The Danger of Ideologues

Mar 26, 2016 | Centrism, Conservativism, Extremism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Political Ideologies

Published: The Good Men Project (March 26, 2016)

“The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon. No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government.”
– Eric Hoffer

I posted this quote not only because I agree with its contents, but because it perfectly encapsulates my reason for not considering myself to be an ideologue, either liberal or conservative. Ideologues on both sides are prone to making a terrible mistake – i.e., they start to care less about whether their policies are adequately serving important human needs than they do about the strictness with which those policies are hewing to a set of abstract philosophical concepts.

The problem with the two major ideological movements in this country is that both tend to jettison this goal as soon as they conflict with their preexisting partisan belief systems. My affiliation as a liberal derives from the fact that the left seems less inclined to do this. For all of their faults, modern progressives tend to sympathize with the poor instead of seeking ways to blame them for their own misfortune; to seek equality for marginalized groups instead of profiting off their oppression; and to embrace science and intellectual progress instead of clinging to blind faith. By contrast, we live in a society where the primary conservative political institution (i.e., the Republican Party) has become so obsessed with implementing a puritanically right-wing economic agenda – not only for the purpose of pleasing its wealthy backers, but also in the name of adhering to a dogma that simplistically demonizes all state economic intervenionism – that it will minimize, dismiss, misrepresent, and even justify the existence of widespread economic suffering (e.g., unemployment, working poverty, sub-par quality of life for the socioeconomically disadvantaged in areas such as housing and health care, inequitable access to means of socioeconomic mobility including affordable and decent education, etc.) What’s more, the growing power of cultural reactionaries within the right-wing has caused conservative thinkers to violate many of their own avowed principles in order to violate the civil liberties of individuals who run afoul of their prejudices (e.g., Mexicans, Muslims, women, homosexuals, inner-city minorities).

This is not to say that liberalism is free of comparable offenses against common sense and decency. By far the worst among these is a knee-jerk antipathy against America, one that causes many on the left to not only support distorted and contextually myopic interpretations of our nation’s history and legacy, but also to blatantly sympathize with our country’s enemies, even ones whose actions violate basic humanitarian precepts (e.g., the sympathy and/or support among many leftists for Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the Bush Era, and Hugo Chavez today). While the radical leftists who hold such views are hardly as influential within the Democratic Party as the far right remains among Republicans, they can still be seen peddling their doctrine among fringe politicians, throughout the media, and on college campuses.

There are many reasons why this problem exists within ideological movements: Egos can become so invested in an ideology’s correctness that, even after an idea has been discredited, steadfastness becomes an emotional need based on pride rather than an intelligent opinion based on reason. Political battles can reach such a fevered pitch that partisans lose sight of larger issues and bigger pictures. Hatreds and irrational biases that cannot be openly expressed without receiving widespread condemnation take on more socially respectable forms and integrate themselves into mainstream belief systems. People can make honest mistakes.

Regardless of why it happens, however, there are two simple questions you can ask yourself to determine when it is happening. Would a given ideology, if implemented, promote the welfare and guarantee the rights of all people, support common decency, and value the inherent integrity of every human being? Does it work to avoid breeding irrational suspicion, prejudice, and maliciousness? I am under no illusions as to the fact that any ideological movement can ever honestly answer each of those questions in the affirmative, but this is one of those unattainable goals toward which all should nevertheless strive. Until the unlikely day arrives when one of them reaches it, I will maintain a healthy skepticism not merely toward all ideologies, but toward all ideologues.