The Democratic party is not ‘the left’ in US politics

The labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics originated in the first French National Assembly in 1789 following the revolution, and was named according to the seating arrangement of the groups in the chamber as seen from the president’s chair. The largely economic views associated with those groups became synonymous with left-wing and right-wing politics, with the left seeking social justice largely through redistributive social and economic policies.

One of the things I find most annoying about political discussions in the US is the idea that the struggle here is between the left (as represented by the Democratic party) and the right (the Republicans). To describe it as such is to drain those political labels of any historical and political meaning and make them merely synonymous with two ends of a very narrow spectrum.

When measured against its historical meanings, what the US has is a center-right party (the Democrats) and a radical right wing party (the Republicans). The idea that Barack Obama is a radical left-wing socialist is to distort the political and economic tradition of socialism by tarring it with the kinds of pro-oligarchic policies that he advocates.

Of course, any simplistic left-right split based purely on economic points of views is somewhat simplistic and does not capture the full richness of a person’s views. This website adds another axis that measures where one stands on the authoritarian-libertarian axis in addition to the left-right social/economic axis and provides a questionnaire to measure where people stand. You can do the test in a few minutes.

I came out fairly deep in the bottom-left quadrant (6.5 towards the left, 6.5 down on the libertarian axis), suggesting that I was pretty left wing and libertarian, which did not really surprise me.

Update: You can compare yourself with some world leaders from a few years back.


  1. jamessweet says

    This is why I sometimes feel the need to disambiguate whether I am talking about American or international standards. By international standards, I am probably best-described as center-left. Which of course, by American standards, makes me a radical socialist 😀

  2. jamessweet says

    I also tested fairly deep in the lower-left, though more strongly on the social axis than the economic axis, which is not a surprise to me. I’m actually a little surprised I tested as far to the left economically as I did. It was around -4, which I guess is not that far to the left though.

  3. mnb0 says

    This is old news for a European like me. I wouldn’t know what to vote in the USA.
    Economic: 7.62 left.
    Social: 7.74 left.
    I suppose this ruins my chance to get a visum for the USA. What else could I have expected? Even in my home country, The Netherlands, I am considered a radical.

  4. HP says

    While we’re talking outmoded terminology, don’t forget that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” derive from late-19th c. debates over the proper use of tariffs, taxes, and duties to generate state revenue and protect local markets and suppliers.

    Terms like “left|right” or “liberal|conservative” no longer carry any semantic content; they simply function as tribal markers. My elderly parents, for example, have identified as conservatives since before WWII. This means that they’ve had to change their politics probably a dozen times in the last 70 years.

  5. MichaelD says

    Yeah I find it funny that our conservative primeminister is just a touch more to the upper right then Obama…. and people say the US has a left wing… I’m of course buried down around a bit past -5-5, which was totally unsurprising.

  6. 'Tis Himself says

    My response to people who would tell me that Obama is a socialist, a Communist, a fascist or a Nazi or some combination thereof is to tell them to learn something about socialism, Communism, fascism, and/or Nazism as appropriate. For all too many Americans, these are just labels which mean “someone who screams loudly, like Rush Limbaugh, thinks these things are bad and so I also think they’re bad.”

  7. Eric says

    I have a bit of a problem with the way the questions on the political compass test are written. I think the authors frame their questions in such a way that the test-taker will tend to agree with the premise supposed, e.g. “Because corporations cannot be trusted…” or “It is a sad state of affairs…” I don’t necessarily disagree with the premises, but I think the test results are skewed based on how the questions are written.

  8. Erasmus says

    9.8 socialist, 4.5 libertarian. I am only the 2nd most socialist person I know who took that test :). Also not as socialist as some other people I know, but then I and many of my friends would self describe as socialist, so no shocks really.

  9. 'Tis Himself says

    Mike Huben, in his Non-Libertarian FAQ, considers the test:

    This libertarian quiz asks a set of leading questions to tempt you to proclaim yourself a libertarian. The big trick is that if you answer yes to each question, you are a macho SELF GOVERNOR: there is an unspoken sneer to those who would answer anything else. It is an ideological litmus test.

    The most obvious criticism of this quiz is that it tries to graph the range of politics onto only 2 axes, as if they were the only two that mattered, rather than the two libertarians want the most change in. For example, if socialists were to create such a test, they would use a different set of axes.

    The second obvious criticism is typical of polls taken to show false levels of support: the questions are worded to elicit the desired response. This is called framing bias. For example, on a socialist test, you might see a question such as “Do you believe people should help each other?” Libertarians would answer “yes” to this question; the problem is the “but”s that are filtered out by the question format.

    Many libertarians use this as an “outreach” (read: evangelism) tool. By making it easy to get high scores on both axes, subjects can be told that they are already a libertarian and just didn’t know it. This is the same sort of suckering that cold readers and other frauds use.

  10. machintelligence says

    I have told a number of friends and acquaintances that have expressed similar views on Obama that they wouldn’t recognize a socialist if one came and bit them on the leg. I guess I am not one to suffer fools gladly.

  11. Rabid Dog says

    Wow, like Mano I scored 6+ in both libertarian and left directions. Hell, and I was worried that old age creep was moving me to the right. I also note that all the presidential candidates are diagonally opposite. Sigh.

  12. smrnda says

    I don’t consider political labels worth much anymore – they ought to have more precise meaning but the practice of using them as a kind of catch-all insult on talk radio has made them overused and meaningless to most people. What I want out of people is more concrete – what measures they support and oppose.

    My problem with ‘libertarianism’ is that it seems more like feudalism than anything else, at least as it’s understood in the states. Private property rights are absolute, and the only purpose of government is to protect private property rights. So you basically have all rights coming from the ownership of property, so no matter where you go, you end up on someone’s feudal estate where you the only right you have is to submit, or go and be a serf for someone else. Of course, most libertarians seem to see themselves as virtual feudal lords who some unruly revolution has stripped of their birthrights, and see themselves as so inherently fair and benevolent that they believe a life in service to them must be the best deal around.

    Put a libertarian to work in a slaughterhouse for a decade or so and I wonder how they would feel about government intervention in business. I think people mostly ascribe to the viewpoint from privilege or because of some psychological reason.


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