Politics, Power, and Purpose: An Introduction to Political Science

Chapter 2: Ideologies of the Individual

Learning Objectives

This chapter will give you a better understanding of ideology in political thought. In order to do so, we will consider classical and modern variants of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism by analyzing the ways in which these ideologies value equality and freedom. We will also attempt to define a conception of justice that aligns with each of these ideologies. At the end of this chapter, you will take an ideologies quiz that will give you some determination of your own ideological beliefs.

What is Justice?

This is one of the oldest questions in Western political philosophy and the central inquiry of Plato’s Republic. Pause here for a moment and consider this age-old question: What does justice mean to you? When are our actions just? This question is answered in numerous ways as Western philosophic tradition develops historically, from the ancient Greeks to 20th century liberal philosophers. Underpinning this question is a basic 

commitment to Political Theory, which seeks an understanding of what politics ought to be, as opposed to what it is. What should be the most important political values that individuals, society, and the state adhere to? Ideologies are the beliefs and values that answer this question. Ideologies are not fact-based or objective statements but normative beliefs informed by basic assumptions about reality. To what degree are humans born with reason, born equal, and born free? Is private property necessary for individual freedom? When should the rights of the community override the right of an individual? These are examples of questions that are intended to guide you to first-order principles of your political beliefs, thus shaping your ideological commitments.

Let’s consider three variations on the concept of equality: comprehensive equality, equal opportunity, and equality of outcomes.

Briefly, we must bring some clarity to these concepts of equality and freedom, for there is no single definition that can encompass either. First, let’s consider three variations on the concept of equality: comprehensive equality, equal opportunity, and equality of outcomes. Comprehensive equality is a deeper philosophical concept that all human beings are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “created equal.” In other words, comprehensive equality suggests that humans are all equal in worth and dignity, that we have an innate and existential equality of being endowed with human life. Equal opportunity suggests that, despite differences in human achievement, a just world should provide a roughly equal starting point for all individuals regardless of who they are or where they come from. This concept can be applied to the law, and is codified in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that all persons are afforded equal protection under the laws. Importantly, the Constitution does not guarantee that everyone be treated equally. In fact, government can and does legally discriminate all the time—age, for example, can be the basis of discrimination (those under 16 cannot legally drive a car; those under a certain age are not eligible for Social Security, etc). But the government cannot legally discriminate against similarly situated persons and must afford everyone equal protection under the laws. Equality of outcomes suggests that there is a shared benefit when individual wealth and material possessions are roughly equal to one another. All of these variations on equality also suggest a distinction between equality and 

: where equality indicates qualities such as status, rights, and opportunities are the same for everyone, equity indicates fairness and impartiality.

As with equality, the concept of freedom has some important variations. What does it mean for an individual to be free? In “Two Conceptions of Liberty,” the philosopher Isaiah Berlin offers two different ways of conceiving liberty: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom, simply put, is freedom from any external constraint, the freedom of an individual to do what they will without obstacles, limitations, or a narrowing of their choices regarding that freedom. This is sometimes, derisively, referred to as license or licentiousness—pursuing our immediate desires and appetites, perhaps contrary to reason. Positive freedom is a bit trickier, but essentially means the freedom of self-mastery, self-determination, and control over the direction of one’s life. Positive freedom presupposes a divide between our rational nature and our desires and appetites, and suggests that we must not let our “lower” passional nature dictate our life’s direction contrary to reason.[1] The distinction between negative and positive freedom may best be seen by looking at the two constraints that are the opposites of these freedoms. The antithesis of negative freedom is imprisonment in solitary confinement: all of your movements, your decisions, and the resources you need to survive are heavily controlled by external forces. The antithesis of positive freedom is slavery—imagine, for example, the most benign and generous slavery possible. Your master allows you total freedom of movement, you can indulge any desire or appetite; further, your master professes his or her love and care for you. But isn’t something missing here? You have no ownership over yourself. Indeed, another human has real and tangible ownership of you as a person. What is missing here is positive freedom—the freedom of self-direction, self-mastery, and autonomy of the self.

There are three broad ideological systems of thought that have emerged and developed over the last several centuries of Western political thought—liberalism, conservatism, and socialism.

Each of these have classical and modern distinctions that in some cases radically alter their normative commitments, as we shall see. Before we launch into these three broader ideological systems of thought, it is worth mentioning that there are other political ideologies quite different from these three. Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are, however, all comprehensive enough to draw connections to a wide range of other ideological commitments. One such connection can be drawn to various forms of . Feminism is itself extremely comprehensive, ranging from social and political movements to various ideologies, many of which are critically situated against other feminist ideologies. Underlying almost all feminist theory is a commitment to women’s equality and gendered justice, as well as a critique of

and other systems that interact with patriarchy so as to strengthen various forms of male domination. In examining some forms of feminism, we will provide an example of the comprehensive nature of liberal, social, and conservative political thought.

