How to Understand Political Parties and Party Politics
On this page, we look at political parties from a historical perspective to better understand the underlying left-right politics all political parties are based on. We’ll also examine how parties form around key voter issues (as can be seen in single voter issue parties like the “Prohibition Party“).
Taking this approach (rather than only doing an issue-by-issue breakdown of the modern parties) will allow us to understand any political party, of any nation, in any point in history, in the context of political theory; including the modern American parties like Democrats and Republicans, the British Tories (conservatives) and Whigs (liberals) of 1680’s, and even the old Roman parties the Populares (populists) and the Optimates (aristocrats) of the 100’s BC.
WARNING: Try not to get sidetracked by what you think terms like liberal and conservative mean. Each term has a specific historic meaning that can be fact-checked against the history books and past philosophers, but often often differs slightly from its modern usage for a given nation. Just click a corresponding link or do a google search of a term if you need justification or clarification.
What is a Political Party?
A political party is a group of citizens and politicians who share a political ideology and come together to win elections and to influence government. They are a coalition of factions that share varying amounts of ideology and stances on key voter issues that band together to participate directly and indirectly in government.
Thus, they typically have an underlying left-right ideology AND specific stances on voter issues as reflected by that party’s “platform” (see historic U.S. Party Platforms).
In America, modern political parties have names like Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and the Green party (each a Big Tent of citizens and politicians who form factions within the party and between parties in an effort to push forward polices that align with their ideology or to influence polices to ensure they better align with that party’s ideology).
Likewise, past American political parties have names like Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, and Federalists (and these were also “big tents”).
Although each party gets a name that hints at their founding political ideology (but often not policy in practice), and their platforms tell us their views, and some specifics change nation-to-nation, the parties are best understood by looking at the fundamentals upon which the ideologies of all parties rest from a historical perspective (as while the times change, the fundamentals never do).
What do we mean by “fundamentals?”: Essentially what we do below is look at common attributes of political parties (so you can understand what makes up the foundation of a political party), using real historic and modern political parties as examples. See the attributes of government for a similar exercise.
Looking at the Fundamental Attributes of Political Parties
Below we’ll consider classical terms and underlying fundamentals that are generally consistent between all political parties, ideologies, and government types.
Considering Left-Right Ideology and the Classical and Social Forms of Liberalism and Conservatism
Stepping back from single voter issues and policy stances of parties in-action for a second and focusing on the core left-right ideology that generally defines political parties:
Generally, we can look at left-right ideology to see if one party is more left or right than another party, we can then look at what classical type of government they favor, and then look at their basic political philosophy to see if a party is more liberal or conservative (or socialist).
In all cases we can use the same set of classical terminology, where: LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty and equality and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, traditional, hierarchy, and authority.
In terms of liberalism and conservatism specifically, the “classically minded” versions of the ideologies are generally concerned with liberty and the “socially minded” versions of ideologies are generally concerned with equality.
With this in mind we can describe the four basic types of political parties as: Classically liberal (left in terms of liberty), Socially Liberal (left in terms of equality), Classically Conservative (right in terms of authority), and Socially Conservative (right in terms of favoring traditional social hierarchy over progressive social equality). Learn more about liberalism and conservatism.
Then, parties themselves denote political groups in which those who share stances on single-voter issues, left-right politics, and liberal or conservative values come together under a single name to influence government.
Ex. The early anti-federalists in America wanted small government, as do libertarians, thus they are examples of classical liberal parties in many respects. The U.K.’s Labour party are socially liberal in many respects, as are many progressives in the Democratic Party, as both favor government social spending. The conservative Tories of the U.K. are classically conservative, as were the old Federalists of America, as they generally both favor(ed) a more aristocratic and traditional government. The anti-immigrant right-wing populist parties of 2016-2017 who opposed the liberals and social liberals, like Le Pen’s National Front, are generally socially conservative.
Here we can note how later ideologies like socialist, communist, fascist, and libertarian are mixes, extremes, and/or extensions of the basic forms, and we can discuss the many different degrees of social and classical liberalism or how ideology can differ per-issue, but lets not get bogged down with that yet. The idea is to start simple and then work our way up to the difference between a democratic socialist and a social democrat.
For our purposes ideologies are generally either left or right, liberal or conservative, and classical or social with each denoting a stance on liberty and equality. Simple as that, we can derive most of what we need to know about politics from that simple paradigm.
