America Should be More Ideological, Not Less

Now that the election is over, the punditry has found something else with which to occupy itself and justify its existence: determining whether Obama’s victory constitutes a shift in the American electorate’s political philosophy. Hence, all the back-and-forth between the left on right on whether this election is a mandate for their respective governing philosophies.

There is only one problem with this back-and-forth: it presumbes, without justification in my opinion, that the American electorate actually even thinks about governing philosophy, or philosophy in general, or even ideologically. I think E.J. Dionne Jr. hits on the head, though its meaning is what he intends, when he says that:

“Fundamentally, ours is a non-ideological nation.”

Before I cache out what I think the real implications of that statement, let me just offer a plausible definition of ideology. Keep in mind I define the term in an unloaded fashion:

Ideology: a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about matters of public policy.

This is a relatively neutral definition, because it doesn’t presume any ideology is true or false, normativelly correct or incorrect, only that it must be comprehensive and internally consistent.

So when E.J. Dionne Jr. says that America is not a fundamentally ideological nation, what he is really saying, though he certainly doesn’t mean to say this, is that Americans generally have no sets of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about matters of public policy. What Dionne Jr. means to say when he made such a statement is to praise this fact, because he intends “non-ideological” to mean a willingness to get things done and solve problems, i.e., that fabled American “pragmatism” which is supposed to separate real Americans from pointy-headed academics too stuck up on their Rawls or Nozick to really do something about the current tax system.

But already this is a false opposition, because even pragmatism is an ideology (in a non-controversial sense): it is a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about public policy. If Americans truly subscribe to pragmatism, they have subscribed to an ideology. Yet there is very little evidence of this, because all the empirical research shows that the American people think about matters of public policy in any kind of comprehensive, internally-consistent manner.

When Obama and McCain go back and forth over their respective tax policies, what is really at stake here philosophically? Nothing other than what kind of distributive justice that the country should adopt. Yet neither candidates really framed the debate this way: instead, they both appealed to voter’s self-interest. Obama said that most of you will get a tax cut, while McCain said the opposite. Neither of them really articulated the philosophical debate underlying their overt political argument. And here a truly ideological voter (again, ideological in the unloaded sense) will have to decide what kind of distributive justice he wants the rest of the country to adopt. And this belief will have to be justified further with other, more abstract philosophical arguments. And on top of it all, this choice and its justifications must be internally-consistent and fit within the overall normative framework of the voter in question. Thus, the choice between two tax schemes is fundamentally an ideological choice: it forces one to decide based on a comprehensive, internatlly-consistent normative belief about a matter of public policy.

One doesn’t have to go into which version of distributive justice is morally correct, because the democratic process is not fundamentally about who’s right, but what the majority wants. Now if every voter in American decided the election by thinking ideologically, I would have no problem with the process. But it is precisely the fact that most American voters did not vote ideologically–that is, did not vote based on a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about public policy–that worries me.

It worries me because people are ultimately not thinking critically: they are not willing or unable to examine what their initial intuitions and emotions mean and carry them out to their logical conclusion. They might not want to, because carrying things out to their logical conclusion often yield counter-intuitive or highly unsettling conclusions, but if that the case, they must modify their initial intuitions or abandon them altogether. Either choice is surely much better than voting on half-baked, unthought-out, unarticulated, logically incoherent intuitions, because such a choice imposes itself on everyone else because that is what the democratic process is: it is coercing everyone else your own normative beliefs on all those who happen to be in the minority.

And this is precisely the reason why Americans must become more ideological, not less, because the more ideological their thinking is, the more they will consider and articulate what exactly their philosophical commitments are. This can get ugly, because someone’s comprehensive, internally-consistent normative belief system about matter of public policy could lead him to conclude, for example, that homosexuals do not deserve equal rights, or that government should never extend a helping hand to those who cannot help themselves, or that certain minorities do not deserve the same set of political rights, and so on.

But hopefully, this won’t the majority of the people. Yet this is something that a truly democratic society will have to consider. If one is truly committed to democracy, this is a risk that must be taken. But at least everyone will know that other people are taking decisions of public policy seriously and committed to really thinking about them. And it certainly might be the case, as Rawls articulated in Political Liberalism, that when everyone has come clean with his ideological thinking, people will find out that they have fundamental philosophical disagreements; maybe not everyone truly believes in life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Maybe this will even create a civil war.

Yet unless this crucial step is taken, our political discourse, and our public policy process, will always be less elevated and less meaningful than it could be. It will always be stuck in the world intuitions and emotions, liable to be manipulated by charismatic politicians (for good or bad; the good is inspiration, the bad demagoguery). The first step to a truly democratic, legitimate public policy process is for every citizen, EVERY SINGLE ONE, to really, truly, honestly, critically, and analytically think about what exactly his commitments are, why he has them, whether they are justified, and what he ought to change/abandon in order to have an internally-consistent belief system.

Because without this crucial step, we will never understand each other: I might not agree with your comprehensive belief system, but at least you and I will truly understand each other without the distortion and filtering that come with a media-dominated “analysis” (what a misnomer). Yes this is difficult, yes it requires a ton of time, yes it will require everyone to really probe himself (a task much more difficult than anyone can possibly imagine), yes it is exhausting, but no one said politics is a walk in the park.

And goddamit, if you are going to impose your beliefs on me through the democratic process, the least you can do is to tell me clearly what it is that you believe in!

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One Response to “America Should be More Ideological, Not Less”

  1. lilburtonboy7489 Says:

    at least we have a constitution which is a slap in the face for any pragmatic tool. too bad it’s systematically violated.

    and as for democracy, the concept itself is immoral. it is complete relativism where the majority gets to loot the minority. it really is sick. when people go to the polls, they go to beg their masters to give them back a little bit of the wealth that has been stolen from them.

    if they aren’t busy doing that, they are voting to oppress others for their own personal gains.

    the scariest things is that people mix pragmatism with principles. the point of a right, is that it cannot be violated under any circumstance. it is a moral law which can never be violated.

    however, people now believe that rights can be violated in order to achieve certain ends. not only is this contradictory, but it’s immoral.


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