Below we will consider the following ideologies: classical liberalism, modern liberalism, liberal feminism, socialism, democratic socialism, socialist feminism, classical conservatism, modern conservatism, and conservative feminism.

Classical Liberalism

What makes liberal theory distinctive from other political theories that came before it is a focus on the individual. This is often described as an atomistic view of the human experience—in evaluating our basic political commitments and sense of justice, the liberal would emphasize an individualist view of reality. Liberal freedom, for example, is about individual freedom, not a collective or communal freedom. Liberal equality is concerned with the degree of equality that exists between individuals, not the degree of equality that exists between groups per se (liberals might be concerned with inequalities between certain groups, but their answer to this inequality is generally to ensure individual equality for every person). Liberal theory, therefore, is concerned with the varying degrees with which we ought to judge the value of individual freedom and individual equality. Liberals, on the whole, generally seek to maximize individual freedom and individual equality and to balance out the tensions that may exist between these values.

Historically, the emergence of liberalism is part of the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that began over 300 years ago, a social, economic, and political revolution committed to science, rationality, and the ability of individuals to determine truth by using reason and science. Human reason, in this Enlightenment view, is the source of knowledge. Certain ideas such as toleration, liberty, equality, progress, and constitutional government flourished in this revolutionary age. This may not seem very revolutionary to you in the 21st century because we live in a world largely created by this enlightenment revolution. But the conventional thought in Western societies coming out of the Late Middle Ages was that truth was heavenly and fixed. Monarchies and the Catholic Church determined truth and knowledge. Individual liberty was often, like democracy, regarded as dangerous—a runaway licentiousness that led to disorder and chaos.

Portrait of John Locke

The ideas of John Locke are widely regarded as the philosophical starting point of classical liberalism. Locke was a strong advocate of individual liberty, industry, and reason. He asserted that it was God’s will for humans to be productive and industrious, cultivating the earth and, in doing so, realizing freedom. To this end, Locke was deeply critical of the aristocratic classes of Europe, whom he regarded as lazy and unproductive, enjoying the wealth and honor of their landed estates while doing little work. Conversely, Locke championed the newly emerging bourgeois capitalist class of merchants and industrialists.  Crucially, Locke’s conception of freedom is propertied—each individual is born with a property right in their own bodies. We can externalize this property right through labor, taking from commonly held resources on earth and deriving an exclusive right over those resources. These are natural rights, for Locke, governed by what he called natural law. The first principle of Locke’s natural law was self-preservation (we have the right to preserve the self). Reason, productivity, industriousness, and private property are other principles of Lockean natural law that governments are constrained from violating. There are two limitations to this right of private property: we cannot let resources spoil and thus be wasteful, and we cannot monopolize scarce resources such that there is none left for others.[2]

One may interpret two justifications to private property in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. On the one hand, private property is justified by Lockean fairness: the fruits of one’s labor are rightfully their own, and when someone else demands a portion of the fruits of your labor, this is a violation of your right and unfair. As we shall see, this principled justification is foundational to the modern conservative view. “That’s not fair!” is the rallying cry of many modern conservatives who see their wealth unfairly redistributed to others. The second justification for private property is more broadly philosophical: the self-ownership thesis. This is the idea that private property is justified because we have a natural, propertied right that comes from our own human bodies, the capacity to labor, and our capacity to reason. This implies not merely a right to material resources and land, but an intellectual property right in ideas and a right to the choices and decisions that determine the course of one’s life.[3] This justification overlaps modern conservatism and modern liberalism, and can be the basis for ideological commitments such as labor rights or feminism.

Before moving on to modern liberalism, we must examine the relationship between classical liberalism and libertarianism, for though they bear similarities there are nonetheless important distinctions. Libertarianism is a political theory that holds liberty as the core principle of justice, and in so doing, seeks to maximize individual autonomy and choice, political freedom, the freedom of voluntary association, and the value of individual judgement. There is a deep skepticism of the state and political authority in libertarian thought, though there is considerable disagreement within libertarianism on what opposition, if any, there should be to existing economic and political systems (such as capitalism or powers of government). Generally speaking, libertarianism opposes

that seek to constrain individual actions and behaviors.

It may surprise you to know that libertarianism was traditionally a and saw equally repressive forces in capitalism and the state. 19th-century capitalism saw the full force of the industrial revolution and emerging political ideologies that were a reaction to this revolution. As industries began consolidating and growing larger, many saw the individual increasingly dominated by corporate power. Early libertarianism emerges in this political and economic context and takes forms such as anarcho-communism, which seeks the abolishment of capitalism and private property and the alternative development of cooperative and communal forms of ownership and management. Obviously, this is not Locke. By the mid-20th century, libertarianism gradually becomes incorporated into some aspects of

, and becomes associated with the maximization of private property rights and private initiative with a state limited (to varying degrees) in its action, typically only allowing government authority to uphold contracts and property rights. The more limited the state in right-wing libertarianism, the more accurately this belief can be considered anarcho-capitalism—the replacement of all public services and ownership with private services and ownership.

