In the American context, the term ideology evokes the values associated with the two main political parties. The Republican and Democratic parties have over time come to be linked with conservative and liberal ideologies respectively. Before dwelling much on the effect of these two main ideologies on the American politics, let’s define the meaning of the term ‘ideology’. Developing a consensus on the true meaning of the term can then help in determining its effect on the politics of the day. Much has been debated on this two ideologies but a universally accepted definition of the term ‘ideology’ has been elusive (ANDREW 2012, p.75).
Despite this hurdles, sociologists, and political scientists have defined an ideology as a belief system with a set of ideas, attitudes and values that are fairly clearly spelt out. These ideas, values and attributes determine the socio political and economic path a given leadership follows. An ideology consists of a set of ideas and the way to realize the goals spelt out in those ideas is through the formulation of relevant policies(ANDREW 2012, p.88).An ideology contains ideas that define the relationship between citizens and their government, its role and its powers over them.
Other ideologies exist but are hardly mentioned due to the dominance of the two main ideologies in the American political environment. Those ideologies include socialism, radicalism, libertarianism, and fascism. Some of them could be considered minor ideologies that constitute aspects of the two main ideologies. Others have no national appeal due to their unrealistic objectives and extreme ideas that mainstream society may not relate with such as radicalism (ANDREW 2012, p.114).
Consistency is also a problem in the American politics with both conservatives and liberal shifting sides in relation to the issue of strengthening of either state or federal government at different times in history. Around early 1800 the liberals represented by the Jeffersonian Republic Party stood for strengthening of state rights while the conservatives, represented then by the Federalist Party campaigned for a stronger federal government. The 1930s saw a complete reversal of the earlier scenario with conservatives calling for more state rights while the liberals advocated for a stronger federal government. Consistency seems to taken root with both sides being clearly identifiable with certain stands on issues (ANDREW 2012, p.95). Conservatives have always stood for a robust defense system that can check the influence of communism and terrorism. They also call for harsher penalties for suspects in a bid to control criminal activity. They also hold strong views on certain issues such as gay rights, abortion, and drugs regulations while their liberal counterparts have been more accommodating to those accused of the vices calling for more open discussion on the issues and respect for their individual rights in making certain choices (LEONIE, DAVID, JACK, & STANLEY, 2013 p.15).
Conservatism has however been the most dominating ideology in the American political landscape since the 1960s.The true meaning of conservatism is still debatable though there are two main recognized strains of the ideology i.e., modern and traditional. Traditional conservatism advocates for retaining the status quo unless it is absolutely necessary. Traditional conservatives value order in society and call for the use of social institutions in maintaining social order such as schools, family, churches and community institutions. Modern conservatives hold less static beliefs and may even call for more drastic changes in society. As opposed to the traditional conservatism which prides itself as less ideological, modern conservatism believes in a strong ideology. Modern conservatism is flexible and calls for the implementation of changes that counter the ills that result from the effects of liberalism commonly associated with the democrats (LEONIE, DAVID, JACK, & STANLEY, 2013 p.45). Their calls are best represented in the current political environment by such organizations as The Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union. Modern conservatives also retain the main ideals of conservatism by advocating for preserving the original governing principles of politics, government and constitutions. The tea party and occupy movements are a social reflection of this modern conservatism though with populist objectives.
Liberalism’s main principle is the recognition of and respect for individual freedoms. It calls for restriction of the government and its organs and agents from violating personal rights in their law enforcement efforts. While conservatives also value respect for individual liberties, they seem to place order higher while liberals consider freedoms more important than social order (LEONIE, DAVID, JACK, & STANLEY, 2013 p.67).
Liberalism is represented by two main forms. Classical liberalism stresses the importance of individual liberties and equality. It also seeks the limitation of government influence in the society as illustrated in their calls for a more liberalized market. Social welfare liberalism stresses the economic and social security of civilians as opposed to individual liberties. The conservatives on the other hand call for observation of the rule of law and order and the national defense and the government’s role in this as well as controlling moral issues (LEONIE, DAVID, JACK, & STANLEY, 2013 p.72).
Liberals have over time been associated with a weak government. Their opponents point to their less enthusiasm in the areas of national defense, crime control and their apparent defense of perceived perverts such as gays and their lax attitude in dealing with such cases as abortion as indicators of poor leadership. In the 60s and 70s, this was a major perception obstacle that almost stigmatized the liberals reducing their public appeal. The liberals on the other hand have used their fight for individual freedoms and respect for their choices as a key element of the American identity which they then use to show the progressive nature of their ideology. The less control the authorities exert on the civilians, the higher probability that they shall be able to realize their full potential through exploitation of individual talents for their own good as well as the overall growth of economy and this is one argument the liberals use to win support (LEACH, 2002 p.147).
Other popular ideologies worth mentioning though less relevant in the American context include socialism and communism. Socialism seeks to achieve equality by using government agencies to control the economy. State control is felt in all sectors and more so in the economic activities where it provides regulations aimed at promoting equality among civilians (LEACH, 2002 p.78).
Communism is socialism but the government has absolute control over all the productive sectors of the economy including the private sector. It is variously referred to as totalitarianism. State power is unchallengeable in a communist state and can influence how people live by formulating policies that regulate social interactions including family, labor and business welfare (LEACH, 2002 p.90).
An ideology depends on the interpretation given to it. Inconsistencies defining various ideologies provide grounds for politicians to exploit it and achieve their political goals, often by deceiving the public. If an ideology is serving the interests of public to their satisfaction, it should be supported regardless of the meanings, values and ideals attached to it(LEACH, 2002 p.87).