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Chapter 3 Ideologies and Isms

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

People sometimes develop a set of beliefs about how the world is and how it ought to be. This is called an ideologyA set of beliefs about politics that seeks to explain both what’s wrong with the world and also how things could be made better.. Ideology often aims to be both descriptive—what the world actually looks like—and prescriptive—how it should ideally be.

The political world is full of lots of ideologies, each with its own logic and set of beliefs. A lot of them end in “ism,” and while we hear these terms, we may not know precisely what they mean. For example, people in the United States may label anything they don’t like “socialism,” which, in fact, has a particular meaning. Obviously, “isms” isn’t really a word, but it gives us a simple way to temporarily lump together different types of ideologies, many of which end with the suffix “ism.”

The term “ideology” itself is sometimes used in a negative way, as a narrow way of thinking about things. At its best, ideology gives us tools for understanding things, and perhaps a way to change them. At its worst, it closes our minds to other possibilities, and leaves us too focused on one way of doing things. In short, it’s a kind of faith, and carries with it all the costs and benefits of any kind of faith.

There’s usually some truth in most ideologies, but also some assumptions that we might at least question. At their best, ideologies give us a framework for understanding how things work, and how they might work better. At their worst, however, they give people an excuse to substitute faith for thinking. Faith can have a positive role in one’s life, but an unbridled faith in business or in government can lead us to ignore evidence that suggests something isn’t working as well as we might hope.

Because ideology tends to substitute belief for understanding, it is not the same thing as a social science, which seeks to understand. Social science understands imperfectly, because everybody on earth has an ideology. I can tell you what I believe, but that doesn’t make it right. On the other hand, one can take that idea too far as well. Some scholars talk about “the social construction of reality,” which is often used to suggest that everything we do is just what we’ve collectively invented for ourselves. Take that to its logical conclusion, and nothing is real or true, just invented by people. But if that was true, then the very idea of the social construction of reality also would be socially constructed, and therefore also untrue.

Ideology mobilizes and organizes people; if citizens believe in something, they will support it and work for it. Ideology prescribes specific actions and behaviors, be it chaining yourself to a tree or voting for a pro-business candidate. Ideology justifies these actions as serving a higher calling, a greater good. This “greater good” may or may not be true. Ideology also tends to talk smack about alternative ways of looking at things. At its best, ideology gives us a set of beliefs and behaviors that help us navigate political life. At its worst, it makes excuses for the damage that we do to others.

Let’s survey some isms, and try to focus on understanding them before we judge them.