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Political spectrum: In today’s politics, how do we even define left, right and center?

We hear often about the disappearing center in politics, polarization, and the inability and lack of desire to compromise. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It is a common metaphor to think of political views as a line that goes from left to right. However, this approach makes it difficult to understand how people like Stalin or Mao ended up in the same category of murderous dictators as Hitler. To solve this mystery, we can change a linear representation to circular, in which case Stalin and Hitler just meet at the top of the circle; they just come there from different sides. But if a circle model makes it easier to understand extremes, it still doesn’t help much with mainstream politics.

Surprisingly, left and right are not that easy to distinguish, at least if we concentrate on American politics. Democrats are commonly considered left based on their advocating for more government control and more personal freedom. This seems like a contradiction because more government control inevitably means less personal freedom, but this contradiction may be partially resolved if we understand that in reality Democrats advocate specifically for more social freedom and more economic government control.

Republicans are considered right based on their advocating for less government control and, ironically, also more personal freedom. Let’s clarify this as well: Republicans are actually talking about more economic personal freedom rather than social, where they say that government should be involved in what people do even at home (smoke marijuana, for example).

What else? Republicans apparently support authority and order, but for all practical purposes so do Democrats since government embodies those two things. Democrats, on the other hand, support helping others — but so do Republicans, who give a lot to charities. Democrats are thought to like changes and progress, while Republicans cling to preserving the past. But those are too subjective (what is progress? is change always good?) to serve as a reliable indicator.

How about the center?

With not much success with left and right, we can try to define the center in politics. The dictionaries describe it as “(t)he political philosophy of taking a moderate position that avoids extremes, as of right and left” and “adherence to a middle-of-the-road position, neither left nor right.” The problem with these definitions is that both the left and the right have many beliefs and support many ideas. So should centrists maintain the middle ground for every contentious political idea or they will be still called centrists if they adhere to some ideas from the left and some ideas from the right? For example, libertarians want a lot of personal freedom – more than any liberal – and they want very little government interference – less than any conservative. And what is a moderate position anyway? Is someone who has no strong positions at all a centrist? Plus, what seems to be an extreme position to some may look very moderate to others.

Since it looks like it is almost impossible to define centrists based on their thoughts, another way is to do it based on their actions, i.e. voting pattern. In this case, those who split the ticket or cross the party lines from election to election are called independents. However, this may not be a reliable indicator either since these people may vote based on personal likes or dislikes for a candidate or other factors which have nothing to do with ideology.

To make things even more complicated, the center moves. What was a centrist moderate position 40 years ago is not centrist anymore, and what was considered extreme at that time is the center now. The middle line, if we define it as an average view of all Americans (yet, another definition of center), has moved to the left in the last several decades, giving an impression, but just an impression, that Republicans are further to the right. Here is a simple mathematical model: Imagine a neutral line at 0 and an average Republican at +5 to the right and an average Democrat at -5 to the left of that zero neutral line. If that neutral line moves two points to the left, it will now be at -2. If Republicans move one point to the left, they will be at +4 but still farther away from a new neutral point of -2 (6 points difference vs. 5 points difference before). Now, if Democrats moved to the left the same two points, the difference between them and Republicans will be 11 points instead of 10 before, supporting the evidence of increased polarization; however, this occurred despite Republicans actually moving to the LEFT.

Here are the facts supporting this model. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and even some Republicans are ready to accept it. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ being a socialist seemed to be an asset, especially with young people, rather than a liability, and his poll numbers were consistently high among all voters. And it is impossible to even imagine today’s Democratic senators, president or presidential candidates supporting welfare reform that was passed during the Clinton era. Even Trump’s election doesn’t disprove this point: He is not really a Republican and many Republicans opposed him from the very beginning.

Compromise: It’s complicated

It looks like a center is almost impossible to define. So maybe it is just the people who are ready to compromise on all issues? But what is a compromise? If one of your sons wants to go bungee jumping on vacation and the other wants to watch a silly TV show all day, what do you do? You can suggest spending half a day for each activity or doing one today and one tomorrow, but neither is a good solution even though either may be considered a compromise; the right thing may be to do something totally different and good for kids’ development, but that would not be a compromise by its definition. Or imagine that your spouse wants to replace the siding on the house and you think that it is not necessary now. Will a compromise be to replace the siding on half the house? Or replace it with cheap stuff instead of high quality materials? Again, neither is a good solution; instead, an idea should be re-evaluated based on its merits and the siding should be either replaced with good materials or not replaced at all. Looking for a compromise just to half-satisfy all parties is not reasonable because it will leave them also half-unsatisfied; the solution is to do what’s really best.

