Political Compass 2020: Way-Too-Early Edition

by Trevor Levin

Although its creator is a quasi-accelerationist hack, the Political Compass can be a very interesting tool. With an ever-expanding list of candidates potential and declared, I’ve struggled to keep track of which candidates are in which ideological sub-niches, and I decided it could be useful to place the front-runners (according to PredictIt) on its two axes, with left-right denoting economic views and top-bottom running from authoritarianism to libertarianism.

A few thoughts on the Political Compass before I get started: obviously, politics are much more than two dimensions. Its axes reflect the (very important) questions of “How much should the government intervene in the economy?” and “…in everything else?” But these fail to capture, for example, tactical radicalism (someone like Bill Weld might be in the bottom-right corner but would pursue constitutionally moderate reforms to nudge the country in that direction), debates on which appear to be a big issue for the left in 2020.

On the other hand, one could argue that two axes are too many. The left could make the case that the overall question is “how much authority should exist at all?,” with a more collectivist economy weakening the chains that landlords and bosses have on workers; this renders “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” essentially an oxymoron. On the other hand, libertarians might argue that a more collectivist economy necessarily means a more authoritarian society, and that even a civil libertarian semi-socialist like Bernie risks being counterproductive in the long term by increasing the government’s size and therefore capacity for surveillance and manipulation. (I myself am somewhat sympathetic to this view.)

But let’s bracket these concerns; the Political Compass does pretty well for describing ideologies within the bounds of American politics, even though its creator says almost all Anglophone politicians are actually in the top right, since the compass reflects the “whole spectrum of political opinion,” with the graph’s origin defined as the “timeless universal centre.” This is laughable. There is no objective range of political opinions that exists in the universe, waiting for us to discover it. The spectrum is necessarily relativistic. When making a chart of American politicians, therefore, I’ll make the bounds roughly those of the beliefs of the American voting public at a given time—say, late 2018.

I’ll add more people and move the dots around as the campaign progresses; I’ll shoot for adding three per month plus adjustments. But let’s start with PredictIt’s five most likely winners: Donald Trump, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris. (Note that PredictIt’s numbers add up to quite a bit more than 100%, and there’s probably a lot of “dumb money” in these markets.)

Donald Trump (29% on PredictIt): 5.5, 8.

After running on a health care platform of “taking care of everybody,” Trump signed a partial repeal of Obamacare and replaced it with nothing. He also signed a yuge tax cut for the wealthy. Yet the markets continue to shake at his tweeted belief that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” which moves him a few ticks to the left. On the authoritarian axis, he has encouraged police officers to rough up detainees, denounced the press as enemies of the people, and instituted family separation as a deterrent for migrants, amid other anti-immigrant policies. The judges he has nominated, all pre-approved by the Federalist Society, push him to the top right corner, as they shape American jurisprudence on affirmative action, gun control, union power, and criminal justice. He has also conducted foreign policy much less like the “dove” that Maureen Dowd called him in 2016 and more like the guy who vowed to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, though his abrupt decision to withdraw from Syria convinced me to move him down from 8.5 to 8.

Beto O’Rourke (14% on PredictIt): -1, -5.

The Texas congressman recently declined to answer whether he identified as a progressive. Many on Left Twitter criticized this as part of a larger pattern of O’Rourke trying to be anything to anyone, much like Obama in 2008: a crusading progressive to the left, a bipartisan technocrat to centrists. But the most accurate label for Beto, I think, is a center-liberal with a “streak of Mountain West libertarianism,” in the words of Conor Sen. His economic record, while far to the right of Bernie’s, is still interventionist enough for Ted Cruz to call him a socialist: he has advocated for a carbon tax and other environmental regulations, earning a 95% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, and he gets high marks from the AFL-CIO and AFSCME. But he has broken with Democrats on free trade, and while he says he supports a single-payer health system, he voted against the Medicare for All bills in the House. His points of emphasis, though, are social issues: he co-authored a book arguing to decriminalize marijuana, he campaigned on comprehensive reform in criminal justice and immigration, his video defending Colin Kaepernick went viral, and he regularly tweets in opposition to the border wall on humanitarian, environmental, and libertarian grounds. For me, the biggest questions on Beto, who has the shortest record of anyone on this list, are his foreign policy and climate policy. As those positions come out (if he runs, which looks likely), he may move on both dimensions.

