Discerning the ideologies of liberalism, socialism and conservatism

vote for a future

“Vote for a Future (38th/52)” by Alexandre Normand, September 28, 2008, from Flickr with Creative Commons license https://flic.kr/p/5pZg8F

What is your ideology?

Knowing where you stand can help you navigate the politically useful question: “Are you a liberal, socialist or conservative?” or are you a socialist in some ways and conservative in other ways? Also, it helps you as a voter discern whether a given political party is truly “liberal” “socialist” or “conservative” in its enduring approach, regardless of what it calls itself.

In order to be a rational political being making wise decisions in this world, we must first think critically about the names of political parties vs. political philosophies.

In Canada (and many other countries) political parties may label themselves “Liberal” or “Conservative” — or they get called “socialist” by people who use that word for praise or for blame.

BUT these labels are just organizations’ branding decisions, based on popular beliefs (and blurry conceptions) about those words currently mean, and the practical likelihood of getting a certain % of the vote in a certain region if they use that label.

A political party’s actual platforms and later decisions don’t always map neatly onto those labels …

Parties can radically change their political philosophy over time but still carry the same name they used to.

It can be very confusing for a voter when a party calling itself “conservative” is extremely liberal in its approach on an issue, and party calling itself “socialist” may take an extremely conservative approach on an issue, etc. So it helps to know how to discern if they the party calling itself liberal is “really” liberal at a fundamental level.

I think we all want to make wise decisions that lead to a more desirable future. But we can’t make wise decisions if our choices are the result of being sucked in by a verbal mind-trick and fuzzy thinking about political philosophy.

If you have a clear standard to judge where you personally stand on the POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY of liberalism, socialism and conservatism, you can make a better decision about which party or politician is likely to espouse your own general ideology in future behavior.

If you can take time to read before you vote or before you criticize or praise a policy decision, focus not on the surface of a party’s policies or promises: look at their JUSTIFICATIONS for their past actions and proposed future actions.

In rhetorical argumentation theory, an underlying justification is the “warrant” or “presumption” of an argument, often implied and not openly stated in everyday arguments, but necessary to make the argument hold together as convincing and/or logical.

Political philosophy helps answers the question “Why is this political action good or necessary?”

If you focus on warrants/justifications that politicians/parties give, it helps you see the enduring long-term assumptions, and not just worry about the effects of a specific policy you currently fear or desire.  It can give you a better sense of how leaders will weigh ever-changing factors as you or a given leader or political party make decisions and justify their decisions after they come into power.

As we all know, situations change quickly, and our knowledge of situations change, and that why so many election promises can’t be kept, and why we wouldn’t want all politicians to keep ALL their promises.

Naive people think that politicians always “lie” during campaigns, and that we must “hold them accountable” to all their election promises.  But that’s like saying “mommy lied when she said I could go to the party”! But what if your mommy found out, after promising you could go, that the party was organized by a person known for drug and sex abuse, and so mommy wisely revoked the promise and said “I change my mind. You shouldn’t go.” Looking back as an adult, you would likely respect her care and wisdom in deciding to revoke her promise, even if you don’t know what would have happened had you gone to the party.

Likewise, even the most ethical and honest politician knows they can’t foresee the future, and while convention forces them to speak confidently about the future, their promises should be interpreted as meaning “given what we know today about the situation, this is what I will do.”

Instead, hold a party and its leader accountable to its real underlying political philosophy, which likely won’t change quickly or get muddied … unless the party undergoes radical internal change, like a decision to merge with another party in order to win the next election.  But then you can discern if the merger is likely to be merely strategic & temporary, or is a true marriage of like minds.

When parties’ philosophies are truly muddy or mixed, don’t force them into a single mold:  See them as a mix between two philosophies that may be pragmatic and flexible. Or alternatively, discern that they lack an awareness of any consistent guiding principles and values across issues and you have no idea what they will really do if they get power.

According to political Philosopher James Alexander in “The Major Ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism and Conservatism” (Political Studies, 2015), the view of the “self” gives crucial clues about the distinguishing ideology underneath a party’s branding or what an individual thinks they are.

He has theorized a simple “litmus test” for discerning political ideology that is based on careful research into these philosophies.

It’s a long and scholarly article, so Here’s how philosophy blogger John Danaher summarizes Alexander’s points:

Liberalism = The view that social arrangements have to be made acceptable to the self (i.e. that the fundamental debt in society is owed to the self). This is often taken to entail that social arrangements need to be understood and consented to by the self. (para. 15)

Socialism = The view that the fundamental debt is owed to the self as constituted by society, i.e. that when justifying political orders you cannot assume a version of the self that is abstracted away from the society in which they are created. (para. 19)

Conservatism = The view that the fundamental debt is owed to the self as constituted by society and by the set of traditions and cultures that shaped that society, i.e. that when justifying political arrangements you cannot assume a version of the self that is abstracted away from social and historical factors. (para. 22)
What do we do if we want to discern a political ideology? Find out more about who they (and you) think “we” means.  To whom do we owe a debt when we make decisions?

