1.5 Ideologies: Not Just About Government, Let Alone Political Parties

Gregory Millard

You may have noticed that many of the ideas attributed to ideologies so far go well beyond the kinds of questions of government policy we might see discussed in our news feed. Political ideology generally takes a much broader approach to ‘politics’ than just the question of what governments should do (although it is usually interested in that too). Political ideologies harbour views on such sweeping matters as what form of economic organization is best; how genders should relate, and whether gender is a useful category at all; how human societies should deal with the natural world; and whether social change should be resisted, adopted only gradually, or embraced with revolutionary fervour. Ultimately, indeed, all important questions about social power can be dealt with under the banner of political ideology (e.g., Eagleton, 1991; Schumaker, 2008).

That said, most ideologies focus on a limited range of core concepts and build their vision around them. But none are constrained by a need to focus only on the actions of governments.

A final point. You may have noticed that political parties often use labels that align with the names given to political ideologies. Canada’s two largest national parties, the Liberal and Conservative parties, are great examples of this. This can lay a trap for the student of political ideology. We should not assume a tidy correlation between the beliefs and values expressed by a political party and those associated with a political ideology.

Think about it this way. Political parties are organizations that seek to contest and win elections. Doing this means advocating for principles and policies that appeal to large numbers of voters. And this in turn means a party may or may not align itself neatly with a given set of ideological principles at any given time. If ideological conservatism is not especially popular at a given moment, a Conservative Party may, therefore, find it convenient to deviate from conservative principles in order to get elected. And it would be a mistake to look at such a party for guidance as to what the ideology of conservatism means.

Of course, analysts cannot define “conservatism” (or any other ideology) without any reference to what people who call themselves conservative actually believe. As we saw above, ideologies are not static. They evolve over time, as the beliefs of real people change over generations. But the point here is that, at any given moment, we should not assume that any particular political party aligns perfectly – or at all, really – with any particular political ideology. The extent to which a party (or person) aligns with the descriptions of ideologies provided in this book should be seen as a matter for investigation, not a given.


Discussion Questions

  1. In section 1.3.1 Relating Ideologies, it is suggested that “for the extreme egalitarian, human beings should have equal rights under law, equal power and standing in the community, and approximately equal possessions (insofar as they have possessions at all, as opposed to everything being owned in common).” Which, if any, of these goals do you agree with? How close is our society to realizing the goal(s) you do agree with? What measures should we take to realize them?
  2. How confident are you that we can overturn our social, economic, and political structures and replace them with better ones? In other words: is radical change something to be feared, or something to be embraced?
  3. Do you subscribe to a political ideology? If so, what is it? If not, why not?


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