Right-wing libertarianism’s similarity to Locke is weak here too, though not as weak as the similarity between Locke and left-wing libertarianism. Locke does not call for a weak or certainly an abolished government, but rather for a “constrained majority,” in which majority rule is constrained by a natural right to life, liberty, and property. Nowhere does Locke claim that a smaller government is better than a larger one. His concern was with a separation of powers in government (Legislative, Executive, and Federative), not the government’s overall size. Moreover, Locke was critical of landed wealth that was not put to productive use, a form of wealth certainly protected in libertarian thought. Lastly, Locke’s limitations on wealth accumulation (spoilage and monopolization of resources) are not logically connected to most forms of right-wing libertarian thought.

Modern Liberalism

Modern Liberalism places more emphasis on individual equality than does classical liberalism, and therefore it seeks a greater balance between individual liberty and social equality. This tendency places modern liberalism on the left side of the traditional left-right spectrum of political ideology, as it seeks to level out varying disadvantages individuals may face in society. Historically, the modern liberal turn in American politics was a complex cultural, political, and legal development, and scholars are in considerable disagreement on its origins. The Progressive Era, from around 1900 to 1918, was an early starting point in which Progressives, generally urban reformers, sought to re-imagine government as an instrument for the bettering of society and reinvigorate government through greater democratization. Workplace regulation, health, education, and the morals of society were all key concerns to the Progressives, who above all focused on what they saw as debilitating spillover effects from high levels of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. These Progressives sought to energize and embolden government to take on the large corporate monopolies and social ills of society. Some of these reform efforts may look very conservatives to us, such as the Prohibition movement that sought to end legal alcohol. Progressivism also cut across the traditional two-party divide, attracting both Democrats and Republicans. Reform and moral betterment are the central forces that held these Progressives together.[4]

Anti-trust cartoon from Arena Magazine, 1906.

Reflect for a moment on what makes this aspect of the Progressive Era similar to modern liberalism. Modern liberals tend to see the government as a tool for social betterment—strong anti-poverty programs, higher education spending, greater access to healthcare, and expansion of government-provided or -subsidized healthcare. All these positions require a strong and active government directly involved in the improvement of society. The conflict between “big” and “small” government was not yet visible in the Progressive Era, but those individuals against the Progressive agenda often spoke of the need to preserve the more limited government that so defined Washington in the 19th Century. The Progressive Era was an era in which the Constitution was amended for the direct election of Senators (the 17th Amendment) and the largest democratizing moment in American history: women’s suffrage (the 19th Amendment). Greater democratization is not necessarily a core modern liberal idea, but the democratization of the Progressive Era mobilized new groups and citizens into the political process, particularly people from marginalized or lower socio-economic conditions who had never previously been part of politics. Many of these newly enfranchised citizens formed the foundation of the New Deal Era that began in the 1930s.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 was a watershed moment in party politics. The Republican Party had largely dominated politics over the past 70 years from that time, stretching all the way back to the Civil War. Indeed, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were the only Democrats who won presidential elections during this time. The Depression was widely blamed on Republican Party politics in the 1920s, and this sent the Democrats into power by the early 1930s. A coalition of urban party machines in the north and the stronghold of the south, the Democratic Party was generally bound together by economic policies that benefited the poor and working class, from factory workers in big northern cities to sharecropping farmers in the south. This coalition was successfully led by one of the most gifted politicians in modern politics—Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt came from wealth and privilege (his fifth cousin was the former Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt) but had a tremendous knack for speaking to common working men and women and using new technologies such as radio to bring his voice directly into the homes of millions of Americans (for more on part development in American politics, see Chapter 9).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

This New Deal Era of American politics forms the “Old Left” of modern liberalism, and is characterized by a complicated patchwork of policies in which many stakeholders—such as big labor, big business, and small business—are brought together to forge economic policies that ideally give some benefit to each of these interests. In this era, policies such as minimum wage laws, FDIC insurance, and public works programs were generally popular and benefitted the Democratic Party coalition. With postwar America enjoying unprecedented levels of economic growth and prosperity 1950s and 60s, New Deal policies remained popular, but many modern liberals wanted more than economic policies—they sought to forge a party platform that could more directly combat enduring forms of discrimination in American life, particularly racial discrimination. Thus, the civil rights movement of the 20th century, which sought to end racial segregation and bring greater racial equality to Americans, begins to form the bulwark of modern liberalism by the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson significantly expanded the foundations of modern liberalism with policies such as the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid health insurance for the poor, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the last of which outlawed racial discrimination in housing.

