The Political Spectrum

Posted: March 23, 2011 in Current Events, Integral Studies

With the possibility of an election lurking on the Canadian political horizon, I’ve found myself engaged in a number of political discussions which have taught me something important.  The average person does not seem to have a clear idea of the actual political philosophies of conservatives and liberals.  In Canada, we have a Progressive Conservative and a Liberal political party, along with the New Democratic Party, which is probably best described as having a Social Democrat philosophy.  I’m going to try to provide an objective overview of the ideology associated with each of these shades of political thought.  While a “conservative” or “liberal” may not want to associate him/herself with all of the characteristics of each party, there are general characteristics which can faithfully describe the vast majority of hard core followers of each.

What does it mean to be a conservative?  The essential meaning of the word is one who clings to the old way of doing things, or at best the status quo.  They tend to be opposed to change, unless it is “change back”.  Historically, the conservatives (at least in Canada) come from the old Tory party, which was connected to old British power structures, values and the privileges of the wealthy.

Politically, conservatives believe that government should be limited in power and be as small and unobtrusive as possible.  It values the worth and freedom of the individual above that of the group or society.  Policies are intended to strengthen that individual freedom and people are encouraged to fend for themselves with the aim of getting what they deserve.  Politically, conservatives are opposed to social relief, welfare or socialized medicine, as these programs represent the interference of the state in the affairs of individuals.  Most kinds of regulation are considered an imposition of the state, and are discouraged.  However, law and order seem to be priorities (although critics would claim that white collar crime, or crime against society rather than an individual, do not seem to have the same priority).  Extreme conservatives wish to constrain the size and function of government to an extreme, and are called Libertarians or, in even more extreme cases, anarchists.

Ethically, conservatives tend to gravitate towards family values and traditional religious values.  Those in a society who are strongly connected to the practice of their respective religions, frequenting places of worship, whether they be church, mosque or temple, strongly tend to be conservative, -especially if that worship is of a fundamentalist nature.

What does it mean to be a liberal?  Historically, the Liberal party in Canada arose from the Whigs and Reform parties, who campaigned supporting greater rights for citizens who were not among the wealthy “Family Compact”.  Whigs championed the idea of representative government and the reform of government structure to provide farmers and workers with more effective say in the decisions of government.  Essentially, they were wresting the power of government out of the exclusive possession of the wealthy.  (Interestingly, there is a “Modern Whig Party” in the United States which proclaims itself as a centrist party, taking ideas from both conservative and liberal policies.)

Politically, liberals begin to consider the rights of the society over those of the individual.  Liberal view of government is not opposed to some intervention of government in the affairs of individuals and businesses.  Individual freedom is important, but the good of society takes precedence in some cases.  Government policies tend to favour the working class and underprivileged at least as much as, if not more than the wealthy and big business.

For example, government restrictions on monopolies would be a liberal policy.  Companies are forbidden to be monopolies because it is judged that monopolies are not good for the general health of the economy.  Similarly, liberals would see the benefit of unions and collective bargaining since unions would help to offset the raw power of large corporations and encourage more fairness for otherwise powerless workers.  (Conservatives are opposed to unions and bargaining rights because it is seen as an imposition on the corporation’s independence.)  Liberals see the function of government to make decisions for the benefit of the greater good and are not overly concerned with the size of government and the scope of its interference.  Liberals believe that government has the right (and responsibility) to exist, and to intervene when necessary in the affairs of individuals and businesses.

Ethically, liberals are more willing to break with the past.  They are forward looking and not afraid of change.  New or differing life styles are not feared.  New ideas are valued.  Morality is not accepted on the sole grounds that it is traditional.  As a result, religious values tend to be more moderate, tempered, or in some cases, just absent.  A humanistic foundation for morals and ethics is more common.

Social Democrats tend to be more extreme liberals.  Socialistic views see the good of the worker as superior to that of the wealthy and society’s interests to be superior to those of the individual.  Social Democrats have no hesitation to increase the size and influence of government.  Government is seen as a priority in protecting the greater good.  Corporations must be regulated to protect the environment.  Banks regulated to protect the economy.  Unions and collective bargaining must be respected to insure workers are not exploited.  It is the responsibility of government to organize society for that greater good with such things as universal medical insurance and welfare plans, among other things.

Ethically, Social Democrats tend to be more extreme liberals.  They tend to be relativistic in their values and multicultural in their perspective.  New ideas are to be embraced and traditions have no intrinsic merit.  Values are based on humanistic principles rather than religious morality.

Now, I’ve tried to be objective here.  I would love to stand corrected by anyone who disputes any part of this.  It is well known that I am not equally objective in many of my other posts and that I have some well defined political beliefs.  The above comments are meant to be a starting point for further discussion, because, as I said earlier, I think that a lot of people just don’t really know what the ideology is of the party they are choosing to support.  Liberal, Conservative and NDP party membership often compromise on their policies out of political necessity.  Right now, with a minority government, policy making is like a chess game.  However, if any of these parties had a clear mandate, they would work towards the goals I have laid out in the above paragraphs.  This is the heart of each party and ideology.

  1. pwiinholt says:

    Part of the reason I wrote this is to reply to all of the people who are saying that it doesn’t matter which part you vote for. They’re all the same. Well, I’m hoping that this shows how wrong that statement is. While every political party tends towards a centralist stand to better insure their survival, each one is standing in clear and different ideological territory. When you support a party, you support that ideology.

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