What is ideology, and what is an ideologue?
Not long ago I posted on Twitter that ideologues cannot conceive of anyone else not being one. And thus I was labeled a left wing socialist ideologue by an ideologically right wing libertarian who sees every one to his left as a socialist ideologue. So what is ideology, and what is an ideologue?
Ideology is the invention of the 18th century French philosopher, Antoine Destutt deTracy. Well there you go, yet another of our modern problems lies with the French and their Enlightenment thinking. No doubt but for deTracy we wouldn’t be troubled by so much ideology infecting our times. Or maybe not. Whatever deTracy thought it meant when he coined the word, it went on to coin its own meanings. At least for now it means something like a normative system of belief in something that has an impact on society. To put it another way, ideology means a well organized belief in something that is, or should be, or shouldn’t be, the way society functions.
The something can be anything, but in the current debate the various somethings around which ideologies form tend to include class, race, economics, political systems and the like. The classic philosophies of liberal democracy and private enterprise, for instance, are ideologies foundational to our nation. But they’re not alone. Ideologies about slavery, human rights, manifest destiny, and immigration have also guided public policy, social mores and private thinking.
It’s not uncommon for people to have a few core ideologies they would be loathe to give up, are reasonably flexible about others connected to the core, are uncaring of still others, and vaguely aware of the greater ideological universe surrounding them. Comfortable in the company of like minded others, people create formal and informal groups that reinforce the intrinsic values of their shared core ideologies. Whether they become exclusionary is part of what separates ideologues from the rest of us. I haven’t looked into the matter but wonder if sociologists have done studies to see how core ideologies, around which subordinate ideologies gather, link to each other across the nation?
It’s a muddled picture muddled more in the current political environment by using the words conservative and liberal as if they were ideologies. They’re not. Conservative leans toward caution, suspicion of too much change too fast, and a preference for the way things are or used to be. Liberal leans toward challenging existing standards, promoting change, and taking risks that upset the status quo. They’re on an overlapping continuum, and don’t exist at just one end or the other. One can be more conservative about some things, and more liberal about others. To say that someone is a conservative or liberal has little meaning unless specifying to what degree about what.
Ignoring the need for informed specificity, the media, internet, and casual conversation are flooded with accusations and assumptions about the ideological beliefs of others without letting them speak for themselves. It’s made worse by using out of context something said to assign a boxed in ideological position. For instance, in a recent public conversation I was labeled a liberal, meaning a radical far left socialist. A curious label for someone who values pragmatism, and whose politics are center-left, with center-right economic views. Ideological views like mine are hard to pigeon hole, and pigeon holes are the only things some people are able to understand. The very idea that pragmatic politics might include a mix of conservative and liberal leaning views is not simply anathema to ideologues, it’s an impossibility.
That brings us to the question of ideologues. What’s an ideologue? I’ve used the word. Well known syndicated columnists use it. Few internet political exchanges fail to use it. It’s the favorite pejorative accusation for ideologically driven propagandists. Not long ago the standard dictionary definition of an ideologue was simply an advocate for an ideology. That’s changed. In contemporary use it’s come to mean someone who is dogmatically uncompromising in their adherence to core ideologies that define their view of the world and others in it.
Ideologues live at the far ends of ideological continuums in a world made up of other ideologues who may be allies or enemies, but they’re all ideologues. It’s why they’re easy targets for propagandists who cater to their prejudices while glibly declaring that all others are dangerous ideological enemies who must be subdued or eliminated. It’s why ideologues on the far right want to put ideologically pure justices on the Supreme Court. They can’t imagine that others aren’t trying to do the same with left wing ideologues. Not that left wing ideologues wouldn’t try. It’s the nature of ideologues to see the world in those terms.
Democracy cannot live in a world dominated by ideologues consumed with eliminating opposition and silencing pragmatists who dare to stand up to them. Whatever differences exist between ideologues on the far left and right disappear when one or the other gains control of the institutions of society. It is the darkness in which democracy dies, to borrow from the Washington Post motto.
The reality, one hopes, is that the greater part of our nation is not comprised of dogmatically uncompromising adherents of core ideologies. It’s made up of people who are more conservative on some things, more liberal on others, who are not dogmatically uncompromising about their core ideological beliefs, and are willing to make adjustments as new information is comprehended. More is needed. They have to take their public stand against ideologues. They have to vote. And they have to vote for candidates who are not ideologically bound.