Political Spectrum: In today’s politics, how do we even define left, right, and center?

We often hear of the disappearance of the center of politics, of polarization, of the inability and unwillingness to compromise. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It’s a common metaphor to think of political opinions as a line that runs from left to right. However, this approach makes it difficult to understand how people like Stalin or Mao ended up in the same category of murderous dictators as Hitler. To solve this mystery, we can change a linear representation to a circular one, in which case Stalin and Hitler meet right at the top of the circle; they just come there from different sides. But while a circle model makes it easier to understand extremes, it still doesn’t help much with mainstream politics.

Surprisingly, left and right are not so easy to distinguish, at least if we focus on American politics. Democrats are generally considered leftist because of their advocacy for more government control and more personal freedom. This seems like a contradiction because more government control inevitably means less personal freedom, but this contradiction can be partially resolved if we understand that in reality Democrats are specifically advocating for more social freedom and more economic control of government.

Republicans are considered right based on their plea for less government control and, ironically, also for more personal freedom. Let’s clarify that too: Republicans are actually talking about more economic rather than social personal freedom, where they say the government should be involved in what people do even at home (smoking marijuana, for example).

What else? Republicans apparently support authority and order, but for all intents and purposes, so do Democrats since government embodies both of those things. Democrats, on the other hand, support helping others, but so do Republicans, who donate heavily to charities. Democrats are thought to love change and progress, while Republicans cling to preserving the past. But these are too subjective (what is progress? is change always good?) to serve as a reliable indicator.

And the center?

With little success with left and right, we can try to define the center in politics. Dictionaries describe it as “

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