As we leave behind a 20th century defined more by ideological struggle than nationalism or religious conflict it’s interesting to think about the role of ideology in politics, especially during a time of such turmoil. Ideologies are odd creatures. They are simplifications of reality built around assumptions or beliefs about the world through which people interpret experience. At base ideologies are unfalsifiable and internally coherent, meaning that you can usually interpret reality equally well through different ideological lenses. And, while one can make persuasive arguments that one interpretation is better than another, persistent ideologies defy efforts to disprove them. Ideologies fail not because of logical argument, but because of politics — people veer to some ideologies, and reject others.
Many people engage in “ideological jihad,” treating ideological belief akin to religious faith. This makes politics a “holy war” where one side is convinced it is right, and must therefore defeat the other side. These people are “idealists” in the sense that they compromise little in pursuit of the ideal, or make tactical compromises without losing the long term vision. Others view ideologies as tools to glimpse different aspects of reality. Much like the six blind scholars and the elephant metaphor, ideologies are seen as giving incomplete and biased versions of reality. Just as the scholar who felt the trunk concluded the elephant was like a snake, and the scholar who felt the leg concluded the elephant was like a tree, we interpret reality imprecisely through these ideological lenses.
Those who view ideology this way are “perspectivists,” who tend towards pragmatism because they do not think it possible to find one true coherent ideological story about a complex reality subject to numerous interpretations. They hope that by understanding a variety of perspectives one can make choices that work better in the world. This is pragmatism. Most people are somewhere along a continuum between idealism and pragmatism. Idealists like to have the “right answer,” are themselves willing to judge, and prefer to see reality as objective and clear. Pragmatists are more likely to hold paradoxical beliefs, see reality as subjective and unclear, and are comfortable with ambiguity and lack of certainty. Whether one is an idealist or a pragmatist is probably a result of personality more than academic inquiry.
In the US three dominant ideologies compete for support, with numerous alternatives occupying niche regions. The dominant ideology is a form of liberalism called neo-liberalism. It is made up of Democrats and Republicans, and represents the post-war consensus which has defined the American center. It is distrustful of big government, believes in capitalism and markets as the best form of social organization, generally focuses on individual choice as the driver of reality, and rests on a belief that the best society is one where individuals are able to freely determine their own destiny through their choices.
On the left is an alternative ideology, primarily held by Democrats seen as being “on the left wing” of their party, such as Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader. They believe that humans are denied freedom and liberty by the way in which the wealthy elite are able to control the game and structure reality to benefit some at the expense of others. Their main prinicples are equality (not necessarily in terms of material outcomes, but in real opportunity), justice, human rights, and empowerment. Communism and government planning are extreme forms on the left. They see big business and transnational corporations as exploiting the poor, destroying the environment, and condemning millions to lives to poverty and struggle. They share the neo-liberal desire for freedom and individual choice, but believe social structures created by the wealthy and powerful limit that choice. The only solution is through rational governance, via regulation and taxation. They support a public health care system, increased taxes, strict environmental laws, and strong regulation of business and finance. They do not trust markets to provide justice — markets serve those with money, not all humans.
On the right is an alternate ideology that is built on nationalism, tradition, and a fear of difference. While both neo-liberals and leftists share a sense of wanting individual liberation and a belief in enlightenment reason, the right distrusts intellectualism, is driven more by emotion, and finds great comfort in the symbols of the nation or sometimes religion. Fascism is an extreme form of this kind of ideology, as is Islamic jihadism. In the US the shock radio jocks (who openly use emotion to garner listeners) and politicians like Sarah Palin occupy this space. They are not as extreme as fascists, but the roots of their politics comes from the same place. They tend towards xenophobia and militarism, and often believe that the “left” and “neo-liberals” are destroying the country they know and love. They turn their anger as intently on neo-liberal Republicans (so called ‘Rinos,’ or establishment Republicans like John McCain) as they do on the left. Ironically, they share some of the left’s distrust of markets and big money. They can also be anti-war, may distrust the support the US gives Israel, and often internally at odds. Being more emotion-based than reason-based, the right lacks a clear ideological story.
