The political taxonomy in American thought has been increasingly confused in describing where on the ideological spectrum lie the many actors, voters, policies and ideas. For instance, the division between liberal and conservative is perversely contradictory, with the “liberals” — who with such enthusiasm sent paeans to the regimes of Mao and of Stalin — are still in favor of coercion in pursuit of their goals, and the “conservatives” embracing the ideas of what originally in Britain called liberalism. To an Englishman, by contrast, the word “conservative” evokes an Oxbridge-accented upperclassman with a penchant for the High Church and riding to hounds.

A proposed two-dimensional grid that divides political affiliation by the axes of social policy ranging from authoritarian to permissive and fiscal policy from laissez-faire to centrally planned is a first step in rationalizing our perceptions of the Left and Right — these terms themselves being rather careless borrowings from British politics of the 19th century — but it does not go far enough. For one, we require axes also for the continuum of thought on property rights — from strong to redistrbutive, as well as for views on immigration and immigrant integration — an area where there are some interesting conflicts inside the firmaments of the political movements, and not least the axes the ranges from centralist to democratic, religious to freethinking, and ideological to pragmatic. More importantly — and this may in fact capture the essence of the difference — there needs to be an axis for the continuum from individualist to collectivist.

In the end, also there must be a continuum defined between a realist and an idealist view of human affairs — one taking human beings as they are, and the other placing faith in a fervent hope that our species could be turned into something that is devoutly to be wish’d. These are the key distinctions that make the crux of the political dichotomy, the polarities of which are as compatible as those of a magnet.