Saturday, September 27, 2008

Political Orienteering

Laura Drake and Andrew Potter, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, September 27, 2008

Way back in 1789, when France was fruitlessly trying to avoid an American-style revolution, the powers-that-were decided to convene the French Estates-General for the first time in more than a century to try to sort their problems out.

For ease of seating the near-600 representatives of the Estates-General, those who generally favoured state intervention sat on the right, while those who thought the state should keep their noses out of people's business sat on the left. And thus, the labels left-wing and right-wing were born.

Though the definitions of the two wings have essentially flipped since their invention, the popularity of the labels has endured, possibly since the word 'nut' attaches so neatly to the end of both.

However, given that the concept of left- and right-wing stretch back to the French Revolution, it's not surprising that they came to be viewed as anachronistic. Eventually, political scientists started musing that a simple left-right divide based solely on economic preferences unfairly ignored the entire social dimension of politics. After all, Joseph Stalin and Gandhi were both collectivists, but they probably wouldn't have gotten along had they run into one another at a pool party.

Thus, the political compass was born. The traditional left-right economic line was bisected with a north-south social line. Early versions of the political compass test presented in textbooks and political papers had five or 10 questions that quiz-takers self-scored then placed themselves on the grid appropriately. Presumably, this was an exercise undertaken mostly by political science undergrads putting off doing a paper.

But then the Internet took off, and around 2001, a political journalist hooked up with a social history professor, made a version with around 60 questions, and bought the domain name

The online version of the test divides questions into six subsets: views on your country and the world, the economy, personal social values, wider society, religion and sex. In each, respondents are asked to consider propositions to which they can strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. The end result places the respondent on a grid with the economic left and right along the x-axis, and social authoritarianism and libertarianism on the y-axis.

With the Canadian election in full swing, The Citizen Intelligence Unit invited the major party leaders to take five minutes and fill out the online quiz. All declined, though the Bloc Québécois did fill out the survey from the party's point of view.

Undeterred, we combed through the Liberal, Conservative and NDP platforms, policies and texts of speeches to answer the test for them. This, undoubtedly, was an inexact art. Whenever possible, the questions were answered based on the party's professed ideology -- even where recent actions would seem to betray party doctrine.

Ultimately, our assessments landed all parties but the Conservatives in the left wing/libertarian quadrant, though to varying degrees. The Conservatives ended up on the right wing side of the economic scale, with a slightly authoritarian bent.

source: Political Orienteering
Ottawa Citizen, Canada