Ideology and Reality in American Politics: Pt. 2

April 03, 2017 by Eric Shytle

In Part 1 to this note I presented a scandalously oversimplified distinction between French idealism and British realism. In this note I am even more careless, and ask the reader to accept that the French mode of thought underlies political ideology, whereas the British mode of thought underlies political pragmatism. As it turns out, in modern America we are all ideologues.

By “ideology,” I refer to a political approach that starts not from the facts at hand, but instead from ideals, principles, or myths. Karl Popper said that a claim was not scientific if it could not be falsified, i.e. proven to be wrong. So it is with ideology; if I make a political claim that cannot be falsified, I have made an ideological statement. Moreover, most ideologies are at bottom revolutionary: There is an existing order that can and should be replaced with a conceptual ideal, which ideal generally has been hatched up in someone’s head. Realism and pragmatism are more modest ideas: Let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Here is another overly broad and unsupportable claim. The most celebrated and/or vilified forms of political ideology have their origins in the continent. Fascism arose first in Italy and then in Germany; socialism arose first in France and then evolved into Russian style communism. The various forms of pragmatism have their origins in islands, from Greece to Britain to the early United States (which, conceptually, was an island during colonial times).

In any event. The British and American political systems have traditionally been pragmatic. We can argue the point, but the English common law, free markets, constitutional monarchism, philosophical empiricism, parliamentary democracy, and so on have generated a largely pragmatic and modest approach to governance. Thus John Locke and Adam Smith laid the groundwork for political liberalism — which is not what Americans mean when they call someone “liberal,” but instead means a system based on liberty, individual rights, and free markets. We’re pretty much all “liberals” in this sense. Later, Edmund Burke gave these ideas a distinctly British cast in supporting the American revolution but opposing the French revolution. The French were too unruly, too ideological, for his tastes. In more recent times, George Orwell and Winston Churchill expressed the British political mind in implacably opposing both fascism and communism.

In America, the movement that calls itself “liberal” surely has lots of ideologies in it. Political correctness, multiculturalism, feminism, intersectionality, environmentalism, and redistributionism, to name but a few. These are all ideologies that seek to bring existing reality into conformity with an ideal. Many of the ideals are noble, to be sure, but it remains fair to say that they are ideologies.

The movement that calls itself “conservative” found its legs in opposition to these ideologies, and in particular the growth of the federal government initiated by Roosevelt’s new deal and continued through Johnson’s great society initiatives. The modern American conservative movement thus began as a reaction to what it perceived as the increasingly ideological activity of the liberals, the “elite,” and the federal government. Conservatism, at its heart, began as a rejection of ideology. It counseled us to avoid utopian idealism, to set modest goals, to seek incremental change. Again, we can argue this point; some might say instead that the modern conservatism began as a way for white men to keep their power and status. Fair enough, but the point is not critical for this note.

What is critical to this note is that both political parties are overtly ideological now. For its part, the Republican party is no longer conservative in any meaningful historical or theoretical sense. Andrew Sullivan has been arguing this point for some time now, and I think he is largely right. I part ways with Sullivan in his finding the primary issue to be religious fundamentalism’s place in the Republican party — in my mind, there is nothing inherently incompatible between strong religious faith and the historical inheritance of conservatism. On the other hand, there is an inherent incompatibility between utopian ideologies (which genus Sullivan would argue clearly includes the species of American-style fundamentalism) and conservatism, properly so called.

For example, the stated goal of George W. Bush’s administration in invading Iraq was the neoconservative ideology of spreading democracy in the Middle East. This ideology posited that Iraqi citizens were secret Americans at heart; that by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, we would clear a path for Western-style democratic capitalism in Iraq; and that Iraq’s example would spread throughout the Middle East. This claim might have been right or wrong; it might have been persuasive or unpersuasive; it might have been rooted in genuine optimism for the Middle East or in cynical concern for oil reserves. Whatever the case, it was surely ideological. And one thing worth noting is why the French declined to join us; they found the neoconservative argument unpersuasive. We were being too French for their tastes.

The Republican party has grown more ideological since. The Freedom Caucus, the America-Great-Againers, the politically active fundamentalists described by Sullivan, the self-described “real” Americans are all pursuing an ideology. Again I express no opinion whatsoever on the content of the ideology; I simply note that it is, in fact, an ideology.

So what, right? I noted above that ideologies are not falsifiable. Debates based on competing ideologies therefore cannot be won or even settled; instead, such debates become entirely symbolic and rhetorical appeals to some overarching claim. Neighbor x claims the unfettered rights of private property ownership, including the right to build a multifamily apartment complex on his land. Neighbor y claims the right to community standards and norms expressed through zoning regulations, and seeks to deny neighbor x’s claim. The law here is fairly settled, but the competing ideologies are not. Alasdair MacIntyre has made what seems to be a conclusive argument on this point, in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory: “From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises, argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.”

Enough. I have spent so many words on throat-clearing because these conversations always end up being arguments about words. What is meant by conservative, liberal, ideological, pragmatic? Who owns these words? If the Republican party calls itself conservative, who can argue? Do the words have any content beyond whatever the current political alignment says they mean? None of which is really of much interest to me. We need labels, yes, but hopefully such labels would be helpful, and these are not anymore. These words have become mere symbols that basically mean us, and them.

