Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, October 31, 2008

JLT, "Introducing Political Compass," October 20, 2008.

We begin this week in the wake of a Canadian election in which an unprecedented 40.9 percent of registered voters refused to vote. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories fewer than 50% voted.

The traditional explanation for declining voter turnouts is that the non-voters are apathetic, ignorant, and pampered. They take democracy for granted.

However, this is a time in which critics on both the left and the right argue that democracy is threatened if it hasn't already disappeared, that several elections have been stolen in the US, that the absence of proportional representation means a vote for a small parties is wasted. This week, Rolling Stone publishes an article by Greg Palast which argues the 2008 American election has already been stolen by an unprecedented number of rejected registrations, especially of likely Democrat voters.

It may be time to entertain the idea that low voter turnouts mean something else, not apathy, but alienation; not ignorance, but an increasingly substantial opinion that the ballot has failed to offer an effective means for bringing about meaningful social change. Not merely a no show, but a refusal to contribute.

This morning is just a start, a small opening, a questioning. It may be that at the end you will decide that it's all about voter apathy after all. Or you may find that we are looking at a much bigger phenomenon that we thought at first.

I begin, as I often do, with language and with those issues that come to me through my associates not only here at the radio station, but at the coffee shop, on the street and around town.

The discussion about the hard right turn politics took in the 80s, about what happened to the Left--and how to restore it--makes use of a one-dimensional model for political description that many say is no longer appropriate. The dualism of left and right is resolved as a continuum. But the use of descriptive terms for political positions actually varies with both time and place.

For example, Gavan McCormack makes the point in an article for Japan Focus that

"Japanese politics are characterized by two related paradoxes: first, that the word “conservative” is usually applied to those who insist on the need to remake Japan’s postwar society, including its constitution, and who in other words are actually radicals, while those who insist on “conserving” Japan’s postwar democratic institutions are labeled radicals or leftists; and second, that those who most insist that Japan subordinate itself to the United States describe themselves as “nationalists,” while those who seek to prioritize Japanese over US interests are suspected of being somehow “un-Japanese.” It is an Alice in Wonderland confusion!"

Possibly more to the point, octogenarian Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery is frequently described as ultra- or extreme-left even though he is not known to espouse either state or regional collectivism, social safety nets or any other accompaniments of the traditional left in other countries. In the US, a lot of recent peace activism is associated with Republicans like Scott Ritter and right-wing libertarians like Justin Raimondo.
"The old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape. For example, who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher?

"On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It's not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can't explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as 'right-wingers', yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook." (See Political Compass)

In the current US election,
"While Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader are depicted on the extreme left in an American context, they would simply be mainstream social democrats within the wider political landscape of Europe. Similarly, Obama is popularly perceived as a leftist in the United States while elsewhere in the west his record is that of a moderate conservative. For example, in the case of the death penalty he is not an uncompromising abolitionist, while mainstream conservatives in all other western democracies are deeply opposed to capital punishment." (US presidential election 2008)

" the UK, New Labour occupies an economic position to the right of pre-Thatcher Conservatives." (UK political parties)

But that variation in language with time and place, only accounts for a fraction of the feeling of alienation from the political process. A true scattergram of political positions would have to provide a unique descriptor for each person. It would be expected to vary over time. A true representation of political ideas and positions would have to be multi-dimensional.

Political Compass is a website ( that does it well for the present in the US and is better than anything else I have seen for Canada and a growing handful of other, mostly European, countries. As a tool it opens up possibilities for historical speculation and reconstruction. Evidence based visions of the past--models and scenarios--can be made more accurate with multidimensional description and an understanding of the politics of naming such as George Orwell began to explore in his essay, "Politics and the English Language."

However, I would expect the use of concepts like the 2-dimensional model of political description at Political Compass to find its main use by campaigners as a basis for team-building and for opening up dialogue that may have become locked up in a left-right deep freeze. Political Compass can open conversations. It's a potential fire starter without being inflammatory.

Let me take you through it. Then at the end, I'll share what I have found most useful in my own thinking about politics which is their distinction between neo-liberals and neoconservatives. So stay tuned.

But first, what is this Political Compass? Well, it's a website; it's a questionnaire, which is growing in detail. It's a graph that has the left-right or x-axis representing political beliefs about the economy. On the far left are communist beliefs about a planned economy or collective ownership; on the right are neo-liberal beliefs about economic freedom and the self-regulation of the economy.

To this familiar backdrop, Political Compass adds a y-axis representing social attitudes with increasing authoritarianism at one extreme and libertarianism or anti-authoritarianism at the other. The result is a two-dimensional depiction of the iconic x- and y-axis. Take the quiz and find out which quadrant of the diagram you are in. It's a very individualistic tool.

The designers of Political Compass are careful to urge readers to take the questionnaire before proceeding further with analysis. I have already said too much, so by way of making a full disclosure, I will give you my own results. My political compass: Economic Left/Right: -7.50 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.38, that makes me more left and less authoritarian than the NDP--or any of the other parties including the Greens. I knew that, but now I have a two-dimensional picture of it and can see it in relation to a range of other individuals and political parties.

You can take the test more than once. It will give you an idea of how your own ideas may be changing. Or how the local political landscape itself is changing.

