Understanding the Basics of Political Ideology

Most political positions can be described using a limited set of political terms related to classical and social liberalism and conservatism.

These terms include: classical or social liberal and conservative, left-wing and right-wing, authoritarian and non-authoritarian, and populist and elitist.

Beyond this, terms that describe economic positions, like socialist and capitalist or free-trade and protectionist, terms that describe stances on the peoples’ relation to government, like “small d and r” democrat and republican, terms that describe social positions, like humanist and individualist, are useful descriptors in terms of political ideology as well.

In other words, we can use a few key terms that describe general ideology, paired with a few key terms that describe ideology pertaining to major aspects of politics like issues of state, social issues, and economic issues, to describe basic ideology. Then we can pair that all with single-voter issue stances, and thus paint a complex and accurate picture of a position.

While there are many different ideological positions that relate back to the aforementioned terms which help describe a give political ideology (for example internationalist vs. nationalist, globalist vs. nativist, individualist vs. collectivist, etc), the general idea of this page will be to focus on the most general and broad of categories (like left and right, and liberal and conservative).

Bottomline: To describe a given political ideology, we must consider general political positions and specific stances on key social issues, economic issues, and issues of state. We can then from there denote single-voter issue stances. Then pair this all to paint a complete and accurate per-issue picture (which can then, as a whole, be described by terms like left-wing and right-wing or liberal and conservative). We cover all of that below in as simple terms as possible.

Key Aspects of Political Ideology

Here are some key points that will help you better understand political ideology:

  • People tend to have for or against stances on single issues. For example, a person is generally for an income tax, or against one.
  • A person thus will tend to have a range of different stances on a range of single issues.
  • A person’s stances will be affected by their political affiliation and identity. In other words, their party and others who share their politics will help shape their view.
  • A person’s total view is their political ideology.
  • How we describe a person’s political ideology depends on what stances they take.
  • If a person favors the people, they can be described as populist, if they favor the elite, they can be described as elitist.
  • If a person favors liberty, they can be described as liberal, if a person favors authority and order in the state, they can be described as conservative. Or more specifically, classically liberal or classically conservative respectively. These forms are called “classical” because they were the first notable versions that describe the classical political views from the mid-1600s to mid-1800s.
  • If a person favors social equality and justice, they can be described as liberal, if a person favors traditional values and opposes equality-minded social reforms (and typically the associated regulation and spending), they can be described as conservative. Or more specifically, socially liberal or socially conservative respectively.
  • If a person is populist, classically liberal, or socially liberal, even if they are otherwise right-wing or conservative, they can be described as left-wing (or having left-wing qualities in the case where they are otherwise conservative). If a person is elitist, classically conservative, or socially conservative, even if they are otherwise left-wing or liberal, they can be described as right-wing (or having right-wing qualities in the case where they are otherwise liberal).
  • With that in mind, a “centered” stance is any stance in-between left or right, or liberal or conservative. This is different from ideologies with “mixed” stances. For example, communism and fascism mix left-right stances in extreme ways, and are not well described as “centrist.” Centered is more like classical “small r” republicanism.
  • Thus, people’s political ideologies are informed by their own stances on single-issues and party stances, and these ideologies can be described by the terms classical or social liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, authoritarian or non-authoritarian, and populist or elitist.
  • Meanwhile, there are many different issues that have left-right, liberal-conservative, populist-elitist, authoritarian-non-authoritarian aspects that are important to a political view. These include the very important issue economics.
  • In general all stances on specific issues relate back to the primary terms we have already used. For example, if a person believes in free-markets, they believe in liberty in markets… classical liberalism. Going issue by issue would take our simple page and make it complex. So instead of doing that, consider the following left-right chart to see where different positions fall.

TIP: Generally, one can consider liberal and left as one on the chart below, likewise they can consider conservative and right as one. Meanwhile, any left-wing or right-wing position can be authoritative or not, but generally if it is authoritative or elite it is toward the right in some ways, and if it is non-authoritative and populist it is toward the left in some ways.

Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action Extreme Left Thesis / Antithesis Left The Left-Right Mean Right Extreme Right Thesis / Antithesis
Liberty Extreme Liberty Favoring Liberty Balanced Liberty Favoring Authority Extreme Authority
Equality Extreme Equality Favoring Equality Balanced Equality Favoring Social Hierarchy Extreme Social Hierarchy
Classical Government Type Anarchy (Total Liberty and Equality) Democracy Mixed-Republic Aristocracy Tyranny (Total Authority and Social Hierarchy)
Political Ideology in terms of liberty. Radical Classical Liberalism Moderate Classical Liberalism Centrism Moderate Classical Conservatism Absolutist Classical Conservatism
Political Ideology in terms of equality. Pure Social Liberalism Moderate Social Liberalism Centrism Moderate Social Hierarchy Absolutist Social Hierarchy
Economy in terms of liberty. Free Market Lightly Regulated Market Mixed-Economy Tightly Controlled Economy Economy Controlled by the One or Very Few (Centrally Planned or Oligarchy)
Social Programs in terms of equality. Robust Social Welfare Some Social Welfare Moderate Social Welfare Limited Social Welfare No Social Welfare
Trade in terms of collectivism. Globalism and Free Trade Favors Free Trade Mixed-Trade Favors the Nation Nativism and Protectionism
Natural Rights in terms of equality. Social Collectivism Favors the Collective Mixed-Social Equality Favors Individual Authority Authoritative Individualism
Natural Rights in terms of liberty. Individual Liberty Favors Individual Liberty Mixed- Individual Liberty Favors Collective Authority Authoritative Collectivism

