Think President Obama is a Liberal? Think Again! A Look Inside the Political Compass Test

ideologyMany years ago, when I first started studying political science, a professor of mine at Stony Brook University asked everyone in the class to take The Political Compass test. The purpose was to prove that political ideology is not linear, and not simply left and right. Rather, political ideology falls on a spectrum that includes two axis – a horizontal one, which represents economic ideology and runs from far left (communism/collectivism) to far right (neo-libertarian/economic libertarian), and a vertical one, which represents social ideology and runs from far south (anarchism/libertarian) to far north (authoritarian/fascism). As the analysis following the test points out, simply using a left/right model to determine one’s ideology leads to largely inadequate results. Specifically, the analysis states:

“If we recognize that this is essentially an economic line it’s fine, as far as it goes. We can show, for example, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot, with their commitment to a totally controlled economy, on the hard left. Socialists like Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Mugabe would occupy a less extreme leftist position. Margaret Thatcher would be well over to the right, but further right still would be someone like that ultimate free marketeer, General Pinochet.

That deals with economics, but the social dimension is also important in politics. That’s the one that the mere left-right scale doesn’t adequately address. So we’ve added one, ranging in positions from extreme authoritarian to extreme libertarian.

Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper political analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftist (i.e. the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. While the former involves state-imposed arbitrary collectivism in the extreme top left, on the extreme bottom left is voluntary collectivism at regional level, with no state involved. Hundreds of such anarchist communities existed in Spain during the civil war period

You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process.

The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (i.e. liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism (i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy)”

So what’s the point?

The point is that it is not good enough to classify one’s political ideology as simply left or right, or as “liberal” or “conservative.” In order to truly know one’s political ideology, one must look at where they fall on a spectrum that takes into account more than just economics. For example, I consider myself to be a “progressive libertarian.” I am to the left on the economic scale, but to the south (libertarian leaning) on the social scale. My exact location on the graph is, -8.12 on the economic scale and -3.74 on the social scale. This location puts me in good company with the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, albeit I am slightly further to the left on the economic scale. Moreover, the test does a pretty decent job of matching up my ideology with my policy positions on the issues.

For example, as I stated earlier, I consider myself a “progressive libertarian” (green box), as opposed to an “anarchist libertarian” (purple box) a.k.a I am a “liberal.” I’m a registered Democrat, but I vote and think like an independent. I work as a criminal defense attorney, hence at work, I defend accused criminals’ rights against the government (4th, 5th, 6th, 8th Amendments). I believe in good, smart government, not “bigger” or “smaller” government. I believe in capitalism, but I do not believe corporations should get tax breaks that average citizens do not get, nor be allowed to take advantage of loopholes and deductions. I believe in reasonable taxes, Keynesian economics, and welfare programs that are limited to a short period of time, excessively monitored for fraud and also help in the job search process. I am for public education. I am pro same-sex marriage. I am against the war on drugs. I am against other wars in other countries unless we are attacked. I believe the 2nd Amendment is important but does not come without any limits. I believe pot should be legal, regulated, and taxed. I believe the government should spend money on infrastructure and hire private companies to do the work, thereby creating jobs and taxpayers, not welfare recipients. I believe the government (the police) should not unlawfully stop, question, and frisk people on the streets without cause. I believe very strongly in the Constitution, but I am well read on the case law (and I swore an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and the case law which defines it) so I believe that all Amendments are subject to exception as per the Supreme Court and our Constitution even though I may not always agree with those decisions. I am pro-choice (freedom, liberty and privacy) pro freedom of religion, so long as one doesn’t impose religion on others through secular law, and pro-green energy. I could go on but I think you get the point.

However, where we personally stand on the chart and how that matches up with our personal policy preferences is nowhere near as important as where the major parties fall, in particular the Democratic Party, in proximity to where its base’s ideology is located. In short, a good portion of people who identify with being “liberal” are generally far more liberal in their ideology and policy preferences than the Democratic party and the president.