Placing this all in a Basic Left-Right Table that denotes the classical and social forms of liberalism and conservatism it looks like this:
|LEFT: Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal
|The Left-Right Mean
|RIGHT: Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough
|Liberty vs. Authority (“the liberty paradigm“)
|Favoring Liberty / Classically Liberal
|Favoring Authority / Classically Conservative
|Equality vs. Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition (“the equality paradigm“)
|Favoring Social Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal
|Favoring Inequality (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative
With that in mind, you can think of each row of the table above as a simple 2 point left-right chart (2 “left-right paradigms,” one focused on liberty and one on equality, which speak to the classical and social forms of liberalism and conservatism, derived from the above logic, which we can plot on more complex left-right charts, like the one below).
TIP: Many historic nations have had two-party systems, the system sometimes arises from convention (such as from the need to gain a majority), but a two-party system also speaks to the more natural political dichotomy we see in left-right politics where people are generally split into “two types” liberal and conservative.
Considering Per-Issue Left-Right Factors
Although we can describe all the basics with little more than the terms “liberty” and “equality” or “left” and “right”, in real life political factions, parties, and coalitions are typically formed around other key factors.
Thus, we should also consider these ideological factors, many of which very notably affect which single-issue voter factions a parties aligns with, (some of which have already noted above):
- If a party is more realist or idealist (do they believe people are generally bad or good)?
- If a party is more empiricist or rationalist (do they favor their senses or their reason)?
- A party’s favored form of government (democracy, aristocracy, republic, monarchy; see the social contract)?
- A party’s stance How much authority they think government should have in terms of creating and enforcing laws and checking and balancing powers.
- A party’s general stance on concepts related to individualism vs. collectivism. Do they generally favor collective rights or individual rights and do they favor collective authority or individual authority to enforce this? Who rules, who says so, and who does the government favor?
- A party’s general attitude toward taxation, subsidization, and regulation.
- A party’s general economic ideology.
- And then, to add complexity, how progressive a party is on an issue-by-issue basis (we must consider different stances on key voter issues). Specifically, how conservative, liberal, moderate, or progressive they are on an issue such as economic policy (whether they are fiscally conservative, classically liberal, socially liberal, or communist), social policy (whether they favor collective or individual rights), military policy (whether they are laissez faire, protectionist, or interventionist), trade policy (whether they are protectionist, globalist, fair trade, free trade, or anti-trade), immigration policy (nativist, moderate, progressive), religious policy (to what degree they want separation of church and state and religious law), etc.
- Other qualifiers that define parties include Nationalism, Populism, Social Structure, Rights People have, the Role of the Church, whether they favor elections or not and if so what kind, and how planned an economy is.
There are endless factors, but most are either “left” or “right” generally speaking, and most relate back to our concepts.
With that in mind, we can then state the overarching dichotomy that arises from the above factors as:
- LEFT: Liberal, collectivist, toward direct democracy, idealist, progressive, liberty, populist.
- RIGHT: Conservative, individualist, toward aristocracy, realist, authority, elitist.
By placing the above stances in broad categories like left and right, or liberal and conservative, we can get a pretty clear view of any party. I like starting with a basic classical and social liberal and conservative, or left-right, split, as those always speak to the core of what is happening, But there are different ways to organize things, and parties in-action almost always have mixed ideologies that can’t be placed comfortably in one box.
The Difference Between the Basics and Real Parties in Action and Name
Making the jump from ideological theories to real governments is tricky. We have to consider that:
- Sometimes party names don’t match up with left-right politics, especially on an issue-by-issue basis.
- And, Sometimes philosophy on paper doesn’t match up with politics of a party in action.
Sometimes politics in-action matches a party’s name, like Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republicans (who favored a states’ rights Republic with strong individual rights’ Democratic values) or Hamilton’s Federalists (who were pro-central-government Federalists), and sometimes it doesn’t, like with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (a one-party faux-communist dictatorship).
TIP: Learn about the namesakes of the U.S. political parties.
The Idea that the Basic Political Ideologies are Naturally Occurring
One thing to note here is that the reason we have consistency over nations and eras (from Plato’s classic terms to today), and the reason we can formulate a general theory of parties and politics, is because the force that drive them are arguably “naturally occurring“.
Or rather, Thomas Jefferson and I both think this. I’ll let the other Thomas explain.
As Thomas Jefferson, the great founder and philosopher, once said describing the fundamental nature of parties and the above dichotomy,
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:
- Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. [conservative realists who favor aristocracy, be they Republicans, Tories, or Optimates]
- Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. [liberal idealists who favor democracy, be they Democrats, Whigs, or Populares]
In every country, these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.
Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object.
The last one of Aristocrats [elite republicans, conservative, center right, toward aristocracy] and Democrats [populist republicans, liberal, center left, toward democracy] is the true on expressing the essence of all.” —Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73 See also realist vs. idealist, empiricist vs. rationalist, and other fundamental dualities. Also, see physiological differences in conservatives and liberals.
In other words, if we look at the fundamental ideology of political parties and of people, we will see that political beliefs create the parties rather than parties creating political ideology.
Luckily this slightly disturbing truism lends itself to analysis and makes it easy to differentiate the naturally occurring populist and aristocrat parties of any nation or time and allows us to create rock solid theories that work over and over.
Below we further examine the political ideologies noted above and then we compare those to the modern and historic British and American political parties.The Political Systems. This video is on point, but leans toward the libertarian view.
TIP: Conservatism is the opposite philosophy to liberalism in many ways. The terms Liberal and Conservative from the European Enlightenment in the late 1600 and early 1700’s, left and right come from the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. Socialism comes from the Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, then as a form of liberalism, but takes off in the Mid-1800’s via Marx. Meanwhile, the basic related forms of government come from the Greeks thinkers in and around the time of Aristotle and Plato.
TIP: Some nations use liberal to mean conservative and conservative to mean liberal, and this can happen for a varied of reasons. We use the traditional historical meanings and denote when meanings change.
Understanding the Political Parties By Understanding their Underlying Political Ideology
To add detail to the above summary, lets examine each aspect of left-right political ideology again for a more clear view of each factor that creates a political party’s ideology.
This will all lead up to a discussion about the modern political parties, but the idea here is to fully examine the core ideology so we understand parties in general (else it is just me explaining the difference and similarities between a National Front Party and a Nationalist Socialist Party, where the difference is Socialism, and the similarity Nationalism).
Basic Left-Right Paradigm
- “How much authority does the government have?”. The more power it has, the more right-wing; the more liberty it has, the more left-wing.
- “Who says so?” This almost always nets the same result as asking, “who benefits?” The more people that benefit and have a say, the more left-wing; the fewer people, the more right leaning.
The Basic Left-Right Political Affiliations
The basic political affiliations that arise from the authority vs. liberty and individualism vs. collectivism paradigm are as follows:
- Non-Authoritative Collectivism (“Left-Left”) – This is classical liberalism; it is anti-authority and believes in collective rights.
- Non-Authoritative Individualism (Left-Right) – This is social conservatism; it is anti-authority and believes in the rights of the individual.
- Authoritative Collectivism (Right-Left) – This is social liberalism; It is pro-authority and supports collective rights for the group.
- Authoritative Individualism (Right-Right) – This is classical conservatism; it is pro-authority and for collective rights.
TIP: Socialism spans both the authoritative and non-authoritative collectivist ideologies, and Libertarianism spans the non-authoritative ideologies, and all parties are generally “mixed”. Both classical liberalism and libertarianism are similar ideologies, but different types of each would be placed in different spots on the above chart. The chart is showing broad terms, and can be illustrated a number of different ways using the same method discussed above.19th Century Isms (AP European History). Before we move on, let’s take a level-headed historical look at the 19th-century “isms.” This way we won’t have the debate sidetracked by what we think they mean circa America 2016. We can center ourselves instead in historical fact. The terms we use above in the chart and below in further descriptions are historical and not based on a modern viewpoint.
TIP: The political terms always work best as comparative terms. X party is “more left”, Y party is more Republican, etc. See the history of liberalism, origin of left-right, social contract theory, and the basic forms of governments for more reading.
Basic Liberal, Conservative, Socialist Paradigm
All historical and modern political parties can be described by as types of liberal, conservative, and socialist. Each denotes an array of left-right ideology and is rooted in history (specifically the enlightenment and the liberal revolutions).
Liberal and conservative groups can be further broken down into either classical or social varieties. Liberal includes both classical liberal and social liberal. The conservative spectrum includes classical conservative and social conservative. Meanwhile, socialist comes in a range of styles based on how authoritative it is and who it favors..
Liberalism, socialism, and conservatism can be further described as:
- Liberalism comes in two styles. First, there is classical liberalism, which favors individual rights and a rejection of absolute authority. It can be subdivided into a leftist radical French Revolution style classical liberalism and a right-leaning conservative English Whig style classical liberalism. Second is social liberalism, which is a rejection of the social injustice that sees authority and law as necessarily and can be thought of as liberalism informed by socialism.
