Part 1: Political parties, three-axes, and public transport – An Introduction

By David Levinson and David King.

As a gross over-simplification, the current rap is that Democrats like trains and Republicans like roads, Greens like bikes and Libertarians like tolls. No party stands up for buses, which are by far the most used transit mode.1

Transportation policy has become politically divisive, especially for local politics which have been less constrained by national parties in the past. Why should something as fundamental as infrastructure policy lead to such vitriol and moral superiority?

Roads (Republican) Rail (Democrat)  Don't Know (Independence),  Bikes (Green)
Roads (Republican)
Rail (Democrat)
Don’t Know (Independence),
Bikes (Green)

We need a good framework to start working through why advocates of a particular transport technology are so assured of their rightness. In the current environment, there is no room for reasoned critique of transit, roads, etc., or reasonable agreement that these things are important.

Maturity (peak travel) is one explanation. Transport policy has become ideological because there are not clear priorities for new investment for any mode, and spending on maintenance doesn’t make anyone happy, it just prevents future unhappiness.

Another plausible explanation is that as federal dollars have become more competitive (for all things) strict party loyalty is more important at the local level. This means that federal representation sets priorities for non-formula spending and if you want any money you best conform to that vision. As Republicans dominate rural areas and Democrats dominate cities, party loyalty helps determine what transport policies you favor.

 Three-axes Model

If you take a charitable view of the world of ideas, and politics,  you can adopt  the three-axes model of political beliefs popularized by Arnold Kling. People have internal value systems that array on three axes. For convenience we have mapped these to the three-point French Revolutionary slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

This idea is in the ether, [So we won’t take credit for originality]

Keith Wilson
04-08-2013, 05:51 PM
Perhaps it would be better, or at least less fractious, to get back to something like the subject of the original post?I propose another way of looking at it. Three civic values, all good things, but sometimes in conflict: liberty, equality, and community (probably a better translation than ‘fraternity’, which seems an unreliable cognate). One’s political ideology is a reflection of the relative weight one gives these three. Libertarians value liberty, and don’t care much if at all about the others. A traditional conservative might value community most highly; modern libertarian-influenced conservatives community and liberty, both value equality a distant third. A utopian socialist, or even a genuinely idealistic communist (rare breeds these days) would value equality much more highly than the others. An orthodox Catholic distributist would value community above all, with equality perhaps second.Personally, I think the trick is to try and maximize all three, or at least maintain a pretty good balance.


In brief:

  • Liberty is associated with Libertarianism, and privileges individual freedom.
  • Equality  is associated with modern American ‘liberalism’ and social justice, and thus the Democrats, and prioritizes fairness (with all that means).
  • Fraternity (or community), considers most important group loyalty, respect for order and hierarchy, and obedience to the social order, preservation of civilization, abhorrence of barbarism, and is associated with modern American ‘conservatism’ and thus Republicans.

There are important core-values associated with all of the axes, and society requires a tension between them to be successful.

Without social justice, (which is bad of itself), the out-group will not be loyal to the system.  If out-groups provide value (e.g. by increasing international trade), this is a major loss. Even without a clear racial out-group, people naturally form divisions over even trivial distinctions, as shown in the Robbers Cave Experiment.

Without any individual freedoms, (which is bad of itself), and rewards and responsibilities associated with personal action) there will be no innovation or progress.

Without any respect for order, there will be no stability or government or framework under which the others can operate.  There also needs to be defense against the outsider.

It is entirely reasonable to believe that society has moved too far on one axis and away from another.  It is entirely unreasonable to believe only one axis has value. Absolutism on any of these axes (as a core belief) is politically unsustainable. Pretended absolutism as a way of opening the  Overton window  may be, however, a logical strategic move, depending the degree to which people believe you are true to your beliefs.


Nevertheless, regardless of your political persuasion, everyone should like buses. Over the coming week, the rationale for the various political persuasions will be presented.

Political Parties, Three-Axes, And Public Transport

  1. Part 1: Introduction
  2. Part 2: Why Democrats Should Like Buses
  3. Part 3: Why Republicans Should Like Buses
  4. Part 4: Why Libertarians Should Like Buses
  5. Part 5: Why Greens Should Like Buses
  6. Part 6: Summary

1. [The Independence Party (in Minnesota) shown in the photo was an offshoot of Ross Perot’s Reform movement that was aligned with independent governor Jesse Ventura, and has been captured by some others in recent years. In practice, Ventura funded the first LRT line in the Twin Cities (thanks in large part to Representative Oberstar), but underfunded  maintenance of roads and bridges.]