Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

R. Mark Tiller’s Big Ideas: An Introduction to Ideologies in American Politics

I. Bibliographic Information:

Big Ideas: An Introduction to Ideologies in American Politics. By R. Mark Tiller. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1997) 145 pp.

II. Thesis:

Although contemporary society has accepted classical liberalism and variations of mixed socialist/capitalist governments as the best ideology for progress and the common good of society, the debate will continue over the inclusion and extent of environmentalism.

III. Author’s Presuppositions:

    1. Reader is college student with limited working knowledge of political science.
    2. Reader is aware of recent news events and national elections.
    3. Ideological terms; such as, liberal, elitist, authoritarian, communist, democrat, and nationalist, are commonly misused and misunderstood.
    4. College textbooks often provide inadequate coverage of ideology.
    5. Meaningful participation in democracy requires that citizens understand what democracy is and is not.

 IV. Summary:

    Ideology is defined as "a system of ideas, or a vision, of how life should be organized—socially, politically and economically (3)." Ideologies help establish standards and goals, but may be abused by political leaders to manipulate and propagandize. All people develop their political views through the process of political socialization. Though most people consider themselves non-ideological or even pragmatists, they are probably confused. Ideological perspective is indispensable.

    The Founding Fathers were classic liberals. Conservatives resist change or want regressive change. Anyone who supports progressive change is a liberal. There are four types of American liberalism, Reform, New Deal, New Left, and Neo-liberalism. There are also four types of American conservatism, Organic, Laissez-Faire, New Right, and Neo-conservatism. The left to right spectrum commonly used to identify ideological positions ranges from the extreme of revolutionary on the left and reactionary on the right. Ideologies may also be classified by subject type. Most are social systems, political systems or economic systems.

    Social ideologies are those that deal with relationships and duties between individuals. Nationalism is the unifying loyalty to a group based on common culture, language, land, or religion; whereas, internationalism emphasizes the commonality of the entire human species. Elitism is a belief that naturally superior groups exist and are better qualified to rule; whereas, egalitarianism suggests fairness and equality. Egalitarians may be either procedural, concerned with the process, or substantive, concerned with the end result. Communalists believe individuals have a duty to contribute to the success of society; whereas, individualists contend that society and government exist solely to serve individuals.

    Political ideologies range from pluralism to authoritarianism. Democracy, meaning "people-rule," is often misused and only recently acquired positive connotations. Pluralism refers to government by more than one. This includes hyperpluralism, democracy, republicanism, libertarianism and populism. Authoritarian ideologies concentrate power into the hands of one person or an elite few, such as monarchism, constitutional monarchism, and totalitarianism. Stalin and Hitler are the only real examples of totalitarianism.

    Economic ideologies refer primarily to the ownership of property. Capitalism is the belief that "private ownership and the free market constitute the most productive and fair economic system (66)." Self-regulation is achieved through the laws of supply and demand and self-interest. Socialism is distinguished by public ownership of property and a planned economy, not the profit motive. Varieties of capitalism are laissez-faire, modern and corporatism. Socialism can be evolutionary or revolutionary. Most countries today utilize a mixed system with aspects of both capitalism and socialism, including the United States.

    The Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment brought about the idea that problems would be better addressed by reason than divine inspiration. This concept was a "dangerous idea to those who believed the world was as it is because God intended it so (81)." Under feudal monarchism, a merchant class or bourgeoisie began to emerge. The quest for a government system that "promoted security, stability, and social order without sacrificing freedom and individualism" resulted in constitutionalism and classical liberal ideology. Modern liberals and conservatives are derivatives of classical liberalism, though some elements of classical conservatism may be found in modern organic conservatives. Classical conservatives distinguished reform from innovation and feared the government being taken over by "inexperienced, insolent, illiterate, unprincipled clowns (92)." They were irrationalists, did not trust the invisible hand of market capitalism, and ridiculed the American "Frankenstein (97)."