The vast majority of these domestic policies that formed President Johnson’s “Great Society” became law, and on this measure Johnson’s expansion of modern liberal policies was a tremendous success. One consequence, however, was that the traditional New Deal Democrats in the South began to leave the party in massive numbers. Reacting in particular to the racial justice platform of the “Great Society,” many southern “Dixiecrats” turned into Republicans seemingly overnight. By 1968, the Republican Party’s “capture” of of the South was already well under way. To this day, the American South is generally dominated by the Republican Party under the mantle of modern conservatism. Johnson and the Democrats were also hampered by the Vietnam War, an increasingly brutal military conflict in Southeast Asia that was a key theater of the long Cold War that pitted Western capitalist democracies against communist countries aligned with the Soviet Union and China. As the anti-war sentiment grew along with movements against various forms of discrimination (feminism, gay rights, Native American activism, and black activism, to name a few), modern liberalism morphed into the “New Left”—a broader political ideology with a mixture of economic justice and social justice based on identity. Generally speaking, modern liberals to this day see an active government as a necessary instrument to achieve these forms of justice.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminists view equality between the sexes as the central fight for gendered justice. In this view, justice for women requires a level playing field in a

, in the workplace, and in the political sphere. Simply put, liberal feminism is committed to the individualism of classical liberalism and the emphasis on equality in modern liberalism. In this liberal view, justice for women is seen as women being equal to men in all respects. Liberal feminism is not particularly critical of private property or capitalism as socialist feminism is and does not see qualities that make a woman as unique and distinct from qualities that make a man, as conservative feminism tends to. Philosophically, one of liberal feminism’s earliest articulators was John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century English philosopher who in The Subjection of Women (first published in 1869) became arguably the first male philosopher to argue for perfect equality between the sexes. Mill regarded the patriarchal subjection of women as an uncivilized relic of the past and one of the main impediments to human betterment. Modern liberal feminists maintain these basic commitments, although with some important critiques. Susan Moller Okin, for example, has questioned Mill’s view that women can choose the domestic sphere and household labor if they so desire. Okin argued that Mill overlooks the pressures and limitations inherent in such a choice that women often experience, and she points out that Mill makes no mention of an equality between men and women in the domestic sphere, such as the need for men to share in household labor and raising children.[5]

Boy on scooter at a Women’s March, New York City, January 2017.

Historically, liberal feminism overlaps both first-wave and second-wave feminism. In first-wave feminism, the suffrage movement that sought equal political rights for women, crucially the right to vote, is quintessentially liberal in its call for individual political equality between the sexes. As noted above, the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was the largest democratizing moment in American history, enfranchising roughly half the citizen population. The second wave of feminism emerges in the 1960s, and Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique is widely considered its intellectual foundation. This second wave was also quintessentially liberal as it sought equality not just in political life but in private and social life as well—equality between the sexes within the household, in the public, and in the workplace. Today, liberal feminism continues to be a significant and mainstream form of feminist ideology. Since the third-wave movement beginning in the 1990s, however, feminism is now much more integrated within racial justice and LGBTQ+ movements, in which concepts such as intersectionality (the idea that overlapping experiences of discrimination, for example those faced by black women, form intersecting forms of oppression distinct from both white women and black men) and the social construction of gender (in which gender is not a biological construct but a social and legal construct) have significantly broadened feminist ideologies.


Socialism is a broad and contested ideology, but central to the many varied beliefs of socialism is some form of collective, cooperative, or social system of ownership. What does social ownership mean? This can take on many forms: public ownership, employee-owned businesses, and citizen ownership of equity, among others. With this definition, it is important to note that social forms of ownership exist even in the most capitalist societies. In the United States, for example, there are employee-owned businesses (Publix Super Markets being the largest with over 190,000 employees).[6] There are also public forms of ownership in the US—public parks, public utilities, Medicaid/Medicare, etc. More generally speaking, socialism is committed to a more equitable distribution of wealth or what we might call a rough equality of outcomes. In this sense, socialism is more greatly tilted toward the principle of equality than liberty. Where modern liberalism seeks a balance between equality and liberty, socialism places greater emphasis on equality as justice.

One can draw an economic distinction between modern liberalism and socialism as well. Socialism is more centrally a socio-economic ideology, in that its core principle concerns the concept of ownership. Modern liberalism, as we see above, includes non-economic aspects to its belief system—its commitment to combating forms of discrimination based on race or gender, for example. To be sure, socialists are very often concerned with discrimination, but socialist solutions to this problem are generally economic and may include reverting private forms of ownership to collective forms of ownership. More radical forms of socialist ideology, for example Marxism or communism, very often identify capitalism and private ownership as the very basis of discrimination and injustice. The only way such discrimination is eliminated is through a more complete collective ownership over the means of production and the dismantling of the capitalist system, which according to Marxist belief would afford greater opportunity for individuals to thrive despite their race, gender, or social position.

Socialism and communism are not the same ideology, although there are similarities.