In order to test my theory, I conducted a short survey on my page, Politically Preposterous. I posted a picture of my own Political Compass test results (click on the chart at the top of this article for a good view), and asked fans to post the numerical results from their tests in the comments. The result? My theory proved to be correct. I’ll explain. The president’s current (as of 2012) ideology is marked at approximately +6 on the economic scale and +6 on the social scale. This obamasmilemeans that the president is to the right economically and to the north end of the authoritarian scale. To give you some perspective, Mitt Romney’s 2012 ideology stands at approximately +7 on the economic scale and +7 on the social scale (which also tends to prove that despite the parties’ differences on many issues, they are in fact closer in ideology than many “liberals” and “conservatives” may like to admit). On the contrary, when I averaged together the results I received from my sample group, I found that the mean economic ideology score was -4.15 (median, -6.12; mode -6.12) and the mean social ideology score was -4.68 (median 4.54; mode Ø ).

In layman’s terms, people who identify as “liberal” are far more “liberal” than the president, in terms of political ideology. Furthermore, while the “liberal” base’s ideology generally remains far to the left (in the green box) of the president’s ideology (which falls in the blue box), what is more concerning is that the president’s ideology has actually shifted to the right since 2008, where he was scored at +2.5 on the economic scale and +3 on the social scale. In addition, while I acknowledge my experiment’s sample size was very small (only 25 people), it consisted largely of people that generally identify as “liberal” (although a few “independents” and “conservatives” did participate) and would be much better suited for a larger group. Still. it’s clear that there is a distinct and obvious disconnect between the ideology of the president and the average ideological score of the people who allegedly make up his base.

In closing, while there is some room between the ideologies of the president and the party that claims to represent the left, and the ideologies of the leadership and party that claims to represent the right, the truth is most people who are registered as Democrats tend to be more economically and socially liberal than the people who represent them. Also, while I didn’t test my theory among people who generally identify as “conservative” I posit that the same is true on the right (although I also tend to think the gap between different types of conservatism is larger than the gap between different types of liberalism). Curious to see where you stand in relation to how you self identify and the party you usually vote for? Take the test! You might just be very surprised.

Ilyssa Fuchs

Ilyssa Fuchs is an attorney, freelance writer, and activist from New York City, who holds both a juris doctor and a political science degree. She is the founder of the popular Facebook page Politically Preposterous and a blog of the same name. Follow Ilyssa on Twitter @IlyssaFuchs, and be sure to check out her archives on Forward Progressives as well!


Facebook comments

  • As a UK citizen, who has lived in the states for a few years and is married to an American, these results come as no surprise. In England, we see the current president as a right wing politician compared to the social left of this country and others in Europe.

  • randy richardson

    Even if the president is a liberal Democrat, he is the president of all the people. His policies will surely reflect this reality.

  • dianegordon

    Obama didn’t take the test himself, so it’s not really valid. I wouldn’t want somebody taking it for me. (btw, my little red dot is more or less at the same place as yours, LOL!)

    • I Once Was Andrew

      The answers are based on his stated policy positions. But it would be sweet if he would take the test.

  • Joy Bush

    My husband and I scored the same, -7, -7.
    He voted for Obama both times. I voted for him in 2008 but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein.
    Its sad that us liberals/progressives have nobody to represent us!

  • I think tests like this are deliberately deceptive in how they word questions and are really unreliable as indicators of a persons political ideology.

  • me

    Obama is right wing America in a sheep costume

  • Firecat

    I checked the political parties and candidates of the US, Canada, the UK and various countries in Europe, the vast majority of those little red dots show up in the upper right blue corner. When checking the various states, VT being the most liberal, the ALL – including VT – are in that blue area.

    But here is the interesting part: In all but a small few people, of the comments on various sites – including this one – we almost all score in the bottom left green box.

    So, the governments are all some degree of authoritarian right, but most of the people are libertarian left? Does this make sense to anyone?

    By the way, my scores were: -7.25, -5.69

    • WhiteRoses

      Yes, it makes perfect sense. What this means is that those governments don’t really represent the interests or political values of the people who have posted their politicalcompass results. More broadly, however, it can be said that these governments don’t represent the interests and political values of the people they govern. For example, take a look at the academic paper by Gillens and Page which clearly indicates that the US government almost always adopts policy positions of the oligarchic capitalist class. In essence, the United States is most accurately described as a capitalist dictatorship.