The Personalist Project

In an online interview I came across recently, the interviewer, obviously annoyed by president Obama’s frequent exhortations to “move beyond the ideological battles of the past”, asks: “Since when did ideology become evil?” Why is “adherence to a coherent set of beliefs” bad, while “pragmatism, doing whatever fits the moment, the panacea?”

If ideology were nothing other than “adherence to a coherent set of beliefs,” then there is nothing wrong with it. But that is not all it means. An ideology is in some way disconnected from reality. A coherent set of beliefs becomes ideological as soon as it is no longer tested against the concrete facts on the ground and adjusted accordingly. Ideologies are not just partial and incomplete, like any world-view, but closed off to genuine dialogue and to the correcting influence of stubborn facts.

This is why the call to put ideological battles behind us is rhetorically clever (and often so frustrating). It obfuscates the important difference between principled opposition to nationalized healthcare, say, and merely ideological opposition to it. It is also the kernel of truth in that call. Few of us are immune to the danger of unreality in our approach to politics. We do well to be on guard against it.

As Russel Kirk famously argued, “conservatism is the negation of ideology”. We should oppose mere pragmatism in politics, not with ideologies but with true principles.

Katie forwarded me a link to a great 1977 speech by Ronald Reagan, in which he expressed something similar to the above:

I have always been puzzled by the inability of some political and media types to understand exactly what is meant by adherence to political principle. All too often in the press and the television evening news it is treated as a call for “ideological purity.” Whatever ideology may mean—and it seems to mean a variety of things, depending upon who is using it—it always conjures up in my mind a picture of a rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality. We have to recognize that in this country “ideology” is a scare word. And for good reason. Marxist-Leninism is, to give but one example, an ideology. All the facts of the real world have to be fitted to the Procrustean bed of Marx and Lenin. If the facts don’t happen to fit the ideology, the facts are chopped off and discarded.

I consider this to be the complete opposite to principled conservatism. If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction, it is American conservatism.

Comments (1)

Matt Chominski

#1, Sep 25, 2009 7:36am

Much appreciated post Jules, critical and constructive.

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