Ideology Again
By Tibor Machan - March 28, 2013

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 invoked the term as follows: she reported that Newt Gingrich's view has been that "the minority party has the right, even obligation, to stick to its ideological principles." And she said Ronald Reagan "swept into office as one of the most ideologically driven candidates in modern history." In neither case has she provided a clue as to 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 not 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 an 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's 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 ideas, 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 give 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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