The scope and function of ideologies

Week 3

Learning objectives

  • Understand the political spectrum
  • Compare religions and ideologies
  • Compare concepts of fairness and freedom
  • Understand the concept of justice and rule of law
  • Understand liberalism

Class coordinators

Team 3


The central concept this week is ideology – a systematic set of beliefs that describes, explains and prescribes action in political, economic, and social relations (my own definition – find one you like).  This clearly encompasses religions, many of which have gone through phases of political activism.  Our concepts of freedom, fairness, justice, and rights are grounded in our political socialization and in the belief systems which are prevalent in our societies.


Liberalism was one of the first systematically articulated political ideologies in the 18th century, and although conservatism logically preceded this radical new set of ideas, conservatism was articulated largely in reaction to liberalism, and particularly in reaction to the excesses of the Revolution in France. Established religions have sometimes had a conservative and reactionary tone, but they can also be revolutionary and destabilizing. Hitchens (2008, chapter 17) finds compelling similarities between religions and totalitarian ideologies. But against this, liberalism’s focus on the individual has made it one of the central ideologies of the last 200 years. While most religions and ideologies favour the collective over the individual, liberalism is almost unique in privileging individual rights and freedoms.


In the Tremblay text liberalism and conservatism are logically paired, and the accompanying readings from John Stuart Mill (liberal) and Edmund Burke (conservative) represent the debate as it played out in the 18th century. We’ll hear from the conservatives next week.


Having become mainstream after its early radical origins, core liberal ideas about freedom, rights, and rule of law are now deemed almost beyond criticism, but not always. In American political discourse, ‘liberal’ is a term of opprobrium for much of the voting public; why?  In European discourse, the expanding role of the European Union is viewed with suspicion by liberals and market enthusiasts alike, who see it as invasive and undemocratic (Laughland, 1998).  But critics of the market enthusiasts point out that market freedoms result in enormous disparities of political power, making a mockery of democracy.  Losurdo’s (2011) alternative history of liberalism suggests that liberalism has in fact always been oppressive, linked from its inception to slavery, economic exploitation, and inevitably growing inequality. Not everyone is convinced by his evidence – one review is attached under optional readings. How do you know whether this is an authoritative review?


Liberal democratic societies can vary greatly, and one study based on comparative political history compares the evolution of political values in the US and New Zealand (Fischer, 2012), concluding that America’s political values were shaped by resistance to government tyranny in the political memory of the founding settlers, while New Zealand’s values were shaped in the gentler era of 19th century reform liberalism. The consequence is that America privileges freedoms while New Zealand privileges fairness. Fischer also finds evidence explaining the red-state / blue-state divide in American politics. In his argument about historical shaping of values, we can find echoes of the fragment thesis that claims to explain differences in Canadian and US political culture, and our different concepts of liberalism and conservatism (see Leuprecht, 2003).


Tremblay, Ch 17 on political community and citizenship is paired with the concept of liberalism, because when we treat every individual as sovereign and equal that we are faced with the difficulty of aggregating their interests in a functioning political system.  In fact, ‘liberal democracy’ entails an inherent contradiction: liberalism suggests free and equal individuals, while democracy suggests constraint of the minority according to laws established by the majority. One of my professors when I was a cadet (Yvan Gagnon) described the central political problem: we are free individuals, but must live together.

An illustration of some of the concepts involved in a discussion of ideology.

Learning objectives

  • Understand the political spectrum
  • Compare religions and ideologies
  • Compare concepts of fairness and freedom

  • Understand the concept of justice and rule of law

  • Understand liberalism

Required readings

Tremblay, ch.4 (part I), and John Stuart Mill

Tremblay, ch.17

Scott, ch.3 see skills.

Optional readings

Tremblay, Ch. 16 Religion and Politics

Review of Losurdo (2011) Liberalism a counter-history

Liberal Party of Canada web site

Liberalism for beginners

David Cayley, “The Myth of the Secular,” CBC Ideas, host Paul Kennedy. This is a fascinating seven-part series originally broadcast in 2012.


Self-assessment questions

  1. Where do you fit in the ideological space described by the political compass?  Do you think this is an accurate representation of your views? How would you have to answer the questions differently to move from one quadrant to another?

  2. What are the two axes in the political compass, and how do these axes reflect ideological positions?  Do political parties line up along these differences predictably?

  3. Beginning with dictionary definitions of “fairness” and “freedom” how do these relate to “justice” “equality,” and “equity”?  Think about ideological positions on taxation and redistribution of income reflected in the political compass survey that you completed. (For our discussion on fairness and freedom, see also the the links to Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land in required reading under week 5; see also Fischer, 2012, Fairness and Freedom)

  4. What does “rule of law” imply?  Is it the same as “justice” or “fairness” ?

  5. What are the central tenets of political liberalism? Does it mean the same thing in every country?


The seminar this week will focus on the political compass exercise, and draw out normative and empirical issues of fairness, freedom, justice, rule of law, and individual and collective rights.


Weekly activities can be adjusted by class coordinators in consultation with the professor

Week 5 checklist of material

[1] Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation

[2] Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]

[3] Review/amend focus of learning objectives  [5D]

[4] Key terms [5D, GLI]

[5] Mapping the Political Landscape [5D, GLI]

[6] External resources [class coordinator]

[7] Exam questions [5D, GLI]

[8] Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)

Next up

Establishment ideologies

David Last, updated September 2016