The car took a turn up a windy road into the mountains. From the back seat I got that sinking feeling in my stomach knowing I was likely going to be sick. My boss, who happened to be very conservative, was in the driver seat with his wife in the passenger seat next to him. Then the question came, “So Jake, what are your feelings about women in power and administration?” — Definitely gonna be sick.

(Time out)

I grew up with a stubborn, very blue-Democrat mother in stubborn, very red-Republican Idaho. My father, much like his, built his relationships on trust and therefore never liked any politician. I’ve had to be pretty independent as a result. Being independent never really felt ok until I took a class on science and politics from John Wiley — National Academy member and former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin — when he said something along the lines of, “I’ve learned to be independent out of principle. Science is about studying Nature. Nature doesn’t know politics.” I’m likely independent for life.

(Back in the car)

I really liked my boss. But being afraid of where this was going I needed a way out — and the button on the window crank failed to launch an ejection seat. “Well, in engineering I haven’t really had many examples of women administrators.” Which was true. Only about 20% of engineering graduates are women and the drop out rate once women are in the field is tragically high. But I knew how to finish this, “The only real example of a women administrator I know is (the person who connected my boss and I, who he liked) and she’s great!” He agreed. “Look! A dear over there!” We’ll leave this at that.

What I’ve learned from my friends in both Democrat and Republican circles is that the majority of us can’t consistently define just about any political philosophy. We don’t have a shared understanding of how to contextualize political ideals (aside from red versus blue), let alone understand how they change. This makes objective discussions difficult. The current political atmosphere of low-empathy social media exchanges is only making this worse. To know the importance of understanding political ideologies, look no farther than the Jonestown tragedy. Psychopathic minister Jim Jones convinced 900 Americans to found an isolationist community of ostensibly socialist ideals in South America, only to tragically kill them in a mass suicide/murder. Real lives are lost by this political confusion.

If this theory of social thermodynamics is really as universally applicable as it’s turning out to be, then it can shed light on our political spectrum and hopefully help us understand when political movements emerge, and stick around. And, spoiler alert, if you think I’m going to advocate for your particular party relative to others, please…

Our political compass is (usually) broken

At the most fundamental level, politics is a dichotomy. You are either for or against something. Voting yes or no. Voting for one and not the other(s). Right or left. Blue or red. It’s no surprise that many political spectrums use individual versus collective values as a primary axis. But we all know that a simple dichotomy isn’t complex enough to describe all of the political idealogies. This is where things started to get complicated.

Many attempts to create a spectrum of political ideologies use a classic oppositional geometry of at least two dimensions, similar to a compass, hence the term ‘political compass’. The compass below was developed in 1969 by David Nolan, a politician and activist, who, (no surprise!) founded the Libertarian party in the US.

Nolan Chart — Commons

But even this is not complex enough to handle all of our values and even the most complex Nolan Charts find people jumping around based on issue. How can we use the compass to encompass even more values? Or, for that matter, make it a useful tool for cross-cultural comparison? In 2003, Political Scientist Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan applied the World Values Survey — a multinational survey of cultural values developed and applied annually by Sociologists since 1981 — to apply the political compass to nations.

Ingelhart values-based political compass.

What’s neat about this analysis is the geo-spatial groupings of cultures with similar value sets. Also, the connections to spiral v-Memes start becoming apparent with survival/tribal cultures in the bottom left, authoritarian/legalistic cultures in the middle, and performance/communitarian cultures at the top right. There is a lot to think about on this graph. So let’s take a minute. As countries in Africa continue to modernize, what direction do you think they will go? Up and to the right is a safe bet. The same is likely try for the countries up and to the right. The key problem with this graph is the axis labels and it’s ability to track world cultures into the unknown future. All of the spiral v-memes are orthogonal value sets — they are not opposing — they simply act in a totally different direction (90°) to the other value sets. This is why Beck and Cowan chose an open ended ‘spiral’ to geometrically represent v-Memes. It’s just too complicated to represent in a 2D graphic and have it stand the test of time as we continue to evolve. But to describe the Spiral or Ingelhart’s compass in casual dinner discussion? That’s a tall order. Let’s see how we can break it down.