    Classical socialism has its roots in the egalitarianism of Christianity and fears of social Darwinism. Desire for utopian stability, rejection of materialism, and the emergence of the proletariat contribute to the acceptance of Marx’s "new man" as an ideological goal. Marx and Lenin believed that "individuals freed of poverty and exploitation would be cooperative and just (111)," in contrast to the classical liberal belief that people are competitive and fundamentally selfish.

    The two primary challenges to western ideology and political systems are fascism and environmentalism. Fascism is an extreme form of nationalism, symbolized by Nazi Germany, that combines elitism, militarism, organicism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism. Survivalist militia movements, "ethnocentric mythmongers (129)," and the uncertain political situation in Russian are reminders of the fascist threat. Environmentalism is concerned with protection and promotion of the bioshpere. Originally environmentalists were either conservationists or preservationists. Recent concerns over pollution, overpopulation, ecocide, resource depletion, and dangerous new technologies have resulted in a worldwide environmentalist movement concerned with establishing a sustainable society.

V. Analysis:

    The author accurately identifies the difficulties involved in studying ideology. More critical thought is typically required than in other subjects. More importantly, the study of ideology "arouses strong feelings and challenges deeply held convictions (vii)." Tiller correctly identifies the common mistake of assuming that the opposite of democracy is socialism (66); yet, by not clearly spelling out that they are "apples" and "oranges," he forces the reader to deduce this distinction. The terms liberalism and conservatism, identified at the beginning of the book as "probably the most important concepts (1)" are hardly mentioned in the concluding chapters.

    Tiller utilizes examples of recent news events to reinforce understanding of aspects of particular ideologies; however, there is no thematic consistency in their application. Evidence seems to be selected at face value to support a specific point, without diligent fact checking. For example, Sematech is cited as a shining example of corporativism (74), yet the author fails to mention that the multi-million dollar facility he praises now sits vacant just east of Austin, Texas. Another example is Tiller crediting economist, David Ricardo for the idea of "comparative advantage (88)." Ricardo is well known among economics students for the "law of diminishing marginal returns." He is never mentioned when discussing the concepts of international trade and comparative advantage. Thomas Jefferson’s concept of meritocracy is also used as support for classical conservatism’s natural aristocracy. Still, Tiller is effective in using current events and generally known information to explain use of and application of ideological principles.

    Another apparent inconsistency appears in the author’s use of tense. When introducing a particular ideology, Tiller will typically address the origination and historical developments in past tense. Competing ideas may be found stated in either present or past tense. The reader is forced to jump back and forth in time and could easily confuse direct results of historical events with their modern day implications.

VI. Opinion:

    Throughout the book, Tiller makes numerous conscious efforts at appearing objective. He usually attributes an idea or philosophy to the appropriate person or group by stating "they argue" or "still others believe", yet ideas which he apparently agrees with tend to be stated as facts. Despite a valiant effort, his anti-republican sentiments occasionally creep out, particularly during the discussions of capitalism, socialism, and environmentalism. It is also interesting that communism, Marxism and Soviet history are considered part of the three main bodies of accepted western ideological thought, and not one of the challenges to them (79).

    Essentially, Mr. Tiller tries to put too much into a basic primer on ideologies. His attempt to separate the book into two parts, Ideologies and Ideological Movements, fails to achieve his goals of making the subject more easily understood by the reader. Though the book contains fairly objective, factual details regarding various political ideologies and their origins, a clear distinction between social, political, and economic ideologies is not made. As such, the organization of the book becomes a hindrance to understanding rather than an aid. Mr. Tiller’s stated goals would have been better served by expanding on Part 1 and deleting Part 2, or better yet, dropping the subjective breakdown of ideologies and addressing their development chronologically in a historical context.

VII.  Professional Book Review:

    A thorough search of library resources, with the aid of a reference librarian, and a comprehensive review of available resources on the Internet failed to yield a single reference to this book. Online searches included the New York Times, LA Times,, St. Martin’s Press website, and all major search engines. The Journal of Politics, Book Review Digest, Infotext Database, Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, SIRS, and other traditional library sources provided the same result. Assumably, the recent (1997) publication date accounts for the lack of available reviews.

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