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I, um, know a guy, 'Bob'.

  • Bob is in favor of social safety nets and LGBTQ rights (leftist).
  • Bob is also very pro-capitalism and in favor of gun rights (rightist).

We have terms in the political discourse like conservative, liberal, progressive, etc. The closest one to the above is, as far as I can tell, centrist.

The problem is that it doesn't really fit. While the aggregate of Bob's positions might "average out" to the middle, none of Bob's opinions on those issues are actually towards the center of the spectrum: Bob is pretty far to one end or the other. If Bob tells people that he's centrist, they are typically surprised later when Bob espouses strong viewpoints that are actually left/right positions on the subject in question.

This is difficult to explain to people when they ask, so is there an easy-to-grok term for this? I actually encounter people like Bob reasonably often.

To avoid any confusion, I'm not looking for a label that captures Bob's specific mix of positions as I am a label that connotes the idea of a mix of strong left and right of center opinions.

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    Assuming Bob is a real person, does Bob have reasons for holding these beliefs that are consistent, or does he just happen to hold them? Our ideas of "left and right" often come from the policy positions of opposed political parties, which reach those positions by trying to build a larger coalition instead of exercises in intellectual consistency. Bob could have a consistent ideology that allows him to hold these positions, so he may not actually be odd as he might seem. I might expand this into an answer... actually... – Joe Jun 12 at 14:22
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    I asked a similar question over on English.SE a while back: english.stackexchange.com/questions/292517/… – Pyritie Jun 13 at 10:00
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    I'd call these creatures "human beings". They seem to have the ability to hold opinions which do not fit into standard compartments. One meets them occasionally, it's confusing. – Torsten Schoeneberg Jun 15 at 2:12
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    Yes, there is a term for this kind of person: "a real person", as opposed to the caricature of a person that political parties often create to represent their idea of "typical members". – Lie Ryan Jun 15 at 9:26
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    I know a guy like Bob. He just doesn't talk to anyone about politics any more. – Bob says reinstate Monica Jun 15 at 11:54

11 Answers 11

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The phrase "politically homeless" has been used a lot in the UK lately for this kind of situation, since almost nobody is entirely happy with how either party has handled Brexit, and there are people arguing for it from left and right.

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    Brexit is a great example for me. I'm fiercly pro Democracy, perhaps too much so. I voted Remain in the Referendum and understood that if Remain wins, then we stay in the EU. No half-in half-out in-in-name-only. Just in. And if Leave wins, then we leave the EU. No half-in half-out out-in-name-only. Just out. So though I'm a Remainer, since We The People voted out, I fully and naturally expect us to leave with no deal. Perhaps I'm 'politically homeless' with regards to Brexit? – ouflak Jun 12 at 14:24
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    @ouflak it could certainly be argued that the UK has been half-in half-out of the EU for decades. Thought the Hard Remain petition did not get much support. – Jontia Jun 12 at 15:33
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    @pjc50, Dual citizen. Born American and lived there until my early thirties. Moved to the UK in my mid-thirties and lived there since. So I am one of the few who can be somewhat forgiven for stealing a phrase from the Declaration of Independence and applying it to a UK political situation! – ouflak Jun 12 at 16:00
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    @ouflak: Brexit suffers (among other things) from a basic disagreement on the definition of words. To me, "leave" is not the same as "drop it like a brick". Leaving without burning bridges (i.e. keeping open some form of channel) is within my definition of leaving; but apparently it isn't for you (I'm not arguing right or wrong, just pointing out a difference). When you don't even know what exactly is being discussed, I don't think confused people should therefore be labeled as "politically confused", because it's not them that caused the confusion. – Flater Jun 14 at 9:14
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    @ouflak: It seems strange to me that, in a poll with only two options (Remain and Leave), one of those options would necessarily have to be the most extreme version of that option. I'm sure that many people would prefer to leave the EU while still negotiating a treaty with the EU; how were such people expected to vote? – ruakh Jun 15 at 17:23
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I looked at your profile and saw that you're an American.

You are confused by Bob because you assume that the political positions held by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are directly analogous to what "Leftists" and "Rightists" should or do actually think. This is not the case. The parties in the United States effectively act as standing coalitions of broad swaths of people with different interests, and as a result adopt positions that don't actually make coherent sense when assessed for intellectual consistency.

Let's look at Bob's opinions in detail to illustrate this a bit.

Bob is in favor of social safety nets and LGBTQ rights (Leftist).