- Socialism, which is rooted in Marx and appears in several variations ranging from the laissez-faire social libertarianism, to the liberal minded forms like social liberalism and democratic socialism, to national socialism. The latter can, in a place like NAZI Germany, exist as a fascist mix of conservatism, nationalism, authoritarianism and socialism. Or, it can, in a place like Leninist Russia, become communist, a socialist type of authoritarianism. This should not be confused as only meaning authoritarian Stalin-like Communism, nor should it be seen as a pure left-wing ideology. It is often left-right. Socialism can typically be described as a mix of liberalism and conservatism, or a rejection of both, depending on what manifestation we are referring to. It’s a mistake to think all socialism is Communism; this is not even remotely true from a historical perspective. See the history of History of socialism.
- Conservatism, which can be seen as either rejecting any type of liberalism or socialism, or simply pushing for “traditional values”. Thus it can be broken into two broad forms classical conservatism (which favors authority and opposes classical liberalism) and social conservatism (which opposes all social minded ideology and government authority). At its worst, this implies a lack of inclusion and tolerance, and at best it a means avoiding “moving too fast” toward idealist change.
Populism, Tyranny, and the Forms of Governments
There is one more set of important attributes to cover before moving on.
In terms of Plato’s forms of government, we can say there are five basic forms of government:
- Monarchy and Aristocracy (rule by law, order, and wisdom; or, as Plato puts it, rule by the wise; like ideal traditional “benevolent” kingdoms that aren’t tyrannical),
- Timocracy (rule by honor and duty; or, as Plato puts it, rule by honor; like a “benevolent” military, Sparta as an example),
- Oligarchy (rule by wealth and market-based-ethics; or as Plato puts it, rule by wealth and landownership; like a free-trading capitalist state),
- Democracy and Anarchy (rule by pure liberty and equality, where the people vote on and make laws; or, in Aristotle’s terms, “rule by the many”; like a free citizen), and
- Tyranny (rule by fear, without just laws; like a despot).
Then, a [ideal] Polity (a sixth form of sorts; and the most desirable form), is a “balanced” mixed-government (an “ideal” mixed “Republic“) that draws from all the forms except tyranny (as its purpose is to avoid tyranny).
The note here would be that most political parties favor one of these forms “in spirit.”
Thus we can say a party has democratic attributes, or favors democracy (like the original Anti-Federalists and Democrats). Or we can say they have aristocratic attributes (like the original Federalists and Republicans).
If we want to do a simple two way split, like Jefferson suggests, we can denote two basic groups as populists and elites. Populists tend to favor democracy, like the old Democrats, and “elites” tend to favor aristocracy, like the old Republicans.
On Populist Parties: Populist parties are parties that direct their message at the common citizen and not the elite classes. They can be despotic or tyrannical, they can be left or right, they can be cronyist and monopolistic, or they can strive to always rule in-line with the general will and focus on civil service. Simply put, populism doesn’t denote left-right ideology or correctness, it just denotes the target audience of message and/or policy. Consider, monarchs can be populist like Lenin, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon, and conversely rough-and-tumble commoners can technically be aristocratic in their policy and message. Populism is largely just a reaction to inequality that takes the shape of a political party when there is social unrest.
On Tyranny and Populism: At their best populists ensure the “needs” of the people, lifting a saint to power in the name of civil service. At their worst populists ensure the “wants” of the people, lifting a “strong man” to power with the spirit of an angry mob. Although tyranny comes in a few different flavors, one of the worst forms of tyranny is “the tyranny of the mob” (the tyranny of “the many“). This form is notably troublesome because it is hard to combat the democratic fashion in which “the many” lift up a special interest (like an oligarch) to power as their champion (like they did with Hitler or Caesar). This union of pleb and champion of the plebs forms the sort of mob-backed special interest that Plato warned us about and America’s founder sought to prevent.
“The real vice of a civilized republic is in the Turkish fable of the dragon with many heads and the dragon with many tails. The many heads hurt each other, and the many tails obey a single head which wants to devour everything.”
– Voltaire expressing the folly of thinking that the answer to a Despotic Prince is an angry democratic mob (Anarchy). See Plato on how democracy becomes tyranny when an oligarchical tyrant arises.
