Political theory looks at philosophical questions such as: What is the proper role of government? What makes a legitimate government? And what duties do citizens owe to their state and to each other? The study of political theory also encompasses a number of different themes, such as democracy, as well as different political concepts, such as the concept of rights and the concept of justice. Political theory, as an academic study, is built upon a foundation laid by the work of indisputable classic philosophical thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Nietzsche.
Many courses on political theory begin with the work of Thomas Hobbes, who established the foundation of Western political theory from the perspective of social contract theory, outlined in his 1651 book Leviathan. Hobbes’ advocated for the absolutism of state sovereignty; however, these views were moderated in part by his recognition of some liberal fundamentals, such as the right of the individual. John Stuart Mill later championed these fundamentals of liberty. Contrary to Hobbes, Mill asserted that the concept of freedom justified an individual’s opposition to unlimited state control. Mill’s ideas of freedom continue to be championed by American politicians today.
Thus politicians often champion ideas found in political theory. When these ideas are promoted as a coherent system of beliefs, we refer to these systems of beliefs as political ideologies. Political ideologies are typical derived from particular themes or concepts in political theory, and are established as a set of ethics, morals, philosophies, doctrines, myths, and symbols that are adopted by a social movement or a particular class of people.
Political ideologies often contain ideas about the best form of government (such as democracy) and the best economic system (such as capitalism). As a result, ideologies are often identified by their position on the political spectrum: fascism and conservatism are considered right wing; and socialism and communism are considered left wing. Politicians, activists, voters and citizens who subscribe to a particular ideology often view political events and debates through the particular lens that their ideology provides. For example, in the current American gun debate, conservatives see the right to bear arms as an expression of their individual freedom, and liberals view the same right as threatening collective security. Thus it is in the form of political ideology that political theory manifests itself in real-life domestic (and international) politics.