For example, according to the Political Compass description of Canada in 2008,
"The Conservative Party's move further towards the Bush-Reagan mix of free market economics with social conservatism makes the somewhat mercurial Liberals look more moderate, despite their own rightward drift. An emphasis on environmental issues has helped the Liberals downplay deep differences within the party on other key issues. The Greens, more fiscally conservative than most of their sister parties, also harbour significant left-right differences within their ranks. Similarly Bloc Québécois is united in its core cause, but considerably divided in other policy areas. In provinces where the NDP has governed in recent years, social spending cutbacks and other nods towards neoliberalism place the party today closer to where the Liberals were two decades ago."

There is also a description of the Canadian elections in 2005. Have a look after you have taken the quiz.

Political Compass designers admit that
"Bloc Québécois presented us with a real challenge, since it is primarily a single-goal party promoting Québec independence. As such, it attracts members from all quadrants of The Political Compass who often have little else in common."

Indeed there is a tendency for Political Compass to assume that the political values of the US, the Anglosphere and the EU--in that order--are universal political values. This is a serious deficiency, but one that can be remedied--or perhaps even more important, discussed--mainly because of the intellectual space that is opened up by Political Compass.

For example, some well-developed political positions are simply omitted. Perhaps most important, there is no attempt to account for the political role of religion or the rise of positions from left and right, authoritarian and libertarian that challenge the western tradition of separating church and state.

In the case of some anti-colonial Islamists, we cannot accurately describe their positions in terms of institutions that are not rightly called either a state or a church. Strategies--like military strategies or social strategies--derived from such a radically inaccurate naming can only succeed by accident if at all. Garbage in, garbage out.

In some cases, the omission is more consequential than just a positional description. Nationalism, for instance, is traditionally viewed as a right-wing extreme of which internationalism is a preserve of the Old Left—now the Leftover Left. However, in Canada, many nationalists self-identify as left-nationalists or economic nationalists like Mel Hurtig and the Council of Canadians who oppose Marxist internationalism on the one hand and on the other a right-wing variant of nationalism which is seen as the pseudo-American nationalism of a comprador class of Canadians. That's a mouthful, but every Canadian understands the reality of it.

Also potentially confusing in Canada is the Council of Canadians' description of continental integration as basically a right-wing collaboration with Americans to undermine Canadian sovereignty. This includes such issues as free-trade, the Security and Prosperity Partnership and the North American Forum, common currency, and so forth.

In Latin America, integration means something else. Especially among the Andean countries, integration is seen as a positive regional initiative bringing neighbors together to preserve their sovereignty against the American threat.

In addition to Canada and the US, Political Compass graphs parties in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Gernany, and right across the EU. It won't tell you much about Africa or Afghanistan, Venezuela, Lebanon, Iraq, or Turkmenistan. But it will show you that these days, practically everyone is in the upper right-hand quadrant--free-market authoritarians. That's globalization.

It would be interesting to know more about where individual people turn up on the Political Compass, especially those who don't vote. Are political parties out of touch with voters? What are the practical limits of compromise? What can be done to give a voice to voters in some unrepresented quadrant or even along some direction that is not even depicted on the Political Compass.

Finally, here's that distinction between neoliberalism and neoconservatives I promised at the beginning.

"US neo-conservatives, with their commitment to high military spending and the global assertion of national values, tend to be more authoritarian than hard right. By contrast, neo-liberals, opposed to such moral leadership and, more especially, the ensuing demands on the tax payer, belong to a further right but less authoritarian region. Paradoxically, the ‘free market’, in neo-con parlance, also allows for the large-scale subsidy of the military-industrial complex, a considerable degree of corporate welfare, and protectionism when deemed in the national interest. These are viewed by neo-libs as impediments to the unfettered market forces that they champion" (Political Compass, "Analysis"). See also “The World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

The meaning of these terms sometimes changes with the crossing of borders. Gordon Campbell, for instance, is sometimes called a neoconservative. But Campbell has no foreign policy apart from trade and could not be called a militarist. Viewing relations with the aboriginal community as a nation-to-nation affair, Campbell has recently distinguished himself as a strong supporter of the Kelowna Accords. He’s a neoliberal, but not a neoconservative.Recommend this Post

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Chrystal Ocean said...

"It may be time to entertain the idea that low voter turnouts mean something else, not apathy, but alienation; not ignorance, but an increasingly substantial opinion that the ballot has failed to offer an effective means for bringing about meaningful social change. Not merely a no show, but a refusal to contribute."

Have been trying to hammer away on this point for ages and yet still very, very few listen to or seriously consider what I'm saying. Even in direct conversation with people, we end up talking past each other; almost always they are among the "voting is a responsibility" crowd. Read the comments attached to that linked post for an example.

One point I attempt to get through to them is this: Voting has never been a responsibility: a right to vote is also a right not to vote. One may, in all good conscience, exercise one's right NOT to vote because one thinks that is the most responsible thing to do.

Anyway, to get back to my point, from the conversations I've had, there appears to be a desire by the media and those who view voting as a responsibility rather than a right, to blame non-voters for what's gone and going wrong in this country/province/municipality, rather than what non-voters are saying has been turning them off. And then they accuse non-voters as being apathetic, hence blameworthy, rather than recognize that 'apathy' so totally does not describe the disgust, disappointment, disillusionment, despair, anger, ... which those who have chosen not to vote have been feeling.

Much turns on the far-too-frequent misapplication of the word apathy and its cognates. As I commented in frustration over at Canadian Dimension:

"Egad, look up the meaning of ‘apathy’ for goodness sake!"