September 17, 2012
If you get nothing else from these lessons, remember that politics can be roughly defined as the process of figuring out:
1. Who gets what
2. When they get it
3. How they will get it.
Despite that fact, ideology comes into play in political debates almost every time. Putting aside notions of "right" and "wrong", let's just take a look at the various political ideologies and where the American public lines up. Below is a nice little chart I made on paint during my 9:40 class...
So there are many different ways that we can map this spectrum out. Some would argue that it is more of a loop than a straight line, but I think this is probably the easiest to comprehend.
Let's start with the Conservative side because Liberal ideology actually emerges as a response to Conservative ideology and theory.
Some defining characteristics of Conservative ideology is as follows:
-The belief in a Free Market economy
- and minimum government interference
Conservatives believe that the Free Market will allocate resources efficiently and increase wealth.
On the furthest right we have ANARCHY. Now some of you might assert that "fascism" is the furthest right on the spectrum, but that's not the case. Fascism actually manages to combine a lot of elements from both sides in a unique way (it actually has a lot of state and government authority). Anarchy would be the complete absence of government. That means no regulation, no enforcement of contracts, no common currency. This is what Thomas Hobbes described as "the state of nature". And despite what some punk rockers might assert, it's not pretty.
Now as we move left on the spectrum keep in mind that we just are adding certain degrees of control and government interference.
LIBERTARIANISM prefers as little government interference as possible. There are things like contract enforcement, property protection, and a government protection agency like the police, but beyond that libertarians want as little regulation as possible.
Moving towards the far left let's take a look at Liberal Ideology. As stated before, the liberal movements grew somewhat as a response to conservative theory.
On the furthest left we have TOTALITARIANISM which places complete control in the government's hands. Now even though there have been many countries that have had totalitarian-like regimes, the term is often misused. The problem with totalitarianism (among many other things) is that it is almost impossible to maintain. Maoist China is an example of a regime that might be asserted as totalitarian. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia would be another example. But these kinds of regimes are short-lived mainly because they are not sustainable.
Next you have COMMUNISM which, again, has appeared almost nowhere in modern political society. Communism can be defined as the control of BOTH industry AND property by the government (a common order or group of people engaged in equal ownership). This means that everything belongs to everyone and no one, with the state acting as the mediating device. People often confuse socialism, communism, and totalitarianism, but what separates them is the amount of state control.
SOCIALISM combines a lot of state-owned industries with the concept of private property. This means that a lot (if not all) of the industry will be regulated by the state, but private property still exists (you can still own land). Contrary to much rhetoric, President Obama is not a socialist and I would feel confident saying that over 90% of politicians out there are vehemently opposed to completely state-run industry.
PROS AND CONS OF EACH SIDE:
Conservatism makes no promises of equality. In fact, it pretty much guarantees that there will be none. There are going to be winners and losers in a free-market economy, which many people often see as unfair. People's abilities to succeed in conservative society often depend on external factors and opportunities, and the more wealthy one becomes (or is born) the more opportunities they will have. A common critique on conservative ideology from an economic standpoint is that those born into privilege will have to work less hard than those who are born into poverty who have the odds stacked against them. This is somewhat antithetical to the American belief that if one works hard one will be able to succeed, and even if one does succeed it is often on a sliding scale.
Liberalism looked at conservatism and tried to correct for the inequality in society. In liberal theory, regulations and government programs were designed to make sure that people had equal access to resources (education, healthcare, etc.). The negative side effect to liberal programs is that as people start gaining more and more benefits from the government, their incentives to work goes down. This means that production in the countries will eventually go down if the labor force is not as motivated (economies like 20th century Russia have collapsed from this sort of inefficiency).
So where is American government right now?
Well it is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. The Democrats and the Republicans now occupy two sides in-between socialism and libertarianism with the majority of the American public in the middle or CENTRIST position. This means that while most Americans love the benefits afforded by a capitalist economy, we also really like government programs like public education, medicare and social security (if you disagree, try running on a platform that argues against them and we'll talk after your very imminent political suicide).
HOWEVER! It is important to know that right now, the United States is undergoing a period of dramatic (and if you're a Political Scientist, scary) POLARIZATION.
Polarization occurs when the distance between the two parties increases (so in this case the Republicans and Democrats become less likely to compromise), and the distance within the parties themselves decreases (the party platforms and beliefs are more unified within the Democrats or the Republicans). Now in case one wonders what the natural extent of two extremely polarized political parties means, I will point to one case in American history: The Civil War. Increased polarization means an increased likelihood of conflict.