How Do Political Ideas Live?


Political ideas live. People who come up with political ideas die, but the political ideas live even long after their death. For instance, the Marxist and liberal ideas developed by Karl Marx and John Locke respectively were demonstrated through the cold war after the two philosophers had long died. The ideas of these great political philosophers informed the understanding of the conflict between East and West, and formed a political ideology that caused political mobilization around the world (Huysmans, 2015). There are several ways through which political ideas live: as inspiration; in political debate; by being changed, adapted and re-appropriated; institutionalized practices; by having consequences; and by circulating in political theory and practice. This essay will explain these six different ways in order to enhance understanding of whether ideas are political, and how political ideas live. It uses real life examples from history to determine whether the six ways actually apply. The examples of politicians and freedom fighters from different parts of the world throughout history will be used to demonstrate how political ideas have lived for a long time after the death of those who developed them.

Political ideas as inspirations

Political ideas which live as inspirations are mainly philosophical in nature. Political ideas inspire leaders to act in a specific manner in their political careers. Different political leaders are inspired by different political ideas from the past to act in a specific manner. In the field of leadership and the people, political ideas live when they are inspired by great leaders and political philosophers from the past. For example, Karl Marx explained the Marxist approach to leadership while John Locke explained the liberalist approach (Huysmans, 2015).

The Marxist approach explains the issues of class relations and conflicts in the society. This inspired the Cold War, which apparently emerged as a result of conflict in terms of capitalistic and economic struggle. This reflects the Marxist approach which believes that economic change and capitalism is enhanced by class struggle that results in conflicts in the society. It is argued that the tenets or political ideas of Marxism were inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Bartolovich & Lazarus, 2002). These ideas are political because they inspire the fundamental ideas of forming a government through specific mechanisms of social relations. It is also political because it supports the development of human society through transformation from capitalism to socialism. Such development cannot be achieved without political players; hence political activities should be carried out to get the right form of government and the right people who can implement such transformations amidst resistance from those who embrace capitalism. Class struggle is an important concept of Marxism, which indicates that Marxism is indeed a political idea because it opens people’s minds regarding the division of the society between the rich and the poor (Gregor, 2012). This class struggle gives rise to political powers such as Cuban Revolution which allowed Politician Fidel Castro to take power and control the socialization of production in Cuba.

Marxist political ideas have lived through a long period of time, inspiring several social movements and political ideologies including revolutions and the cold war. Different world views have also been inspired by Marxism as a political idea. For example, China, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos have communist form of leadership which is inspired by the Marxist theory. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 led to the leadership of Fidel Castro of anti-imperialism ideology, inspired by the Marxist political ideas. The Soviet Union was also a socialist union that was inspired by Marxism. Marxism is related to social relations, which inspires socialist movements including the Soviet Union and other communist and socialist forms of leadership and social interactions of people. Therefore, Marxist theories and political ideas have lived through the years in form of inspirations; inspiring different forms of leadership and social relations among different classes and people in the society.

Liberal political ideas developed by John Locke have also inspired world views in terms of liberty and equality. Liberalists support freedom of press, speech worship. They also support civil rights, free markets, democratization, secular governments and international collaborations in trade and sociopolitical functions (Gregor, 2012). This is a political idea because it promotes political activities including democratic elections and political leadership and fight for civil rights which may result in political groups and classes representing different interests in the society such as feminism.

Liberalism has inspired today’s world views in terms of leadership and people significantly. For example, the process of democratization and constitutional rule experienced in most Western countries nowadays is inspired by the political ideas of liberalism. The need to expand civil rights in Western countries, especially United States including Second Wave Feminism of 1960s and 1970s were fundamentally influenced by the political ideas of liberalism. Furthermore, civil rights movement experienced in United States in 1960s was inspired by the liberal views. Therefore, it is clear that the political ideas of John Locke which existed several years ago have lived for a long time through the inspiration of several forms of leadership and movements of people in the society.

