Political Philosophies: What Differentiates People?

By Richard “Chip” Peterson, PhD, Feb. 28, 2011



            It is clear to the common observer that people in the U.S. have different political philosophies. That is not an unusual observation since every individual is unique and may have a unique philosophy of life and politics. However, what is unusual is that many people seem to share similar philosophies and their beliefs often cluster in a similar manner that tends to match the beliefs held by other people in their group.

            Since I spent most of my academic life as either the director of a doctoral program, as a doctoral student advisor, or both, I am accustomed to looking for interesting researchable topics and hypotheses that might explain observed behavior. Thus, in this essay, I will attempt to describe different political philosophies as I perceive them, suggest tests that might help explain better which philosophies tend to cluster together, and present tentative hypotheses that possibly could be tested to explain why some people perceive the political world differently or with different passions than others. Hopefully, some aspiring graduate students or professors in political science, sociology, psychology or other areas might find some topics here that could be usefully researched. Hopefully, anyone else with an interest in politics and political differences will find these musings interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.

            To begin, it is clear that politics in the U.S. is dominated by people who may variously describe themselves as Liberal(progressive), Conservative, or Libertarian. These categories are further subdivided among those who deem themselves to be socially conservative, economically conservative, conventional(“Democratic”) liberals, and radical liberals(progressives). Independents also exist in great variety, and Libertarians, while sharing a common interest in promoting individual freedom and limited state power, may have a variety of ancillary beliefs. To illustrate possible differences in peoples' beliefs by category, I will pose several questions and my hypothesized responses if a person in each category were to be asked various questions by a political polling firm. The responses might tend to be either agreement (+), disagreement(-), or mixed or indifferent(?) in each group. If one were to run a statistical factor analysis on the responses, one would expect the positive and negative responses I hypothesize to cluster together within each grouping, even though, of course, not all people would hold exactly all the same beliefs. 

            I will pose a number of statements and list the expected responses (+,-, or ?) for each group.

                                    RadicalLib        ConvLiberal     SocialCons       EconomicCon   Libertarian        Ind.

A.Income Inequality is undesirable and should be reduced by government policy                                                                                    +                      +                      -                       -                       -                       ?                           B.Private Charity should help poor people

                                    +                      +                      +                      +                      +                      ?

C.Government should give poor people whatever they need

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                       -                       ?

D.Marriage should only be between a man and a woman

                                    -                       -                       +                      ?                      ?                      +

E.Women should always be paid the same as men in all jobs

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                       ?                      ?

F.Government intervention in peoples' lives is essential for  saving the environment         

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                                             ?

G.The military is too powerful and should be limited to homeland defense

                                    +                      +                      -                       -                       +                      -

H.The U.S. should try to make the world safe for Democracy everywhere 

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                       -                       ?

 I.Women should be paid the same as men in all similar jobs, regardless of work demands

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                       -                       ?

J.Educated people are needed in government in order to tell less educated people how to lead their lives better.

                                    +                      +                      +                      -                       -                       ?

K.Profits are bad since they occur because workers are underpaid

                                    +                      +                      -                       -                       -                       ?

L.Nonprofit institutions are better than corporations since they are only concerned with peoples' welfare and not with profits

                                    +                      +                      +                      -                       -                       ?

M.People should be allowed to keep most or all of what they earn or produce, even if they are rich

                                    +                      +                      ?                      -                       -                       ?                     

N.We should only allow imports from countries that have fair labor and environmental laws

                                    +                      +                      -                       -                       -                       ?

O.We should have free and open markets for all goods and services

                                    -                       -                       +                      +                      +                      ?

P.Government should create jobs when people are unemployed

                                    +                      +                      +                      -                       -                       ?

Q.Government education is better than private education for raising good citizens

                                    +                      +                      -                       ?                      -                       ?



            If one wanted to conduct an interesting research project, he or she could ask the above questions, or similar or related questions to a sample of people and then try to determine which responses tended to be correlated with peoples' self-identity or the researchers identity of which group the people fell into. I suspect that the answers would tend to cluster together much as I have hypothesized.