Socialism and communism are not the same ideology, although there are similarities. It is fair to say that communism and Marxist ideology are more radical forms of socialist theory. Karl Marx was a German-born political economist and social theorist who argued that human societies develop through struggle between economic classes. The early writing of Marx reflected a broader critique of the individualist view of liberalism. This critique is predicated on the notion that individualism and a liberal civil society fragment and fracture the social community—self-interest tends to drive humans apart from one another, according to Marx.[7] Later in life, Marx became much more focused on the economic aspects of liberalism, and in particular, capitalism. In a capitalist system, the surplus value created from economic productivity belongs to the owners of the means of production, most often private entities who have a legal property right in the goods being produced and resources used to produce goods. According to Marx, the private right over such surplus value undermines the labor of workers who produce those goods.[8] Communism can be understood as a political system and ideology developed from Marxist thought—as a political system, it builds political institutions and structures that reflect Marxian views of society and economy. In practice, what this means is complete government ownership over goods and resources and total state control over the economy.

Today, there are only two formally communist countries left in the world—North Korea and Cuba. Most previously communist counties have reformed their economic systems to be more or less integrated into the global capitalist system, even when they have not reformed authoritarian political structures to be more democratic. China’s “Third Way” is a good example of this. In 1978, China’s more reform-minded leaders were able to push through key economic reforms, namely de-collectivization of agriculture, opening the country to direct foreign investment and allowing entrepreneurs to start businesses. Further reform took place in the 1990s, when many state-owned companies were privatized, price controls were lifted, and the country moved away from protectionist policies to free trade. China, however, made no attempt to reform the political system to become more democratic. Over the past 20 years, China’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in the world, and by some economic predictions, is on a path to becoming the world’s largest economy within a generation.[9]

The traditional understanding of economic and political development was that capitalist reform went hand in hand with democratic reform. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia aggressively reformed both its economic structure (Perestroika) and its political structure (Glasnost) with the intention of rapidly transforming into a capitalist and democratic country, respectively. The results were mixed at best—what followed was a significant level of economic, social, and political upheaval. By the late 1990s, Russia’s currency collapsed and the economy was in turmoil. Since 2000, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia is seen by many to be a return to political authoritarianism and the further development of state capitalism, in which the state remains a dominant economic player, similar to Chinese capitalism. We will discuss this in further detail in the next chapter, on ideologies of the state.[10]

Democratic Socialism

Strong socialist economic policies are not always forced upon an unwilling citizenry by the state, and the so-called “Nordic Model” is an example. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland have to varying degrees robust and well-funded social welfare programs and high levels of redistributing wealth. College education is largely free, taxpayer-funded and state-directed healthcare is guaranteed for all, and family-planning programs give significant financial government support to households with children. A majority of employees in the Nordic countries are members of a labor union, and in Finland union membership is at 74%.[11] Labor is so strong that in Sweden, for example, there are no minimum wage laws because unions have more bargaining leverage without them in arbitrating with employers. These countries still have market-based economies, and feature a number of globally-known corporations. Nordic countries are consistently ranked high on the list of the freest societies in the world. Moreover, these strong socialist policies garner high levels of public support. A majority of citizens in these Nordic countries show support for a variety of socialist policies through democratic elections.

As noted above, there is a degree of socialist policies that exists in every capitalist country. The question is not, therefore, a zero-sum game of picking some pure form of capitalism or socialism, but rather what policies are best delivered through state-directed social ownership and what policies are best left to market forces. Healthcare policy is an example you can use to understand this question. Clearly a contentious political issue in the United States, American healthcare is currently a mix between socialist forms and market forms of healthcare insurance and delivery. Among advanced Western democracies, the United States is unusual in this respect—nearly all countries considered advanced democracies have some form of state-directed universal healthcare coverage and delivery. Moreover, healthcare policy does not appear to be nearly as politically contentious of an issue in these countries as it is in the United States. Healthcare policy in the United States is an excellent example when thinking about public and private ownership, for it suggests that the line between these forms of ownership is not so clear and may require a more calibrated approach that combines private incentive and public interest.[12]

Hugo Chavez, 2012

Democratic socialism is not always as successful as the “Nordic Model” suggests. In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chavez won the presidency of that country four times (1998, 2000, 2006, and 2012) with relatively high levels of popularity and sought to institute an aggressive socialist and anti-imperialist agenda. Venezuela is the most urban country in Latin America and was one of the richest in the early 2000s, in large part due to significant oil revenues. While there were some improvements in poverty, education, and healthcare in the mid-2000s, by 2012 Venezuela’s economy suffered, the middle class became increasingly alienated from the Chavez regime, and key indicators such as health, education and GDP per capita began to decline. By 2016, Venezuela was in the throes of an economic and social crisis. Venezuela went from one of the richest and most prosperous Latin American countries to one of the poorest. Today, food scarcity and poverty are pervasive. Whether this was due to socialist policies, a slide back into authoritarianism, or international intervention is an open question. But there is little doubt that the socialist policies alienated many business owners and middle-class professionals in Venezuela.[13]

