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.

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