Many of you are probably familiar with the Political Compass, which replaces the traditional liberal vs. conservative model of political belief with a two-axis version – economic left vs. right, and authoritarian vs. libertarian. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz is essentially similar. The more I’m involved in political conversation, though, the more I think these miss the mark. Why, for example, is the “libertarian left” much emptier than the other three quadrants? These would be people who believe in significant government intervention in the economy but not elsewhere. Since the economy touches so many other things, this can be a difficult position to sustain; some would even call it self-contradictory. Why are most liberals authoritarian, and most libertarians on the right? Similarly, what of those who want the government to stay out of the economy but in our bedrooms? I think the best way to explain this is by considering that there might really be three rather than four groups, forming a triangle instead of a square. Those groups are defined by who they focus on:

  • Blue: the state, or people acting through the state
  • Red: capital or its holders, which translates to big business
  • White: the individual, including the small businessperson

The choice of colors are based on the now-common “red” vs. “blue” political division, plus one other. Normally I’d go for one of the other primaries, but “green” has a different political meaning and “yellow” is somewhat derogatory so I decided to complete the set of colors in the US flag (and several of our nearest cultural neighbors’ flags) instead. Enough of the color-symbolism; what does this mean?

The best way to illustrate how the triangle relates to the more familiar square is with a diagram.

political triangle

This diagram, though crude, captures several important ideas.

  • The largest part of the triangle lies over the “authoritarian right” which is currently ascendant in the federal government.
  • The smallest part, by contrast, lies over the “libertarian left” which we have already noted is rare.
  • Both the red and the white corners lie on the economic right, representing their combined opposition to the blue along what most consider the primary axis of US politics.
  • Both the red and the blue corners lie in authoritarian territory.

It’s particularly interesting to see how the “Christian conservative” right plays into this. As the name implies, they want to preserve the plutocratic/pro-capital status quo not so much because of its intrinsic value but because it’s what we have and what they believe (incorrectly) represents our traditions. For similar reasons, they are also resistant to social change in areas such as gay marriage or drug laws; those who are more “liberal” with regard to such things tend to be found at the other two corners. Differences in such attitudes are not really represented by the triangle but form a second axis orthogonal to the plane defined by the triangle. Think of it as a prism, but one in which the two triangular faces are larger than the three rectangular ones. This gives us six corners instead of four, with some to represent groups such as the “libertarian conservative” militia types (white, socially conservative) who are hard to represent on the four-point chart.

My own views are pale blue, on the socially liberal side of the second axis. In that I suspect I have more in common with many people traditionally (mis)characterized as libertarian, including the Georgists/geolibertarians and mutualists/agorists who are similarly focused on the individual in opposition to the Red established interests, than I had previously thought. I still differ from them in having many Blue ideas or sentiments, but a blue/white alliance or amalgam makes no less sense than a red/white one. I think the Whites are beginning to appreciate that, too. For the past several election cycles I think Whites have seen Blue as the great enemy, but it seems to me that a significant number have become disenchanted with their Red allies. Whites in general need to start thinking of and representing themselves as a fundamentally separate third option, not as a flavor to be added to either Blue or (more often) Red. In particular, the conflict between a Red focus on capital and a White focus on competition and innovation needs to be recognized. When Red is recognized for the untrustworthy ally it is, maybe a tripartite balance can be struck. After all, a stool with three legs is more stable than a stool with two.