Socialist Feminism

Socialist and Marxist feminism differ from liberal feminism in that the former see capitalism and private property as a structural basis of patriarchy and gender inequality. Indeed, for more radical Marxist feminists, capitalism is what created patriarchy, and so the dismantling of capitalism is the only way to achieve women’s rights and gender equality. For socialist feminists, there is a broader and intersectional oppression of women in both capitalism and culture. As you can see, there is an important difference between Marxist feminism and socialist feminism—where Marxist feminists locate patriarchy and gender inequality in capitalism itself, socialist feminists emphasize the intersectional relationship between economic and cultural forces, or in other words, they are not necessarily committed to the idea that capitalism created patriarchy. An implication of this is that capitalism doesn’t necessarily have to be completely destroyed in order to achieve justice for women. Rather, socialist feminists argue that women must gain some financial independence from men in order to realize greater equality and justice. Robust social policies that close the gap for women in social, economic, and political spheres are, for socialist feminists, the way to achieve this equality.

As the above indicates, socialist feminists do not see patriarchy as the sole form of oppression of women. Instead, oppression emerges from an economic system (capitalism) and a cultural belief system (patriarchy) that when combined manifest gender inequality and injustice for women. Socialist feminists seek to align the fight for women’s rights with broader social, economic, and political oppression. For liberal feminists, equality often means that women should be equal to men in social, economic, and political spheres. In this view, women do not need radical structural reform (for example, of capitalism itself) but rather the same opportunities afforded to men. For example, the liberal feminist may argue that women have a right to enjoy the same prosperity capitalism affords to men, not that capitalism inherently creates inequalities between men and women.[14]

Classical Conservatism

Classical (or traditional) conservatism emphasizes traditions of the past, a natural law of principled moral order, and the social bonds that hold society together. Custom and convention—the way things have been done in the past—are often regarded as valued ends in themselves for the classical conservative, or traditionalist. In this respect, classical conservatism is deeply wary of an individualistic view of society. The concept of individual rights, above and beyond the valued traditions and customs of a community, can be regarded as the basis of communal and moral decay. We can see how classical conservatism is importantly different from classical liberalism in this regard. Classical liberalism has an individualist view of society. Recall that Locke, the father of classical liberalism, held great disdain for the aristocratic classes of privilege and wealth. Classical conservatives see the authority, leadership, and hierarchy of an aristocracy as a valuable “social glue” that keeps society well ordered. Locke was deeply critical of hierarchical bonds—he sought to attack the ideology of patriarchalism (the idea that society is well ordered by the “fathers” who lead with authority from up the social hierarchy, culminating in the ultimate father, God).

Historically, traditional conservatism can understood as broadly aligned with the monarchical and religious authorities of Europe that developed over the centuries. Kings and queens had a divine and absolute right to rule—individual subjects had no basis to question this authority. Hierarchy, authority, and royal custom provided a firm basis of both social and moral order. In this respect, the birth of classical liberalism in the writings of Locke and others represented a radical and progressive attack on this presumptions of authority and hierarchy. Indeed, the idea of progressivism is usefully contrasted with conservatism, and this is best seen when we look at these concepts temporally, that is, in time. Conservatives often see solutions to present political problems located in the past, and seek to resuscitate or preserve past customs and ways of doing things to bring about a solution to this problem. “How we did it in the past worked quite well, and so we should not abandon time-tested beliefs or practices in solving the problems of the day,” the conservative might say. For progressives, those same present political problems can only be solved by looking toward a hopeful if uncertain future, thinking of new ideas or practices beyond the horizon of what humans have already done. The past, for the progressive, is often populated with prejudices and injustices that cannot be the basis of practical political solutions in the present.

Edmund Burke portrait by James Northcote, 1831.

This distinction is clearly apparent when we look at the ideas of Edmund Burke, considered the father of classical conservatism, and his scathing critique of the French Revolution that emerged late in his life. The French Revolution, inspired by the American Revolution that had just ended, was a large-scale social and political upheaval that sought to destroy monarchical and church authority in France during the last years of the 18th century. The Revolution was widely considered to have descended into a kind of populist tyranny—public executions, political repression, and a “reign of terror” riddled France. Burke offered a philosophical rebuke of the radical French Revolution, decrying the destruction of order and authority the revolution brought about. In this attack, Burke provides a theoretical definition of conservatism: an ideological disposition to conserve order, conserve authority, and conserve the traditions that bind a social order together. The words conservation and conservative are etymologically related, and it should be easy to see why. Environmental conservation is committed to the preservation of our natural world; conservatism is committed to the preservation of traditions and customs in our human world.

