Americans love idealists. We love the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington type, the guy who sticks to his guns and holds to conviction through thick and thin and shows all those corrupt Washington bureaucrats what happens when one man shows that when you believe in something, you truly can change the world.
And yet, as I watched the government shut down, and saw the creditworthiness of the American people swing perilously close to repudiation, I couldn’t help but think that idealists caused all this.
At it’s most basic, an ideology is a framework through which a person can understand the world. Good ideologies adjust to realities on the ground; they move a little in order to accommodate factual developments. Whether they are economic, religious, or social, these ways of understanding the world shift to deal with the way that the world works.
Of course, I’m talking about individual ideologies – the unique system of beliefs knit together by a single person in order to understand what’s coming at them from the world. Ideologies as a system of ideas are, by and large, inflexible.
And that’s why I’m afraid of idealists. Or, as you might be tempted to call them, ideologues.
But nobody runs on the position of ‘being an ideologue.’ Instead, these people come cloaked in a veneer of Mr. Smith reasonableness, and these people deploy terms like common sense in order to convince you of the rightness of their ideological cornerstones.
Often, ideologies (especially competing ones) serve a useful purpose. What a Marxist can’t quite figure out about the world, a free-market capitalist can often easily explain. Systems of ideas exist because they often do explain large swaths of reality.
But the danger begins to accumulate when idealists insist that, rather than adapting their ideological framework to changing conditions, people must change to accommodate their ideologies. This is evident on both the right and the left: people have suffered and died to bring about a Communist utopia as surely as they have been oppressed to be worthy of an Objectivist market.
And in the last couple of elections, we have elected idealists of this sort. Like Inquisitors who burn with the desire to purge any who dare stray from a narrow conception of God, these political idealists believe that the core problems facing America are worth sacrificing real American jobs, productivity, and security (and, depending on the severity, perhaps even Americans themselves.)
Any time that wiping out large swaths or types of people is deemed acceptable in service to an idea, we are not looking at reasonableness. Instead, we are looking at an ideology that places itself before the actual people it is supposed to explain or assist.
To be fair to our elected officials, though, it seems that ideologues are being elected because Americans themselves are becoming more hardline. As people settle into their information bubbles and spin facts to fit their ideologies – another manifestation of changing the world rather than letting the reality of the world change you – they become less able to tolerate those that represent a danger to their framework. And, increasingly, that means neighbors, friends, and family members.
We can’t do away with explanations for the world. We can encourage a more fragmentary and less monolithic way of approaching the world, but that itself could be considered dangerously (or negligently) ideological. Instead, maybe we should encourage ideologies that engage with other frameworks and seek to learn rather than destroy. I can’t pretend I think this project will be (or even should be) a complete success. But I think that the world, and our nations, would be better off if more people put human lives before the ideas that increasingly seek to explain them away.