On Other Types of Tyranny: There are other types of tyranny that can result from the lack of powers being checked and balanced. Aristocrats can be despotic or tyrannical, teaming up with businesses to create cronyist or monopolistic entities (by creating a union of elite governors and special interest oligarchs). A corrupt senate (elected or not) who favors special interests is almost always what the populists are rebelling against in the first place! At best, the aristocrats keep law and order and ensure a strong and wealthy nation, at worst they create a form of tyranny that breeds angry mobs. Here we can also affirm that a military state (a timocracy) is just as liable to be corrupt. This is to say, no ideology offers a perfect solution, instead they all simply arise naturally, and then from that point a whole lot can go right or wrong depending on how well the government ensures liberty and rights. This is why many from the Romans to Americans have attempted mixed systems that check and balance the powers. This “problem of tyranny” is what Plato tries to solve in his Republic.
Mixed Ideologies and Complex Party Ideology
We can use all the above terms to paint a clear picture of any party and where they stand on each issue. However, it’s important to keep in mind that parties tend to have mixed views and that the terms are best used comparatively.
For example, American Libertarians are classical liberals who favor democracy (although, they often form coalitions with social conservatives, as both groups have an aversion to most types of authority). Thus, they are both left-left and left-right as a group, as long as its not statist ideology, it can fit into libertarian ideology. Despite this, Americans don’t typically refer to Libertarians as liberals; instead they refer to Democrats as liberals, even though Democrats favor classical conservative authority to ensure social justice. It only gets more complex when we consider the deregulatory small government rhetoric of a modern conservative is also classically liberal (as it is adverse to authority). Etc. (I.E. don’t get side tracked by what you think a term means!)
With that said, and the above fundamentals covered, lets move on to the modern political parties. First we will define them broadly, then in detail.
Defining the Basic American Political Parties
Now with the above in mind, in America each party represents a big tent of ideologies, but can be described as:
- Democrats: Social liberals and classical conservatives. Favor authority to ensure social justice for the collective but favor laissez-faire government in terms of things like allowing for LGBT marriage.
- Republicans: Social conservatives and classical liberals. Favor deregulation and stand against expansive social justice programs except on some specific issues like those related to the second Amendment or religion.
- Libertarians: Classical liberals who sometimes find political allies in the left and right in terms of policies that reject statism.
- Green Party: Social liberals who tend to favor a more radical progressive spirit than the more centered-left Democrats. Being further-left, they tend to be the only semi-major party in America that openly welcomes socialist movements as part of its coalition. (See history of socialist movements in the U.S.) The necessary statism and anti-captilism needed to be Green can be very authoritative, but on some issues, they take classically liberal or capitalist positions more in line with Libertarians, for instance on cronyism, they are classically liberal capitalists.
TIP:”Progressive” isn’t a party. Past progressive parties (like Teddy’s Bull Moose Party of 1912 or Bryan’s People’s Party) have been populist mash-ups of different “progressive” movements now found in parts of Libertarian, Democratic, and Green Parties. Progressive as a political term, not a party name, describes how quickly one moves toward change.
Looking at Policy Stances and Comparing Those to Left-Right Politics
Generally a party’s base ideology determines their policy stances. For example, a small government libertarian is almost always going to embrace policies that support free markets and small government. Thus, while one might assume looking at policy stances is key, in most cases, policy stances found in platforms are almost always just a result of left-right ideology in practice.
The chart below helps to hammer this point home, the Green Party is mostly a left socially liberal party, yes some policies are more influenced by their single-issue Environmentalist stance, but more-so their policy stances are “left” and “social liberal” (like the Democratic Party). The same generally goes for the rest of the major U.S. parties below.
TIP: The chart below from Wikipedia shows how all the concepts we have discussed so far apply per-issue to prominent U.S. political parties. You’ll notice it aligns perfectly with our theories (as again we are attempting to work with historical fact and not opinion).
|Primary related subjects
|Limiting private financing of campaigns
|Legalization of same-sex marriages
|Universal health care
|Civilian gun control
|Non-interventionist foreign policy
TIP: See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a detailed look at political philosophy. You’ll note that all respectable sources back up our classifications and reinforce the concept that there is no single way to sum up political history since England’s petition of rights in mid-1600.
TIP: Each party has a faction of “neo”-fill-in-the-blank in their ranks. By this, I mean members who favor trade, globalization, and free-market capitalism, which are all classical liberal ideologies but are otherwise informed by the political ideology of their given party. The factions within the parties aren’t always representative of the party ideologies in practice. For instance, a social liberal may favor single-payer-healthcare, while a neoliberal in the same party may favor a privatized version of this. Likewise, a neoconservative may favor a flat tax in order to increase the power of American business, while others in their party may want the same thing, but because of a classically liberal belief in small government. We will give more attention to these factions below; first, let’s focus on the non-economics-and-trade-centered versions of the parties.