Burke’s political theory was complex, however: he did not advocate for a return to absolute monarchy and considered himself a Whig in his time (a supporter of parliament over the absolute authority of the king). But he nonetheless believed firmly in the values of tradition, custom, and moral order.[15] While there are differences between classical conservatism and modern conservatism, as we shall see, there certainly are similarities (seemingly much more similarity than that between classical liberalism and modern liberalism). A traditionalist view of politics remains to this day. Social conservatives, for example, are seen as more traditionalist, or classically conservative, as opposed to economic conservatives, who are more aligned with classically liberal beliefs of individual self-interest and a non-interventionist approach to market activity. More specifically, a social conservative opposed to gay marriage may argue that “traditional marriage” should be preserved because this is a community-embraced custom that served as some basis for good moral and social order. An economic conservative, on the other hand, may not hold much of a position on gay marriage at all, may even be supportive of it, and would instead argue that deregulation of the economy and tax cuts would provide the economic freedom for individuals to prosper.

Modern Conservatism 

At its core, modern conservatism is a coalition of social and economic conservatives. As indicated above, social conservatives seek to preserve the social traditions, or past ways of life, that provided and should continue to provide the basis of what is regarded as good social and moral order. Indeed, social conservatives often view politics through a moral lens—our notions of right and wrong should guide political belief and action. In this sense, religion plays a key role in our lives and communities. Justice, for the social conservative, often means upholding tradition and morality, even at the expense of individual freedom. The freedom for a woman to terminate her pregnancy or for a man to marry another man should be restricted by moral principle and tradition, for example. Looking at social conservatism through the lens of freedom and equality gives us more questions than answers. While social conservatives very often value certain forms of freedom and equality (freedom of religious worship, for example, or the need for some equality in a traditional community), these concepts are generally less important to the social conservative than moral tradition.

For economic conservatives, the relationship between freedom and equality is much clearer—economic conservatives tend to value freedom, and in particular economic liberty, as much more important than equality.

In this respect, as indicated above, there are some similarities between classical liberalism and modern conservatism. One may go so far as to say that economic modern conservatism is a classically liberal response to the growth of the modern liberal state—a neo-Lockean response to the New Deal. Indeed, modern conservatism in American politics is widely considered to emerge after World War II as an ideological coalition that developed in the Republican Party. In American political parties, the idea that all conservatives are Republicans and all modern liberals are Democrats is actually quite a new phenomenon. As recently as the 1980s and 90s, there were liberal members of the Republican Party and conservative members of the Democratic Party. But the two major political parties in the U.S. are now much more ideologically aligned. These party developments have to a large degree shaped the visible contours of modern liberalism and modern conservatism.

Ronald Reagan

In understanding the differences between modern liberalism and modern conservatism, the role of regulation and government intervention may provide some clarity. Both modern liberals and modern conservatives support certain kinds of government intervention and regulation. It is often said that modern liberals want to regulate the boardroom, whereas modern conservatives want to regulate the bedroom—that is, modern liberals seek greater government intervention in the economy so as to level out socio-economic disparities and inequalities, whereas modern conservatives seek greater government intervention in restraining personal choices that they see undermining social and moral order, such as drug use, abortion, or gay marriage. But, as seen above, modern conservatism is a bit more complicated than this—economic conservatives are quite often less committed to the traditions and morals of social order than to the value of a free marketplace.

For economic conservatism, however, this does not necessarily imply the complete absence of government intervention. Government intervenes in the economy all the time; in many ways it can’t help but do so. Military spending, for example, has a noticeable effect on the economic marketplace (defense contractors provide the bulk of the American military’s equipment, and those contractors are by and large private, for-profit corporations). Farm subsidies, bank bailouts, and more generally speaking, monetary policy are also government interventions that have a substantial effect on the economy. The American government has a constitutionally recognized monopoly on the printing and coining of money, as well as the authority to set interest rates for loans that banks take out from other banks. Indeed, monetary policy is the main form of economic intervention by the American government. The question, therefore, is not whether the government should intervene in the economy or not, but rather what form this intervention should take.

Conservative Feminism

Conservative feminism is a contested term, and for many feminists, a contradiction in terms. But if we look to the realm of ethics, we might develop some concepts that may be regarded as both conservative (in a social sense) and feminist. Ethics regards the moral principles that suggest the right way for humans to live and behave. This returns us to the concept of justice—an ethical view of justice seeks to define those moral principles as justice in itself. For ethical feminists, being a woman is not some abstract concept, but a lived experience. The feminist philosopher Jean Bethke Elstain is one of the more prominent voices in ethical feminism. For Elstain, being a woman is an ethical stance based on the unique characteristics than define womanhood. In this view, the moral lives of women embody the characteristics of concern for others, compassion, care, and the responsibility of another’s well being.

Women, ethical feminists argue, are uniquely different from men.

