The 2016 Election and Political Spectrums

As politics wonks watch the drama-filled 2016 election unfold, with often cartoonish characters and question marks of whether candidates defeated in the primary season have embraced enthusiastically enough the winners, a question seems to keep coming up – are warnings that Bernie Sander’s supporters might flock to Donald Trump valid?

At the heart of this question is the conception of political spectrums.  Specifically, political spectrums, especially in the United States, are seen as linear: there is a center, with Democrats at the left, and Republicans at the right, and both sides having an extreme.  One might characterize Hillary Clinton as in the “Left” or somewhere between the “Left” and “Center” boxes, but Bernie Sanders is somewhere in the “Extreme” or between the “Extreme” and “Left” boxes.  On the other end, Donald Trump is hard to pin down, but let’s say he’s somewhere in between the “Right” and “Extreme” boxes.  Under this conception, the specific policies matter a little for placement on the spectrum, but, if you are just trying to categorize in “Left” versus “Right,” they don’t matter that much.  Additionally, under this conception, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could not be much farther apart, hence the head scratching.linear_spectrum

This conception of a political spectrum, while simple and easy to understand, is not the most accurate, and having prominent candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the race have rendered this simplification inadequate.  A better conception is a circle.  Under the circle model, policies matter more.  While Clinton might still be somewhere around 10 or 11 o’clock in a circle, Sanders and Trump are more in the 7 o’clock or 5 o’clock area, respectively.  To see why this is more accurate, consider the policies. Both Trump and Sanders argue that Washington and the current political establishment is fundamentally broken, and, in their most extreme moments, should be completely scrapped and we start anew.  The way they arrive at this conclusion is very different – Sanders’ emphasis on Super PACs and big money versus Trump’s emphasis on “political correctness” – but the conclusion is more similar than maybe either candidate would like to admit.  Under the circle conception, Sanders and Trump are actually much closer on the spectrum than Sanders and Clinton, and the question of where Sanders’ supporters will flow makes more sense.


I am not the first person to bring up the idea that political spectrums are more circular than linear, but, given the circle’s superior utility in the current political atmosphere, revisiting that point is vastly more helpful for us political wonks.



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