            The reason for the clustering of opinions is two-fold. First, people are social animals who seem to have a tendency to gather in groups and to share ideas and opinions within the group. Second, in order to enforce group cohesion, individuals with deviant opinions relative to the group are often pressured to agree with the dominant group beliefs. In the extreme case of excommunication, individuals can be expelled from and deprived contact with other members of religious groups. In less extreme cases, people may feel subtle pressures to conform and be rewarded with group accolades (or expected accolades) if they do as the group wishes. The latter pressures could explain to some degree the willingness of suicide bombers to undertake their task in the expectation of both earthly accolades and heavenly rewards  for their martyrdom . It also could explain the tendency of many people associated with various liberal groups to lionize people who are thought to exemplify the principles of that group (the Kennedys, for instance, have been lionized by many people of a “liberal” persuasion). Similar pressures may exist in political parties where people are pressured to agree with and advance the party platform and the most devoted people to the platform are lionized and potentially elevated to higher positions in the organization.


            In my experience, the categories I have defined above correspond with various members of each group that I have known. I also have observed that groups with similar philosophies tend to cluster together in mutually reinforcing ways.

            Thus, radical liberals and ordinary liberals all tend to favor, environmental causes, gay rights, women's rights, labor unions, and government control of economic activity (in more extreme cases, as with many radicals, liberals believe in socialist or communist philosophies of government ownership of the means of production, and in less extreme cases, many believe in extensive government control of allowable private activities and uses of private property).  I have observed in my life that many people who share liberal beliefs tend to belong to similar overlapping organizations (such as women's rights organizations or environmental organizations)with others who share similar beliefs. Many liberals are drawn from educated classes who feel that they have the ability and obligation to help other less educated people improve their lives, so they generally tend to favor “educated” government control and regulation of private activities.

            Social conservatives often are drawn from groups that are religious in a fundamental nature. They tend to believe in the sanctity of the conventional family and that an individual's behavior in the here and now can affect the individual's  prospects in the  afterlife. The emphasis on individual behavior means that social conservatives tend to reject the socialistic tendencies of liberals (progressives). Thus, many of them tend to be economic conservatives as well, and believe that people generally should be able to keep the economic rewards they earn or produce. However, religious Christians, while they believe in , “as you sow, so shall you reap'” also may believe that it easier for poor, humble,  people to get to heaven than rich people and that people should do charitable works—and often tithe. Thus, many are not adverse to income redistribution and charitable works policies of government, even though, in general, they tend to favor private charity. Because many do not like government's attempts to socialize and control the belief systems of their children, social conservatives often are not happy with public education programs and are more likely than others to home-school their children or send them to private religiously oriented schools.  Social conservatives differ from  some  other types of conservatives in that they believe that government intervention may be needed to ensure that a society is moral and just and is consistent with their religious teachings. In particular, many favor bans on abortion and on gay marriage and many favor allowing religious displays at Christmas to be placed on public property and the “Ten Commandments” to be posted in court houses.

            Economic conservatives tend to believe that people should largely be able to keep what the earn, that free markets are more efficient in allocating resources than government, and that free trade is generally beneficial. They also tend to believe that people know better than government what is most satisfying to them and how to best allocate their money to advance their own welfare. Since economic conservatives generally believe that government intervention, even if it is well-meaning, often can have unintended and unanticipated deleterious consequences, they tend to believe in limited government—even if that means that some people behave in a manner that they do not like. Many economic conservatives tend to be Libertarian in nature and, like Libertarians,  many believe that government should provide national defense and enforce civil contracts but should not otherwise get involved in individuals' lives as long as people do not harm, cheat,  or defraud other people. However, some economic conservatives believe that some government intervention in private markets may be necessary in the event of market failures caused by excessive monopoly powers of some business, union,  or service providers, or by extra-legal restraints on trade, or by trade subsidies or restraints exercised by other nations. Many businesspeople tend to be economic conservatives, and meet in business-oriented groups such as professional groups, local clubs, and chambers of commerce. Most support private charitable activities in lieu of government welfare, that has to be paid with tax levies and supports a possibly inefficient bureaucracy. However, many favor public education as it reduces their cost in obtaining and training employees. Also, many economic conservatives, while favoring free market competition for their suppliers,  also are quite willing to lobby for governmental support or special privileges or monopoly powers for their firms, services, or industries. Thus, some are quite happy to benefit from government activity as long as it enhances their profits even though, intellectually, they advocate the case for free markets.