The idea of representation is also one of the fields that have attracted a great deal of inspiration from the past. The idea of representation is political because its definition is contestable and subject to adaptation (Miller, 2009). Representation is used in the contemporary society as a justification for legitimate authority. Any idea is political if it is represented somehow. When a person claims that he represents the interests of a certain group or person, then he arouses political debate which makes representation to be considered as a political idea. For instance, the Labour Party of UK may claim that the Conservative Party represents the rich people. This shows that the idea of representation emanates from political activity which involves claim-making among various political groups.

Tony Blaire is also another key leader who was inspired by Machiavelli’s theory on the prince. According to Machiavelli, the prince would always be contented with sharing power with fellow nobles who consider themselves as equals of the prince. Tony Blaire shared a lot of policy making roles with Gordon Brown who was a key leader in the Labour Party since 1990s (Miller, 2009). Gordon Brown was given the responsibility to implement economic agenda while the Prime Minister carried out several other roles including security and foreign policy. This was borrowed from Machiavelli’s political idea of the Prince because leaders or “princes” maintain their power under all costs including sharing power with other nobles.

The idea of representation is one of the dynamic political ideas that underpin all forms of political organisation (Offe, 2006). As an inspiration, the idea of representation is used from generation to generation as a way of mobilizing the support of electorates and other political groups. The ideas of self-government and liberty in the fight for independence in some African countries are examples of the idea of representation as leaders are inspired by the idea to justify their fight for the liberty of the people they represent. For example, the Apartheid in South Africa was inspired by the idea of representation to fight for the rights of black people. Nelson Mandela and his group leading the Apartheid were inspired by the idea of representation because they sought the legitimacy of authority by representing the black people in the fight for freedom.

Political Ideas Living in Political Debate

Some political ideas are controversial and are subject to debates from time to time. Some authors are mentioned to support some different arguments in political debates. For example, the book “The Prince” by Machiavelli is a significant centre of political debate as different political groups argue about the justification of Machiavelli’s political ideas (Huysmans, 2015). According to Machiavelli, what keeps politicians in power is their ability to seize power, rule and govern others, and make their own decisions without considering what others think. This is a political idea because it relies on mechanisms of acquiring power and ruling over others. Machiavelli borrowed this idea from the success of Alexander Borgia who used corrupt mechanisms to win elections by bribing and used the wealth of the church for the benefit of his family. This kind of political leadership involved infighting and bickering among various cities in Italy. Each city was controlled by individuals or groups eliminated competition through power mongering, betrayal, murder and other unjust mechanisms. According to Machiavelli’s political idea of the ideal prince, a leader does not have to be good or just. In order to maintain a stable state, a “prince” should put aside good virtues such as kindness, justice and honesty. Therefore, this idea is political because it is based on how leaders maintain political power.

Machiavelli’s political idea lives across generations through political debates (The Open University, 2015). Various political groups argue whether the use of corrupt mechanisms is a good political idea. Those who believe in justice and fairness oppose this contentious issue. The debate of this form of leadership is also kept alive following the Holocaust during World War II when millions of Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler in order to prevent the spread of the Jews in Europe. This mechanism of leadership which causes murder and great injustice against some groups or individuals has become an essential topic of debate in contemporary politics. Hitler is a key personality who appears in various political debates. Several leaders who oppose political injustice and violation of human rights in the contemporary society mention Hitler as a good example of politicians whose political ideas were unjust and unfair. Therefore, such political ideas live through debates as controversial ideas.

The idea of democracy in the society is also a debatable idea which can live on in the society through debates. This is a political idea because it falls under representation which ensures that the people or groups can choose the leaders that will represent their interests in the government. Cleisthenes was the father of Athenian democracy who developed the idea of democracy during the era of classical antiquity in Athens. The idea was a political one because it involved the selection of citizens in a random manner to perform judicial and administrative functions in the government. Citizens were allowed to vote and speak in the assembly where laws were made. This democracy led to the modern democracy which is debated over other forms of leadership including autocratic and Bureaucratic styles of leadership.

Those who support democracy argue that democracy is good for certain reasons and those who support other leadership styles give their own reasons for supporting them (Offe, 2006). The line which shows the limits of democracy is also debatable because the Athenian democracy is definitely different from modern democracy. For instance, it is not clear whether citizens should be given complete freedom to choose their own leaders to represent them or the chosen executives should choose other leaders. The threshold or line shown be drawn to show exactly the position where minimal conditions for democracy are met. To draw this line, great political debates are made. The real democracy is far from being real, but the political idea as it was initially developed continues to be debated, to arrive at an agreeable minimum threshold.