As a matter of pure ideology, there is no intellectual reason at all for LGBTQ rights to be considered leftist, or in any way related to social safety nets. Many leftist governments around the world are notorious for treating LGBTQ people poorly; the most prominent example I can think of is Cuba, which until recently used to imprison people for life if they had AIDS.

So why are they in the "leftist" coalition in the United States? The answer is because social conservatives interested in traditional marriage are in the Republican party (which is arbitrary and discussed later), and it's somewhat contradictory to have a party that favors the supremacy of traditional marriage and LGBTQ rights at the same time. So, the LGBTQ rights people end up in the Democratic party by default.

Bob is also very pro-capitalism and in favor of gun rights (Rightist).

What do gun rights have to do with capitalism? Like the other example, these are issues that are not directly related to each other; the United Kingdom is a country that is capitalist and has very prominent advocates for more capitalism rather than less, yet the idea of gun rights becoming a movement there seems like a long shot.

This association is another product of the two party system. During the Cold War, groups of people with different political interests found it mutually beneficial to form a political coalition, namely free-market types, social conservatives, and anti-communists. The resulting "fusion" became the conservatism that found a home in the Republican party and was its governing ideology until 2015 (or arguably as earlier). The main thing that held these people together was a commitment interpreting the constitution as a document that generally restricts government power (at least domestically), so, when the modern gun rights movement started taking off in response to the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Republican party just happened to be the natural place for people with these interests to go.

So... your confusion about Bob is really because you equate the hodge podge of political party positions, which are the product of coalition building and thus are not always consistent, with larger ideologies that tend to be normative and therefore should be consistent. But... you came here looking for help, asking a particular question; maybe now we can answer it:

This is difficult to explain to people when they ask, so is there an easy-to-grok term for this? I actually encounter people like Bob reasonably often.

This is hard to give an accurate answer to because we don't actually know how Bob arrived at his opinions, we just know they don't perfectly line up with the Democrats or the GOP. So I make the following recommendations:

  1. Ask Bob what he calls himself. If you are already talking to Bob about politics this much, it shouldn't be a rude question. Bob may have a specific identity that would explain his seemingly contradictory viewpoints as actually being the product of a consistent ideology you haven't heard of before, and he might be willing to share that with you (I'd bet if that's the case, he's probably a libertarian, but I wouldn't go around assuming that without more evidence).

  2. If Bob's opinions really are picked randomly, or if you do not find out how he arrived at them, I would describe him as "politically unaffiliated", "non-partisan", or, if it's not the name of a party in your state, "independent." That conveys that he's not really a Democrat or a Republican, but it doesn't make him sound like he has opinions in the mushy middle the way that "centrist" or "moderate" does.

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    Your frame challenge is not wrong, this confusion is very much an artifact of American political history. But the practical problem remains: Bob as an American frequently has conversations with other Americans (similar background assumptions/Overton Window) and when politics comes up Bob is a little lost as to how to communicate this information in a succinct way (see my conversation with outflak in the comments on the question). At any rate, +1 – Jared Smith Jun 12 at 16:23
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    @JaredSmith Even when politics comes up in conversations, I don't see why the lack of a label to describe oneself is a practical problem. Although I know of someone who would introduce himself with Hi, I am an anarchist, what are you?, most people don't do so. – gerrit Jun 13 at 8:54
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    Re: your recommendation (1) - how is the OP supposed to ask 'Bob' what he calls himself when the OP clearly is Bob ? – Mike Brockington Jun 13 at 11:11
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    I call myself Independent. I have pretty much the same beliefs as Bob. Which makes my home life miserable because both the Dems and Republican's 'claim me' and hit me up for money and support. – CGCampbell Jun 13 at 14:52
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    @gerrit The added bonus of not describing yourself or someone else up front with a label is that they have to actually listen to your argument and think about what you are saying. Too often the identity label is used to dismiss someone in an ad hominem way. "Oh, Bob's a Republican so he obviously must want to destroy social security and overturn Obergefell and we don't even need to consider that might not be true." "Oh, Bob's a Democrat, so obviously he obviously wants to go for socialism in our time and steal guns." "Oh, Bob's a Libertarian, so he's only interested in hookers and weed." etc. – Joe Jun 13 at 16:00
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I would refer to Bob as having heterodox views. For example, Anthony Kennedy has heterodox views that defy categorization along partisan ideological lines. Rand Paul is another example of someone with heterodox views. Sometimes his views are at the extreme edge of conservative and sometimes at the extreme edge of liberal, but they are rarely moderate.

