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You're Going to Say These Don't Apply to You

A look at the five U.S. political ideologies

by James Leroy Wilson
December 6, 2000

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You're Going to Say These Don't Apply to You_James Leroy Wilson-A look at the five U.S. political ideologies There may be as many different ideologies as there are people, because no two people agree on absolutely everything. There are, however, five kinds of ideology in the United States. By kind, I mean ideologies that share similar goals, not specific policies. For example, the fascist and the monarchist would agree on little, but both are reactionary in that they want to re-establish something from the past, whether it be an age of national glory or an old regime. And Marxism and feminism are distinct ideologies, but both are radical in the goal to implement social equality. At the same time, people who have different kinds of ideology may agree on many of the same policies.

Of the five, perhaps the least relevant to American politics today is libertarianism. Discussing libertarianism is like discussing atheism. Like the atheist's negative proposition that God doesn't exist, the libertarian is convinced that government doesn't work, and would limit its role to the protection of the individual from violence and fraud. That means the individual is not protected from other kinds of social evil, such as destitution or discrimination, and the state would not regulate any private activity from drug use to corporate takeovers. There is less variety of opinion within libertarianism than with other kinds of ideologies; not only is it a kind of ideology, it is itself an ideology. With few shades of gray, it has a take-it-or-leave-it character to it.

Reactionary ideology, as mentioned above, seeks to restore something from the past to the nation's life. Reactionaries may (intentionally or not) distort history and rely on the power of myth, but they present a social vision that is seductive in both its condemnation of mediocrity and its call to restore greatness in individuals and nations. Distinction and inequality are not condemned, but prized. While the libertarian and conservative might tolerate or even praise inequality based on personal achievement, the reactionary stresses inequality based on sex, race, national origin, or religion as necessary and good. Reactionaries may embrace new means to achieve their goals. The totalitarian ideologies of 20th century fascism and Nazism were new to history, but in Italy and Germany they were means to restore the national glory of a previous golden age.

In this openness to changing or inventing institutions, reactionary ideologies differ from conservatism. Conservative ideology is based on allegience to the social institutions already in place and seeks to restore not the social conditions or national greatness of the past, but the original and eternal principles of those institutions. Conservatives are therefore open to social change, but only when the change comes through innovation and persuasion, not from usurpation of power. A conservative "revolution" comes only when those original principles are under attack. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book On Revolution that the American revolution sought to bring the colonies back to the state of self-government that they had previously known. A new regime, a new nation, may have been established, but only out of necessity to restore the original principle of self-government.

As conservatism emphasizes the stability of institutions, liberalism emphasizes the rights and needs of the individual. Every so-called hypocrisy or double standard charged at liberalism misses the point. Liberals will say one day that thus-and-so government program is morally required; the next day they will say that the government can't legislate morality. But in the liberal mind, there is no inconsistency. If the free market abuses and exploits working people, it must be regulated. If a local ordinance hurts people of a particular religion, the federal courts must overturn it. If a child is abused by his parents, the state must place that child in safer hands. If the people are dependent on a private monopoly to provide an essential commodity, the state must break it up. The state is morally obligated to regulate and redistribute, to protect against deprivation and discrimination and the abuses of privately-owned power structures. But when private behavior does not reasonably create opportunities for such abuse, liberals sound positively libertarian. Liberals are pro-government in order to protect the individual and are anti-government for the same reason.

Yet American liberalism in the latter 20th century, while often harshly critical of conservatives, took the existence of strong social instituions for granted. Most who advocated greater tolerance of minorities and justice for the worker did not oppose American institutions, but sought to improve them. The true liberal may have hated Joe McCarthy, but knew that Stalin was still a greater and more evil threat.

Which brings us to radicalism. Whereas reactionaries may revamp or destroy some institutions in order to restore something from the past, radicals repudiate the past. Radicals have contempt for social institutons, and seek to subvert them, re-define them out of meaningful existence, and use power to achieve social equality. As reactionaries thinks in terms of nation, conservatives of principle, and liberals of individuals, the radical thinks of "society." Society is made up of groups: economic class, gender, sexual orientation, racial, ethnic, and religious. As the wealthy always have disproportionate political power, and as radicals rarely have wealth, radicals seek instead to implement their agenda through the educational system, courts of law, and religion, while using the media and activist groups whenever possible to influence politics. If human nature can not itself be changed, individuals must at least be reconditioned under the right environment to embrace egalitarian values and condemn the old hierarchies and bonds - nation, church, family, and markets - that once preserved inequality.

The distinction between liberals and radicals, then, is not necessarily disagreements with policy - social justice is valued by both - but rather in means. Liberals still believe in due process, in respecting democratic will, in a measure of civility in public discourse. The radical doesn't care about any of those things. The dictates of universal justice (as they define it) are just too important; the stakes are too high. Liberals will still defend the "politically incorrect." Liberals will recognize that the invention of new "constitutional" rights by the federal judiciary can only go so far. Liberals will not participate in electoral fraud and they will concede elections they have lost; they refuse to win at all costs.

Liberals still have open minds. They may be the best allies conservatives have.

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