Joe Biden (13.5% on PredictIt): -3, 0.

On one hand, the former Vice President’s record places him on the top right of the emerging 2020 Democratic candidates. As then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he supported the invasion of Iraq. Leading the Judiciary Committee, he refused to let Clarence Thomas’s other accusers testify in the Anita Hill hearing, for which he received a round of #MeToo scrutiny during the Kavanaugh hearings. He wrote the 1994 crime bill, which expanded the death penalty, and has since co-sponsored anti-drug laws. He amassed a mixed record on civil liberties and trade. On the other hand, he is certainly a liberal in the broader American context: he was barred from receiving communion for his pro-choice record; he supports teachers’ unions (and has a high AFL-CIO score) and opposes vouchers; he has supported cap-and-trade; he has proposed stricter gun control laws; he supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and he famously forced Obama’s hand on supporting same-sex marriage in 2012. In 2008, this record would have made him a mid-Democrat vertically and a bit left of the field’s center. While still in the party’s mainstream twelve years later, he will certainly mostly draw from its more conservative members. It’s hard to imagine him signing on to left-Democrat proposals like Medicare for All, a 13-figure Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, a national legalization of marijuana, or a broad reduction in America’s presence abroad.

Bernie Sanders (11.5% on PredictIt): -8, -5.5.

In 2016, Sanders helped thrust ideas like free college, single-payer health care, the $15 minimum wage, and an end to the War on Drugs into the Democratic mainstream, and he hasn’t stopped moving the party to the left. He was one of only a few national Democrats to call for abolishing ICE; he is developing a Green New Deal proposal; and he helped make Medicare for All a rallying cry. (Medicare for All and single-payer health care are not quite the same. The former is a variant of the latter.) And Sanders has responded to one of the most serious criticisms of his 2016 campaign, that he lacked a coherent foreign policy vision, by getting involved in those debates in the Senate. He sponsored the resolution to stop aiding Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and in a September 2017 speech described a “progressive foreign policy” based in internationalism, human rights, and reducing military and covert interventions. Bernie’s unapologetic civil libertarianism stands in contrast to Beto’s “bipartisan” appeals, but they land in a similar space vertically. As he has defended his left flank from other prospective candidates like Harris (and Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand…), he has remained one of the party’s biggest stars, but he has risked becoming a bridge too far for most Democrats, who remain non-socialists. In a crowded field, his distinctive personal brand of boldness and authenticity might get him some high-placing primary results. But if the field is too big, and the non-winner-take-all structure of the primaries results in a brokered convention, it’s hard to see Bernie emerging as a consensus candidate.

…which brings us to Kamala Harris (11% on PredictIt): -6, -3.5.

The first-term California senator’s big 2020 advantage — other than the double-edged sword of being a black woman in an increasingly female and nonwhite party but in an obviously sexist and racist country — is that she falls quite near the party’s ideological center of gravity. She supports decriminalizing marijuana and expunging those offenses; she avoided, through controversy, the death penalty while serving as a prosecutor. She attacked polluters as Attorney General. And, although she said the U.S. “cannot ignore” Assad’s crimes in Syria, she has criticized Trump’s isolationist and confrontational foreign policy from an internationalist perspective. She has taken the left side on the hot-button issues within the party, like Medicare for All and the $15 minimum wage, and she released a bold, if technocratic, Earned Income Tax Credit expansion that would probably lift millions out of poverty or near-poverty. In perhaps the best demonstration of her left-liberal tightrope walk, she said she wants a “complete overhaul of the agency, mission, culture, [and] operations” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but she disagrees with the Abolish ICE slogan, citing its law enforcement functions. I suppose a prosecutor is a prosecutor. In any case, it seems the economic agenda would come first in a Harris administration.

As I said before the compass, I’ll try to add a few per month until the field is more definitively set. So check back here on The Short Loop as the exploratory committees start getting declared.

Follow Trevor on Twitter at @trevlevtweets.