TIP: See the history of the parties switching platforms, or the birth of liberalism for more reading (all the parties arise from liberalism, and most current parties are “mixed,” so these concepts are important).English Traditions of Government (US History EOC Review – USHC 1.2. The easiest way to understand the parties is to step back, way back, back to the Middle Ages in England and trace a straight line of political philosophy to America. Luckily, Tom Richey exists.
The Historical Difference Between Traditional Classic Liberalism (Libertarianism), Social Liberalism, Socialism, Traditional Classic Conservatism, and Social Conservatism
Classic Liberalism (Libertarianism): The school of thought that John Locke (major work 1688), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (major work (1762), and Adam Smith (1776), and the Enlightenment thinkers in general first expressed. Ideals of life, liberty, and the ownership of property, and the pursuit of happiness. Believe all men are created equal, must consent to be governed, want separation of church and state, separation of government powers, and want democracy rather than kings. This comes in two basic types, radical classical liberals (like the French revolutionaries and Anti-Federalists) and moderate classical liberals (like the English whigs and Federalists). Both types of classical liberalism, but especially the more radical or laissez-faire style, lost popularity after it [supposedly] failed to protect people from social and economic injustices like Slavery and the Robber Barons, but no type has ever fully gone away (instead all evolved or were revived). A staunch classic liberal like Andrew Jackson might value liberty at the cost of slavery (the radical form), but classic liberalism is based on the enlightenment concept that all people are born free, more like Gouverner Morris thought (the moderate form). Thus we have to note that what is radical and moderate changes depending on the time (as Morris was generally more conservative, but today we consider wanting to own slaves conservative) and we have to distinguish types of classical liberalism and classical liberalism in practice. As a founding philosophy of modern governments, many forms of liberalism grew out of classic liberalism, including modern libertarianism (a right-wing revival of the more radical classic liberalism), Bourbon / New Democrat-ism (a modern moderate classical liberalism), social liberalism (a type of liberalism focused on social welfare), and socialism (favoring central power to enforce social justice). What we consider “liberal” in America is generally a mix of social liberalism and New Democrat libearlism. In many respects, America was built on liberal principles. True classical liberalism in the French style is very libertarian-populist, while the English Whig style is more like a modern social liberal or a Hamiltonian or Madisonian federalism.Classical Liberalism vs. American Liberalism (Drive Home History #3). We have to be very clear; American liberalism is not the same as classical liberalism. Here is someone else backing up the concept. “American liberalism” is essentially social liberalism (which we explain below).
Conservatism: Always pushing against liberalism. Starts in the 1600 and 1700 as those who support Monarchy and aristocracy and don’t want separation of church and state. Important founders of conservatives are those who stood against the liberal enlightenment, but from an intellectual and not just an anti-intellectual viewpoint. These thinkers include Marquess of Halifax (1633–1695), David Hume (1711–1776) and Edmund Burke (1729–1797). It isn’t that Hume is, for example, a modern neocon, it is that conservatism is very short on philosophers, so we sometimes dual attribute empiricist thinkers like Hume, or say free market thinkers like Smith, to conservatism. Even though Burke is a liberal-conservative (an enlightened critic of liberalism, not an enemy of it), and although Smith advocates a free market, such a thing was very liberal in its day. On the other hand, many great politicians like Churchill and Eisenhower are figures conservatives can look to for inspiration (although both were moderate and liberal at times similar to Burke). This can be explained by understanding that what is conservative changes over time and culture, but in it’s most pure classical form it is a push toward tradition, church, and aristocracy, authority, and away from liberalism. Conservatism looks very different for each issue, for instance, religion, nationalism, or economic policy. Many parties, like the American Libertarian party, tend to be right-wing conservatives in terms of some polices and classical liberals in terms of others. They are sometimes conservative on issues such as believing that abortion laws should be handled at a state level, or opposing civil rights in 64′ with Goldwater while remaining classically liberal on other issues such as individual rights and limited government taxes or power. Neocons, another type of conservative focus on big business, sometimes at the expense of big government, and tend to favor private business and tax breaks, which is classically liberal, but hold a conservative ideology. A true far-right modern American conservative would be someone who opposes liberalism and socialism, and wants government only for ensuring guns, God, and nationalism (i.e. Traditional American and religious values at the expense of government). In simple terms, if it opposes social issues, it is social conservatism. If we are just discussing authority its classical conservatism. If it is focused on big business and global trade, it is classical liberalism or neocon-ism (a Reagan Republican, essentially a right-wing version of a neoliberal).Edmund Burke and Classical Conservatism. “You can almost say contemporary conservatism is more like classic liberalism.” Indeed you can. This is a great video on Burke.
