What Are Ideologies All About?
We can all agree that ideologies are about something.
Left-wing ideology is about equality, diversity, and compassion. Right-wing ideology is about authority, patriotism, and personal responsibility.
Or something. If you want to swap in different words, be my guest, but the point is that there is some list of words—maybe a few words each—that can explain the contents of our ideologies. That much is obvious. Right?
Wrong. Ideologies aren’t about anything—they make no sense. They’re mishmashes of contradictory slogans, jabs, rallying flags, and rhetorical tactics. They’re tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
For example, here are nine confusing things that American conservatives have believed in the past decade:
People should not be so easily offended (but Black Lives Matter is offensive).
Nobody deserves a free handout from the government (except “small working-class towns in America’s heartland”).
We ought to be more suspicious of foreigners (but we should trust Vladimir Putin when he said that he did not interfere in the 2016 election).
People should be allowed to express their political opinions freely in the workplace (but athletes should not be allowed to kneel during the national anthem).
One of the biggest problems facing America is “violent crime” (but not “gun violence”).
People who are poor in America have no one to blame but themselves (unless they are working class white people, in which case they should blame immigration, international trade, and reverse discrimination).
The government should not interfere with our personal liberty to own a gun (but it should interfere with our personal liberty to consume pornography)
We ought to respect the integrity of the American military (but not the FBI)
And to be fair (as best I can), here are nine confusing things that Democrats have believed in the past decade:
It is unfair for corporate CEOs to make millions of dollars a year (but it is fair for Hollywood movie stars to make millions of dollars a year).
We should not endorse negative stereotypes about a group of people based on their place of birth (but people from the south are racist).
Men and women are equal in their talents and abilities (but women are better at empathizing and multitasking).
A woman should have the right to do what she wants with her own body (unless she wants to sell her kidney, have sex for money, purchase private healthcare, or drink a large sugary soda).
We should do everything we can to protect college students (but not police officers in dangerous communities) from feeling unsafe.
We should not hold all Muslims responsible for Islamist terrorist attacks (but we should hold all Trump voters responsible for the killing at Charlottesville).
We must stand in solidarity with labor unions (but not police unions).
We should believe the sexual assault allegations against Bret Kavanaugh (but not the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden)
We must show empathy and respect to all groups (unless they are uneducated, southern, working class, pro-life, devout Christians, businesspeople, white people, men, members of the military, or Republicans).
Usually when I talk about these confusing beliefs, people get defensive. They come up with ad-hoc explanations. They talk about how some of these beliefs—either the first half or the second half—are actually perfectly consistent and logically defensible. As for the other half, of course they’re confusing! Those people are crazy.
But this is all very fishy. The more we try to patch up the inconsistencies in our ideology (but not the other ideology), the more these contortions look like epicycles in a pre-Copernican political science.
Maybe we need to rethink what ideologies are and what their function is. Maybe they’re not coherent worldviews or abstract value systems. Maybe they’re cobbled together bits of rhetoric designed to mobilize support for the various factions and interest groups thrown together into political coalitions. Maybe ideologies aren’t about anything, except advancing the interests of those coalitions. Maybe liberals and conservatives are members of the same flawed species, equipped with the same instincts for intergroup competition and moral rationalization. Maybe our political belief systems are tapestries of bullshit designed to cover up these ugly facts.
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