Theory on framework issues

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

15.0. A taxonomy of political ideologies based on construal-level theory

The single-dimensional left-right political spectrum has proved a robust model of substantial political ideology—easily trumping the two-dimensional model favored by libertarians (whose politics it purports to render intelligible) and the circular model beloved by centrists (who thereby avoid the cognitively dissonant belief that the enemy of their enemy is their enemy)—but what if we’re interested in classifying the mental processes behind the ideologies rather than dimensionalizing their substance? Construal-level theory from social psychology seems well suited to taxonomizing ideological process. The theory envisions mind states employing high- versus low-construal levels, where high-construal levels (abstract construal) are abstract and future-oriented, and low-construal levels (concrete construal) are concrete and present-oriented. Construal-level theory suits the analysis of ideologies, since they differ in orienting toward the immediate future or the long term. (Construal of issues.) Ideologies also tend to invoke high-or low-construal levels in another respect: some emphasize a program based on abstract attainments, whereas others emphasize concrete measures. (Construal of method.)

A central tenet of construal-level theory is that abstract and concrete construal levels constitute integrated mindsets, so that eliciting some features evokes others. When applied to ideologies, this suggests that the construal of issues correlates with the construal of methods. While having the ability to move between construal levels would be a highly desirable feature, the levels interfere when an ideology requires applying them simultaneously, as when issues are construed at one level and the methods to address them at another. This table sets out the resulting 2 x 2 classification of ideologies. (Enlarge in separate window.)

Matched construal levels
Consistent use of concrete- or abstract-construal levels produces, respectively, the ideological types Managerialism and Utopianism. Managerialism is the ideological type most commonly at the helm of state. It meets issues construed concretely with methods construed concretely. Modern liberalism is an example of the Managerial type of ideology, as manifested, for example, by the Obama Administration, which construed the defects of the American health-care system in efficiency and effectiveness in concrete terms, as a shortfall in private health insurance coverage, and construed the method concretely, as the individual mandate. Managerialism gets things done but lacks long-term vision or higher aspirations, these requiring thinking at an abstract construal level. Managerialism is ill suited for achieving such long-term goals as reindustrializing a nation during a world depression or even stemming the malignant growth of concentrated billionaire wealth. Expediency rules.

Utopianism, abstract construal of both issues and means, occurs most at the left end of the single-spectrum model, where the abstractly construed means is often a communistic system, and the abstractly construed issue is the elimination of social oppression and labor exploitation. On the right, Utopianism is likely to take a moralistic and usually religious form, the means, wholesale religious conversion; the issue, victory over sinfulness. But abstract construals on the right are rare, probably because of the close association between the political right and the interests of the property-owning classes. Today, these classes engage in commerce, and the market imposes a concrete level of construal—in general, in “market versus regulation” arguments, the market is a means involving the concrete-construal level because the market relies primarily on near-term calculations, whereas central planning invokes the like of “five-year plans.”
Mismatched construal levels
So strong is the association between commerce and concreteness that populist movements, often anticommercial, tend reactively to adopt an abstract construal of means, despite these movements arising over issues construed concretely, such as taxes or political corruption. The resulting ideology type is Demagogism, the first of the two types creating a modal mismatch between the level of construal of the issues and of the means of addressing them. In National Socialism, for example, the abstractly construed means, creating an Aryan-dominated world, is applied to issues construed concretely, such as the wealth and alleged influence of Jewish bankers.

The most unexpected bedfellows rest in the final quadrant, where an abstract construal of the issues combines with a concrete construal of the means, producing the Monomaniacal ideology type. In libertarianism, the issue is pitched at a high level of abstraction: liberty. Yet, its means are concrete: cut taxes, cut spending. In Stalinism, the abstract issue of achieving socialism was equated, in the choice of means, with nationalizing the means of production in a single country, pursued under international policies of forging unprincipled alliances calculated for the short term.
Political ideologies are generally marred by their failure to bridge the bifurcation of thought into abstract and concrete construal levels, that is, between the visionary and the expeditious. As if this isn’t bad enough, when the modes are combined clumsily, the irrationalities are compounded in the Demagogic and Monomaniacal ideologies.


  1. Let's see if I get the categorization right for a case. Russell Kirk advises adhering to convention as a principle:

    At first, I had thought his ideas on problems more abstract because of his comment on "the great demarcation of modern politics," but I would now rate him Managerialist because convention would be the opposite of abstraction, the opposite of claiming to know specific correct future courses of action or even problems--he favors "negation of ideology."

  2. I agree that he Managerialist.

    He writes: "A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers."

    I think ethos as a guide to individual conduct is near-mode. It has to do with immediately perceived personal sentiment.

    One thing creating potential confusion is that sentiment and analysis are both near-mode. They're different in many respects, but construal level abstracts from those differences.

    Any analysis of ideologies into types is abstract. But abstraction isn't Kirk's starting point.


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