Theory on framework issues

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

15.1 Utopianism, Demagogism, and Managerialism are left, right, and center: Patterns of opportunism and rigidity

(Open taxonomy chart from 1st in series in separate window.)

Construal-level theory generates a taxonomy that amplifies rather than supersedes the left–right political spectrum. Managerialism corresponds to the broad center, Demagogism the extreme right, and Utopianism the far left. Monomaniacalism consists mainly of ideologies that seem to defy linear characterization. I expected exceptions to the correspondence between ideological types based on construal-level theory, but I haven’t found any; the reason for the correspondence isn’t generally obvious. Managerialism's centrist character is easy to explain, in that radical change is far (that is, subject to abstract construal) and Managerialism is near (subject to concrete construal) in both choosing issues and devising means, but explaining the other types will require additional insights.

Several aspects of the distinction between issues and means will be usefully kept in mind. Issues are what ideologists use to find common ground with people they’re trying to persuade. Even when an ideology commands little support, the issues it raises will concern many, so that the issues an ideology features may be a unique collection, but the various ideologies repeat the same individual issues. The means command narrower support because an ideology recommends its own means of solving an issue acknowledged by other ideologies.

To begin to understand why the ideological types fall in distinct segments of the linear spectrum, this essay will consider one way that construal-level processes differently affect different segments of the spectrum: the different weights ideologies place on their choice of issues versus their contrival of means, producing different forms of rigidity or opportunism. According to construal-level theory, we access our goals and values—future-oriented abstractions—in far mode. Since our goals define how we assess importance, what we construe abstractly will be more important to us than what we construe concretely. Our abstract construals often serve to express goals and values, and being their reflection, will be seen as important, since they’re measured by the same standards creating them. We value what we construe abstractly more avidly than what we construe concretely because the far mode serves to commit us to goals and values.

Managerialism and Utopianism find a relative balance between issues and means: Managerialism is only weakly committed to each; Utopianism is strongly committed to both. For these ideologies, issues and means fit together because they’re defined at similar levels of abstraction and work coequally. The modally mismatched ideologies can’t form a unified whole because issues and means are conceptualized at different levels of abstraction. In these types, the abstract prong is viewed as more important than the concrete prong.

Demagogists, who construe issues concretely and means abstractly, put little stock in their choice of issues, unconstraining issue choice. The Demagogist Tea Party can campaign against President Obama’s Managerialist regime as endangering senior medical entitlements and as refusing to cut the budget, despite the contradiction between these appetites. For Demagogists, the issues of the day aren’t fundamental. What is fundamental is the abstractly construed means: privatizing government functions.

Monomaniacalists are the mirror image of Demagogists, in that the former emphasize their unique choice of issues and demonstrate flexibility on choice of means. Libertarians make an abstractly conceived “liberty” the issue of choice. Ron Paul is sometimes accused of rigidity for his refusal to vote any appropriations bills, but he’s been accused of opportunism too, for supporting racists on the right in the early 60s and antiwar protesters on the left in the late 60s. But these means were mere vehicles for his commitment to an abstractly conceived liberty, and opposition to appropriations is strictly negative. A firm negative stance on particular means is likely to arise when issues are construed abstractly and means are construed concretely, because negation is concrete and affirmance is abstract.


  1. Problems in search of solutions, and solutions in search of problems. I think of the garbage can model, although that seems different.

    I wonder how transhumanism and bioconservatism would fit in here. There might not be enough examples to know yet.

    1. I'll take a stab, but I don't know a great deal about either. Transhumanism uses far-mode issues. I think its means are typically concrete--extrapolated technical progress. Bioconservatism projects into the future but for the purpose of restraint, which makes it intermediate on construal of issues. On means, if it proposes concrete prohibitions, it is concrete. Bioconservatism overall would seem to be Managerialist.


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