How the Culture War has ruined the political compass

Kristian Niemietz

June 10, 2021

If you waste half as much time as I do shouting at strangers on the internet about how wrong their political opinions are, you will have come across some version or other of the “political compass”. This is a graphical representation of the political spectrum, which goes beyond the one-dimensional Left-vs-Right dichotomy.

The original version, the so-called “Nolan Chart”, was first devised in the late 1960s. It consisted of a coordinate plot, on which one axis measures the extent to which you support economic freedom, and the other axis measures the extent to which you support freedom in the personal sphere.

If you score high on personal freedom, but low on economic freedom, you are considered “left-wing” or “progressive”. If you score high on economic freedom, but low on personal freedom, you are considered “right-wing” or “conservative”. If you score low on both, you are an “authoritarian”; if you score high on both, you are a libertarian, or a classical liberal. A liberal, then, is someone who is “left-wing on social issues, but right-wing on economic issues”.

That was, of course, always an oversimplification, and it was never supposed to be more than that. But for a long time – it worked. The proof was in the pudding. You could explain real political divisions and coalitions with this simple, two-dimensional framework.

When I first came across the political compass about twenty years ago, it felt like a revelation. Around that time, I frequently had political discussions with left-wingers and conservatives, in which I sided with the former on social issues (e.g. gay marriage, drugs, immigration, civil liberties), and then switched sides as soon as the discussion turned to economic issues (e.g. taxation, privatisation, welfare, trade). But I had no words to describe that outlook. Until I stumbled across the Nolan Chart. And suddenly, it all made sense.

In the meantime, however, the political compass has lost much of its explanatory power. What does it mean, in 2021, to be “left-wing on social issues”? What are the first things that come to mind? My guess is, you are probably thinking of “Cancel Culture”, of the “Great Awokening”, of statue-toppling, of “offence archaeology” (the habit of trawling through someone’s old tweets to see whether they made some tasteless joke in 2007, and then use it to try to get them fired), of no-platforming, of constantly looking for new ways of labelling perfectly harmless behaviours “problematic” (e.g. “cultural appropriation”, “microaggressions”).

Twenty years ago, I would have been perfectly happy with being described as “left-wing on social issues”. There is no way I would accept that label today.

We read a lot about “the liberal left”, but in 2021, this is a non-sensical term. There is no such thing as a “liberal left” anymore. Woke progressivism may not be inherently authoritarian: we could, in principle, imagine a woke progressivism that tries to lead by example and gentle persuasion, rather than hysterical denunciations and witch-hunts. But this is just not what we observe in practice. In practice, woke progressivism is inseparable from an aggressive, hyper-moralistic authoritarianism.

The Nolan Chart had a long shelf life. But it was ultimately still a product of its time. When David Nolan, its creator, talked about “the progressive Left”, he was thinking about the anti-authoritarian, permissive, libertine student radicals of his day. In those days (and for a long time after), it made perfect sense for a libertarian like Nolan to side with the Left on social issues. Attempting to impose one’s own moral values and lifestyle choices on other people was a typically right-wing thing.

When Guns’n’Roses dedicated the song Out Ta Get Me to “the people that tell you how to live, people that tell you how to dress, people that tell you how to talk, people that tell you what you can say and what you can’t say”, they did not have to specify who those people were. It was clear that they were referring to socially conservative, religious, Republican-voting right-wingers. I am not sure whether they still use that line at concerts, but I suspect not, because today, this reads like an almost perfect description of the woke Left.

Nolan observed that conservatives were more intolerant, and bossier, than progressives, and concluded that this was a feature of their respective ideologies: conservatism is about bossing people around, progressivism is a live-and-let-live philosophy. We now know that there was a more mundane reason: the conservatives of Nolan’s day were bossier than progressives, because they could. It is for the very same reason that today’s progressives are bossy and controlling: because they can. The boot is on the other foot now. As the conservative writer Ed West admits:

“[C]onservative appeals to be treated with leniency […] seem pretty hollow since we clearly didn’t treat the other side with such tolerance in the past. I’m sure if we could marginalise and stigmatise Left-wing views in the way ours are, we probably would. […]

[H]owever, it is the Left that is now dominant among the intelligentsia and the upper-middle class […]

Since the 1960s the West has gone through the biggest cultural shift in half a millennium, an epochal change similar […] to the Christian takeover of pagan Rome”.

Indeed. And trying to represent the resulting ideological constellations on a political map from the 1960s would be a bit like trying to install the Covid Test-And-Trace app on a Nokia phone from 1997.


Written by Kristian Niemietz

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


  1. In my experiences of political ‘debate’ both on social media platforms and in conversation with others, I have definitely found it much harder to pinpoint peoples’ political compass. As this article has accurately stated, the clearly defined views that were once very easy to define have become increasingly blurred, and the political compass that was once fit for purpose is now arguably useless. There has indeed been a major change in politics over the last few decades, this article is a great summary of this seismic shift in politics.

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