Social Liberalism / Social Libertarianism: Social liberalism is liberalism with a strong safety net, social libertarianism (if we want to give an often unexpressed concept in practice a name) is just a less authoritative version of this. Although there is no clear point when classic liberalism becomes social liberalism, I consider those who favor government and regulation to ensure liberty to be social liberals. We could very well trace the roots of social liberalism back to the birth of liberalism and look to figures like Rousseau, but its easiest just to start with figures like Marx and Engels. In England we can say it starts with the New Whigs, in America, we may say this starts with Lincoln, or we may say this starts with FDR. More than being a school of the socialists, social liberalism is more the school of thought of a new breed of liberals like John Stuart Mill (who some consider a classical liberal, but we will instead consider concepts like “the harm principle” and “utilitarianism” precursors to social liberalism) and John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946, who is famous for his social liberal post-WWI economics). After slavery and the great depression and other disasters, many began to turn from liberalism to Communism (or back to traditional conservatism). Thinkers arising from the school of thought of Mill and Keynes “save” liberalism from itself by stating that liberty cannot be obtained if one lives in squalor. Thus a safety net is needed, Mill discussed the politics of modern social liberalism and Keynes was the father of modern social liberal economics. Social liberals range from those with classic liberal ideology, but who favor social justice, to those who want a very bureaucratic system which verges on an authoritarian nanny state. The word social libertarianism describes those who favor less bureaucracy and authority. Neoliberals are social liberals who tend to favor private industry over socialism and favor globalization in terms of banking and trade (a modern Bourbon / New Democrat; a Reagan Democrat). A true progressive social liberal is a populist who favors people and social justice over classism, it is the liberal alternative to a socialist (meaning one who favors republicanism and democracy over idealistic Marxist ideas like pure central planning and the total elimination of classism). Neoliberalism denotes a hybrid ideology that favors classical free-trade and classical conservative authority, as well as many aspects of progressive social liberalism. Despite the similar name, social liberal ideology typically rejects pure socialism (this is clear in America at least given the way Unions and Democrats responded to the Red Scare).Classical Liberal vs Social Liberal.
Socialism: Socialism is a form of extreme social liberalism, thus like social liberalism we can say it starts with the liberal revolution, or we can look to its more proper starting point in the mid-1800’s. Some thought liberalism was the great answer to “the Robber Barons“; some saw the shortfalls of Civil Wars and Social Injustice and turned to social liberalism; others lost faith and turned to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Socialism describes an anti-free-market government with a strong safety-net. This can become social democracy, social liberalism, social libertarianism (liberalism with a utopian tinge), or it can be pure Marxist or Leninist Communism (where it becomes an anti-Capitalist centrally planned socioeconomic system). Communism in practice can take several forms, this includes the super oppressive authoritarian tyranny of the mob or dictator in sheep’s clothing, like we saw under Stalin, or it can take the shape of a little commune (it tends to work better in small groups, as this avoids authoritarians). With that said, today, countries like China have tested the anti-Communist sentiment of the 1900’s by allowing capitalism inside their communist state (arguably the most successful example of Communism in the history books). Again, in practice, most governments and parties are “mixed” and embrace pluralism, as the 1900’s showed the pitfalls of the pure idealistic form.POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx. Actual Marx, the philosopher not the modern conservative talking point.
TIP: It is hard to say words like socialism and communism without people getting defensive (which is a little silly as Marx is probably the most influential political thinker in history outside of Aristotle; for better or worse, this is true!). Stalin’s brand of Communism and Hitler’s brand of National Socialism (a type of right-wing fascism that offers socialism to nationals) certainly don’t help matters. We, therefore, called Socialism “Social Libertarianism” when we are talking about the non-aggression based commune kind, “Social Liberalism” when talking about the Democracy-based quasi-capitalist kind, and then big “C” Communism when talking about the full state control kind. The “dark aftermath of Lenin” AKA “Stalin” type of Communism is its own beast. History shows that good intentioned Marxism is easily usurped by authoritarian power, so it’s hard to separate the two in practice.Political Ideology: Crash Course Government and Politics #35.
