Why Are We Listening to Political “Flat Earthers?”

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map_edit.jpgOne-dimensional left-right views of politics are no more accurate or useful to navigation than a map of the flat earth surrounded by angels.  The main purpose of common political labels is to claim “us vs. them” which is why simple labels are so often used.

Today, we use Einstein’s multi-dimensional physics to derive physical position in GPS systems but persist in the one-dimensional political classifications arising from the habitual seating choices of members of the French National Assembly of 1789.  Even then, observers noted a second dimension, front and back which denoted a degree of engagement with prevailing views on either side.

Estatesgeneral.jpgIn the French National Assembly of 1789; royalists and papists tended to cluster on the right; less religious, more liberal republicans and capitalists on the left.  The affinities reflected in this ancient choice of seats evolved over time but the terms and behavior spread to other legislative bodies and slowly into general conventions of political classification outside of France.   

The reality is that politics is profoundly multidimensional and relative.  Political interests cannot be located on a single two-dimensional plane of belief, let alone more narrowly along a single line of belief.  Additionally belief is itself only one factor in political outcomes.


arrows-w-words.pngInteracting factors of belief, coercive threats, and productive benefits determine political-economic outcomes
.  The factors are fungible at rates of exchange that are always in flux.  The “status quo” in political-economic systems is never static and often involves a combination of trends actually experienced as rapid change with highly uncertain outcomes.

Belief is certainly useful in understanding and guiding political action and alliances. Varying belief about matters of fact can be critical to inclinations toward particular action.  For instance history is full of calamitous decisions in war and commerce resulting from incorrect information.  If you think the world is flat you will behave accordingly. 

Belief also covers predispositions or values which influence the perception of fact and the political actions one chooses to take.  A belief in moderation favors a point between extremes. A belief in progress posits the achievement of specific goals over time.  Conservatism is an attitude or approach of caution, humility and limited commitment of resources.  Liberality is a philosophy of individual moral equality, justice, and freedom.  A radical advocates rapid and profound change.  A reactionary opposes change.  A revolutionary advocates the usually violent attempt by many people to end the rule of one government and start a new one.

Most commonly used labels are not mutually exclusiveA revolutionary can be a radical or reactionary depending on the nature of the government they seek to overthrow and can be a progressive and possibly a liberal but probably not a conservative or moderate. A liberal can be conservative, progressive, moderate, radical, reactionary or revolutionary depending on their circumstances of justice and freedom.  A conservative can believe almost anything philosophically but cannot be a radical or a strong reactionary and very rarely a revolutionary.  A progressive can believe almost anything philosophically and attitudinally, depending on what goals they seek to achieve although the word tends to connote moderation.  A moderate on one issue can be radical or reactionary along some other line of thought.

We are political animals and our amazing brains probably evolved to handle the complexity of social and political life.  That does not mean we need to depend only on our primitive political intuitions of friend or foe.  The individual and social disciplines of science and reason have allowed the human race to multiply and prosper spectacularly but also to endanger ourselves on a global scale.  In most realms of human life, we look to science for solutions to ancient problems like disease and starvation, and to the new problems created by applied science such as global warming and the threat of nuclear war. 

We need to practice better political science and move beyond the concept of the politically flat earth.  A new world of possibilities awaits!


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