A few weeks ago, I participated in the following conversation on Twitter, which has had me thinking about the proper role of ideology in politics ever since. It began with a tweet from Jeremy Votaw about how he was tired of dealing with ideologues. Blogger Connor Boyack joined in, and things proceeded from there:
Me too. But I’m pretty sure we’ve always been a nation of ideologues, occasionally forced into compromise @jeremyvotaw #utpol
@curtbentley @jeremyvotaw How inconvenient, that ideology stuff. Great things, continual compromise has brought us…
@cboyack @jeremyvotaw Ideology does all the reasoning up front in the abstract and ignores real world implications.
@curtbentley @jeremyvotaw It doesn’t ignore it. It just advocates principled solutions that few are willing to embrace.
@cboyack @jeremyvotaw With emphasis on the “principle” and less emphasis on the “solution”
@jeremyvotaw . . . I simply argue that principle should not be sacrificed in pursuit of “solution” simply because it’s agreeable.
At one end of the spectrum of public servants you have the pure politician, whose primary, if not sole, concern is getting elected. Accordingly, his “principles” shift purely with what he perceives to be the prevailing direction of public opinion. For the pure politician, ideas matter only in the instrumental sense — the question is always, “will it aid me in getting elected?” Although the pure politician can, at some level, make a (somewhat) principled case for the tack he takes — i.e., he can simply claim to be nothing more than a conduit through which the will of the people is expressed — he doesn’t often do it; instead, he claims belief in the agenda he pursues.
A Politics of Ideas
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the ideologue. For the ideologue, ideas are all important and prevail over immediate consequences when the two appear to conflict. Indeed, to the ideologue any apparent conflict between his ideas and their consequences is easily explained away — the apparent negative consequence is either (1) a trailing punishment for pursuing a course of action in opposition to the ideologues system of thought, or (2) the consequences of a weak failure to fully implement the system (e.g., the “a real free market has never been tried” response to criticisms about negative consequences of market allocation). The political ideologue prides himself on the fact that he has thought carefully — in the abstract, outside of immediate biases and prejudices — about the philosophy of governing and developed a consistent framework through which he can evaluate every policy question and political decision. Indeed, consistency is the hallmark of an ideologue; he defines himself by it and in opposition to others that the ideologue sees as not principled enough to follow their beliefs in the face of practical opposition. Having logically determined, in advance, the course of action that will lead to the optimal and uniquely legitimate societal outcome, the ideologue pursues his goals with singleminded, uncompromising doggedness.
Wither (Should Be) Ideology?
I think that these two paragraphs capture the essence of the two extreme positions. I think there are few people who want a pure politician — one who turns whatever he senses the prevailing wind to be blowing. If we did, we would simply spend out time developing ever more sophisticated polling techniques and could eliminate Congress entirely. We value meaningful representation in politics; we want a representative with ideas and strong opinions about governing in the abstract and about specific policies in general. We want politics to be about ideas, not just about who can best capture and respond to the public’s mood of the moment (we’re always worried that the public view will be in opposition to our own and hopeful that a representative’s view will align with our own).
So, what’s the proper role of ideology, then? I think answering that question begins with establishing the following proposition: Politics is all about consequences. Ultimately, politics is the science of governing in pursuit of optimal societal consequences. When ideology serves that end, it is helpful; when it undermines that end, it should be set aside. There are few people who would quarrel with this statement, but, as a practical matter it is so uncontroversial that it gets us almost nowhere in answering our question. We want to know when and why ideology gets in the way of this ultimate political goal.
I think the when is an unanswerable question in the abstract — it really depends in each instance on the circumstances of the particular case — but I will take a stab at the why, because I think it tells us most of what we want to know. The reason why ideology is so helpful to a politician is because it provides a consistent framework through which every decision can best be evaluated, regardless of immediate consequences. The reason ideology becomes problematic in politics is because of the absolute confidence its adherents place in its ability to provide a consistent framework through which every decision can be best evaluated, regardless of immediate consequences.
Some Lessons from Learned Hand
I have a great admiration for a federal judge named Learned Hand (yes, that was his real name). Learned Hand once wrote that he wished the following statement from Oliver Cromwell would be engraved in a prominent place in every courtroom:
“I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States. I should like to have every court begin, “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, I think we may be mistaken.”
Learned Hand is calling for people to be rationally skeptical of their ability to quickly and independently determine who or what is right and wrong in each situation. In a more famous speech, Learned Hand spoke about his own conception of liberty. A number of my readers will likely recognize this quotation. Even here, Hand’s rational skepticism shines through:
What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.
What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. (emphasis added)
Hand’s quote highlights what I think is the primary problem with ideology in politics. For the ideologue — one totally converted to his system of thought by the power and consistency of his rational, abstract reasoning — skepticism, even rational skepticism, of his belief system is anathema. There is no room for uncertainty. In my view, ideology is problematic when it becomes strident to the point that the goal of consistency crowds out sincere consideration of alternative viewpoints. At that point, one has become so committed to a system of thought that he refuses to reason through problems. All his energies are directed toward remaining consistent, with absolute confidence that positive consequences will follow. There is no rational acknowledgment of the possibility (even likelihood) that his single system of thought (or any single system of thought) may not best explain the world.
Is “I’m Not an Ideologue” Really Possible?
In a famous exchange that took place last year, President Obama proclaimed that he was “not an ideologue.” There were quite a few commentary pieces spawned by this statement — questioning whether, in fact, the President was an ideologue and (more interestingly, in my view) whether it was possible for a politician to not be an ideologue.
Ideology is a tricky thing to define yourself in opposition to. For example, I self-classify as a non-ideologue, but at what point does my focus on not being an ideologue itself turn into an ideology, through which I evaluate policy questions and dismiss alternatives? A pragmatist may pride himself on not being ideological, in the sense that he is committed to compromise and giving serious consideration to opposing viewpoints. It’s certainly possible that such a pragmatist can become so fixated on compromise that he ignores and dismisses strident policy alternatives out of hand, simply because they are not moderate or centrist. This is probably what Connor Boyack was getting at when he stated that he was not always opposed to compromise but did believe that “principle should not be sacrificed in pursuit of ‘solution’ simply because it’s agreeable.”
I guess we are all ideologues in the sense that we have a political worldview through which we evaluate policy questions. But so long as we retain a limited skepticism about our own ability to best direct the world and a willingness to engage in a serious consideration with others about the merits of alternatives (and I’m talking about more than a debate where we’re willing to opine on why the other is wrong), we’re not ideologues in the strident and problematic sense.
I’m not advocating that we abandon certainty in favor of a total skeptical cynicism about right and wrong. At some point, everyone needs to decide what it is they believe in and take a stand in for it. But I am advocating for a little more skepticism for solutions’ sake. Let’s take a stand in favor of a vision of our future world, not in the belief system we’re convinced will get us there — because, while we can confidently conceive a good societal future, we can’t be as confident about our ability to determine the best means to obtain it. Let’s use our individual ideologies as a starting point for a really reasoned discussion about the merits and consequences of issues, and be less concerned about consistency than we are with consequences. Let’s acknowledge that not every judgment call necessarily starts us down a slippery slope toward Communism, Nazism, or whatever other -ism you fear most. Often there are situational differences upon which we can make principled distinctions. Let’s engage in the process of sincere, reasoned debate, while at the same time recognizing that the middle position isn’t always best and that compromise is not the answer just because it’s agreeable.
In any event, those are my thoughts. Nothing new, but, as always, I’d love to hear your responses.