Are we, ideally, free and autonomous beings? Are we, ideally, also social beings?  Or are we, ideally, social AND historical beings?  Based on your belief, your resulting decisions and justifications for them may be very different.

I don’t believe these are the only 3 philosophies that exist or the only 3 that matter, nor do I think “view of the self” is their only distinguishing factor.  However, it’s a good and simple starting place to think about something complex.  These are the positions and categories that tend to be most powerful in today’s democratic societies, and assumptions about “self” are profoundly influential in decision making.

Alexander’s full argument also has the benefit of considering the ideologies as they’ve developed since the early Enlightenment, not just the past decade, or just the past century.  Basic cultural ideologies endure for a very long time; their local and temporal manifestations may shift slightly but the ideas get passed on, echoed through the assumptions underlying parenting, entertainment, material culture, etc.

Alexander’s longer article outlines in greater detail the benefits and drawbacks and finer points to each of these views.  It also cautions against oversimplified stereotypes, like the idea that conservatives are against all change, or that only liberals believe in freedom, or socialists are necessarily Marxist or Communist. … not so.

After reading his article, I found myself largely a mixture between two of the philosophies, while placing most of my weight on one of them, despite its drawbacks.  I was surprised with reflection on my own stance. I didn’t think I was acting and judging by that political ideology, but now I see it.  I believe I have a better understanding of why certain policy justifications would make sense to me and why others seem illogical and/or immoral.

This is why, in various circumstances, an “ideologically Conservative” person might rationally choose to vote for a party called “Liberal,” or vice versa!

Don’t judge a person by who they voted for last year.  They may now regret that decision, or they may still stand by their reasons. Find out why they think certain political decisions are good or bad.  What is their view of the self and our collective duty to the self?  That’s a conversation that can lead to a deeper understanding of their underlying philosophy. And if their political philosophy consciously changes, it can result in a very radical change that could influence their decisions for the long term.

Werner’s Dictionary of Elocutionists, 1887, images

This post includes many biographies and advertisements for public speakers and experts in “elocution,” which, in the 19th century United States, was synonymous with the rhetorical arts of delivery: the use of the body and voice in communication. The images, text fonts, and language were rich and entertaining enough to be excerpted in this post as screenshots from the book itself.


Wilbor, E. M. (Ed.). (1887). Werner’s Directory of Elocutionists, Readers, Lecturers and Other Public Instructors and Entertainers. New York, NY: E.S. Werner.  Google-Books-ID: TF49AAAAYAAJ

Emma Dunning Banks, p. 272

This is the first of many images I’ve selected from this book. I found it worth emphasizing that the book included many female elocutionists. This woman looks very serious.

Continue reading

The sublime tale of Zenobia and Longinus


Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). (Austriacus, 2012, from Wikimedia Commons, in public domain)

In William Smith’s 1736 English translation of Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime, the translator gives us a history of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and the rhetorician Longinus’s role in her court.

I offer it here as an interesting example of the portrayal of women and men’s rhetoric in history.

Many elements of the story are taken from a late-Roman text called the Augustan History, and some from other sources. Some facts are disputable and fictional, while others have been confirmed, such as the presence of the philosopher Longinus at her court (See the Wikipedia article on Zenobia).

Regardless of its historical facticity, my interest here is in the story as retold by William Smith. It accompanied his translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime, a highly popular classical work of rhetorical criticism with numerous English translations and editions published during the British Enlightenment. The prominence of Longinus in English culture of the time would have given the tale a wider audience than if the story were published elsewhere.

The story portrays Zenobia as a queen and military general. The queen’s forces were loyal and defended her to the very end. Longinus the philosopher, critic, and rhetorician also played a role in Zenobia’s defense. As her teacher, advisor and communications assistant, he helped her write an eloquently defiant letter in reply to Aurelian’s demand and offer of clemency upon her surrender.

However, the story ends sadly for Zenobia and Longinus. Aurelian’s third and final attack, his siege on Palmyra, her capital city, was eventually successful. The queen and her advisor were both captured during their escape as they crossed the Euphrates river.

In Zenobia’s only indirect speech in self-defense to Aurelian, when she was condemned to death, she relied on an argument of feminine weakness to protect herself and shifted the blame to Longinus. Although this speech degrades Zenobia’s character, it plays a functional role of demonstrating how rhetoric, and the character of a rhetor, can shift according to the circumstances of their power in relation to their audience. Continue reading

Kenneth Burke on Rhetoric & Economics

Kenneth Burke wrote an essay in 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” affecting the United States at that time in history. What he says about the Gross National Product, inflation, and taxation enlighten us about the power of rhetoric in the hands of economists, legislators, accountants, and lawyers.

The term “Gross National Product” identifies our whole economic structure in sheerly monetary terms. Probably, in the next few years, you will see many indications that here, too, is an essential aspect of the Rhetorical Situation in which we find ourselves. The very profusion of sheerly monetary transactions will force us to realize the ways in which the identifying of an economy in monetary terms can be illusory. (The most obvious example is the fact that mere inflation shows up as a corresponding increase in the G.N.P.)

