Skip to main content

The Three Ideologies in American Political Life

As the long and painful presidential election season unfolds, it is useful to analyze the three competing ideologies that dominate current debate. Each has its adherents. Each represents interests. Each explains how the world works in a different way. And each has a different vision of a better future.

The idea of an “ideology” is a complicated one. For some, ideologies are mere rationalizations of interests and preferences. For others, ideologies are bundles of false, maybe dumb ideas. They can come from religion, popular culture, political parties, or simple principles that are used to explain the universe. 
Perhaps the most useful concept of “ideology” is one that refers to a body of interconnected ideas or a system of thought about how the world works. These ideas often explain the meaning of life, how and why society is organized the way it is, and also how it ought to be organized. However, ideas do not come from the ether. They come from class position and concrete interests, background, social status, and education by family, schools, peer groups, and popular culture. 
What is important about ideologies goes beyond which ones are more accurate than others but how ideological clashes might help explain political conflict. As the long and painful presidential election season unfolds, it is useful to analyze the three competing ideologies that dominate current debate. Each has its adherents. Each represents interests. Each explains how the world works in a different way. And each has a different vision of a better future.
The dominant ideology in the United States today, indeed much of the industrial capitalist world, is “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism has a long history with roots in the founding of classical capitalist economic theory. “Neo” refers to the contemporary manifestation of the classic tradition. Neoliberalism assumes that humankind is comprised of value-maximizing individuals existing in a competitive, sometimes alien social world. Society is a constellation of competing economic actors, in our own day mostly huge corporations and banks. The ideology claims that corporations and banks engage in economic activity in a market place. Through competition some grow and contribute to society and others are unable to compete. It is through market competition of economic actors that individuals sustain themselves and improve their material conditions.
According to neoliberalism, the fundamental institutions and processes in society are markets that promote competition. Political institutions are constructed to protect and enhance market competition. Political institutions must be limited in power, neoliberalism suggests, such that they do not interfere with the workings of the market. Since the 1970s, proponents of neoliberal ideology have advocated downsizing government (except the military), privatizing public institutions, deregulating how markets work, and liberating the citizenry from controls, constraints, and safety nets. Neoliberal policies are usually called austerity policies.
In the end, society is comprised of atomized individuals and corporate economic actors who pursue their own gain and out of this pursuit, the collective good will emerge. Neoliberal ideology is shared by mainstream Democrats and Republicans, professional economists, most of the media, educational institutions, and popular culture.
A new ideology that has emerged from the recent presidential debate might be called the “virtues of wealth” ideology. This perspective suggests that individuals exist in competitive societies and markets reign supreme. And while this is an historical inevitability and as a practical matter a pretty good way to organize society, sometimes the accumulation of wealth fosters greed, avarice, and stupidity. The political system falls prey to the influence of those with large wealth who seek to buy elections, bribe politicians, and in other ways influence the political process by misusing their resources. The ideology about the virtues of wealth suggests that the corruption of accumulated wealth sometimes leads to the rise of incompetence in public policy. Unless there are appropriately wise guardians, accumulated wealth can lead to bad government. During times of extreme misuse of power, new guardians of the public must emerge to correct the errors of government and the economy. 
The best candidates to reconstruct the state come from those who are independently wealthy and who do not have to rely on a donor class to win elections. They are the disinterested wealthy. And in fact they have the freedom by virtue of their wealth to challenge economic and political elites who rule because they secured financial support from others and gained wealth from participating in government. The virtues of wealth ideology allow its believers to challenge the economic ruling class and political elites in such a way as to appeal to the majority who have no wealth or power and who clearly recognize that they are being lied to by the ruling elite. Finally, deeply embedded in this ideology also is a sense of how wealth proves talent and virtue. Conversely those without wealth and privilege by definition lack virtue. In this way, the virtue of wealth ideology is profoundly racist.   During the current two-year presidential race Donald Trump has emerged as the preeminent expression and promoter of the ideology of the virtuous wealthy.
A third ideology, twenty-first century socialism, emphasizes that the interconnection of global problems--from environmental devastation, to class exploitation and growing economic inequality, to racism, sexism, and homophobia, to authoritarianism, and internal and international violence--are intimately connected to the development of the capitalist system. Twenty-first century socialism sees the concentration and centralization of economic power as the driving force in creating a world order dominated by finance capital, a few hundred multinational corporations, and imperial states. 
The ideology of twenty-first century socialism, while recognizing the historic rise to power of global capitalism also recognizes that capitalism generates growing resistance and creates demands for change. The magnitude of resistance varies from epoch to epoch, but it is clear that the totality of what is called history is comprised of the drive to hegemony contradicted by resistance to it. Those who resist engage in education, organization, and agitation to create human unity. 
According to this third ideology, societies are constituted by communities and the presupposition that being human means being part of communities of activity. The belief in community is fundamentally opposed to the neoliberal conceptualization that the basic units of societies, atomized individuals, can only survive by acting independently of others. The vision of twenty-first century socialism is based on the proposition that work should be organized cooperatively and the wealth produced by society should be shared equitably by everyone who helps produce it. Class exploitation, racism, sexism, and homophobia are antithetical to the core of this ideology.
The twenty-first century socialist ideology assumes that building human solidarity, working together to create grassroots forms of production and distribution, and struggling for the political empowerment of the people offer the possibility for further human development. Paradoxically more people in the United States and around the world share the ideology of twenty-first century socialism than the other two but currently appear to be the weakest politically of the three ideologies. How to realize the vision embedded in this ideology is the human project of our time.