Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lost, with a Political Compass

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry that was political in nature. I tend to shy away from it now, because getting political can send my mood crashing and anxiety rising, and I’m not as brave as other people I know who are more committed. But this one is an exception. A few weeks ago I took part in an online questionnaire called ‘The Political Compass’, and the results surprised and fascinated me. They may help to explain one of the serious flaws of certain so-called democratic states, as well as the feeling so many people have (which I share) of being disenfranchised.

The questionnaire can be found at It’s worth reading the explanation at the start, and I’d better warn you that this blog entry contains spoilers! It’s possible that knowing them might influence the answers you give to the questions – if you take the test. So if you do want to, it might be worth taking the test before reading the rest of this article. (It only takes a few minutes).

The results are plotted on a graph, and measure not only how left-wing or right-wing you are politically, but also how authoritarian or (its opposite) libertarian. My score was -7.50 for economic left and right, and -7.44 (almost the same) for social authoritarian/libertarian. This means that I am both very left-wing and extremely libertarian. I was pleased with this, because when I looked at the score for certain well-known political and spiritual leaders (based on what we know of them through their words, actions and policies), I could see I was in what I regarded as very good company! 

Those self-same results for famous people, however, were extraordinary, and so were mine in relation to them. Certain figures were about where I expected them to be; Stalin very left-wing and authoritarian, Hitler rather more right-wing and equally authoritarian. But Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, all of whom I admire greatly, were all significantly less left-wing and libertarian than I am, although they were the closest figures to me on the chart. Pope Benedict XVI (the present pope – actually not so surprising!) is nearly as authoritarian as Robert Mugabe, Hitler and Stalin. And a whole host of present-day Western leaders, including David Cameron, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, and the completely loony Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, are clustered in a group towards the upper right hand corner. They are both very right-wing and authoritarian (only a little less authoritarian, in fact, than Adolf Hitler!), and hold some pretty extreme, not to say crazy, views. But this same group also includes those who most people consider more moderate, such as Obama. Only the current French president, Francois Hollande, is on the libertarian side of the chart, and a little to the left as well.

What the chart suggests is that Obama is only a little to the left of Mitt Romney, and Cameron only slightly further right than Ed Miliband – although significantly more authoritarian. What does this say about the range of political choices we have in Britain and the US? Think of the spectrum of possible leaders we could vote for in an election – from Cameron and Romney to someone more like Nelson Mandela, who is vastly more left-wing and libertarian. Yet the choices we actually have, especially in the US, are very narrow indeed. Obama and Romney, for all their much vaunted differences, are very close indeed on the chart. They are both very right-wing and authoritarian, with Mitt only a little more so than Barack. American voters have a choice between right-wing authoritarianism and… right-wing authoritarianism with a few more brain cells. The situation is only slightly better in the UK

On a personal level, these results show why I no longer feel able to vote in General Elections. There are no candidates capable of getting anywhere near winning, who come anywhere close to representing my social or economic views. In the past, like many people, I’ve voted tactically – for the candidate most likely to beat the even worse, next-likely candidate. After the horrendous result of the 2011 election, however, I am resolved never to vote tactically again, because all three main parties are a) awful, and b) very similar. And in the last election, there were no candidates of any party in my home constituency who came near to representing my views and values (I can hardly vote for the British Nazi party, can I?). 

The same is probably true for many other people. Several friends of mine also took the test, and their results varied; a couple had results very close to mine, while others were less left-wing or libertarian. But none of them were anywhere near the top right-hand corner, where the supposedly mainstream political leaders and candidates are.

