The Fallacy of Essential Ideological Constructs in American Political Science
- political ideology,
- ideological constructs
Over the past century, philosophers, historians, and social scientists have increasingly abandoned attempts to define social constructs in terms of transcendent, universal, or essential meanings. As part of the “linguistic turn,” they point out that language is fluid and constantly evolving, and that what a certain word means in one context will be different than what it means in a different place and time. This understanding among late modern philosophers, of the social constructedness and mutability of social concepts, has influenced the development of the social sciences in the past century.
Within political science, scholars increasingly argue, for example, that racial and gender concepts are social constructs rather than universally valid concepts with essential meanings. However, paradoxically, they do not recognize that ideological concepts are also social constructs with no essential or universal meaning. My paper will seek to demonstrate how ideological constructs like “liberal” and “conservative” are words that have taken on many different meanings in many different contexts over time, and as a result cannot accurately be treated as broad or essential concepts with universal meaning across different eras and places. These ideological concepts have become so mutable that it obscures more than it clarifies to analyze conservatism or liberalism as coherent, singular ideologies stretching across vast swaths of place and time.
Political scientists of all stripes frequently use terms like “conservative” and “liberal” as if they were referring to ideal Platonic forms with some essential meaning. My paper will focus on three subfields of American politics. Historians of political thought make this mistake when they make claims about the fundamental ideological consistency of American political parties throughout American history. Behavioral political scientists make this mistake when they make claims about the fundamental personality characteristics that underlie “conservatives” and “liberals.” Rational choice political scientists make this mistake when they make claims about the behavior of politicians with respect to an imaginary, fixed, two-dimensional ideological spectrum. In each case, the conclusions these scholars draw confuse rather than clarify our understanding of American politics.