Let us try, then, to talk about ideas and their consequences, rather than labels and their baggage. For a real-life example, consider the opioid epidemic in white America. I doubt that anyone, Democrat or Republican, is unconcerned about the problem. Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, has recently shown that “unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in [middle-aged white Americans] have been rising, not falling.” The cause, as Deaton describes it, is “deaths of despair” — overdose and suicide. This is a tragic problem, and a very complicated one. Yet the major responses of both political parties on the issue could fit on a bumper sticker. We need border adjustment taxes and walls, or higher taxes and more wealth redistribution, or some other all-purpose ideological solution. Facebook conversations tend not to encourage the level of thoughtfulness and open-mindedness appropriate to the crisis.

The same observation could be made about levels of black poverty and incarceration, professional achievement and personal fulfillment of women, the prospects for peace between Arab and Israeli populations, and so on. These are complicated problems. Outside of politics, we would normally address such complicated problems by asking, what works? Absent an unexpectedly obvious answer, we might experiment with different solutions, keep data on the results, and apply our energies to pursuing the interventions that seemed to give the best outcomes. Such an approach would require time and patience, and the supported intervention might demand behavior that is more complex than could be accommodated by a social media share.

Even these examples are fraught with politics. Therefore, as a thought experiment, I propose that we examine the raising of children. We have been having babies and raising children for quite some time now. All the world’s greatest geniuses experienced childhood, and most of them have had children of their own. Surely, then, we should have found the all-purpose, unifying ideology for raising children by now. To mirror our current political environment, let us divide the wisdom of the ages and the infinite variety of experience into two camps. On the one hand, we will place all the advocates of the view that children need to be challenged, taught respect and deference, pushed, punished when appropriate. These are the parents who, when in doubt, resort to the stick. Their bumper sticker reads discipline. On the other hand, we will place all the advocates of encouragement, self-confidence, creativity, and self-expression. The parents who, when in doubt, resort to the carrot. Their bumper sticker reads unconditional love. You must place one bumper sticker, and only one, on your car. Which do you choose? Once you choose, do you always and invariably follow your own counsel? I hope that this example needs no further explanation for its absurdity to be apparent, and yet we expect all overtly political problems to be capable of such binary, simplistic treatment.

Some of you will agree with me, at least to this point, and you will be thinking: “Yeah, those dirty rotten politicians who treat us as if we were simpletons.” But the politician is in the business of giving us exactly what we demand. The quoted objection is as if we had confronted Coke and Pepsi and demanded that they stop forcing brown drinks on us. Somebody is buying those brown drinks, after all. Could it be us?

We are finally at the root of the problem. What flaw in our nature has led to the current political environment? I propose that the cause is the deep human thirst for simplicity and for certainty. Being thoughtful, taking care, experiencing doubt, waiting for and evaluating results: These things are hard. Most of us are willing to make the effort in raising our own children. But when confronted with equally complex but more remote problems, we want a simple answer, and we want to know that it is right. At the same time, we want to deflect our confusion and doubt onto others. The problem, we want to reason, is not that the issues are complex and difficult; it’s that other people are stupid and misguided.

I don’t find this impulse wrong or evil, merely human. But, at our best, we should at least try to resist our own natures. Maybe these complex issues aren’t clearly anybody’s fault. Maybe the answer is not so very simple after all. Maybe the world can’t be neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, men and women, black and white, native-born and immigrant, right and wrong. Maybe we are all in this together, and we should give each other a chance.

This is a big ask, I know. Let me suggest a few rules of thumb as a starting point.

  1. If you find yourself always agreeing with one political party, you are either a very remote statistical anomaly or you aren’t trying hard enough.
  2. If you think you have solved or found the solution to a very complex problem in a social media share, you are probably missing something.
  3. If your political candidate of choice claims to know, with absolute certainty, how to solve a very complex problem, he or she either doesn’t fully understand the issues and/or is intentionally deceiving you.
  4. If your entire world-view and problem solving strategy can fit on a bumper sticker, it probably needs some work.
  5. If you think that the other party is to blame for everything shameful and noxious in the world, then you should probably stop and reexamine your beliefs.

I don’t know that any of these rules of thumb would solve any of our complex problems, but perhaps they would at least improve the way we talk about them, and about each other. They would also go some way to restoring us to our pragmatic heritage, and away from our ideological temptations. Sometimes regulations are good; it’s nice to buy food we know to be safe, to have irons that we know won’t burn our houses down, to drink water that we know won’t kill us. Sometimes regulations are bad; the free market can in fact solve many (but not all) problems. Sometimes taxes are good; we like good roads and safe schools and responsive police and fire departments. Sometimes taxes are bad; surely many units of government could be more efficient and less wasteful. To return to the nonpolitical example, sometimes children need discipline and sometimes they need unconditional love.

If we brought even a tenth of the passion and energy that we apply to yelling at other people for their political stupidity to understanding and engaging our complex problems, maybe the world would be a slightly better place. The ideologue, however, doesn’t want marginal improvement, but instead seeks the complete solution. The pragmatist is willing to take even small improvements. We should be as well. Perhaps, over time, we will find that continuous small improvements can make a real difference. The English garden shown in my first note might have started as a nook here and a cranny there. But it’s actually quite beautiful now.

April 03, 2017 /Eric Shytle

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