In every modern democracy the will of the people is represented by elected members of parliament. These representatives organise themeselves in political parties. Parties do play a central role in the process of creating and negotiating working solutions for public affairs.
The political parties in Europe and North America are basically oriented according to ideological and social (class) criteria. Their platforms reflect different views on how society could work at its best and different interests (entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, ...). As long as everybody - party leaders as well as the electorate - is aware of these basic facts and if the interests of parties and members of parliament are made transparent to the electorate in some detail, democracy will work fairly well.
On the other hand there are many countries where the political parties deliminate with respect to ethnic or religious groups. There is no doubt that belonging to an ethnic or religious group is one of the strongest and most binding feelings human beings are capable of. Culture is important for orientation and it will always be based on some traditions. But history shows that these strong feelings of belonging have often been abused by individuals (leaders) to gain power and wealth on cost of the very people that trust them as ethnical or religious leaders.
As belonging to an ethnic group cannot be chosen and belonging to a religious group is in most cases determined by family tradition, many people will not ask themselves why they belong to an ethnic and/or religious group. As a consequence, it is almost inevitable that the interests of party leaders become quite hazy behind strong ethnic or religious party labels. Needless to say that this fact is a downright invitation for party leaders to abuse of power and corruption.
Sometimes political leaders defend ethnic or religious oriented party structures by argueing that the concept of ideological or class oriented parties was based on European culture and would not fit their own cultural tradition. There is a simple answer to this argument:
Modern democracy is not compatible to any cultural tradition,
not even to the European tradition. It just works despite all traditions.
Europe has abandonded quite a big part of its own cultural tradition
in the 18th and 19th century process leading to modern democracy - and
this went not without waging bitter conflict between the partisans of
modern democracy and the conservative defenders of tradition.
Medieval European culture was much closer to medieval Islamic, African
or Asian culture than to modern European culture - especially when focus
is on those concepts that are not compatible to modern democracy.
When trying to describe the ideological positions of parties in western democracies, one should always be aware that the same term does have slightly different notions in different countries.
The social-democratic parties aim at balancing the interests of the
different social classes (workers, entrepreneurs). Western European
social democrats do fully accept the basic principles of the capitalistic
economic system with privately owned companies and market economy
(in contrast to communists). They do however plead for clear political
guidelines and rules in economy and they think that in some areas
(especially concerning basic needs) competition is not the best way to
ensure quality of service at an affordable price for the majority of the
population. Therefore they favor nationalisation of railway, electricity
and water networks as well as postal services and a
strong position of democratically (instead of financially)
controlled news services (especially public radio and
television). Further they demand for extensive social security systems
(public insurance for the aged, handicapped, ill) and for good public
schools free of charge.
Equality is the basic ideal of social democrats.
Please note that the term liberal is used here in the broader
continental European sense. Some remarks about conservative
parties and their attitude towards economic liberty are made below.
The ideology of the liberal parties is based on a very positive view of individual capabilities and potentials. They think that society is best served if every individual is allowed to realize his or her ideas with as few restrictions set by politics as possible. In the tradition of the British philosopher Adam Smith they do not only accept markets and competetion, they believe in the absolute effectiveness of competition and liberalized markets for the well-being of all. They assume that really free markets will correct all possible negative effects of selfishness even without (and even better than with) political guidelines. Consequently they plead for slim legislation, low taxes and minimal state activity. Liberals believe that poverty and unemployment are caused by individual laziness. So they want to keep social security unattractive, and hope that everybody will strive to get along based on his/her own initiative.
Liberty and competition are the basic ideals of liberals.
Conservative parties are firmly rooted in religious and/or national
traditions. They think that respecting specific values and traditional
moral rules is not really a matter of personal choice but indispensable
for society. They esteem authority and integrity and they fear that too much
individual freedom will have disastrous effects for society as a whole.
Moral and tradition are the basic ideals of conservatives.
Continental European conservatives (especially in Germany, Austria, Italy
and Switzerland) do explicitly declare themselves as christian
parties and show at least some sympathy for the idea that the state
should help the weaker members of society. In this they favor a more
patronizing attitude than the social democrats, however.
British and US consevatives (Tories, Republicans) appear to be dedicated even more strongly to moral values than continental European conservatives in questions of individual behaviour (for example abortion, homosexuality). On the other hand, Republicans favor more economic liberty than continental European Christian Democrats.
The environmentalists are a relatively young political movement that
emerged in the 1970's. After the World War II, society concentrated
on the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure, on stable
economic growth and on improving social security. For a long period
nobody noticed the long-term effects of ever-increasing economic
activity on the environment and health. The greens, rooted in the
students' protest movement of 1968 contributed to a new consciousness
for environmental problems. Today the platforms of the greens in Europe
are fairly similar to those of the social democrats, but the greens
are more individualistic and they do have a certain mistrust towards
established institutions (including the state and big state-owned companies).
The basic ideal of the environmentalists is harmony between human beings and with nature.