Content objective:

There aren’t just two political philosophies (e.g. left and right.) Instead, there are a wide variety of ideas on how to organize society and the economy.
If people only had one concern then one could map ideas onto a one dimensional axis (e.g. left-vs-right political spectrum.)
But when people have more than one concern then by definition one needs more than one axis to display possible points of view.

Vocabulary words

Tier II: compare, analyze, differentiate, clarify 

Tier III: anarchist, authoritarian, axis, axes, horseshoe, capitalist, communist, conservative, fascist, feudalism, Laissez-faire, liberal, libertarian, Maoist, Marxist, monarchist, nationalism, oligarchy, progressive, political party, political spectrum, socialist, statist, theocracy, theocratic, 

Building on what we already know

[Use probing questions. Discover what students already know about political parties and ways to represent/classify them. Be on the lookout for misconceptions, urban myths. They should have some knowledge from earlier in the school year as well as from previous grades.]


Many people acts as if there are only two types of political choices. Yet even within America’s two-party system there is diversity of views. The one-dimensional (left-right) model doesn’t convey the actual diversity of views.

An informed electorate makes better decisions, so teachers could show students the actual diversity of possible political positions. Let’s take a look at several different political spectrums:

One-dimensional spectrum

The simplest is the left–right spectrum. Here, Marxism/communism are shown to the far left, American-style liberalism and conservatism are closer to the center region, and Fascism is shown on the far right.

political-spectrum 1D axis

Below is another way to show this one-dimensional chart.

But note problems: For example, anarcho-communism is on the far left while anarcho-capitalism is on the far right.  Those positions are actually more similar to each other than either is to liberal or conservative politics. Clearly a one-dimensional way of thinking is lacking.


The horseshoe or circular representations

Many historians have noted that societies on the far-right and far-left often end up very similar. Fascist and Marxist/Communist societies end up having many similarities in terms of how the average person experiences life.

Historians call this the horseshoe theory, or the circular spectrum.


Political circle spectrum

Artist unknown.


These representations shows similarities that the straight one-dimensional axis can’t show.


Any one-dimensional system is still insufficient to show diversity of actual positions. We thus now move to two dimensional systems.


Two dimensional spectrums

In such models each axis represents a different concern.

For instance, one axis could represent how one thinks about the economy while another axis may represent concerns about individual freedoms, or about social issues.

The Nolan Chart was created by David Nolan, an American libertarian, in 1969. It’s strength is that it shows that we can’t reduce all political positions to a simple left-vs-right paradigm. Understanding this alone is eye-opening and worthy.

The weakness of the Nolan Chart is that it was designed to promote Libertarianism as the only system which would allow full freedom for individuals.

Libertarians have definitions of “freedom” that are different than the definitions of this word used by moderate conservatives, liberals, or leftists.

In his book Eight Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at the Left and the Right, Brian Patrick Mitchell gives three reasons for the perception that the chart has a libertarian bias. First, the chart shows no division between the personal and the economic. Second, personal freedoms are defined from different perspectives by the right and the left. Third, “the chart is based on a Libertarian definition of freedom not accepted by most Liberals”. [Wikipedia]

Here is another possible two-dimensional representation. This more clearly shows how Libertarianism is different from either liberalism, conservatism, or statism.

Nolan chart political 2D

The Pournelle chart was developed by Jerry Pournelle in 1963. It has a two-dimensional coordinate system. It is similar to the Nolan Chart but the axes are different.

Pournelle chart Political

2D spectrums reveal something quite remarkable: most American liberals and conservatives have been relatively close to each other, compared to the possible other positions.

For example, rhetoric aside, the politics of Ronald Reagan (R) and Bill Clinton (D) are almost the same when compared to the more extreme systems we see in the corners of these quadrants.


authoritarian-vs Libertarian Left vs Right Political Axes

This next chart is one of my favorites. It shows four different tendencies, as perimeters of a square.  Groups, with images of popular leaders, are shown in which direction the group leans towards.

The graph, like all graphs, has to make some assumptions as starting point (otherwise the axis has no meaning.). Can you see the hidden assumptions in this graph? (Answer below the image.)

Political belief spectrum Economic Personal Security

The assumptions of this graph isn’t really hidden: The geometry of the layout along with the labels explicitly shows what a supposedly ideal worldview has: The center, “centrist” view is equally concerned with people having economic security, economic liberty, personal liberty, and yet also group/national security.


Three dimensional spectrums

Three axis model of political ideologies

Image by Wikipedia user Julienre, Wikimedia.

The Vosem Cube, is based on the Nolan Chart and adds a third axis for corporate issues. It has eight discrete categories representing eight different political ideologies. Vosem is the Russian word for “eight

Vosem chart political axes

A New Political “Spectrum” (in 3D)

The author writes that this makes Sense Out of the American Domestic Political Landscape. Even writes:

Here the 3D domestic political “spectrum”*, which I drew and illustrated. It describes the political sphere as a cube — which is close enough, I’d say. In a two-party system, an incentive arises to make an alliance out of 4 of the 8 positions — none of the 4 being opposing corners…

Another benefit of this 3D model is that it can be construed to demonstrate how politics can be inherently unstable, even in a two-party system.

People choose a paradigm through which to see political struggle; and, if they vote at all, they find some significant camaraderie with at least one side on at least one spectrum. That leaves the very center of the cube quite depopulated. Political alliances form and break and swirl around the edges.

Three axis political spectrum cube GIF

Animation from A New Political “Spectrum” (in 3D) That Makes Sense Out of the American Domestic Political Landscape, by Even Aesphasian.

A New Political “Spectrum” (in 3D) That Makes Sense Out of the American Domestic Political Landscape

View at Medium.com

Political simulations/education/teaching

NationStates is a nation simulation game. Create a nation according to your political ideals and care for its people. Or deliberately oppress them. It’s up to you.

3D axes political chart Personal Economic Political


Distantly related articles:

How elections are impacted by a 100 million year old coastline


Learning Standards


United States Government and Politics Content Standards

Topic 4: Political parties, interest groups, media, and public policy. Supporting Question: What are the roles of political parties, interest groups, and media in influencing public policy?

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

Civic and Political Institutions

D2.Civ.1.6-8. Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, interest groups, and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts.

D2.Civ.1.9-12. Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of local, state, tribal, national, and international civic and political institutions.

D2.Civ.2.9-12. Analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system, with attention to various theories of democracy, changes in Americans’ participation over time, and alternative models from other countries, past and present.

C3 Framework Disciplinary Inquiry Matrix

Civics/Government -> Key Concepts -> Theories of political behavior, rationality, self-interest, political parties, power flow, government,… evidence (to make claims

New York State Social Studies Framework

12. G4 POLITICAL AND CIVIC PARTICIPATION: There are numerous avenues for engagement in the political process, from exercising the power of the vote to affiliating with political parties to engaging in other forms of civic participation. Citizens leverage both electoral and non-electoral means to participate  in the political process.

(12.G4d) The United States and New York have political party systems, and the political parties represent  specific political, economic, and social philosophies. Debate over the role and influence of political parties continues, although they play a significant role in United States elections and politics. The role of political parties and the platforms they represent varies among states in the United States.


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