Column on Ideology Again

Ideology Again

Tibor R. Machan

Perusing the Sunday New York Times will almost guarantee running across
the term "ideology" in various commentaries and news analyses. In her
essay in Week in Review, titled "Cutting Slack Is So Old School," Sheryl
Gay Stolberg invokes the term as follows: she reports that Newt Gingrich’s
view is that "the minority party has the right, even obligation, to stick
to its ideological principles." And she says Ronald Reagan "swept into
office as one of the most ideologically driven candidates in modern
history." In neither case does she provide a clue as what work the term
"ideology" does as she uses it. Nor is there some way to discern this by
the context, say, by seeing a contrast between ideology and something
else. It seems to be used derisively, though, that’s evident, since it is
applied only to those whose ideas Ms. Stolberg finds objectionable, ones
that fail to give support to President Barack Obama during his honeymoon
period. She quotes 82 year old former Virginia Senator John Warner saying
that Mr. Obama "must be given the opportunity to exercise leadership of
his own choosing consistent with the will of the people who put him in
office."

Let me now bother with the particulars here–for instance, is the
president to "be given the opportunity to exercise leadership of his own
choosing" by those who consider the enormous stimulus package utterly
disastrous for the country? Never mind that millions of young people are
being put into debt with no opportunity for them to have a say about it
all. But I guess that would be to think ideologically, whatever that is
supposed to mean.

It looks like the use of "ideology" serves to obscure whether someone’s
principles of politics or economics are well supported by history and
theory and simply involves indicting principles one doesn’t consider
sound. For President Obama the right ideology, then, is John Maynard
Keynes’ idea that creating artificial, government driven demand for work
projects is a sound approach to public policy. For his critics the right
ideology is that such infusion of phony money is far worse a "cure" than
the disease it aims to remedy. But both ides, then are ideologically
driven and Obama’s are ideological principles no less than are the
principles of those who find his views unsound. So what then does it add
to call them "ideological"?

There was a time, a century or so ago, when many intellectuals used
"ideology" to impugn the honesty of someone’s ideas, implying with the use
of that term that the ideas were mere rationalizations, invented,
consciously or subconsciously, so as to give them the appearance of
seriousness. Just as a rationalization is a corrupted reason, so ideology
is corrupted philosophy, or so it was widely believed.

But this view about ideology was founded on a very complicated and highly
dubious philosophy, worked out by the likes of Hegel and Marx, so it soon
fell into disrepute. After a while "ideology" came to mean, instead,
"simplified philosophy" and lost its critical bite apart from that. Since
most of us lack the time and patience to always lay out our full case for
the positions we hold, nearly all of us are mainly ideologically driven.
Our principles, too, are ideological ones, be they those of Barack Obama
or Ronald Reagan, since those in public office simply have no time and
opportunity to develop the foundations of their thinking. Some choose to
buttress this with claims to being pragmatic or flexible, as if these
didn’t involve elaborate theoretical foundations in order to given them
solid footing.

So it looks like "ideology" is a term of derision that has lost its
conceptual foundations and now is used merely to express one’s emotional
dislike of certain ideas. They are ideological principles if one doesn’t
approve of them but genuine principles if one does. Maybe calling
attention to this fact will in time stop the pointless use of the term.

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