Rescuing the American political grid from the unapologetic Nolan Chart

Lexicon | Politics
Draw two axes of American politics– social issues and economic issues. Along each axis, consider how much individual liberty . Do you want to extend civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights? Climb up the left. Loosen regulations? Climb up the right. Congratulations– you’ve come upon the “Nolan Chart”, which was devised by David Nolan, who first published it in 1971. But have you ever seen this in any political article intended for a general readership?

One would think, that in a stat-obsessed culture, we’d have some familiar representation in the political world. If watch baseball games every now and then, your bewilderment when an announcer drops a baseball factum– like how Derek Jeter gets killed on low inside pitches– lasts merely until the television screen throws up a graphic saying so. For political news you get no such aid. You often have to trust the conventional wisdom.

There is one website, On the Issues, which presents political charts for every national politician, as well as challengers. Most elected officials are familiarly placed in a horizontal band across the middle, going from left to right. Some exceptions are Ron Paul, a Republican Congressman from Texas, who appears in the libertarian top (Senators Hagel, R-NE, and Phil Gramm, R-TX also toe the line) Near the bottom of the moderate center are the socially conservative Democrats Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and Evan Bayh of Indiana. Jesse Gordon, the site’s maintainer tells me that they were launched in 2000 as part of a larger site,, and they are now ramping up their efforts for the 2004 season. Here’s an example of one of their grids (I put the positions of both Kerry and Bush in the graphic– separately I’ve added the positions of the candidates and 18 Senators).

This is a good start, but there are still some fundamental flaws with the Nolan Chart which should be addressed first.


One reason the chart has not been widely used is that its creator hasn’t made a large effort to promote the chart as a objective measure, by, for example, researching ideological trends in this country and abroad. Instead, he went on to found the Libertarian party. The Nolan chart– along with Marshall Fritz’s 1987 “World’s Smallest Political Quiz”, is paraded on libertarian websites & publications as a magic totem for drawing out people’s inner libertarian.

There are a couple of reasons for this effect, mostly due to visual design. (whereas bias of the “WSPQ” is clear through its polarizing statements). Nolan started with a square grid and turned it to 45-degree turn, making it a diamond. This enabled him to place liberalism on the left, and conservatism on the right, an arbitrary positioning which has been used since the French Revolution. He figured that maximum liberty ought to be a higher goal, so he placed libertarianism at the top. The logo for the Advocates for Self Government overlays on the chart a sweeping arrow which points to the apex of the diamond. (You can see this in an article about David Nolan and the development of the chart.)

At the bottom of the chart rests the libertarianism’s antipode, where governance plays a more active role with the sacrifice of individual liberties. In the original paper, Nolan called it “Populism”. But in reading the definition of populism (“the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite”), it appears that he confused the “common people” with the “community”. While there has been a Populist party in American history, and there are several regional candidates who still identify with it today, there are no national politicians identified as populists, and nor is there any academic research in support of it. In fact, both major parties seem to have populist expressions– the Democrats find the privileged elite to be “the rich”, and Republicans likewise conjure up the “liberal Northeasterners”.

The use of the term “populist” has been replaced in many grids due to the efforts of another libertarian activist, Marshall Fritz (author of the aforementioned “quiz”), who revived the Nolan chart in the 1980’s. He wrote in The Fresno Bee in a 1988 article: “I’ve renamed the quadrant where Stalin, Hitler and Lyndon LaRouche would lie as ‘authoritarian.’ The word ‘populist’ doesn’t do justice to their policies.” This as absurd a character assassination as any. Granted, Fritz is not the only one to use the term. It is true that authoritarianism is the extreme condition of government control on this grid, but there’s a parallel in that anarchy is the extreme form of libertarianism. As a result, the damage is done, as additional websites & publications have gone on to tarnish this quadrant. Some have even felt that authoritarian is too soft, and that “the true opposite of libertarianism is totalitarianism.”


Actually, there is now an identifiable movement which can squarely anchor bottom quadrant of the grid: communitarianism. This term is a relatively new player to the political climate; it wasn’t until 1991 when the platform was formulated by George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni. Instead of forming a political party, Etzioni launched a quarterly journal, The Responsive Community, and The Communitarian Network. Etzioni also directs the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at GWU and has developed the ideas through several books. As libertarians want to limit governance, communitarians seek to retain or codify governance. From the 1991 platform: “A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect.”

Communitarianism did not need to become a political party, as it ended up influencing the “New Democrats” of Democratic Leadership Council, which has been chaired by Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and now Evan Bayh. In England it inspired Tony Blair, who architected the New Labour “Third Way” party in the 1990’s. Etzioni even felt that George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” would be a model of communitarianism. The compassionate conservatism never materialized; the only effort of the administration towards communitarianism has been the USA PATRIOT Act. Federal spending has also increased at a greater rate than during the Clinton administration.