In the meantime, among the most influential rhetoricians of our world today are surely our experts in the manipulation of monetary terms.

Thus, accountants can show things at their worst, if it’s taxes you would avoid. Or they can show things at their best, if you would promote stock sales on the basis of reports listing profits present and prospective.

High among such masters of unsung eloquence are those legalists who, on behalf of their clients, deliberately add loopholes to tax laws, a form of inducement so quietly persuasive that invention of this sort is totally alien to the stylistic excesses of what was once caused Asiatic oratory. Indeed, it is couched in language as severe as a medical diagnosis or a laundry list; yet when the address is over, lo! an individual or even a corporation with earnings up into the millions need pay less taxes (if any!) than the lowliest of wage-earners.

But hold! Once we started to track down the foibles of legal corporations in their roles as “persons,” we’d find a whole new set of persuasive marvels opening up. So I desist.

Thus we see that an entire economic structure can be collapsed into an intellectual synechdoche and logical fallacy; that quiet yet powerful persuasion may inhere in tax laws devoid of stylistic excess; that legal corporations employ the language of personhood in ways that are not merely metaphorical. Clients and governments convince themselves of what is financially bad or good, better or worse, based on economic professionals’ selective use of data.

Thus over time and use of this rhetoric a society builds up forms of persuasion and intellectual shortcuts and facades. The situation expects or even encourages such rhetoric from its professional class.

The fact that such communication is now formulaic or obvious does not mean it lacks rhetorical intent, function, meaning and power. On the contrary, it has become even more powerful because of its invisibility and normalcy.

Kenneth Burke on “identification by innacuracy”

Alterezza (pride, arrogance)

“Alterezza” [or “pride,” by Ripa, Cesare], uploaded by October 20, 2016 by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad. With Creative Commons license at https://flic.kr/p/MWPKH3

A passage in Kenneth Burke’s 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” sheds light on self-persuasion that occurs when we use a tool or technology that gives us the illusion that we have greater power or agency as individuals than we really do. A similar logic operates on an economic and political level:

[….] to walk faster, or run faster, one works harder. Similarly, to drive faster on a bicycle, one works harder. But when I learned to drive a car, I suddenly found myself confronting a quite different realm of motives. For I needed but press down the gas pedal the slightest bit more, and the car would pick up terrific speed, with no more work on my part.

Here was a fantastic coefficient of power. And surely, I thought, here is a fundamental moral problem. It seemed to me that we, as individuals, are easily tempted to mistake these mechanical powers for our very own.

Give a man a few dollars to spend in a supermarket, and he might spontaneously feel superior to some primitive tribesman who could make a living in a wilderness, whereas under such primitive conditions this self-adulating idiot would purely and simply starve to death.

Such thoughts concern man’s identification with his machines in ways whereby he mistakes their powers for his, and loves himself accordingly.

There is also the kind of deceptive identification whereby an individual who may be personally modest and unassuming becomes deceptively aggrandized by thoughts of his citizenship in a powerful nation. [….]

For, only too often, such identification is but the failure to distinguish between one’s country and the decisions of certain politicians who happen to be in a position to get the nation into foreign embarrassments* that are by no means causes for rejoicing. Look more closely, and you see that the embarrassment* is not really the nation’s but that of certain officials whose interests are not necessarily identical with the nation’s interests.

Our identification with these two great unwieldy leviathans–technology and the state–is central to the rhetorical situation as we now confront it.

(pp. 269-270)

Burke’s insight into rhetorical situation shows that a situation is not merely geographical, and not merely based on the target audience’s ideological assumptions, but is also based on technological and economic circumstances that (falsely, illogically) attribute greater power or importance to the audience’s self-identity.

Ultimately a human is not “of one substance with” his or her machine, or money, or the decisions of their country’s head of state.  Yet a common person often identifies themselves with their technology, money, and country in ways that are taken for granted and unexamined.

The existence of these technological, economic, and political premises must be acknowledged as assumptions in many people’s experience. They can be used (or unethically misused) by a rhetor/speaker:  they are part of the “rhetorical situaton” of a speech, an advertisement, a tweet, a conversational statement, or an email.

However, it’s worthwhile to philosophically ponder this premise. How much of our own identity is falsely based on circumstances and technologies that we can’t attribute to our own agency?  To what degree is it rational to attribute to ourselves as individual citizens the historic virtues of an entire nation or the recent decisions of its leader? How often do we judge ourselves or others by the size of a bank account? How much of the amount we earn (i.e. hourly wage), is based on economic factors rather than the inherent social and physical value of our work?

*NOTE: Burke seems to be using the word “embarrass” not merely in the contemporary meaning of “A feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness” (Oxford Dictionary, ca. 2017) but in the older, slightly more intellectual meaning of “to perplex; to distress; to entangle” (Embarrass; Embarrassment, 1858). The term often meant a financial entanglement.