The Spiral v-Meme Taxonomy of Politics

A word of caution before we begin, most political philosophies are too complicated to stereotype into a box or label and there are exceptions to each of these. Thermodynamics is inherently statistical. However, we can generally see how some of the dominate political movements correspond to spiral v-Memes:

  1. Survival: I’m not aware of a culture or system of governance that has been sustained over any period that is only concerned with survival.
  2. Tribal: Native American tribes are an excellent example. My local Nez Perce tribe would have a Chief, the role of the Chief was not to command the tribe, but to be the voice of the tribe. If the Chief started ordering tribe members around, they simply were no longer the Chief.
  3. Authoritarian: Fascism, feudalism, autocracy, and some forms of communist/socialism fall into this category if the members of the society follow primarily magical values without scientific or performance based evidence and are led by an authority figure consumed with absolute power and control. Communist/socialism, like the form advocated in the Jonestown tragedies, used egalitarian values, without supporting resources or evidence, to ensnare participants for consolidation of power and control.
  4. Legalistic/absolutistic: Federalism, democracy, legalism, Constitution party, unions, and to some degree libertarians. Political movements that use the rule of law and the judicial system to prevent authoritarian abuse. Using laws to create boundaries for the Liberty and freedom of individuals to work within. However, at the extreme this legalism can also become limitations to freedom and is subject to corruption and manipulation pressures.
  5. Performance: Capitalism, meritocracy, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians. Maximize performance based on evidence and data within a simple set of rules that have been mastered. Corporate lobbyists work to further the interests of performance based groups like businesses. Limitations are over-success leading to monopolies and resource depletion.
  6. Communitarian: Socialism, Marxist communism, environmentalists, and libertarians to a degree. Use long-term sustainability values to limit the size and resource depletion of business monopolies. Use the power of the collective to reduce economic and environmental strain on individuals. The key is having a successful business/resource stream and informed performance based individuals to support the community. Limitations are a lack of acceptance and empathy to non-communitarian ideological followers. Many Socialist movements do not have sufficient supporting performance drivers to sustain the movements and quickly digress to tribal/authoritarian behaviors.

The two-party dichotomy should allow Republicans to associate with the individual v-Memes (1,3,5) and Democrats to associate with collective v-Memes (2,4,6). In general this holds. The Republican and Democratic parties have flexibility to adjust the respective v-Meme stacks to the pressing needs of society. This allows allows for a natural individual versus collective shift that, in-part, explains the natural oscillation between parties. Where the US has run into problems is the ideological ‘conservative’ versus ‘progressive’ labels. This labeling falsely associates the scientific evidence-based individuals in society with the Democratic party and resulted in the Republican party villainizing academic ‘elites’. This results in a digression of v-Memes away from performance based on data and evidence on both sides of the individual versus collective dichotomy, which isn’t good for the future.

How Political Movements Emerge and Change

All of the v-Memes, and the associated political idealogies, are nested layers and form the foundation for emergent new layers. Emergence is something that spontaneous occurs when the conditions are right. It’s analogous to a phase change problem, and we’ll come back to this. For example, capitalism probably emerged naturally near Macedonia with the acceptance of laws for language, math, and money.

Let’s try a quick exercise. If you had to list the most socialist cities in the US, what’s the top 5 you would choose? Don’t try an internet search for this. People try to cursory classify socialist cities as those with the highest percentage of income tax. Given the complexity of the value stacks, it’s pretty clear why this one metric is insufficient. What did you come up with on your own? San Francisco? Seattle? Boulder? Madison? Boston? Regardless of geographic location, the common themes among each of these cities is a strong higher education presence that enabled a strong high-technology industry to emerge in the surrounding area. Madison has the second largest free zoo in the country (behind the national zoo in D.C.) for a reason — wealthy donors that love their community. It’s likely false that our higher education system imbues individuals with socialist values. It’s something that naturally emerges with the advent of new technologies, enabled by performance-based data and evidence, and resulting resources that flow into the region.

The spiral v-Memes were constructed deliberately to be open ended to handle whatever new value sets emerge into the future. Level 7, the Systemic level values all of the v-Memes in appropriate balance, commensurate with available resources, to enable this emergence. What this also says is one-size-fits-all approaches to our large and diverse country are likely non-optimal. The current national Health Care debate is a prime example. A single-payer system like Canada and in parts of Europe, is a socialist approach that would likely be quite welcomed and successful in the socialist regions of the US, however would likely seem alien to many less resourced areas.

The Health Care debate is a simple application of our model for phase change. I had a very conservative, life-long friend, suddenly advocate voting for democrats as a result of the debate. His wife and child have pre-existing conditions and would lose health care if the Republican versions of the bill passed. A negative change in Gibbs Energy (G2-G1) explains this shift:


His values (U1) risked dropping to a survival/familial v-Meme (U2), his stress (P1) went through the roof and he needed to bring it back down (P2), and hence he started looking for new ways (S2) and more resources (T2) to alleviate the problem.

The Take-Aways

Our political ideology spectrum is complicated and representative of our value spectrum. Broad labeling of people and individuals in non-empathic environments like social media over simplifies the problem and is making matters worse, fast. The progression of political mapping approaches points toward the spiral v-Meme approach as being both complicated enough while structured appropriately to handle most value problems in the past, present, and future. It shows that most political ideologies have a time and place, the problem we often face is understanding what, when, and how.

And, with any luck, the next time we’re stuck in a car having a philosophical conversation with our boss, we can have a good discussion about politics we’ll both learn something from.