Are Right-Left Labels Obsolete?

chart4Many activists are starting to reject traditional liberal-conservative and left-right labels as overused and meaningless. Susan Clark and Wooden Teachout, writing in Slow Democracy (Chelsea Green Publishing 2012), seem to agree. One of the most valuable chapters in their book discusses the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. In their 2006-2007 Risk and Culture Study, the project conducted in-depth interviews with a random sample of 5,000 Americans. Guess what? The interviewees didn’t self-select into neat left-right or liberal-conservative camps. Instead their core beliefs could be plotted on a two dimensional grid based on attitudes towards hierarchical authority vs egalitarianism and individualism vs collective responsibility. The study results are available at Cultural Cognition Project

A hierarchical worldview considers authority natural and (often) God-given. An egalitarian worldview advocates that all people should be treated equally and have equal opportunities. Individualists believe that we’re all on our own and responsible for our own success or failure. Collectivists believe that the needs of the community take precedence over those of individuals and that society is responsible for ensuring that everyone has a chance to succeed.

The Four Quadrant View of Politics

In the Yale Law School study, nearly everyone fell into one of four quadrants. The hierarchist-individualists who landed in the upper left corner are the extreme free market entrepreneurs who maintain that greed is good – that the free market only functions well when thousands of individuals balance each other out by pursuing their own greedy self-interest.

In the upper right corner are the hierarchist-collectivists. Clark and Teachout cite the example of the Catholic Church. Catholics believe strongly in the traditional hierarchy of the church and family and their collective responsibility to everyone in the community.

Libertarians, the egalitarian-individualists, are found in the lower left corner. They believe in free markets and personal liberty and disapprove of any governmental role in the collective welfare of society. Most progressives fall in the lower right quadrant with the egalitarian collectivists, those who advocate for equal rights and believe we all have collective responsibility for one another.

The Significance of Red and Blue States

The vast majority of Americans, however, fell into one of two quadrants representing diametrically opposed worldviews. They were either hierarchist-individualist or egalitarian-collectivist. We see this reflected in the profound polarization between so-called Red and Blue states.

Voters’ attitudes towards global warming and gun control can be predicted by the quadrant they fell in. The Cultural Cognition Project also found that individuals who hold egalitarian and collectivist views more readily accept global warming arguments. In contrast, those with hierarchist-individualist views are more likely to favor industry and commerce and to be skeptical of policy that potentially threatens free enterprise.

In studying attitudes towards gun control, they found that hierarchists tend to associate guns with super masculinity and military valor and individualists with self-reliance and bravery. Egalitarians are more likely to link guns with racism and sexism and collectivists to view them as symptomatic of a breakdown in community trust and caring.

My Blip on the Grid (the little red oval below)

My first reaction on learning about the Cultural Cognition Project was to want to know where I fit on the grid, as a left libertarian who finds myself agreeing with Ron Paul on restoring the Bill of Rights, abolishing the Federal Reserve, ending the wars in the Middle East, and legalizing hemp and marijuana.

I also think I’m a collectivist, at least to some extent. I believe society is responsible for giving everyone a chance to succeed. However I’m also quite uncomfortable about living in a society where all personal liberties are sacrificed for the collective good of society. I have seen too many political systems, for example China and Cuba, masquerade as egalitarian-collectivist while they hand over absolute power to an authoritarian tyrant. I also have an innate distrust of group-speak. I can only function in a group if I am confident my individual concerns will be listened to and respected.

I’m curious what readers think of this four quadrant view of political ideology. Which quadrant do you fall in?