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Are We All Ideologues Now?

Dr. Gillis J. Harp

August 04, 2010

New media have shaped our political culture. Some, like talk radio and all-news cable stations, are developments of older, established technologies. Others, like internet blogs, are based on comparatively new technologies. Yet, both venues have provided congenial habitats for that enemy of reasonable, constructive political discourse: the ideologue.

What exactly is an “ideologue?” Merriam-Webster defines it as “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.” Everyone, of course, works from a certain set of assumptions and argues for particular policies based upon their presuppositions. Nothing is wrong with that. But the ideologue is blindly loyal to certain partisan positions, regardless of the facts. As political philosopher Robert Nozick explains, “The moment a person refuses to examine his or her beliefs is the moment that person becomes an ideologue.” Sociologist Daniel Bell argued in The End of Ideology (1960) that ideology’s role is to mobilize mass movements by inflaming popular zeal; therefore, ideologues “simplify ideas, establish a claim to truth, and, in the union of the two, demand a commitment to action.” Unfortunately, this zeal and oversimplification often overwhelm rational debate. They produce a lack of civility in political discussions and a loss of focus in seeking the common good.

In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the ideologues I encountered were on the political left. Some were Marxists who refused to accept the existence of political prisoners in China or Cuba. Others were radical feminists who declared that all men were potential rapists. Recently, however, conservatives seem to have become more like the ideologues they criticized 40 years ago. They have long excoriated “knee-jerk liberals,” but have many conservatives actually become knee-jerk ideologues on the right? There are a few warning signs that the transformation may be well underway.

For instance, conservatives denounced Clinton for intervening in Bosnia but championed Bush’s intervention in Iraq. Or, as another example, conservatives supported cutting taxes when the country was fighting two expensive wars but, soon after, denounced dangerous deficits.

These are merely two examples that point to the triumph of blind partisanship.

One last example: Participating in anti-Vietnam protests during the late ’60s, some protestors carried pictures of Lyndon Johnson decorated with swastikas. Today, a few Tea Party activists carry placards with President Obama portrayed as Hitler. Refusing to consider complicating facts, ideologues assume that their opponents are demonic.

It is sad to see conservatives morphing into rigidly partisan ideologues, enabled by a mass media that generates more heat than light by seeking the lowest common denominator. Some programs on Fox News sound more like Jerry Springer than they do Bill Buckley’s old decorous debate show, “Firing Line.” Some of the founders of the post-World War II conservative renaissance would be horrified. Russell Kirk argued that conservatives, with their realistic recognition of human limitations and their preference for prudential, incremental change, were fundamentally anti-ideological. The conservative, commented Kirk, “thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.” Facts don’t matter, and character assassination is permissible. The shouting, weeping egotists who speak on behalf of the conservative movement today don’t strike me as very, well, conservative.

Besides conservatives, I can think of at least two other (overlapping) groups who should scrupulously avoid becoming ideologues:

First, are academics. I encountered a few examples of this sort of animal back when I was an undergraduate. A teaching assistant in political science refused to discuss the Soviet Gulag; an historian wouldn’t acknowledge that religion ever served any positive role in history. There still aren’t many conservatives in American academe today, but the solution to that imbalance isn’t to import right-wing ideologues to replace the left-wing ones. Again, Daniel Bell can help us understand how the authentic scholar differs from the ideologue: “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’ The intellectual [i.e., the ideologue] begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.” Accordingly, ideologues seek to make the world fit into their tidy personal molds, regardless of untidy facts.

A second group: Christians should also be the least inclined to embrace the approach of the ideologue. Though they are prepared to be dogmatic about the core essentials of the faith, they should wear human-devised systems very lightly. While Christians should be prepared to defend those propositions contained in Holy Writ, they hold no special brief for man-made systems. Though they recognize that some systems have had a more benign influence in human history than have others, they should refrain from absolutizing particular historical arrangements in a fallen world. Although certain social, political, or economic structures may be superior to others, Christians need to remember that they are only relatively better.

In many ways, I am preaching to myself. As a professor at an evangelical college, I have found it salutary to reflect on the pitfalls of ideology. American conservatives these days might do well to ponder the dangers as well.

Dr. Gillis J. Harp is professor of history at Grove City College and member of the faith & politics working group with The Center for Vision & Values.

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