Terms like fascism, authoritarianism, neoliberalism, and socialism are heavily used and hotly debated in the news, popular media and our private and academic conversations. But what do these words actually mean? Do they have static definitions or do their meanings evolve with changes in usage? If we lack shared definitions with which to discuss these ideologies, is the terminology of any value at all?
Robert Asaadi, adjunct professor in the departments of Political Science and International Studies at Portland State, pointed to this lack of shared consensus as a significant problem within our current political system.
“All of these ideologies are so broad that they mean many things in practice and I think, theoretically, we lack a common language to even speak about it in a way that is intelligible across different audiences,” Asaadi said. “Everyone always talks about these things and feels a high degree of certainty that they know what they mean and that their audience or their interlocutor knows what they mean and shares in that meaning.”
Fascism as a political system is generally defined by the existence of a robust state, centralized authority in a single leader, and a strong sense of nationalism generally premised on what Asaadi calls “the organic bonds of community.” These bonds are often based on notions of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.
“Whenever someone uses the word fascism,” Asaadi explained, “it has become so deeply associated with Germany in the 1930s that it’s almost impossible to separate what fascism means in the purely philosophical sense from that single historical example.”
An example of modern fascism is Golden Dawn, a far-right, ultra-nationalist social-movement-turned-political-party in Greece.
“A party like Golden Dawn, for example, imagines the Greek national community in a very particular kind of static, ultra-conservative fashion,” Asaadi said. “[No] inclusion of outsiders, obviously no one from the Middle East.”
Asaadi cited concern among Greece and other European nations about immigration as a catalyzing force for these movements. “[We] can look at those cases and see where such a notion of the national community is deployed,” Asaadi explained. “In a sense, you could describe that as fascistic in that it’s kind of trying to achieve some kind of national rebirth premised on race, right, and like, the purity of one’s racial community.”
“Authoritarianism is, if we go with the broadest sense of it, a form of government where the authority or power comes from the government without legitimate input from the citizens of that government,” said Chris Shortell, associate professor and chair of the Political Science Department at PSU.
Authoritarian regimes are, by definition, unresponsive to the desires of their citizens and maintain power through undemocratic means. Authoritarian regimes can exist in many forms across the political spectrum, and some even enjoy a considerable degree of support from their citizens.
If citizens suddenly find they aren’t as enthusiastic about their new leadership, however, going back isn’t easy.
“[State] power is maintained and controlled into the future and the ability to change that control of power is really limited in authoritarianism,” Shortell explained.
Examples of authoritarian regimes offered by Asaadi and Shortell include those of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Paralleling Turkey’s descent from its former position as the model for democracy in the Middle East, Asaadi says a central concern about the Trump presidency is the extent to which the U.S. is “backsliding toward a form of authoritarianism that is premised on obedience to authority, restriction of personal freedom [and] restriction of the community of belonging.”
Neoliberalism as a term is often used as something of a catch-all for a variety of policies and ideologies. “It’s a new form of liberalism…the liberalism there is a classical liberalism,” Shortell explained. “One that’s focused on the liberty of the individual—that there are certain inherent rights that people have that need to be recognized and protected.”
Shortell emphasized that neoliberalism is commonly an economic ideology as much as political one: “Neoliberalism is often associated with the view that capitalism is the best form of protecting individual liberty, and therefore, advancing and protecting capitalism is the same thing as—or is associated with—protecting the individual.”
An important distinction to make when talking about neoliberalism is that between classical liberalism and liberalism as understood as a part of the American political landscape. “The idea that neoliberalism is what we would call liberal or conservative under our American political concept is just wrong,” Shortell said. “Both liberals and conservatives are neoliberals, but they choose to manifest neoliberalism in different ways.”
While Democrats and Republicans alike may favor both capitalism and individual rights, differing on what those rights are and which take precedence, Shortell sees a common commitment to individual rights across the political spectrum.
“Neoliberalism has, at its core, a focus on the importance of individuals, of individual rights, of recognition of the individual and their ability to be who they want to be,” Shortell said. “So things like rights regarding sexual orientation [and] advancements in same-sex marriage are a consequence of neoliberalism as a movement.”
Socialism is a contentious term that’s been used to describe an incredibly broad range of states, policies and ideologies, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to the Affordable Care Act in the United States. Among political experts, however, socialism is generally defined by the relationship between the state and the individual or the community.
The unifying characteristic of socialism, according to Asaadi, is “that the individual relation to the state is based much more on collective aspiration…We need to put the community rather than the individual at the center of…our political and economic theory.”
Socialism, like many concepts in political science, exists in many forms across a spectrum. “Socialism is not reducible to the Soviet model,” Asaadi said. “There’s all kinds of interesting things going on with African socialists in Kenya and Zambia and Ghana, and you could even argue that…they have a particular type of socialism [in] Denmark and Norway that is a lot different than the Soviet Union or China or Cuba.”
Shortell also cited Northern Europe as an example of non-authoritarian socialism: “Scandinavian countries are an easy example for a role for the government in a variety of circumstances in people’s lives—everything from childcare to healthcare to housing to ensuring employment.”
For anyone genuinely interested in understanding those they disagree with, reducing political terminology designed to describe complex social phenomena to vague insults is counterproductive.
“Deploying [political terminology] as a means of attack or to dismiss is not as useful,” Shortell continued. “Because there are particular things where there may be far greater agreement about than being problems across the political spectrum.”