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    The word "Heterodox" has some additional meaning in economics, which is often related to politics. Both Marxian and Austrian economics have been described as heterodox even though they're (somewhat) internally self-consistent and arguably diametrically opposed. – Joe Jun 12 at 18:12
  • Wouldn't heterodox imply that Bob is member of or at least close to some party? I.e. I can see a party member (or someone else of whom a particular line would be expeced) being described as heterodox (or unorthodox) if holding views that deviate from the "official line" of that party. But if Bob isn't member of any party, there's no orthodox from which their views deviate? – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 17 at 12:53
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In this case, Bob might reasonably identify as a moderate libertarian/classical liberal or Neoliberal. All of those positions fit within the classical liberal or libertarian mold rather nicely, except for the strong social safety net. But a strong social safety net isn't totally at odds with libertarian ideas. Noted libertarian thinker Charles Murry argued for a Universal Basic Income, calling it “our only hope to deal with a coming labor market unlike any in human history” and [saying] it “represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.”

A neoliberal is an umbrella term for pro-capitalism people who support western ideas concerning rights and think there are some reasonable cases for government intervention in the economy (such as social safety nets). The downside of neoliberal is that it has strong connotations on the left and right of a particular international-trade based order which Bob might not agree with. But neoliberal is not a universally negative term. For example, in this article economist Tyler Cowen praises the success of neoliberalism for economic growth:

Israel still has some problems ... but it is a classic case of neoliberalism — at least in the economic sphere — mostly working out as planned.

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    It's important to identify if this is an American or European use of the word Libertarian. The European notion is more closely aligned anarchism while the American use of the term is more closely aligned with Classical Liberalism and a Jefferson Democracy form of Minarchism. – hszmv Jun 12 at 14:55
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    This is probably my fault for not being clear enough. I chose Bob's views because I wanted to be concrete rather than speculative and Bob is an actual person The case for calling Bob's specific views neoliberal can certainly be made, but I'm looking more for a general description of someone who has strong views left and right of center. At any rate, +1 – Jared Smith Jun 12 at 16:05
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    In my experience, "neoliberal" is almost invariably a pejorative term used by hard-core socialists. I would recommend avoiding it. – Grault Jun 13 at 18:11
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    @Grault as someone who values capitalism, Bob probably won't have any issues being thought of negatively by hard-core socialists ;) – lazarusL Jun 13 at 21:37
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    @Grault I included an example of self-identification and positive use. – lazarusL Jun 21 at 17:51
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I think the term heterodox seems to answer the question's title. However, for the "Bob" example, I think Social Democrat or Social Capitalist describes his views. Block quotes to follow come from the wikipedia entry on Social Democracy.

Social Democracy
"Bob is in favor of social safety nets and LGBTQ rights"
Social safety nets are a key feature of Social Democracy. Curbing inequality and oppression is also a key feature. I will answer both of these using the same quote.

Modern social democracy is characterised by a commitment to policies aimed at curbing inequality, oppression of underprivileged groups and poverty, including support for universally accessible public services like care for the elderly, child care, education, health care and workers' compensation.

"Bob is also very pro-capitalism"
The existence of free markets (or mixed markets) is a feature of Social Democracy.

Social democracy is a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist mixed economy.

"and in favor of gun rights"
Most Social Democrats prefer some level of sensible gun control. However, Social Democracy doesn't directly take a position on gun control, except indirectly through its other principles; which support social freedoms on one hand, and support the protection of human life and a safe society on the other hand. I believe Social Democrats can have varied stances on gun control.

Social Capitalism
The government and economic system of Switzerland has sometimes been described as Social Capitalism. It is adjacent to Social Democracy on most principals. Compared to true Social Democracies, Switzerland has a freer market and lower tax rates. Switzerland's most noteworthy source of federal revenue comes in the form of 7.7% value-added tax. Switzerland has a good quality of life, and its social programs are non-negligible, but its social expenditures as % of GDP are lower than the United States, and comfortably lower than Nordic Social Democracies.

According to the wikipedia entry on LGBT rights by country, Switzerland's LGBT rights are on-par with the U.S.'s, but inferior to the very strong LGBT rights in Social Democracies like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Switzerland's population has a high level of gun enthusiasm, has a very high rate of gun ownership, practices extremely responsible gun ownership, and has moderate gun laws. Michael Kosta did a report on Switzerland's gun culture.

Conclusion
Social Democracy is a closer match on issues of social safety nets, LGBT rights, and perhaps some other social issues. Social Capitalism is a closer match on free markets and gun culture. These two systems are already very close together, so there is no extra term to call the middle of these, and Bob seems to be in the middle. I think the most inflexible distinctions are that Social Democracy has a more mixed market and higher taxes to fund more social programs, and Social Capitalism has a freer market and less tax revenue to spend on social programs.

