Like many of the concepts we use to think and talk about politics, ideology suggests something both overly familiar and uncomfortable obscure. Does a day go by when we don’t hear talk of conservatives and liberals, the Left and the Right? Yet, if asked to define these terms with any kind of precision, most of us would likely grasp for a piece of the elephant before realizing on reflection that trunk was quite unlike tail or tusk.
Take the terms Left and Right, for example. Their historical origins lay in the seating arrangement at the French Estates-General of 1789 – the meeting at which King Louis XVI attempted (unsuccessfully) to shore up support for his crumbling regime. The First Estate (the clergy) and Second Estate (the nobility) were seated on the King’s right; the Third Estate (the commoners) on the King’s left.
In one sense, the translation of Louis XVI’s seating chart into a map of ideological positions hinged on attitudes toward political change. In 1789, the French Right defended long-standing tradition: the ancient feudal order with its hereditary assignment of different legal, economic, and political rights – and the moral authority of the Church. The Left asserted a desire for legal, political, and economic change. But change in what direction?
The 18th century French Left was a liberal Left. Liberalism designated a political philosophy rooted in the idea that individuals had natural rights to self-rule and private property. For classical liberals, the necessary extensions of these principles in society were legal equality, representative democracy, and capitalism. The argument that those principles should be extended to individuals regardless of their sex, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. remains well inside the borders of liberalism – and, to this extent, liberals sometimes still seek change.
Of course, not all forms of legal, political, or economic change are liberal. Despite the fact that in the United States today, we refer to the political Left as “liberal” and group socialists with the political Left, socialists are not liberals. Using the powers of government to regulate privately owned businesses or provide public goods in order to reduce material inequality are socialist goals, but not liberal ones. In the United States today, the loudest voices asserting the merits of free market capitalism refer to themselves as “conservatives” but the history of Western political thought recognizes them as liberals. Nothing could be less conservative than free market capitalism, which encourages constant, unceasing change.
Some people favor a two-dimensional map of ideology: one axis registering a preference for more or less authority; the other indicating a desire for more or less equality. This has the merit of recognizing that few important questions about politics can be imagined in only one dimension. But even the two-dimensional map has its limits. Is all political authority the same or are there differences between its uses in difference realms of life? Is regulating religious belief or sexual activity the same as regulating the health and safety conditions in a factory?
In a series of upcoming posts, I will be using recently released survey data to examine the ideological topography of the contemporary United States. Who self-identifies with our most common ideological labels and what do those labels really tell us about policy preferences or political engagement? Stay tuned…