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What If We Visualized Political Positions In 3-D, Instead Of “Left” And “Right”?

A New York Times columnist calls for visualizations–and rhetoric–that go beyond one-dimensional thinking.

What If We Visualized Political Positions In 3-D, Instead Of “Left” And “Right”?

U.S. politics, people like to say, has never been so divisive, so full of black-and-white thinking, as it is right now. That may just be historical myopia talking, but describing politicians’ views in one dimension–left to right–feels a little inadequate. (Well, maybe not during primary season, when candidates morph into ridiculous cartoon versions of themselves to shore up their base.) In any case, this is the 21st century. Why settle for this left-right business when we can visualize our potential leaders’ positions in three dimensions?

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As John Perry writes in The New York Times, “cognitively, we can handle three dimensions pretty easily.” And it’s a common lament among voters–at least in previous presidential contests–that “all the candidates seem the same.” But what if the differences between Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich were directly perceivable because of their positions in 3-D space? Perry suggests that the X-axis be used for charting “a candidate’s opinion about the appropriate level of government involvement in ownership and regulation of the means of production, and the distribution of goods and money.” (How capitalist or socialist they are, in other words.) “Commitment to the Bill of Rights” would be mapped to the Y-axis, and foreign policy to the Z-axis (with “isolationist” receding backwards and “interventionist” extruding forwards–a nice touch).

Leif Parsons/New York Times

Like a 3-D version of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, you could quickly and intuitively grasp “where” a candidate stood in relation to his or her opponents. You could visualize a blob of space that your ideal candidate would inhabit, and then track how close or far the actual candidates veered from it during their campaigns. There could even be an obvious “neutral zone” that the primary candidate in either party would inevitably tack toward in order to scoop up swing voters.

Of course, a simple left-right dichotomy is much easier to evoke in stump speeches than an eight-part abstract cubespace. A 3-D political spectrum would be of more use to people like Perry’s colleague Nate Silver than the candidates themselves. Hey, that guy’s got an R&D lab in the building–why not mock up some augmented reality smartphone apps and see where our politicians stand, hologram-style?

[Read more at The New York Times. Top image by Theo Malings/Shutterstock]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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