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

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.


Rhetorical criticism of “Cities, not rhetoric, making America great by embracing change”

This blog post engages in a case study — a rhetorical criticism — of an article that demonstrates widespread contemporary misuse and misunderstanding of the word “rhetoric” and why this misuse is culturally counterproductive and regressive.

Today I came across this article via my Google Alert for content using the key word “rhetoric”:

Dear authors, I respect your aims and goals, but I take issue with what your headline is implying and perpetuating about “rhetoric.” Arguably cities (not rhetoric) are the focus of your article, but the article makes its point by assuming that cities do not use “rhetoric.”

I would like to challenge this assumption with broader and more positive definitions of rhetoric that date back to ancient Greece and Rome and were commonly accepted throughout Western history and culture … until relatively recently.

I ask you, how could “Cities” WITHOUT the aid of any “rhetoric,” make any nation great by embracing change?

I argue that it is illogical to imagine that it is possible to accomplish anything great as a community or leader without the aid of rhetoric.

Likewise, it is illogical for activists or writers or leaders to blame “rhetoric” for our ills while using rhetoric to advocate positive change.

Background to my analysis

It has long puzzled and irked me to see the word “rhetoric” dragged through the mud in popular discourse. Only recently have I come to the conclusion that this discourse is not merely annoying to rhetoricians like myself who care about retaining our historical rhetorical traditions … it is broadly pernicious to society, and I should put my foot down and say so.

I have just written a blog post called Let’s not slander Rhetorica about how many journalistic headlines today put “rhetoric” in a bad light and why this is a disturbing trend.

In a nutshell, this denigration and narrowing of the word “rhetoric” is damaging to society because it blinds us to the existence and necessity of good rhetoric, hinders us from honoring good rhetoric for its wisdom, artistry and appropriateness to occasion, and makes it seem socially, politically and economically unimportant to teach people how to practice good rhetoric. Continue reading

Let’s not slander Rhetoric(a)


Rhetorica hovers as a young man receives rhetorical instruction in this late Renaissance image from the Netherlands.   Source: Cornelis Cort [1533-1578] nach Frans Floris: Die sieben Freien Künste: Rhetorica.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who sighs at all the abuse hurled at dame Rhetorica lately in the media. It’s downright slander and abuse of a beneficent art.

I am not complaining that there’s a lot of bad rhetoric going on in the world. Of course there always is, and perhaps there’s been a lot more bad rhetoric around us lately than there has been since World War II, and it’s driving more people to remark on how bad the bad rhetoric is.

I’m complaining that while this bad rhetoric is occurring, it’s counterproductive and wrongheaded to blame rhetoric itself and drag the art and use and NAME of rhetoric through the mud in headline after headline.

I have subscribed to a Google Alert for “rhetorical.” Today, September 3, here are some of the phrases used in headlines:

  • Nicolas Sarkozy’s absurd zero-sum rhetoric on Calais shows how quickly Europe is falling apart (Telegraph.co.uk)
  • After The Olympics, Women Should Earn More Considering The Sexist Rhetoric And Ignored Talent (Forbes)
  • The Clinton campaign’s slippery rhetoric on Trump’s ‘immigrant’ plans (Washington Post)
  • G20 to go long on rhetoric, short on economic policy: experts (Yahoo news)
  • EC spokesperson on “escalation of rhetoric” in Balkans (B92)

The negative contexts and adjectives surrounding the word “rhetoric” continually throw dirt on the reputation of this glorious art. Rhetoric can be zero-sum, sexist, slippery, and lack policy.

Can you find the word “rhetoric” used with positive adjectives?  You could pile up dozens more negative adjectives than positive ones by googling rhetoric today.

However, it’s even more troubling to see the naked word “rhetoric” used without any qualifying negative adjective, as if rhetoric alone was something essentially bad and ugly. The final example in the list above is one instance of slandering rhetoric itself, as if merely “escalating rhetoric” means escalating tension and disagreement toward violence.

Let’s stop slandering Rhetorica. Let’s renew her reputation, beauty, strength and glory. I believe we need her more than ever today.  Continue reading

Eloquence and Wisdom: Cicero’s preface to De Inventione, 1745

Cicero-wisdom2Is “eloquence” harmful, or beneficial, to states and individuals?

This was the question debated in the “preface” to Cicero’s work, De Inventione (On Invention) translated into English in 1745.

I’ve provided the 1745 translation in full, below, including the original spelling and grammar (with minor corrections).

» » » It has been a subject that I have often and much thought upon, whether eloquence in its highest perfection, has been the source of more good or mischief to men and to states.

» » » For when I consider our own misfortunes, and recollect the calamities of old in the greatest republicks, I am convinced that no small inconveniences have been introduced by men of the first eloquence.

­» » » But on the other hand, when history supplies my thoughts with transactions, which time has removed still farther from our memory; I find that many cities have been


constituted, many wars put an end to, and the firmest alliances and strictest friendships cemented, not only by reason and good sense, but more easily by eloquence.

» » » My own reason at last leads me to this determination, that wisdom without eloquence can be of little use to states; but eloquence without wisdom may frequently hurt them, and can never be of service to them.



Cicero: Blanton Art Museum, Austin TX. Posted to Flickr by Julian, May 12, 2006 and shared with Creative Commons license


» » » Wherefore if any one, regardless of the most upright and generous studies of reason and his duty, shall waste all his abilities in the practice of speaking; I call that man useless to himself, and pernicious to his community. 

» » » But he who arms himself with eloquence, with a view never to oppose his country’s good, but to be able to make a stand for it; seems to me to be a man most conducive to his own and the publick welfare, and a true friend to his country.