So here is my definition of an independent moderate centrist: It is someone who can objectively and critically evaluate, without bias, all proposed ideas from both the left and the right and find the best current solution based on facts, logic, and reason regardless of where it came from (and yes, in some cases, it may be a compromises, but not always).  In other words, it’s a person who can understand and support any reasonable idea and for whom left-right divide is irrelevant. In which case, should we even care about the political spectrum?

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.  


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/06/2017 - 09:12 am.

    Interesting analysis, but in my opinion we have moved beyond the point where compromise of any worth is possible.

    In order to move their agenda forward, leftists have waged a scorched Earth policy on American traditions, Western culture and the civil norms that once bound us together. This was carefully planned and executed.

    We cannot even agree about basic human biology any more.

    Now, to no one’s surprise, the right has started pushing back. Despite demographic shifts that ostensibly favor the left, the GOP holds power in a plurality of state and local offices, as well as the federal government.

    Thankfully, the Supreme Court has been stabilized, which ensures a balance that will maintain the status quo for now. Hopefully, President Trump will have the opportunity to nominate at least one more Constitutional originalist, which would have the effect of cooling everyone off.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/06/2017 - 10:53 am.

      Interesting that you took the column as an opportunity

      …to espouse your political views, whereas the theme of the article is to suggest that we see problems beyond any particular political ideology.

      I guess either you reject his thesis, or it didn’t penetrate.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/06/2017 - 10:48 am.

    The center

    I generally define the center as those peoples who are strongly in favor of not only having the pie, but also eating it too. They are firmly in favor of having the best of any possible worlds that happen to come onto the scene while shifting the cost of such transactions onto the future, and those without strong lobbies.

  3. Submitted by Brian Stalboerger on 12/06/2017 - 12:48 pm.


    Thanks Ilya – that was excellent.

    The example I use to show that compromise is not always good is our national tax and spending policies. In general Democrats want more govt. services, and acknowledge the need for higher taxes to pay for them. In general, Republicans want lower taxes, and fewer govt. services as well. Kudos to both for consistency. But who says Dems and Repubs can’t compromise? They always end up compromising on this issue by lowering taxes and increasing spending. The problem, of course, is the national debt. And some day we’ll pay for it either with hyper-inflation, govt. default, or much higher taxes and lower services.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/06/2017 - 09:11 pm.

    Identifying the problems

    As an abstract point, I completely agree with Mr. Gutman’s model and his definition of an independent moderate centrist. We find that in practice, when it comes down to identifying what the problems are, we can never even agree. One part of the population thinks Roe v. Wade has caused a problem that makes those of us who oppose overturning it equivalent to Nazis. Or doing something about gun violence. One group with considerable lobbying clout is convinced any regulation of gun sales is a step down the slippery slope toward tyranny. Another group is convinced our schools are failing and the way of “fixing” the schools is by making vouchers available to private schools.

    An eminent lawyer and jurist, Thurman Arnold, once wrote a book “The Folklore of Capitalism” in 1937. It was about the polarization in politics that had occurred during the first and into the second term of FDR. The country was arguing about Communism, Socialism, Fascism or democracy. In short, a time not so much different from our town. “Folklore” has a lot to say that applies to our own times but one thing that Arnold wrote especially impressed me. he wrote that Americans’ problem is that “we all belong to same church” and revere the same symbols: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Capitalism and other things. Our arguments are really like theological arguments over these symbols which comprise our “folklore”. Arnold would also agree with Mr. Gutman that we need to “objectively and critically evaluate, without bias, all proposed ideas from both the left and the right and find the best current solution based on facts, logic, and reason regardless of where it came from. . . . ”

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 12/07/2017 - 09:19 am.

    It is 2 steps left, 1 step right, repeat.

    That is how we got to the point where 65% of college students think socialism is a good way to run a country. The tug to the left is seen in school (K-12 & college), politics, how we view our natural resources, Hollywood, sports and every area of our lives. Thankfully, there is the electoral college and enough folks in fly over country (you know, those guns and bible clingers) to force the 1 step right. My hope for America is we, the people, finally get tired of DC elites using our tax dollars to pay off sex scandals, line the pockets of elected officials, buy carve outs in tax code for big businesses, use IRS, DOJ, FBI and the biggest Federal Departments as political tools, watching our schools plummet downhill and watching huge Govt programs fail.
    The center, unfortunately, has been lost. We need to drain the swamp of DC and get back to the great system our forefathers designed 235 years not 2 steps left 1 step right as we’ve seen the past 100 years.

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