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Bob is politically independent, as neither party, nor presumably any other major third party, accurately captures his beliefs.

Independent voters generally vote on issues, rather than parties. Most have a lean towards the party which shares most in common with their beliefs, but that is not required.

I'm a politically independent voter: I vote for whomever most aligns with my beliefs on the issues, and my beliefs don't necessarily align with either party: although personally I lean Democrat, there are major issues many Democrats support which I do not.

In my experience, it's usually enough for me to tell people "I'm a (left-leaning) independent" to get the point across. You could also put some other qualifiers depending on the issue at hand.

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It's called a third party and it's where most people belong; they just don't know it. People have been conditioned into thinking they belong to either extreme because having two extremes battle each other is entertaining.

People who actually want to solve problems realize that the solutions lie somewhere in between. A perfect example is the core question of government size. You can believe that the government is too big, but this is different than believing that less government is a magic bullet to every problem. Less government can lead to a free market, but it can also lead to monopolies. Finding the proper balance is the key to the third view.

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    It's also because - at least in the US - you have a de facto two party system where any vote for a third party is effectively wasted because said third party will never have any effective say in government at almost any level... And by voting for said third party instead of the least bad (from your perspective) of the two main options you've increased the possibility that the most bad (from your viewpoint) party gets the most votes. – Shadur Jun 13 at 8:37
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    This seems to imply that Bob's hodgepodge of ideologies are actually espoused by an existing political party, or at least a political candidate. I don't think you can claim Bob holds "third party" ideals unless he actually aligns with a third party, and there simply isn't one that represents every possible combination of beliefs. – Nuclear Wang Jun 13 at 13:06
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I tend to favor these positions (I'm not as in favor of the social safety net as it currently stands, but am looking for reforms to cut back on waste and abuse as well as some solutions that are more "teach a man to fish") and would describe myself as Moderate and politically am not aligned with an Party (Independent and a very good tract record there... I've never voted for the same political party twice for President in the 3 elections I have participated in, and may go for a fourth election of this in 2020).

And to address some criticism of any of these positions, neither of the four listed positions are opposed to each other. Neither of those four positions are opposed to their opposite political spectrum characteristics nor supported by the other issue on the same side. The problem is in a spirited debate on one issue tends to dove tail into an irrelevant issue that is not tenable. For example, the Scandinavian Model is often praised by Socialists in America as a working example of Socialism... which the even the leaders of those countries will respond with outrage at being considered "Socialists" as they are "Capitalists with a Safety Net". And there is nothing in a Gun Rights supporter's doctrine that says LGBT people don't have a need for self-defense. Hell, there's even a group that advocates for gun rights for LGBT people (they're called the Pink Pistols.).

I don't really like to identify on the left/right political spectrum as I think it's to regional for political identification. There are better terms to describe your political beliefs and most beliefs have a left and right component.

  • And indeed on the extremes there's very little difference between them. In the extreme both lead to anarchy and eventually a dictatorial government, it's just the rationale/excuses for establishing them that's different. – jwenting Jun 17 at 8:44
  • @Jwenting: This is known as Horseshoe theory: That the Left-Right Spectrum isn't a straight line but that the extremes will tend to curve towards each other from political center until they are parallels, rather than opposite ends. – hszmv Jun 17 at 13:11
  • I don't so much call it a horseshoe as a circle, in that in my view there's no difference at all in the end result. Moderates approach each other from both sides as do extremists, and find common ground. That's why it's so hard to distinguish the agendas of either just by looking at the end result rather than the motivations of why and how to arrive at that end result. – jwenting Jun 18 at 3:25
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While I don't know a term for a person who holds these views, there is a well established term for a political party who acts like this: Big tent

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    Can you somehow make that into an epithet? – JJ for Transparency and Monica Jun 13 at 13:20
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    @JJJ I guess you could say he's a "big tenter", but I think it's a bit clunky and does sound a little...lewd ;) – Crazymoomin Jun 13 at 13:22
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Bob holds issue specific positions. Your characterization, "Bob is pretty far to one end or the other," suggests that Bob might be an issue specific extremist (on at least some issues).

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From a European perspective, I would call this person a 'Centrist'. In Europe, governements are often defined as 'Centre-right' (Conservatives ruling support from Liberal parties and sometimes Greens) or 'Centre-left' (Social Democrats ruling with support from Liberal parties and sometimes Greens).

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