Truth be told, the communitarianism quadrant would have the strangest bedfellows of all, comprising religionists who have differing, and sometimes, exclusive, moral visions (this may in fact be a good thing which inhibits the possibility of communitarian party in the U.S.) Remember the negative “authoritarian” label? Political journalist Jacob Weisberg used it (in his 1999 book In Defense of Government: The Rise and Fall of the Public Trust) to distinguish non-libertarian Republicans “who have no natural inclination to bother about the size of government”, and identified Ralph Reed, Bill Bennett, and Pat Buchanan as such. Reed has been published in the Communitarian Quarterly, and Bennett has been saluted by Etzioni for his moral evocations. (and has since qualified this to be the pre-gambling Bennett).

Whether Communitarianism the movement (big “C”), wants to be seen as the political antithesis of Libertarianism, is a separate essay and a question I will send to Etzioni.


Certainly Nolan was right in moving beyond a single spectrum. He was likely exposed to the idea during the Cold War that communism, on the far left, ought to be near fascism on the far-right. So they joined them in a ring, and then labelled that side “authoritarian”.

Wikipedia lists some other variations on multi-axis models of political spectrums. It somehow irresponsibly reports that the “Political Compass” is “the one most widely accepted by advocates of all political ideologies”. (Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia which allows anyone to contribute, which rather undercuts its credibility). It may be more accurate to say that the Political Compass is the most widely referenced— 34,000 pages by Google. Here’s the next problem: about 500 of them refer to a particular particular compass by Paul Ray, who puts at the top Progressives and “Cultural Creatives”. The one Wikipedia refers to is at, which has 1200 direct references (and perhaps many thousands who refer to it by name, but do not hyperlink to the original website). This effort is a complete sham: it doesn’t even reference Nolan, and for that matter, exists its own vacuum of reason, using statements like: “A diverse professional team has assessed the words and actions of globally known figures to give you an idea of how they relate to each other on the political compass.” This “diverse professional team” lumps 8 of the 10 2004 US Presidential contenders into the Authoritarian-right quadrant (the site is registered to one David Salgado of London).

There could be many dimensions, of course. A two dimensional grid is easiest to reproduce in print and easiest to understand. This is not to say that the two-dimensional grid tells the whole story. It does not easily account for foreign policy, which in the present U.S. could have two dimensions: are you isolationist or activist? Soft persuasion or military persuasion? (dollar diplomacy or gunboat diplomacy, in another era).

Wikipedia also mentions the Vosem chart, which adds a “corporate” dimension to the four quadrants (thus making eight, which in Russian, is “Vosem”. This has not been held up to any serious scrutiny. For one, it suggests that New Labour and Third Way politics are “pro-corporate” (see an article explaining the Vosem). No one seriously believes that “pro-corporate” is a core political ideology; it is primarily just a function of the number of corporate dollars which funds a candidate. This may really be a way of addressing the curious political phenomenon of “pseudo-libertarians” (identified Jacob Weisberg In Defense of Government), who talk big about libertarianism, but never really get around to cutting the government (e.g., the current Republican government), or embrace of the free market is fettered by an interest in protecting entrenched businesses (e.g., the Cato Institute’s position on the cable business).

Perhaps an underappreciated method of rating would score why a candidate voted a certain way. There are well-known factors: the input of constituents; the input of non-constituents; the input of the input of critical advisors (ie., campaign contributors); a candidate’s personal ideology; moral reasoning; pragmatism (ie., vote trading). All of these are valid reasons. Tracking them would be difficult and even more subjective than the conventional social/economic axes. Nonetheless, it would be a helpful way to measure a candidate’s integrity or pragmatism, and understand how their grid position was thus influenced.


Certainly, politics is still a fuzzy science which resists quantification. But as long as there are statistics used, they ought to be good, and their credibility ought to be strengthened. Here’s a list of prescriptions to make that happen:

  1. The Nolan Chart should be retired, and Selgado’s Political Compass should be exposed as a sham. Instead, a “common political grid” should be adopted, which places communitarianism across from libertarianism. While statisticians might prefer a square grid, which a diamond grid would neatly most U.S. politicians are in a horizontal Left-Right band (which would show up as a diagonal band on square grid). To avoid the pejorative Top-Bottom terms, compass points may be used instead.
  2. A site like On the Issues should drop references to the Nolan chart, and champion the common political grid. They should be adopted by an academic institution, a think tank, or a publishing group like National Journal (which biannually publishes the Almanac of American Politics)
  3. Academic researchers should seek to find patterns in the common political grid. One point that Jesse at On the Issues confirms is that politicians are more centrist than their voters. Though we may yet find that positions are drifting away from the center, as evidenced by the increasingly partisan house races (which Jeffrey Toobin reported in the New Yorker as a consequence of gerrymandered, outsized congressional districts.
  4. Political news publications should have the confidence to reference political profiles using the common political grid.
  • Read the Posting Guidelines
  • ViewPoints
  • Login/register to post
  • Response summary: 1 comments, 0 Viewpoints
    Escaping the Nolan Chart? RealisticVisionary May 30 ’04 8:40PM
    . I’m sticking with the term Jon Garfunkel May 31 ’04 8:54PM