When someone says country A is more democratic or less democratic than country B, it becomes a question of political debate because no one can determine in certainty what it means to become more democratic without a specific threshold of democracy (Huysmans, 2015). Therefore, countries pursue their own democracies believing them to be the best level of democracy they can achieve, and struggling to achieve higher democracy as debate continues on how to achieve the best or optimum level of democracy. The level of democracies in different countries and the threshold of democracy in each country therefore depend on the outcomes of political debates concerning the political idea of democracy in general (Offe, 2006). In this regard, democracy and other styles of leadership are political ideas that live in through debates from generation to generation, and from one country to another.

From this discussion, it is clear that the concept of political debates as a mechanism through which political ideas linked to the concept of crisis in representation because different politicians and different countries provide different levels and different views of representation through democracy.

Political Ideas living by being changed, adapted and re-appropriated

Political ideas can also be changed or adapted over the years to reflect the changing political environment of a given point in time. In this regard, Huysmans (2015) suggests that political ideas can be kept alive through recycling of political arguments from time to time. Political ideas may be changed, adapted or re-appropriated in politics to blend with the changing political environments. For example, when Stalin articulated his political ideas to the Soviet Union, he based them on Marxist school of thought but he did not propagate them to appear exactly as those of Karl Marx. Instead, he changed the political ideas of Karl Marx to become relevant to the situation of the Soviet Union and the political waves that occurred at that time across the world. In this regard, the way through which political ideas live by being changed, re-appropriated or adapted can be linked to the three issues of leadership and people, representation, and crisis of representation.

One of the political ideas which show the link between these issues is the Marxist ideas which have been re-appropriated in some countries such as China. There are still some countries which have appropriated the political ideas of Marx to form a communist government that has adapted some of the features of the Marxist political views (Offe, 2006). This reflects a change in the political ideas that are concerned with leadership and people. The original idea of Marxism was concerned with a change from capitalism to socialism, but the communism leadership approach in China reflects increased role of the state in economic activities with some elements of socialism and capitalism at the same time.

Another example is the leadership style of Tony Blaire. He was the UK’s Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007 (The Open University, 2015). As a member of the Labour Party, Tony Blaire explained that he was concerned with socialism from the Marxism ideology, which placed him on the left. He believed in socialism because he considered it to be rational and moral. However, he belonged to the Labour Party which is a democratic socialist. In this case, the Tony Blaire and his party have re-appropriated the older style of socialist leadership to include a new concept of democracy in order to be in line with the modern wave of democracy in the Western world. His socialist approach led him to intervene and engage in the war on terror, considering terrorism as immoral.

In his speech following the terror attack in Washington on September 11, 2001, Tony Blaire reiterated the need of the world coming together as a community to fight terrorism. In this case, Blaire adapted the Marxist’s view on terrorism to reflect the challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Internationalization resulted from capitalism which encouraged trade among countries, but the idea of socialism was changed by Blaire and his Labour Party to involve socialism in the international community. The political idea of socialism as developed by Karl Marx continued to live through re-appropriation by contemporary leaders such as Tony Blaire. Tony Blaire responded to the terror attack because he recognized that his leadership would be shaped by events (The Open University, 2015). Therefore, he believed that he would shape events with his political influence. In this case, he adapted his political idea to shape the events happening around him. Through Tony Blaire’s approach, it is clear that political ideas can live through re-appropriations where responses can be changed to reflect the changing events in the political events nationally and internationally. Peter Riddell suggests that the modern political leader should be an actor in order to convince the people. He or she should be able to appear ordinary for the people to believe him or her. This supports the argument that political leaders like Blaire play the role of keeping political ideas alive by changing or adapting them to become suitable to the prevailing situation.