"Political Ideology Simplified" is tagged with: Left–right Politics, Liberalism and Conservatism

What do you think?

john on

Sorry to say but the table above has totally screwed up classifying Economics in terms of liberty. The reason for your mistakeis that you are mistaking modern liberalism (which is left wing and legitimizes the role of government in the economy) with classical or neo-liberalism (right wing – which subscribes to an ideology of free markets, even to the extent of justifying monopoly and oligarchic rule). How about this breakout?…

Extreme leftist: State direction of economics (example is USSR and – to a lesser extent due to shift towards market economy – mainland “Communist” China. State enterprises are allowed. Encompasses both state socialism and state capitalism (China version).

Left : Mixed economy, provides (sometimes with private sector) welfare state social safety net. Social Democracy (European style)

Middle: Market based economy, but recognizes necesity of govt as regulator and referee to prevent unfair use or accumulation of market power. Teddy Roosevelt to Pre-Reagan economy in US. (NB: govt institutions are at risk of regulatory capture since govt role in economic life isn’t viewed by all as legitimate or conducive to efficiency, leading to…)

Right: Small government, ineffective regulatory capabilities, regulatory capture by free market conservatives.. Free market operates mostly unfettered by government constraints, leading to concentration of capital and consolidation of industries, leading to…

Extreme Right: Unconstrained ideology of free markets justifies (and leads to) concentration of capital into hands of few – oligarchy. Government role becomes protection of property rights, provide for the common defense (and war profiteering). Examples are fascist states and famous right wing governments in Europe and South America.

Also, your discussion of populism is pretty far off too. Populists can be and are (currently, through the rise of Pres Trump) right wing. Their being right wing is based on the set of beliefs to which they subscribe (conservative, reactionary, nativist) independently of how appeals are made to them “through populist appeals to their grevances” for instance Left wing populism is possible, and the Sanders campaign was an example of that.

Thomas DeMichele on

Lots of good thoughts, and I can tell you know your stuff, but we certainly disagree on some points.

For me the classical liberal left position on economics (embraced by some modern conservatives) is the free market Mises and Jefferson one.

It doesn’t matter who takes this position, it is a classically leftwing position. It is classical liberal economics.

The classical right and social right sometimes have classical liberal plansk, but generally they tend more toward protectionism in-practice (and even if they don’t the classical right position is protectionism and the social right position is a mix of classical left and right).

The modern American right-winger likes to define “right” as the neoclassical position, but that is really only true for the big tent of the modern American right in some ways (and often, although it differs plank-by-plank, only in-rhetoric and not in-practice).

In practice the right is often protectionist and practices deconstruction (so they, in social conservative spirit, undo social programs of the social left and in classical conservative spirit selectively use big government when it suits them… they don’t specifically actually practice a purely neoclassical doctrine when it comes down to it).

Meanwhile, the social left is most certainly of the trickle up variety. That modern social left is certainly not taking the classical left position. We fully agree there.

Meanwhile, the neoliberal is a mashup of trickle up Keynes and classical and neoclassical Smith.

To complicate all this, of the neoliberal, that ideology comes in different forms as well. http://factmyth.com/neoliberalism-explained/

Lots of good conversation to have in here and part of it is semantic. I think where we disagree is that you are equating left and right with the way they appear in America (what I can more so the social left and right) and I’m thinking of this as a split between classical left and right, social left and right, and neoliberal left and right (so perhaps I’m considering more positions).

macsnafu on

The traditional left – right spectrum is far too narrow to adequately explain the varieties of political ideology. The Nolan chart, having 2 axes instead of just 1, does a better job (although perhaps not a perfect job) of charting ideologies.


Thomas DeMichele on

Fully agree. This is why we based or model on the Nolan chart. I feel we improved that model in general (even if we convoluted things a bit in trying to break new ground / compile past ideas).

The thing I don’t like about the libertarian view (that seems to dominate this conversation, perhaps because of Nolan’s own ideology) is that they put economy as a primary axis. It may be that politics boils down to economy for some, but that isn’t what truly defines political ideology from what I can tell. It is only one factor.

This is explained in the long and winding essay above.

Point though is: Nolan chart is way better than the traditional two point. We try to walk people through the journey of how they relate, but i would stress that a four point is way more useful.

Gage T Voss on

I feel it needs a little tweaking. I understand that the extreme left harbors both Anarchist, Socialist, advocates for the Nordic Model, etc. But according to your table, the extreme left advocates for both Anarchy AND a robust Welfare program? That’d be confusing to somebody that hasn’t studied this before.

Thomas DeMichele on

For sure. I try to explain that there are at least two different types of left.

– The social “equality” left = The robust welfare kind which at an extreme looks like, in perhaps overly simple terms, communism (AKA total “equality”; in theory at least).

– The classical “liberty” left = the kind that at an extreme can look like anarchy (AKA total liberty; what is total liberty-for-all with no conditions but pure anarchy? Playing off Plato’s theory of democracy here where he even goes as far as to treat pure democracy and anarchy as the same thing).

I try to only mash them together in the introduction and then separate them once the tension and conflict between the two becomes obvious to the reader (I try to do the same for the classical and social right as well).

The page/theory is a work in progress, I appreciate the feedback and will try to make it more clear that these two identities share a label but actually conflict greatly on some levels.