A Republican friend of mine was aghast at the support being given to Bernie Sanders, especially the massive lead he has among Millennials. “Don’t they realize he’s a socialist?”
I grew up in the heyday of ideology. Thankfully, ideology is fading as a driver of politics. That seems almost incomprehensible to people of my generation. We’re used to ideological battles – us vs. them, liberal vs. conservatives, left vs. right. But that way of thinking is fading.
What does that mean? Can one be “without ideology?” To the extent everyone has a world view, or some core beliefs about how reality functions, we can be said to have a perspective. So we aren’t completely without ideology, but I’d say we’re moving beyond ideology.
Ideologies of the past were simplistic models of how reality worked, often used to rationalize negative conditions. The Communists rationalized control over an entire population by pointing to their ideology. Capitalists rationalized society divided into classes by pointing to their ideology – and pointing out that they allow a lot more freedom than those of the other ideology. Most tellingly, left and right often saw the ideological dichotomy as requiring a choice of one or the other. There were no alternatives.
Imagine a 50-something man approaching a young Sanders supporter. “Why do you support a socialist?”
In response, she’s unlikely to talk about ideology. She is more likely to say, “the way income is distributed in the country is inherently unfair and harms large sections of the country. It’s a kind of corruption, an insider game to control wealth. We have to break that up.”
“So,” you might respond, “have big government take over redistribute wealth, control the economy and deny freedom?
Our young friend rolls her eyes. “No, just make sure the super rich can’t control the economy.”
“So big government can control it?”
She sighs. “No. No one needs to control it. Just make it for fair – let markets operate, but with a sense of justice.”
Our 20th Century minded agitator is frustrated. “Come on, if you don’t embrace capitalism with all its defects, the only alternative is socialism. Sanders calls himself a socialist.”
She smiles slightly at that. “Not really – he called himself that when everyone was into labels, but he talks more about making sure we have a just, even moral economic system. One that works.”
At that the old style thinker shakes his head and walks away. “Young people. They don’t get the dangers of socialism,” he mutters. Our Sanders supporter chuckles, “wow, those old folk sure are into the isms!”
Beyond ideology has another term, this one with an ism: pragmatism. Not strict philosophical pragmatism, but a sense that the world is too complex to grab onto one ideological world view and hold to it like a secular religion. Countries with taxes that are too high don’t work. Countries with wealth concentrated too much at the top don’t work. People deserve basic economic and political rights. There are ways to achieve this by problem solving, thinking practically and ditching ideological straight jackets.
Trump and Sanders both have appeal by reaching beyond ideology. Neither really espouses a clearly articulated world view; both talk about problems that need to be addressed. Trump appeals more to peoples’ fears, especially those who think the country is in decline and threatened by domestic and foreign agents wanting to subvert the American way of life.
Sanders appeals to peoples’ hopes that things can change for the better, that we can solve problems and create a more just society. In general, Trump voters are older, Sanders supporters are younger. They are in many ways diametrically opposed to each other, yet neither can be pigeonholed into the old ideological standards.
The age of ideology has passed. The dream of finding one objectively true world view upon which to guide our political development has been abandoned. There is no one best system, no assured future. There are just a lot of problems, perspectives, and ideas that we can choose from to move forward.
Rather than embrace anger or fear, I prefer the shared norms of freedom, justice, and community. Those are the same values that inspired the enlightenment view of the world before it was subverted by ideology. They still are our best bet for the future.