Political ideas living in institutionalized practices

Enactment of institutions that implement certain practices in the society is one of the mechanisms through which political ideas live. In this case, political ideas live in practices within institutions. Practices within institutions are always affected by interests, passions and reason (Huysmans, 2015). People within institutions pursue their interests, use rational arguments and provide reason for whatever they think and do. These practices allow political ideas to live from generation to generation within those institutions. In this regard, institutionalized practices as ways of keeping political ideas alive are linked to the concepts of representation, leadership and people, and crisis in representation.

Institutionalised practices are mainly influenced by representation democracy in the modern world (Haikio, 2014). Democratic institutions usually develop communities where people are emotionally attached to each other, beliefs, and shared values that determine the way of life of the people within those institutions. Political institutions are markets where people pursue their interests. Political ideas are kept alive in institutions such as parliament, church, family, law, prison, medicine, etc. Once these ideas are institutionalized, they become part of the practices and beliefs of those institutions.

Robert Dahl suggests that democratic institutions are required for various purposes. For instance, it serves the purpose of promoting freedom of speech (The Open University, 2015). Institutionalization of political ideas also promotes participation. When these practices are institutionalised, they live within the institutions as part of the democratic political system. Freedom of speech is an idea that was borrowed from the liberal theories of John Locke, and can be kept alive in democratic institutions such as judiciary, parliament and prisons which support freedom of speech. Institutions are formed to perform specific functions in a democratic society. This allows leadership to go on with practices that are legitimately acceptable in the society.

Institutional practices and requirements for political parties and other political groups also enable political ideas of the parties to live through generations (Huysmans, 2015). For example, the Labour Party has stood for social democracy for a long time; and has institutionalized that political idea through party constitution. All other parties also have their laws which protect the parties’ political ideas. Furthermore, political ideas are also institutionalized in state institutions such as national constitutions and kept alive through representative democratic institutions. Institutional requirements also include policies implemented by the government in order to prove its legitimacy and win the support of the citizens.

According to James Madison who wrote The Federalist Paper, institutionalisation of practices enables people to control their representatives in the government (Huysmans, 2015). For example, when good public service is institutionalised in the state through a good constitution, the people can control the government by suing those who misuse public offices in courts, relying on the protection of the constitution. Institutionalised practices live in representative democracies for a long time for people to be able to prevent politicians and other leaders from abusing their public offices and political powers and authority provided to them by those they represent through democratic processes.

By Having Consequences

Political ideas also live by having consequences in the political class and the society at large. This mechanism is linked to leadership, representation and crisis in representation. Political ideas have consequences because those who choose them will experience political experiences, which may be either good or bad. For example, the idea that technological arms were developed to drive the politics of the Cold War successfully has led to heavy spending on the military (Huysmans, 2015). USA is one of the main examples of countries which spend a lot of money on the military and its activities. Some other countries have also developed sophisticated weapons such as explosives to be used in war. This is borrowed from the Cold War where weapons were developed through technology. Furthermore, there is a political idea that the Cold War was an ideological struggle. This idea also had its consequence – it has shown the importance of propaganda as nations struggle or compete for domination across the world. This affects leadership and representation because the leaders get a way of dominating while the citizens feel underrepresented because their resources are used in wars rather than important economic policies.

Some political ideas also have consequences that affect how the world is structured rather than national policies and budgetary debates. For example, the political idea of ideological propaganda during the cold war led to consequences that go beyond policies. It led to social struggle between liberalists and communists, causing liberation struggles, diplomacy, wars, and economic consequences (Haikio, 2014). These consequences have kept the political ideas of ideological struggle alive. The consequences have been sometimes violent, causing terrorism and power struggle between different countries especially between countries of the East and Western counties. These consequences have lived for a long time, as people identify themselves to specific ideologies which happened since the Cold War. As a result, those political ideas still live alongside the consequences they have caused.

One of the contemporary examples of political ideas that live through their consequences is the political ideas of Tony Blair. He had a political idea of fighting against terrorism to enhance a peaceful world. As a consequence of the Iraq War, Tony Blair built a rivalry at home which led to his political decline as the Prime Minister, until he resigned in 2007 (The Open University, 2015). This showed that the political ideas of Blair caused consequences in his political career that will live for a long time because other Prime Ministers will learn from it and avoid being involved in international policies at the expense of home policies. The involvement of Tony Blair in the Iraq War undermined his public authority and affected his public support. This indicates that political ideas live in consequences which affect the leadership of contemporary political leaders, and become a lesson to other aspiring leaders.