Of course, my friends are only a few, and because they’re my friends I suppose they are more likely to hold similar views to mine – like attracts like. I would like to see a scientific study done of a wide range of people, and see how many of them were near the top right of the chart. Probably quite a few would be. But possibly not as many as you think! Surveys of people’s views on various issues often seem to suggest that in Britain, at any rate, we’re a pretty liberal lot. That doesn’t mean Liberal Democrat; Nick Clegg would probably be in the top right, somewhere between Cameron and Miliband. But when we discount issues where the public have been partially brainwashed by concerted propaganda efforts by politicians and the mainstream media (benefits claimants, for instance, or asylum seeking), very many of us tend to hold pretty liberal – and libertarian- views. We are not by nature a right-wing or authoritarian people. And yet all our leaders and would-be leaders are. 

We often hear these days that people feel politically disenfranchised. “They’re all the same!”, people say, or “my vote doesn’t really count anymore”. Perhaps this chart helps to explain why. There are other parties and candidates, of course: the Green Party, Respect, the Socialist Alliance… Yet the mainstream (ie: far right) candidates, as well as the mainstream media, tell us that such parties are extreme and in any case, highly unlikely to win an election. Before the last British election, the Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas was accused by an interviewer of being “more left-wing than Labour”. Her response (with an amused smile) was something like, “So?” In other words, to be left of the present-day Labour party isn’t saying much!

The result is that people end up voting anyway for parties they don’t actually like, or dislike less than other mainstream right-wing parties. They vote tactically, for the lesser of two or three evils – just as I have done repeatedly until now. The parties they vote for, in many cases, probably don’t represent their true views on social and economic issues.  

No wonder there is such apathy. No wonder the number of people who actually vote on Election Day tends to be so small. If what I’m saying is true, there is something seriously wrong with our democracy. In America it may be a little different, as election fever tends to be more frenzied in that country. But even there, I suspect that millions and millions of voters are actually to the left, and almost certainly less authoritarian, than Obama or Romney. Yet those two men are the only choices being presented to the electorate. Two candidates who, compared to the range of candidates theoretically possible, are very similar indeed. 

Funny, isn’t it, how these leaders are presented as being mainstream, when the chart actually shows that ‘mainstream’ means very right-wing and authoritarian, and not a very long distance away from the most famous tyrant in history? An intuitive sense of this is perhaps partly why I snorted derisively when the previous UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, said publicly, “Gandhi will be my inspiration” (another reason was that he was bombing Afghanistan). No western leader is anywhere near Gandhi on the chart, and any candidate with similar views to Gandhi would immediately be presented as extreme by the mainstream media. It’s also why I said to a friend yesterday that the US is about as right-wing as a democracy can get (which means not truly democratic, in fact). And yet there are the Republicans and their corporate media friends, busy labelling Barack Obama a socialist!

So we have a situation where leaders such as Gandhi and Mandela are widely admired, while anyone who held views like theirs would never win an election in the US or Europe. The electorate have been hoodwinked into believing that candidates on the authoritarian far-right are the only ones worth voting for, and that the differences between them are huge, when in fact they aren’t. All this is fascinating, but nonetheless depressing, to think about.

I’m not an expert, it’s true, on these kinds of surveys, or on how the results are worked out. It’s possible that this one is flawed or simplistic, and like I said, I’d like to see a proper scientific study conducted. But The Political Compass is certainly suggestive. It provides a convincing explanation for why I, at least, feel completely disenfranchised – why I feel there’s no one left for me to vote for. All those centuries of struggle for a gradually evolving democracy, and this depressing bunch of far-right authoritarians (the argument moves further to the right every year, it seems) is all that I and so many of my liberal friends are left with.

Of course, there are other ways of engaging in democracy, which many people, increasingly disenchanted with the political process, have discovered. Needless to say, governments are cracking down on non-violent protest and becoming more draconian in their tactics all the time. But increasingly, it looks as though the ballot box is not the way to change things. The Arab Spring showed that non-violent protest can, sometimes, effect a change – although keeping that change is often another battle. It seems to me that if we don’t find some way of increasing the political choices open to us, our democracies are only nominal ones. And our sometimes rather smug sense of living in a real democracy is no more than an illusion.