Dean Esmay has a long, link-filled post on the topic of the increasingly uselessness of the Left-Right dichotomy for discussing American politics. While I’ve long thought Left-Right and Liberal-Conservative were poor expressions, especially given how their meanings have changed over time, I’ve never found anything that really works. None of the essays/polls he links get the job done, either.

I’ve argued that a circle is better than a line for discussing these things, since Left and Right actually converge at their extremes. I contend that Stalinism is the extreme Left wing and Fascism/Naziism is the extreme Right Wing, although some would disagree with that labeling.

Two axis systems, like Pournelles (linked by Dean) and many others, are typically better than one axis systems, but they tend to create problems. Why? Because most people are inconsistent. They support government regulation of some personal conduct but not others. They support some taxes but not others. Aside from the anarchists, it’s just hard to categorize most people because they don’t think about government all that much and they don’t have very well thought out views.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay Solo says:

    That’s funny, I used to ponder the circle concept a lot as well.

  2. I first heard about the circle model (more like a wilted stem with the two ends drooping down so they’re almost touching) way back in high school. (Boy, I’m getting old when I start saying things like that.) Hayek’s Road to Serfdom examines the similarity between political economic models of communism and fascism.

    But any model will have its flaws. The question is to find something that is descriptively better and has more explanitory power. A great ability of the human brain is its ability to catagorize data and turn that into knowledge. It becomes a learning process to see if that catagorization is helpful or not.

  3. O. F. Jay says:

    By separating the economic and political axes, I’ve found the Political Compass to be flexible enough to be reliable. Any inconsistencies between questions and answers are considered in accounting the numerical and graphical result. Gvie it a try, if you like.

  4. Nathan Lott says:

    I always opt for left/right instead of liberal/conservative, with those on the left favoring more government (taxes, social programs, etc) and those on the right favoring less. This works pretty well, but runs aground in instances like the war in Iraq, where the right-wing favored intervention and the left was fractured. Proactive goverment is like big government, so the left should have supported action, right? Well, the left typically opposes war because they would rather the money be spent at home, and the right supports it for a similar reason: they feel defense is one of the few things government should do (unlike welfare). Anyway, that example is something of a digression. My point is that left/right terminology works pretty good, and the circular sheme makes sense but is largely irrelevant because the vast majority of political discourse happens at the center, over details. Liberal/conservative language doesn’t work as well from a connotative perspective because of partisan associations. From a denotative perspective, past liberal successes turned the tables. Liberals are now fighting to preserve the status quo (as with social security) and cons fight to change it: the direct opposite of what liberal and conservative meant (pro-change or pro-status quo), and that’s not to mention the earliest definition of liberal as one who champions individual liberty.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Left/Right, especially as you define it, doesn’t work for me. Anarchists are extreme lefties and want virtually no government. Indeed, the true “right” is very pro government. You’re using “right” to mean Ronald Reagan type neo-Liberals which are center-left on the traditional chart.

  6. Oh, come on, tell me you wanted to mention Converse but you were afraid it would scare some people (OK, everybody) off. 🙂

    I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Converse (and Campbell et al.) and about everything else that’s been written about ideological consistency in the last 40 years as part of the evil lit review chapter. Not so much in the meaning of ideology direction, more in the cognitive complexity/political sophistication direction.

    Now if you really want to frighten people, talk about the levels of conceptualization and the funnel of causality. That will have people running for the doors screaming.

  7. James Joyner says:


    Heh. It’s been long enough since I studied that stuff (1993?) that it’s just barely in the memory banks. I mainly do security studies with a bit of org theory, so the behavior stuff is something I use about as often as calculus.

  8. Paul says:

    I usually say and type left/right but I always thought of it not a as circle but a tear drop.

    When looked at it using the bottom as the “front” you see a straight line. But when you get way far left or way far right you go around back and meet at the point of the tear drop. Of course there are few people like that which is why it is a point and not a perfect circle.

    Did I make any freaking sense?

    OK leeme add in case I did not… A circle implies a uniformity of the frequency distribution of ideology along the circumference. In a tear drop model most people lean toward the center.

    BUT I REALLY prefer the “Get it’s” and the “Goobers.”

    Some people “Get it” and some are “Goobers.” For some reason they mostly stick together by party.

  9. I’ve always thought of it as a circle, with the top representing old-fashioned (or European) conservatives–who reside next door to socialists. Lots of government control over people’s lives.

    The bottom is where libertarians and anarchists reside–along with those theoretical creatures, pure Communists who are looking forward to that land over the rainbow beyond socialism wherein the state ceases to exist.

    Most of us find a spot on the circle that informs our feelings about lots of things. But at our best we try to be practical and analyze any given topic not simply on the basis of our ideological beliefs–but also with an eye to what might work. And what’s right.