Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Importance of Ideology

I regard "ideology" and "morality" as the two most dangerous forces on this 
 planet. About "ideology" I have expressed my suspicions elsewhere; here I 
will only mention John Adams's verdict that shortening "ideology" to "idiocy" 
would save some space and add a great deal to clarity.

- Robert Anton Wilson, Natural Law: Or "Don't Put a Rubber on your Willie"

Ideology certainly has its critics, but with all due respect to Messrs. Adams and Wilson, those with none are often no less idiotic. Ideology is like fire - it has equal potential to be destructive or constructive. And the Democrats would do well to embark on their Quest for Fire because, baby, it's cold outside.

The idea that the Democratic Party is floundering without its progressive vision is certainly not new. For example, Thomas Frank has written quite a bit on this and, in the interests of full disclosure, I quote him quite a bit in my book. But Frank's latest article in Salon expertly nails it.

Frank opines that we keep having these doomed loved affairs with post-partisan, post-ideological technocrats that fail to understand the inherently adversarial nature of politics. They reach across the aisle, compromising in advance, thinking their Republican opponents will be touched by their patriotic goodwill gesture rather than sense weakness and demand more. The result is standard bearers like Michael Dukakis who got Willie Hortoned and John Kerry who got swift-boated. If the candidate has incredible charisma, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, they survive the election only to get bullied by a thuggish Congress. But most mere mortals are not that politically gifted, so things rarely even get that far.

I think the problem is both tactical and temperamental. But, of course, those are related.

First, with near suicidal naiveté, liberals believe that we can all agree that we want competent government when conservatives actually want to sabotage whatever government they cannot eliminate entirely. In Thomas Frank's book, The Wrecking Crew, he shows how this has been the corporate right's modus operandi since at least the 1920s. Business association literature of the period argued that the best bureaucrat is a bad bureaucrat. They have an ideological commitment to this idea. Even conservative columnist P.J. O'Rourke admitted this when he quipped, "The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." And, as we all saw, that governing philosophy disastrously cumulates in the words "Heckuvah job, Brownie!" 

Until Democrats stop calling Republicans "the part of no" and start calling it the party of sabotage, they will continue to misunderstand and underestimate their opponents' motives and methodology. Republicans have a vicious, anti-civic ideology, but it is better than none because it at least gives them drive. Democrats not so much. Actually, they also have an ideology, albeit by default: to make things better rather than worse. But they refuse to embrace it except in the most tepid, halfhearted fashion. As I wrote in my book: 
Conservatives’ anti-civic attitude does not stop at defunding public schools or at demonizing teachers unions. It threatens every single bolt of our rusting infrastructure. Conservatism desires the literal disintegration of American civilization. I would say they are the secular equivalent of Evangelicals who want to hasten the Apocalypse, except they are not that secular. But the impulse is identical. They yearn to see the Last Days at Galt’s Gulch and this selfish, pessimistic yen is the very essence of every Glenn Beck broadcast. Starkly put, we are in a fight between those who want to improve society and those who want to implode it. And those who see tyranny in empathy have plainly chosen implosion.
Second, liberals are too quick to compromise while conservatives are too resistant to - and too many liberals react by trying to make up the difference and meet them more than halfway. Of course, this is not to say that conservatives never compromise - but only when they recognize that they absolutely have to and that requires a minor miracle. Conservatives have been known to walk away from free gains on the table because they felt entitled to the whole loaf. As Paul Krugman had admitted in an otherwise laudatory Rolling Stone article on President Obama:
Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP's unwillingness to make even token concessions.
Liberals are quick to compromise because they are not purists and cherish fairness and cooperation. They want to be magnanimous in victory and see pressing their advantage as being a bully. As Robert Frost once joked “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” This is a uniquely liberal handicap. Obviously, conservatives have no such qualms. Indeed, they don't even know what qualms are.

Conservatives love bullies - they celebrate them. That is why the Tea Party embraced torturer Allen West. It is the single biggest thing they liked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Is is why they adore Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Rush Limbaugh, Bill OReilly ... the right's thug love is boundless.
(Thomas Frank also discussed the right's predilection toward bullying in The Wrecking Crew.) As I wrote in my book, "This explains the bully/wimp format of debate shows like Hannity and Colmes and the Buchanan and Kinsley era Crossfire." The burly conservative jock pounds on the skinny liberal geek. Our politics is an 1980s teen film.

Liberals naively project their own patriotic non-partisanship on conservatives by assuming they also want what is best for America and that specific policy differences are piddly little things that can be surmounted with sufficient good will.  But as I wrote, this ignores their ideological zeal:
Chris Christie’s career also illustrates conservatism’s callousness. Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in the midst of the 2012 election. President Obama temporarily suspended his campaign to prioritize federal relief efforts. That was his job. Chris Christie, in turn, did his job and cooperated with Obama. The photo ops of them inspecting the devastation together told the hopeful story of Democrats and Republicans putting aside their partisan differences in a time of crisis. Of course, this infuriated conservative purists who accused Christie of helping Obama look presidential at Mitt Romney’s expense. But what was Christie supposed to do? Refuse help? Hide from the cameras?
Yes. In fact, their ideology demanded it. Election aside, they felt accepting any help was inherently a betrayal of conservative principles. But strategy and ideology are one. Voters saw events torpedo the right’s anti-government rhetoric at the most inopportune moment. Americans were glad to have their Uncle Sam and, to hardcore conservatives, that was the real tragedy which should have been avoided at all costs.
Of course, afterwards, we learned that Christie used hurricane relief money to reward obedience and punish dissent. But the point here is conservatives' attitude toward pulling together. It can be summed up in Grover Norquist's equating bipartisanship with date rape - a tortured metaphor that suggests that he does not really know what consent means, although I suppose we should applaud the fact that he recognizes there is such a thing as date rape. When Obama inherited the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, Rush Limbaugh summed up conservative cooperation: "I hope he fails."

I think part of the problem is that Democrats do not understand the message in Mad Men. It is a TV show about the importance of ideology. In an article in the Washington Post, social historian Stephanie Coontz (another author I quote a lot in my book) has called it the most feminist show on the air. It is a show about why we need feminism and the
untenable circumstances that it rose to correct.

The show has many strong women characters who are frustrated and unhappy because they are individually playing by society's ludicrous rules and losing. They have not yet realized that they need to get together and collectively break those rules and rewrite them. Let's look at a few:

Betty Draper is not a weak woman by any means, but she still thinks that being the perfect housewife with the right husband is the central recipe for happiness. She has steely determination, but it is all channeled within the system. In the virgin/whore dichotomy that society uses to classify women, she represents propriety. As a mother of two, she is not technically a virgin. But her repressed sexuality comes close. 

Joan plays by a very different script. She uses her sexuality to navigate the good old boys environment of the advertising firm, but it proves to be a limited form of liberation. And when the initially timid Peggy advances beyond the secretarial pool to write ad copy and start to assert herself, Joan accuses her of not knowing her place. We see a limited form of sisterhood when Joan is first training Peggy. Joan warns Peggy about the treacherous terrain, pointing out one pitfall after another. Neither yet realizes that they should work together to fill-in those pits and transform the terrain. Again, they are operating in a pre-feminist world, playing by its rules and predictably losing. And that is because they have no ideology. 
Post-ideological Democrats can learn a lot from watching these pre-ideological women.

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