One reason the right is more successful with, say, talk radio is that the left remains very much entangled in an enlightenment mindset that distrusts emotional fervor. This means the left is more comfortable with NPR than Air America, and in fact sees the market success of talk radio as an indication that markets do not serve truth but whim.
Neo-liberals are the majority, and while Democratic neo-liberals share some of the concerns of the left (they both believe in enlightenment thought), the Republican party is more split by ideological difference. Republican neo-liberals (the so-called ‘libertarian’ wing) are not comfortable with the motion stirred up by the “tea party” movement, the support someone as apparently uninformed as Sarah Palin receives, and the pressure to try to purge the party of diverse perspectives. For someone like Olympia Snowe, a committed neo-liberal Republican, the party appears to be taking a very negative path if it follows those who want ideological war.
Neo-liberals on both sides tend towards pragmatism, but on the right and left there are pragmatists who are willing to work within the system to change it. However, a tripartite ideological divide leaves some issues out. Gender is generally ignored, environmental concerns get second fiddle, and concerns on human rights get subsumed in a larger ideological debate. Indeed, race, gender, environment, human rights, and ethics get defined through the ideology, warping those issues in a way. This leaves open space for feminist, green, and human rights movements, though they tend to operate on the political fringe. They can, however, influence the larger groups, especially if they mobilize youth or alter the political discourse. Finally utopian socialism, new age spiritualism/humanism and romanticism represent currently fringe movements on the “left” associated with emotion and rejection of enlightenment logic.
As the country undergoes a severe transition due to economic decline, the ideological battles may well get worse. Lacking a coherent sense that all is well, people will be more willing to put faith in ideological voices that promise that they have the answer. In a sense, people will gravitate to ideology as an ersatz religion, finding meaning in the struggle to change the country in the way they prefer, fighting clear “enemies.” During the Great Depression ideological conflict destroyed democracies in Europe. Only the UK, defined by a strong sense of pragmatism, survived. The US has always had a more pragmatic response to ideological debate — pragmatism is a fundamental American trait.
We can’t operate in the world without beliefs, so at some level we have make ideological assumptions. The key is to try to understand the assumptions others make, respect diverse views, avoid a level of idealism which leads to ‘ideological holy war,’ and recognize that we’re in this together, and we can find ways to compromise, work together and respect each other as we work through this crisis.
UPDATE: In the comments there has been some discussion of emotion. I think I made my point a bit unclearly. I do not think emotion is necessarily wrong; in fact, I’ve been critical of the emphasis on enlightenment inspired ideology to focus solely on rational/material ideas and ignore sentiment and the emotive part of the human psyche. Empathy, for instance, is a trait that is fundamentally important (and I want in all my politicians and Supreme Court justices!). Moreover, the extreme left’s errors of communism have been if anything deadlier because of the way reason makes it seem to proponents that they have the right cause and anything goes to implement it. Finally, left and right will use emotion to inspire support.
Moreover, I neglected the traditional right, those who focus on preserving traditional values and culture, and are critical of neo-liberalism and others on the left and right. Like in Germany between the wars the traditional right often gets seduced by the far right, but fascism is ultimately anti-conservative as well. Simply, the roots of the politics of the so-called “right wing” are generally based on an appeal to emotion (often fear — fear we’re losing our country, welfare cheats are stealing our money, the President has betrayed us to the Chinese, the birthers, those who think Obama has a conspiracy to bring socialism to the US, etc.) rather than a reason-based ideological vision. This is happening increasingly on the Left too, Obama’s appeal was also to emotion. Emotion isn’t bad — I personally prefer hope and empathy to fear and anger, and hope love trumps hate — and neither left nor right has a monopoly on positive or negative emotions. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was intriguing, even if it didn’t end up leading anywhere.