Women, ethical feminists argue, are uniquely different from men. This is distinct from liberal feminism that advocates for women to join a “man’s world” of abstract theory, rights, competition for equality (for everyone to be treated the same), etc. Women should instead advocate for a politics of compassion that is derived from their lived moral experience of being women, and men can and should learn from women in this respect. Elstain argues that men typically strive for some sense of equality, an intellectual detachment that perceives every individual to be the same on one level or another. For women, it is emotional attachment of care and compassion, not intellectual detachment, that best characterizes their moral compass, according to ethical feminists. This emotional attachment may not be “intellectual” but can embody the wisdom of lived experience and ethical living every bit as much, and perhaps more, than abstract intellectual theorizing.[16]

As with all these ideologies, it is important for students to be critically engaged with these ideas. One might counter ethical feminism, for example, by pointing out that not all men strive for some sense of equality—indeed many men have advocated implicitly and explicitly for inequality between the sexes. Perhaps it is the ideology of liberalism itself, not men, that strives for such individual “sameness.” Additionally, one may also counter that being a woman means more that compassion, care, and all its implications of family life and child rearing. This too may be considered a liberal view, in the sense that individuals should have the right to choose their own ends and conceptions of a meaningful life. Indeed, ethical feminism can be sharply contrasted to liberal feminism.

Should women be regarded as just the same as men or are women different in ways that are valuable, ethical, and the basis of a feminist political project?

For Elstain and other ethical feminists, women and men speak different languages, the former of care and compassion, the latter of rights and abstract rules. Our political community would be more just if it listened to this unique perspective of women more. For example, Elstain questions the idea that family is a strictly private institution. The well-being of family and the lived experience of family life should in fact be the central topic of politics. What sort of policies benefit the care and compassion necessary for the well being of family life? The concept of individual rights may still be important, but not necessarily abstract or theoretical, as for example the right to share one’s experiences of life in an environment that is receptive to those views. In the final analysis, Elstain suggests that we listen more and develop the compassion necessary to accommodate different experiences. Public life, so often dominated by men, can learn this from women.[17]


In surveying some broad political ideologies, we first considered the question of justice. For most of the ideologies above, the question of justice is answered, to varying degrees, with the values of freedom or equality. Classical liberalism is an ideology more committed to the freedom of individuals, although the concept of equality is important. Where modern liberalism places greater emphasis on equality while still valuing freedom, socialism and democratic socialism move much further toward an equality of outcomes. Traditional (or classical) conservatism regards justice differently—a just society is one that preserves the social bonds of traditions, customs, and moral principles that animate the community. Modern conservatism is best understood as a coalition of social conservatives and economic conservatives. Social conservatives are more traditionalists, closer to the values of classical conservatism, whereas economic conservatives emphasize freedom for individuals in a marketplace and thus are more closely aligned with classical liberalism. We also looked at three variants of another ideology—feminism—that can give us an example of the broad nature of these political ideas and how we can draw connections to other political ideas.

Political ideologies are too numerous to catalog here, but in surveying liberalism, socialism, and conservatism, as well as their feminist variants, this chapter provides three broad ideological systems that often serve as foundations for other ideological beliefs. Lastly, let’s look at the variations of equality (comprehensive equality, equal opportunity, and equality of outcomes; negative and positive freedom) and how they might be applied to these broad ideologies of liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. All three may very well adhere to the concepts of comprehensive equality and equal opportunity. With regards to equality of outcomes, both liberalism and conservatism seem to suggest this is not ideal (although some semblance of equality in outcomes may well be a desirable consequence of redistributive justice in modern liberalism). Many variations of socialism, however, find an equality of outcomes to be a necessary and ideal value in society. For socialists, that we all have some rough equality of goods and resources that is in itself fair, or equitable, and suggests that communities in which we are closer together in terms of wealth and status provide a better sense of justice for individuals. In the next chapter, we will focus on political institutions and the kind of ideological foundations that inform different institutional arrangements.

Media Attributions

  1. Isaiah Berlin, “Two Conceptions of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 122–35.
  2. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Hackett Publishing: 1980. See in particular Chapter V, Of Property.
  3. Steven M. DeLue and Timothy Dale, Political Thinking, Political Theory, and Civil Society, 3rd edition. Pearson Education: 2009, pp. 149..
  4. James P. Young, Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea. Westview Press: 1996, pp. 149–68.
  5. DeLue and Dale, Political Thinking, pp. 316–18.
  6. National Center for Employee Ownership, https://www.nceo.org/articles/employee-ownership-100 (accessed on June 6, 2019).
  7. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. W. W. Norton: 1978, pp. 126–46.
  8. Ibid., “Capital, Volume One,” pp. 294–438.
  9. World Bank, China Economic Report, April 8, 2019: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview (accessed on August 1, 2019).
  10. Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR. University of North Carolina Press: 2016.
  11. European Trade Union Institute, https://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations/Across-Europe/Trade-Unions2 (accessed on June 5, 2019).
  12. Elisabeth Askin, Nathan Moore, and Vikram Shankar, The Health Care Handbook: A Clear and Concise Guide to the American Healthcare System. University of Washington at St. Louis Press: 2014.
  13. Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez. Brooking Institution Press: 2015.
  14. Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought, 2nd edition. Westview Press: 1998. See chapter on Marxist ad Socialist Feminism, pp. 94–129.
  15. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Penguin Classics: 1986.
  16. DeLue and Dale, Political Thinking, pp. 325–327.
  17. Ibid.
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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