choices that individuals make within connected clusters? And do the clusters correspond to identifiable political groups?