So, last night, in a blog post featuring some of the longest sentences ever attempted, I introduced my new approach to describing the range of American political opinion. Tonight, I am going to describe it in a bit more detail.
My system recognizes three distinct areas of political thought: foreign affairs, economics and civil liberties. I don’t think you can use less than that number. Within each area, I have defined three perspectives which I will describe below. Of course, there are always differences of degree within each of these categories and it is not always obvious where a particular individual should fit. To complicate matters further, there is frequently a difference between the rhetoric and reality for, I hazard to say, most politicians.
When it comes to foreign policy, the three categories are non-interventionism, nationalism and internationalism. In economics, the three categories are capitalism, institutionalism and populism. Finally, in civil liberties, the three categories are individualism, communitarianism and ma/paternalism.
Starting in foreign policy, non-interventionism is a perspective that proposes a more limited role for America in the world. A more aggressive approach may better project American power but also exposes us to more risk and threatens to bankrupt our economy. While it will not always oppose a treaty, an alliance or a military action, it is likely to be skeptical that any of them will actually lead to a better outcome than simply staying out of things. Often derided as “isolationism,” this view has, however, become more pervasive over the past decade and is exemplified by Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Gary Johnson.
Nationalism is the second perspective and it defined by its insistence that, whatever the issue, the determining factor for whether we should or should not act is the interest of the United States. It may be more or less belligerent than other viewpoints but is going to be skeptical of international organizations and agreements, preferring that America take the lead and ally themselves with other nations only when it serves our interests. Always an undercurrent in our foreign policy debate, I think it best defines the views of people like Pat Buchanan and President-elect Trump.
For the past three quarters of a century, the pervasive foreign policy viewpoint in this country has been what I am calling internationalism. This view sees great value in projecting American power for the benefit of, not just our nation, but to make the world a better place. International agencies are important institutions and should be supported and strengthened. Even if narrow American interests are not at stake, American power should be used to support human rights and oppose oppression. As I have suggested, I think most political leaders in recent memory have exemplified this viewpoint and that would include Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton.
In the area of economics, the first perspective is one I am simply calling capitalism. It is one that believes that the best thing the government can do to create prosperity is simply to get out of the way. In its most extreme form, it sees government’s role as merely defending property rights and prohibiting the use of force or fraud. Many capitalists will, however, see value in a “safety net” of some sorts but will not likely favor extending it beyond the most vulnerable. Regulations need to be subjected to stringent cost-benefit analysis because even the best intentioned rules may have unforeseen consequences. This has typically been the stated positions of most Republicans but, even when they have been in power, there has been little movement in this direction.
The second perspective and the one most common in practice in recent times is what I call institutionalism. While it fundamentally believes in the free market and does not favor excessive government involvement in the economy, it is also much more pragmatic. Capitalism must be reined in by regulations that protect workers and the environment. Government has every right to try to move and shape the economy in a way that best benefits all Americans, not just the privileged. Some areas of our economy, such as health care or food security are simply too important to be left to the free market. This has been the dominant viewpoint of the Democrat party for at least the last twenty five years.
Finally, the last economic perspective is populism. It differs from the other two in having no particular love for the free market. What is important to a populist is using the government to make things better for the common people. That may involve jobs programs, educational benefits and even explicit government control/ownership of certain elements of the economy. For the populist, it isn’t all about GNP but about how well people live and work on a day to day basis. I would put someone like Bernie Sanders in this category and even Mr. Trump sounded a number of these themes.
In the category of civil liberties, I first define individualism. The individualist believes that a person should be free to act in whatever way they choose, as long as they do no direct harm to others. A person’s sexual or religious orientation or what drugs they may choose to put into their bodies is fundamentally no one else’s business. There is no reason to try to legislate morality in any way and, in fact, it is in our interest as a people to be more tolerant of others as it will create a more peaceful society. Not surprisingly, this is the traditional position of civil libertarians and also many liberals.
A communitarian may agree in principal with the individualist but is likely to part way with them on certain activities which they regard as putting the community at large at risk. Drug abuse, gambling and prostitution may appear to be “victimless” crimes but the communitarian doesn’t see it that way. Each leads to damage to the social structure as well as causing great harm to the individuals involved. Given those facts, it is appropriate for government to proscribe some behaviors and advocate actively against others. This is, I think, the traditional liberal perspective.
And the third and final perspective here is ma/paternalism. Here, the focus is not on the community alone but on the actions of individuals. A maternalist or paternalist believes that there are moral standards that government has every right to uphold and enforce, not only because they are in the best interest of the broader society but because it is the right thing to do. There are objective values in society, whether they be religion, families or simple human decency, that need to be upheld in order for a nation to survive and prosper. This is, I think, the traditional conservative perspective.
So there you go. That is the broad outline of my new three dimensional political spectrum. As a thought experiment I would encourage all of you to try to place yourselves as well as major political figures into one of the three perspectives in each of the three categories. I did not mention certain issues such as trade or immigration because I think that one can infer where a person stands on some of these matters from their positions in the three broad categories that we have covered.
I will talk a little more about this new system tomorrow and, as always, I welcome any constructive feedback on how to make it more useful. I struggled most, not with what the particular perspectives were, but what to call them. Words have both connotations and denotations and so I tried, as much as possible to avoid common but confused terminology. I did not entirely succeed. There will most certainly need to be revisions.
If you’ve made it this far on a Friday night I salute you. Hopefully you have learned something, even if it is just an alternative way to think about things. That’s what I’m here for. And, as always, have a great night!