Circulating in Political Theory and Practice

Political ideas live by circulating in political theory and practice. Leadership and representation are enhanced by political ideas which live in political theory and practice. In terms of leadership, some leadership styles such as aristocracy and autocracy may not exist in practice because people have abandoned them in favour of democracy, but they still live in theory (Haikio, 2014). On the other hand, democracy continues to live in practice because most countries are enhancing democratic development as part of political processes and in their political institutions. For instance, countries use universities and other educational institutions to teach courses that convey several political ideas. Therefore, political ideas live by being taught in political theories within institutional facilities of the state.

Political theory encompasses all the other five ways through which political ideas live because it is conveyed by showing the consequences of political ideas, how they inspire people, how they have been institutionalized and how they are re-appropriated to speak of contemporary issues in the society (Huysmans, 2015). Political theories present political ideas explicitly and systematically, and these ideas have consequences in practice. Therefore, political theories and practice explain how political ideas live.

Democracy as a style of leadership is a good example of how political theory and practice keep political ideas alive. Democracy has been essential part of theory since the ancient Greek era. Nowadays, it is widely practiced as a preferred style of leadership and representation in governments. Institutions teach about democracy through political theory, explaining their origin, institutionalization and consequences (Offe, 2006). When students and other people interested about politics learn about this political idea, they live it and practice it in their political careers, and also pass it to other generations through learning and teaching.

Representation in the modern era represents a good example of how political ideas live through practice. In a representative government, those in leadership claim authority because they are mandated by the democratic election they have undergone. Leaders in a democracy operate a government of the people, by the people and for the people. This is a famous concept of democracy taught through political theory from time to time. Therefore, the practice of modern representation is an important aspect of political practice that keeps political ideas alive for a long period of time.


The six ways through which political ideas live can be linked to the concepts of leadership, representation, and crisis in presentation. Leadership has been there in political theory and practice for a long time, and carries a lot of political ideas which are kept alive through six major ways. First, political ideas live as inspirations because the early fathers or founders of certain political ideas inspire coming generations to follow and allow their political ideas to live. Political ideas also live through people by being changed, adapted and re-appropriated. Political ideas regarding leadership and representation are being changed from time to time to become relevant or adapt to the changing political events and environments. Thirdly, political ideas live in institutionalised practices. For example, democracy in leadership allows political ideas to be institutionalised in constitutions, representative parliaments and laws of the country. Furthermore, political ideas live by having consequences on those who practice them. When leaders and representatives hold specific political ideas, they experience their consequences which may be negative or positive, and others learn from them. Political theory and practice also allows political ideas to circulate in people. Democracy, leadership and representation are part of political theory and practice which are circulated through institutions and political leaders and students to allow political ideas to live. Lastly, political ideas are kept alive through debates. Some political ideas are subjects of debate which are passed from generation to generation through political debates. For instance, political ideas such as leadership styles are subjects of political debates which are kept alive by those debates.


References List

Bartolovich, C., & Lazarus, N. 2002. Marxism, modernity, and postcolonial studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Gregor, A.J. 2012. Totalitarianism and political religion: an intellectual history, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Haikio, L. 2014. “Institutionalization of Sustainable Development in Decision-Making and Everyday Life Practices: A Critical View on the Finnish Case”, Sustainability, vol. 6, pp. 5639-5654.

Huysmans, J. 2015. How Do Politics Live? The Open University.

Miller, M. 2009. The tyranny of dead ideas: Letting go of the old ways of thinking to unleash a new prosperity, Times Books, New York.

Offe, C. 2006. “Political disaffection as an outcome of institutional practices? Some post-Tocquevillean speculations”, in Torcal, M. and Montero, J.R. (eds.). Political Disaffection in contemporary Democracies: Social Capital, institutions, and politics. Routledge, London.

The Open University 2015. Transcripts: Room 1, The Open University.

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