Establishment ideologies

Week 4

Learning objectives

  • Understand conservatism
  • Understand the difference between neoconservatism and conservatism
  • Understand the concept of elite theory

Class coordinators

Team 4


Conservatism has been most effectively articulated as a defence of the status quo or the establishment against an insurgent or anti-systemic movement.  In the 18th Century, liberalism was such an insurgent movement, and Burke was a spokesman for the establishment. But once liberalism had become established as the dominant ideology that served the interests of owners and elites, liberals were left defending liberal doctrines as the preferred status quo.  In this sense, the classic liberals and market enthusiasts of the 20th Century – Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US, or Brian Mulroney in Canada – can be seen as neo-conservatives –  new conservatives standing in opposition to calls for larger government and redistributive spending.  Confusingly, the same politicians and their policies have also been labeled neo-liberals – or new liberals – harkening back to the policies of individual freedom, small government, and laissez-faire economics which the British school of political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Locke) associated with dynamic economic growth during the industrial revolution and Britain’s rise to global power.

Neo-conservatism frequently differs from its 18th Century conservative forebears by minimizing collectivist tendencies; while Burke saw society as an organic whole, with mutual responsibilities between its members, neo-conservatives tend to see individuals as responsible for their own fates, thus resembling classical liberals more than classical conservatives, and justifying the neo-liberal label.

We will spend some time exploring the international ramifications of liberal ideologies, enthusiasm for markets (unregulated when lack of regulation suits the interests calling for it) and the so-called Washington Consensus. (This is a politically loaded issue, so can you trust the site to be impartial?  Look at the bottom of the page for the source or author, and consider its content.)

Just as liberalism has a distinct meaning in the context of American politics, there are other ways in which the terms neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism are used in the American political discourse.  You should be cautious about accepting any of these meanings unquestioningly, as all political terms come with a political agenda, and the meaning of words is part of the battleground of ideas, which underlies all ideological struggle.

If you explore sites like New of Interest TV, you will see one aspect of descriptions of elites intended for general audiences. This certainly constitutes a ‘theory’ about elites and their role in (American) society, but is not the elite theory of political science. The wikipedia article on elite theory has a good short summary of some of the key theorists who have addressed political elites (also see the comment about Wikipedia on the skills page!)  But notice that here we have diverged from ideology to analysis.   The News of Interest TV site has a clear ideological stance which purports to oppose the control of elites and stand up for individuals.  Language like this represents an ideological stance:

“A small group of little known and very wealthy “Globalist Elite” individuals who have been building their influence over generations such as members of the Rothschild, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie families, have taken control of the United States Government and most of the rest of the world through selecting and controlling most political candidates, controlling the mainstream media, and fraudulently altering election results.”

Compare the language of the elite theorists like Lipset (1969) writing about Robert Michels (1911) who coined the phrase, “the iron law of oligarchy”, or C. Wright Mills (1956) writing on the power elite.  These scholars are describing and explaining, presenting evidence to informed and educated audiences. The difference lies partly in the balance of logic, rhetoric, and evidence.  Ideological language tends to rely heavily on assertion and rhetorical devices, while scholarly work relies more on logic and evidence.  More important than this distinction is the question of motive: ideological writing aims to stir and motivate to action, (or while scholarly writing aims to improve understanding.

Learning objectives

  • Understand conservatism

  • Understand the difference between neoconservatism and conservatism

  • Understand the concept of elite theory

Required readings

Tremblay, ch.4 (part II) and Edmund Burk

Tremblay, ch.5 (part I) socialist and Marxist thought (as examples of an anti-systemic movement)

Scott, ch.8 (section 2) see skills.

Optional readings

Selected readings on conservatism, neo-conservatism, and elite theory

Tremblay, Ch. 16 Religion and Politics

News of interest TV, on the neocon globalist agenda (who pays for the site? what views does it espouse? what combination of subjects does it address?)

Conservative Party of Canada web site – policies page

Summary: Khan and McNiven on Components of conservatism


Make sure you are on track for assignment 1, which we will discuss again next week.

Self-assessment questions

  1. What are the major components of conservatism as an ideology?  Do these conform to your understanding of the Conservative Party of Canada?
  2. How would you distinguish between conservatism, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, and liberalism?  What historical references should you keep in mind in drawing these distinctions?  When someone claims to be a neo-conservative, or accuses someone of being a neo-conservative, what questions can you ask them to determine what they mean by that
  3. What are the characteristics of elites?  How do we know who they are?
  4. Why are elites important?  How can we study them using the various approaches to political science and the various methods for collecting primary data in the social sciences?

Seminar / class

The seminar this week will focus on the self assessment questions.  Be prepared in particular to work through question 4 using the approaches and methods discussed in week 2.


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

David Last, updated September 2016