Commentary: The old, linear political spectrum needs to go

Everyone is familiar with the traditional political spectrum, derived from the seating arrangements of the French Parliaments in revolutionary France: The aristocracy, defenders of the established order, sat on the speaker's right, the place of honor. The upstart bourgeois capitalists occupied the left.

This arrangement has always left a lot to be desired and not the least because the original actors keep moving around. These days, most people see the capitalists occupying the right side of the spectrum.

And what's with having totalitarian systems - communism and fascism - at each end of the traditional spectrum, rather than having both on one side or the other?

This week let's take a break from comment on the coming election and consider the knotty issue of how to schematically map governing philosophies. I'm sure many readers have been losing sleep for years over how to resolve this very question.

If you Google "alternative political spectrums," one of the choices is a Wikipedia entry that goes on for a dozen or so pages on how to account for cultural issues vs. economic issues, and degrees of government control. I scanned the article. I had trouble staying awake.

Then the other day I ran across a model that seems much better. It was proposed by a blogger known only as Zombie. I have no idea who Zombie might be. I don't know whether this Zombie is male or female. But he (or she) begins with the arresting notion that, "Tea party values are hippie values." (To find a link to the post, search for "The Electric Tea Party Acid Test.")

Hey, think about it: Both tea partiers and hippies crave independence, celebrate individualism, enjoy self-sufficiency and accept the "natural order of things," meaning they don't insist on government-dictated outcomes when things don't go right.

Anyway, Zombie's political spectrum has two geometric axes. The horizontal axis tracks a person's attitude toward government control: if you prefer less, you're on the left.

The vertical axis charts one's attitude toward human nature. Here, the tension is between those who see human nature as immutable and unchanging and those who believe human nature is "constructed," or malleable.

If you believe human nature is constructed, you believe people can be made to act in ways that hasten the arrival of some exalted ideological or religious goal, such as the withering away of the state, the triumph of some master race or the establishment of a worldwide Islamic state.

If you look at the chart, you'll see that anarchists and "green activists" are at about the same level on the human-nature spectrum, which fits. Anarchists believe you can change people so that they'll live in peace without laws. Greenies believe that if you run around screaming "the sky is falling," you can turn everyone into obsessive recyclers who drive around in nondescript, fuel-sipping nodules.

The most interesting dichotomy on the chart is between bums and hobos.

Hobos are merely itinerant laborers, says the Zombie. They're willing to take occasional jobs and are homeless only because they value their freedom. Bums live on handouts and blame others for their problems.

Hmm. As for the hippies-as-tea-partiers theory, methinks the Zombie's tongue is firmly in cheek. Tea partiers may value freedom and seek smaller government and lower taxes, but they're also profoundly bourgeois. They bring their kids to their rallies. At Glenn Beck's recent "Restoring Honor" conclave in Washington, they cleaned up after themselves. How much more bourgeois can you get?

Hippies were a counterculture. They were anti-bourgeois. When I went to school in Boulder in the late 1960s and early '70s, we called them street freaks. Many were petty criminals and they weren't really free. They were slaves to various drugs.

That said, I think Zombie's chart (I have no idea whether it's an original idea) makes a lot of sense. The key insight is the extent to which one believes human nature is innate or constructed, which none of the other charts I've seen take into account.

As for how best to plot the tea partiers on the chart, I think Zombie at least has them in the proper ball park. Me? I'd put myself fairly close to the tea partiers, somewhere between them and the social conservatives. In any case, if Zombie's plotting is right, this is an election in which tea partiers, hobos, hippies and libertarians are enjoying an amazing amount of political leverage. Is this a great country or what?


E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at mcclanahan@kcstar.com.