Further Differences Between American Political Parties: Social-Liberal Democrats V. Libertarian-Conservative Republicans
Above we discussed the basic American political parties, below we simply offer more detail and describe some additional factions within those parties.
- Democrats: Social liberals who favor social liberalism and the necessarily authoritative welfare state, but are influenced by classical liberalism. When they favor big business and trade, it is called neoliberalism. The party contains both classic liberals and socialists and includes those who simply stand against any type of conservative values. Since using authority is classically conservative, Democrats are classically conservative in terms of taxation and authority.
- Republicans: Social conservatives with a strong classically liberal ideology who use classical conservatism. They tend to favor classic liberalism as a way to undo the welfare state and social liberalism. The pro-business conservatives are called neocons. The traditional right-wing part of the party that is pro-church is simply a traditional conservative.
If we want to divide this up a little further, we can say the current political factions in America look something like this:
- Neoliberal Democrats: Big business Democrats who favor the private market as a means to achieve social justice, tend to favor big government. Pro-globalization and trade.
- Populist “Progressive” Social-Liberal Democrats (“Left-wing Populists”): Democrats who favor a less privatized version of social liberalism, social justice, and environmental issues take precedence over free-market economics and big business. They don’t cross that line into actual socialist and form coalitions with neoliberal Democrats instead.
- Neocon Republicans: Big business Republicans who favor the private market, traditional conservative values, and aspects of free-market libertarian ideology. Favor classical conservatism in terms of authority, but classical liberalism in terms of free-market. Tend to favor native business.
- Modern Populist Nativist Social Conservative Republicans (“Right-wing Populists”): Conservatives who are voting only on modern conservative issues of religion, immigration, gun laws, etc. Tend to want small government, unless its for specific social issues they favor. They don’t take things to that next level where they become part of the radical-right, they form coalitions with libertarians and neocons instead.
- Libertarian Republicans: Limited government classical liberals who tend to organize around right-wing ideology.
- True Libertarians: Just pure Mises-like classical liberals. Government intervention is the only sin. The religion of individualism.
- Green Party Progressives: A single voter issue party focused on the environment, as the only far-left American political party it sometimes attracts Communist and Socialist allies. There is no major party in the U.S. that is socialist or Communist. Thus the radical progressives tend to be socialists and the less radical simply social liberals who favor more progressive policies than Democrats.
- The American Socialist: This is typically an armchair western socialist or protester, although real Big “C” Communists exist as a minority without any major party representation. Whether it’s Trumbo or the far-left professor, most of America’s far-left are western Marxists (and not radical Stalinists). This is to say, most Americans practice armchair socialism (i.e. big on workers rights and ideals, not so much on really understanding the merits of classical liberal economics). It doesn’t make it good, but its a little less a boogyman than some would like to think… which brings us to…
- The American Fascist: This is a radical-right nativist nationalist who seeks to “purify” America (by kicking this group out or by persecuting that group). Like the American socialist, there is a lot of armchair fascism in America. Where the American Communist is misguided, the American Fascist follows suit. The House Un-American Activities Committee lynch mob that went after the American communists is a type of nativist nationalist fascist group. The Red scare was real, but unfortunately so are groups who use ideologies as a right-wing club with which to beat their opponent over the head with. If I sound bitter, it is because I know the History of WWII where the nationalist nativist Hitler fought the far-left Communists and find it insulting we didn’t all learn a clear lesson.
TIP: Consider, Robert Nozick and Noam Chomsky are libertarian thinkers, and worldwide Thatcher and Reagan are considered neoliberal/neocons. We have to be careful about trying to paint an overarching ideology in a narrow frame. Libertarianism is a flexible ideology.
TIP: In other countries the names change, but the affiliations described on this page don’t. In the yesterday of the U.K., a Tory was a conservative and a Whig was a classical/social liberal (today the main divide is between Tories and Labour). In that same period the French had a more classic form of liberalism which often butted heads with Britain and America as part of ongoing tension since the Middle Ages, see the Hundred Years’ Wars. Today similar splits occur on the left, right, center-left, and center-right. The New Democrats in Canada are social-liberals, while the slightly more classic liberals (The Liberal Party of Canada) led by the current President Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, are less “socially liberal” and more “neoliberal.” All the mentioned countries also have progressives, socialists, and communists, with the socialists often coming to power in France. Likewise, many western countries today have right-wing populists. Meanwhile, generally speaking, the parties of all countries have gone through “party systems” (like we did in America when “the parties switched“). The names of parties change over time, but we are always talking about the same philosophies, issues, and political attributes.