There was once a time when we associated ideology more with the Left than with the Right, with Democrats more than with Republicans. No more. The rise of the Tea Party, the actions of Congressional Republicans during the Obama presidency, and the 2012 Republican Platform have made that clearer than ever. Last month on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, former President Bill Clinton said:
This is a practical country. We have ideals. We have philosophies. But the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you've already decided you've got to have. It doesn't work that way. Building an economy; rebuilding an economy is hard, practical nuts and bolts work.
And this is one of Mitt Romney's biggest problems. He made a lot of promises to the Tea Party during the primaries. Now the Tea Party is holding Romney's feet to the fire. . . . The Tea Party ideology does not have any practical application. It does not work. It's just like reading an Ayn Rand novel and trying to make it happen in the real world. It's fiction.
More recently, two New York Times pieces demonstrated the linking of ideology with the Republicans, and a non-ideological pragmatism with President Obama. Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed “Death by Ideology”suggested a similar association as did Clinton between Republicans and the ideological denial of reality when he wrote: “Mitt Romney doesn’t see dead people. But that’s only because he doesn’t want to see them; if he did, he’d have to acknowledge the ugly reality of what will happen if he and Paul Ryan get their way on health care.” Philosopher Harvey Cormier’s“Reconsidering Obama the Pragmatist” (in one of the thought-provoking “The Stone” columns) is just the most recent commentator, as he himself observes, to write of the president’s pragmatism, which follows in the tradition of William James.
Cormier states that James “wanted us to give up ‘ideologies,’” and that “being pragmatic, in philosophy or in ordinary life, is, above all, being realistic.” He mentions that in The Audacity of Hope“Obama challenged both parties to leave behind their ideological boilerplate and develop something new, something that all Americans can come to believe in.” Cormier ends his essay by acknowledging that some voters may express dissatisfaction with the limited gains of Obama’s pragmatism, but he asks: “Should we snort in disgust at these comparatively small concrete accomplishments and go ideological, either hard left or hard right? The voters will have to decide. But pragmatism, which looks at the way the world really works, seeks cooperation (sometimes to little or no avail), and takes experimental chances, is, at least, not something we should hold against Obama.”
More than fifty years ago Daniel Bell wrote in his The End of Ideology that ideology, “with good reason, is an irretrievably fallen word.” And some conservatives then agreed with him. Russell Kirk (1918-1994), sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” railed against ideology and ideologues in essays such as “The Errors of Ideology,” written after President Reagan had already left office: “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .The evidence of ideological ruin lies all about us. How then can it be that the allurements of ideology retain great power in much of the world?”
Kirk mentioned a letter he received from a conservative publicist, who was critical of young people “calling themselves conservative, who have no notion of prudence, temperance, compromise, the traditions of civility, or cultural patrimony.” The publicist lamented that the conservative movement had spawned “a new generation of rigid ideologists,” and that it distressed him “to find them as numerous and in so many institutions.” Kirk‘s response was “Amen to that.”
He also quoted historian H. Stuart Hughes, who had written decades earlier that “Conservatism is the negation of ideology,” but Kirk warned that even so “there exists some danger that conservatives themselves might slip into a narrow ideology or quasi-ideology.” Today, his fears have been realized.
Kirk, of course, identified ideologists as mainly those on the Left, including liberals. In another work he described a U. S. liberal as “a man in love with constant change; often he has been influenced directly by the group of ideas called pragmatism and the writings of John Dewey; commonly the liberal has tended to despise the lessons of the past and to look forward confidently to a vista of endless material progress, in which the state will play a larger and larger role, and a general equality of condition will be enforced.”
Most modern-day conservatives, including Fox News pundits and many Tea Party adherents, also think that liberals are ideologues, but fail to heed Kirk’s warnings about the dangers of embracing right-wing “ideology.”
As pragmatists know all too well, truth is complex and over-simplification is (to apply what Emerson said about foolish consistency) “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Kirk himself was more ideological than he realized, and ideology and pragmatism mean different things to different people. The Oxford Dictionary defines ideology as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy,” and pragmatism as “an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” Defined in these ways, neither term is offensive. But Clinton, Krugman, Cormier, Bell, and Kirk all have suggested that ideology contributes to close-mindedness, to making us less open-minded to reality than we should be. And Kirk and others, despite the word of James and Obama, have characterized pragmatists as ideologues. Still others have falsely attacked pragmatists for being unprincipled and without deep values. But, contrary to some assertions, a politician who will say or do anything to get elected is not a pragmatist, he or she is simply unprincipled.
In other essays, I have written on Obama’s political values and indicated my own preference for a pragmatic approach to politics. Suffice it to say here, contrary to Fox News ideologues, that the president is not a socialist or ideologue, but a principled pragmatist, and one who values rationality, compassion, and empathy, but also tolerance and compromise. This pragmatism does not please some Leftists who believe that the president has not been ideological enough in dealing with congressional Republican ideologues. Although he has admittedly failed at times to display enough passion (the first debate with Romney being the latest example), this has not been because of his pragmatic, non-ideological approach. As Cormier observed about William James, he “coached us to fight, to strike blows, for what we think is best.” And the president himself realizes that self-disciplined political passion is sometimes necessary—as he demonstrated during the second Obama-Romney debate. As hetold University of Michigan graduates more than two years earlier: “These arguments we're having over government and health care and war and taxes—these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions, and it's important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.” Obama’s sometime passion deficit is not caused by his non-ideological beliefs, but by his temperament, which tends more to coolness than heat.
Note, for example, that despite the increased passion displayed by the president during the second debate, he still generally “kept his cool,” never more illustrated than by his “Please proceed governor” remark (trap?) during the following exchange between him, Romney, and moderator Candy Crowley:
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It - it - it - he did in fact, sir. So let me - let me call it an act of terror. .
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He - he did call it an act of terror.
And how about Mitt Romney? Is he a right-wing ideologue, as he often seemed during the Republican primaries, or a more pragmatic governor, as he sometimes appeared when serving in that capacity in Massachusetts? In September, Jon Meacham wrote on the Time web sit“The question for voters assessing Romney is whether they’re choosing between the President and a pragmatist or between the President and an ideologue. One wonders at this point if even Romney himself is clear which he is.”
One also wonders if there is still another word that better describes a man who in his dogged desire for the presidency has twisted and turned in so many ways. And that word is opportunist: “a person who exploits circumstances to gain immediate advantage rather than being guided by principles or plans.”
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: https://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm.
Posted: Friday, 19 October 2012