            Libertarians tend to be more logically consistent than economic conservatives in general. While many economic conservatives tend to be believe that monopolies should be regulated, Libertarians believe that many monopolies only exist because of special privileges granted by governments, and that private monopolies, unprotected by government regulation,  will tend to evaporate over time as people substitute other products or additional supplies of the monopolized good or service become available from other suppliers. The main problem they see is that government laws and regulations often create and protect monopoly powers for major political contributors. Libertarians also believe that free markets are best for consumers in that they are best for providing for consumer needs. If there are problems with information flows in markets, they believe that free market solutions, such as Underwriter's Laboratory or Consumers' Union will arise to provide private certifications or information on which consumers can rely. Libertarians also tend to believe that since government intervention often has unintended consequences, it is best to have limited government wherever possible. Government has an appropriate role to play in providing for national defense and for civil order through the provision or a judicial system and a rule of law so that people will act civilly toward each other—not cheat or harm or defraud others. Abortion is a contentious issue among Libertarians since some believe that people should have full legal rights and government protections from the time of inception while other Libertarians think such protections should accrue only at the time the fetus is potentially survivable or is born.  Thus, Libertarians differ from social conservatives in that they have no uniform policy regarding abortion. However, they also tend to believe that people should have a large degree of free choice in determining how their children should be educated. Libertarians  may diverge from economic conservatives in that they have greater faith in the power of free markets  and less generally believe that government can improve people's lives by intervening in free markets—since government intervention often becomes self-serving since over time “power corrupts.” Because they tend to take principled long-run positions, Libertarians tend to be idealistic . However, while they may be correct in the long run, in the short run, many people , including nominal “economic conservatives,” many of whom wish to benefit who from government regulation or subsidies, and “social conservatives,” who wish to use government force to enforce their moral beliefs upon others, as well as “progressives,” who benefit from government employment or the satisfaction of seeing government force other people to do what they think is desirable, have tended to cooperate in advancing the size and scope of government in recent years.

            Finally, Independents and others do not tend to have uniform beliefs. Many are members of “socially tolerant” religious groups and do not wish to use government to enforce their moral beliefs, or believe in multiculturalism where all beliefs should have equal merit. Others are indifferent. However, in the absence of strong convictions, many may be easily influenced by the national media which tends to form and advocate “group opinions” for the nation as a whole. Thus, people who are continuously exposed to the national media may have their opinions influenced by appeals to their “group” membership, as a citizen of the country. Thus, the national media can advocate that “we” should be concerned about “this,” or we should do something about “that.” In that way the national media may be able to influence the opinions of independents and others who do not have a strong group identity in some other grouping. It is this category that is most mercurial in its opinions and can often be influenced by the media to swing political outcomes.

             Because many people are subject to being influenced by the national media, in the past, socialist and communist groups that wanted to influence Americans opinions have infiltrated the media, entertainment industry, and educational system. This infiltration was particularly widespread during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the cold war years. Even today, Russian spies were found in 2010 to have infiltrated a publishing organization, political groups, and to have tried to influence Ivy League students in the  New York area. Unfortunately, they were expelled from the country without trial before the full scope of their activities was learned. The extent to which these past infiltrations have affected media attitudes is hard to determine, but it is known that most members of the national media tend to favor democratic or liberal (progressive) candidates when they vote in national elections. Thus many of the things that the media advocates that Americans should be concerned about or that  “we” or our government should do tend to be policies or concerns that are also advocated by liberal groups in the country.


Email Chip with any questions., Chippete@aol.com

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