» » » For if we were to consider the source of what we call Eloquence, whether it be a study,


or an art, the effect of practice, or the gift of nature; we shall find, that it owes its original to the most exalted principles, and its improvement to the most rational pursuits.

» » » For there was a time when men, after the manner of the brute-kind, wandered at large about the fields, and sustained their lives by theiri prey upon wild beasts.

» » » The rational faculties had then no share in their actions, but the strength of the body chiefly administered to their wants.

» » » The duties of religion and humanity were not yet cultivated: none knew the happiness of lawful marriage: no father could look upon his children as his own; nor had yet experienced the advantages that proceed from equitable laws.

» » » Thus through error and ignorance, the will, (that blind and headstrong tyrant of the mind) abused the powers of the body (pernicious ministers!) to its own gratification.

» » » At which time some truly great and wise man discovered what materials and


qualifications, and how great, were latently planted in the mind of man for the noblest ends, if they could be struck out into light, and improved by precept.

» » » His superior genius collected them into one place, from their wandering way of life, and their wild habitations in the woods; and prompting them to whatever was useful and honourable, though at first refractory for want of use, yet soon charmed with still attention by his wisdom and eloquence, he broke their brutal fierceness into gentleness and humanity.

» » » And indeed to me it seems, that silent and speechless wisdom, could never have had the influence to make such a sudden reformation in mankind from their bad habits, and gain them over to the various duties of a rational life.

» » » But farther, after the constitution of cities, how could it be brought about, that men should cultivate the virtues of justice and truth, inure themselves to pay a willing obedience to others, so as not only to endure toils, but even death itself, for the publick good:

I say, how could all this be brought about, without the aid of persuasive eloquence to inculcate the discoveries of reason?

» » » None surely; who by his strength could do mighty things; unless won by solid and sweet persuasion, would, without the interposition of force, have subjected himself to the restraint of laws: put himself upon a level with those to whom his strength made him superior, and willingly forsaken his beloved passions, to which habit had almost given the force of nature.

» » » This was the rise, this the progress of eloquence, which afterwards had much to do in the conduct of the greatest affairs, to the singular advantage of mankind.

Cicero-Knavery» » » But when a sort of self-interest, under the mask of virtue, without any regard to what was right, attained the power of eloquence; then did knavery, supported by wit, begin to overturn cities, and corrupt the manners of mankind.

» » » Let us likewise explain the source of this mischievous effect, as we did of the other good one.


» » » It seems to be very probable, that there was a time when minors and men of low genius were not admitted to the publick affairs; nor did great and eloquent men interfere in private causes.

» » » But whilst the most important matters were conducted by the greatest men; others who did not want cunning, apply’d themselves to minuter controversies of private persons.

» » » In which controversies, falshood often prevailing against truth, the continual practice of speaking gave growth to impudence; so those great men were necessarily obliged, by the injuries of their fellow citizens, to resist these daring fellows, and every of them to take his respective friends into his protection.

» » » When therefore he, who regardless of wisdom made eloquence his only study, was often equal in speaking, sometimes superior, it happened, that in the opinion of the many, and his own conceit, he seemed a person worthy to govern the common-wealth.


» » » Hence it was, and not without reason, that when rash and audacious men were intrusted with the helm of government, great and miserable shipwreck ensued.

» » » By this means eloquence contracted so much hatred and envy, that the most ingenious men, made their retreat from this seditious and tumultuous way of life, to some quiet study, as it were out of a turbulent storm into a quiet haven.

» » » Whence afterwards, as I presume, other virtuous and generous arts being cultivated by great men in their retirements, shone forth; and eloquence being deserted by most, grew out of fashion, at a time when it ought to have been more strenuously retained, and more industriously improved.

» » » For by how much the more the rashness and boldness of fools and profligates, shamefully trampled upon this most honourable and virtuous art, to the great hurt of the community; so much the more strenuous, should have been the resistance and struggle for the publick-weal.


» » » Of which our own Cato was not insensible, nor Laelius, nor Africanus, who was indeed their disciple, nor the Gracchi, the grandsons of Africanus; men distinguished by the noblest virtues, and a dignity enlarged by the noblest virtues, with eloquence to adorn these advantages, and defend their country.

Cicero-study» » » Wherefore, in my opinion, it ought to be no discouragement to the study of eloquence, because it is perversely abused both in publick and private life; but rather a stronger inducement to the more vigorous prosecution of it, lest ill men should have it in their power to run their full lengths, to the great annoyance of the good, and the common ruin of all.

» » » Especially as this is the only art that concerns every part of life, both publick and private; by this life is render’d safe, by this honourable, by this illustrious, by this likewise it becomes pleasant.

» » » Hence, if wisdom the pilot of all events, be at hand to stear it, many advantages redound to the whole republick: To the


orators themselves, applause, honour, dignity; to their friends a sure and safe patronage and protection.

» » » To me it seems, that though mankind are inferior and more defective than brutes in many respects; yet their chief pre-eminence is, that they have the power of speech.

» » » Wherefore, I esteem it a most honourable attainment, to excell the rest of mankind in that, wherein mankind excell brutes.


Cicero, M. T. (1745). The oration of Marcus Tullius Cicero, for Marcus Marcellus, address’d to Caius Julius Cæsar, dictator, and the Roman Senate; being a specimen of a translation of Tully’s select orations. To which is prefix’d Cicero’s preface to his first book of invention, translated into English. Being a Dissertaion on the Rise, Progress, and Decay of Eloquence. London: printed for R. Dodsley, and sold by M. Cooper at the Globe in Pater-Noster-Row.

Note: Page numbering reflects the fact that the text was presented with alternate pages in Latin, then English. The English pages were numbered 9, 11, 13, etc.