Ideologies: Liberal and Conservative


An ideology is "a system of ideas and ideals forming the basis of an economic or political theory" (Concise Oxford Dictionary). Ideologies often unconsciously underlie our values or world view --- our conception of the world --- and influence our perception of public affairs in general, including public policy. Consider the entry on ideology in the Oxford World Encyclopedia:

"A political belief-system that both explains the world as it currently is and suggests how it should be changed. The term was given currency by Marx, who used it to describe the belief-systems of social classes, and especially that of the capitalist class or bourgeoisie. Some have sought to reserve the term for political outlooks that are seen as rigid and extreme in contrast to those that are more pragmatic and moderate. It seems better, however, to recognize the pervasiveness of ideology as the means by which people order their perceptions of the social world, whether or not they consciously subscribe to a political creed."

The term ideology was first coined by Napoleon Bonaparte to dismiss the critics of his regime who challenged Napoleon's attempts to consolidate his power. His critics, calling for democracy, were depicted as idealistic dreamers out of touch with the real world --- as defined by Napoleon. A telling public policy response to this criticism was the centralization of all education by the government and the publication of an official French dictionary that deprecated local dialects and issued subtle redefinitions of politically sensitive language. Ideologies tend to consolidate power and to undermine democracy.

Ideology offers simplified explanations for such complex and profound questions as:

We should be explicit about and critical of ideology, especially our own but also those that purport to rationalize public policy. Vested interests have a stake in shaping our beliefs and selectively presenting a partial and biased context for public policy, leaving us vulnerable to distorted rhetoric and to half-truths. The media itself is contested.

It is up to us as critical thinkers to make sense of the information, the context, and the missing pieces, knowing that the legitimacy of the policy process is at stake and that we are subject to intense but subtle persuasion, often by interests that lurk in the shadows. The antidote to ideology is epistemology and pragmatism, developing what I will call, following The Sociological Imagination of C. Wright Mills (1962), the policy imagination.

Of Liberals and Conservatives

Controversy obviously permeates public policy. A major divide in the public mind are two competing ideologies, liberal and conservative:

There are many other ideologies --- libertarianism, anarchism, feminism, deep ecology, Marxisms --- but conventional discussion about public policy usually contrasts only conservative and liberal constructions. This may pose a false dichotomy between binary, perhaps narrow and wrong, alternatives. This narrows thought and keeps it within an establishmentarian framework.

Ideology pivots on three categories:

  1. Our world view: our more or less integrated systems of belief that define our image of reality. Our world view is typically deeply held but often insufficiently examined: Does our world view comport with the world as we can study it? This is a question of ontology (what is) and epistemology (what we know and how we know it).

  2. Our values, the importance or worth that we attach to things, people, and events, typically informed by our world view. We can derive principles that define the desired scope and direction of change if we perceive discrepancies between the world as we desire it and the world that we apprehend. This then becomes a question of ethics.

  3. The process of social change that we prefer and how strongly we desire such change. The process includes the appropriate methods, strategies, tactics, practices, and policies that intend to achieve the results we desire. Public policy is located in this analytical category. This can be seen as a question of strategy. It rests on our world view and our values. We need to be smart and honest.

We inhabit a world in constant whirl. Social change has arguably never been as rapid as in our current era of globalization. The level of complexity has never been more daunting. The stakes are high, for us and for our children. What kind of world do we seek for generations to come? What are our responsibilities? Such questions require that we confront the question of ideology. We take this up in the second part of our course when we tackle sustainability.

Note that within this discussion, philosophical categories promote better policy: ontology, epistemology, critical thought, ethics, and also strategy. Just as we began, above, stating that ideas matter, we should acknowledge that thought matters even more.

What do you think?

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Initialized: May 22, 2001 | Last Update: May 28, 2014