It’s a tragic reflection of the decadence of American politics that epidemiology and public health are now considered to be matters of ideological debate. The wave of protests and violence surrounding shelter-in-place orders and face mask requirements is only the most extreme example; there is also a red/blue division on the wisdom of reopening businesses, apparent in the conflict between the Trump Administration and state governments and between some states and local governments. It’s as if many Americans wear permanent ideological lenses that polarize everything—no matter how grounded in objective fact—into two contradictory images that correspond to partisan loyalty.
At its best, ideological conviction can be a civic virtue—an antidote to complacency, ignorance, and political apathy. But in its popular form today, ideology is not a useful guide for responsible engagement with the social world; it’s a lazy substitute for serious thought. The political dialogue of the information age is still defined by a schism derived from the court politics of ancien regime France, where left and right referred to the wings of the palace at Versailles. This antique schematic needs a complete rebuild, but it hasn’t even gotten a fresh coat of paint since the 1960s. Popular ideology is increasingly unhelpful in evaluating even those issues that do involve legitimate normative disagreement, to say nothing of the many policy issues that are largely matters of competence and expertise. Instead of thinking rigorously and with open minds, we are trapped in a debased grade school debate team contest, led by aging captains bent on settling old grudges.
In a sense, the invasion of ideological thinking into every domain of inquiry represents the pyrrhic victory of academic skeptics, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, in disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, sociology, and jurisprudence, argued that questions that had been framed as matters of objective fact or politically neutral expertise were really contestable ideological questions. I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of this kind of critique: At its best it has undercuts false claims of objectivity and neutrality with respect to the literary canon, academic standards of merit, and the nature of the “free” market. Most of the critics were not corrosive cynics but disappointed idealists who pointed out that potentially noble institutions had failed to live up to their professed ideals. Critique showed a way to reform and improve practices that fell short of their potential and to discredit those that were truly beyond redemption. But, perhaps inevitably, this critique of objectivity and expertise was taken too far: Less nuanced critics insisted that there was no domain of objective knowledge and ideologically neutral expertise. Nothing was safe from the accusation of a hidden political agenda.
The critique did not stay in its ivory tower or remain the exclusive modus operandi of the progressives who pioneered it. Political zealots soon weaponized it to attack the politically inconvenient observations of scientists, policy analysts, and judges. Most notably, Trump supporters have turned skepticism of objective truth into a defense of the indefensible. Corrupted by partisan politics, what was once an instructive observation about the unavoidable normative stakes in seemingly technical questions has now curdled into a conviction that every issue should be evaluated according to which “side” of a left/right partisan divide it helps.
The determination of most Americans to form their own opinions has, for some, bloated into a sense of entitlement to their own facts. But those facts are actually force-fed to them by politicians and a media fueled by outrage and the spoils of click-bait. Global warming is a hoax because it is convenient for politicians indebted to the fossil fuel industry to say it is. COVID-19 is no worse than a bad case of the flu because it would help the political fortunes of the party-in-power if these things were so. The pathetic, tragic fights against face masks are, of course, proxy wars in this larger conflict: What should be an example of our common struggle against an inhuman enemy has been transformed into a symbol of ideological animus.
The bitter irony here is that many of the most urgent problems facing the nation aren’t ideologically contestable. There isn’t a liberal or conservative way to fight a pandemic; there are just effective and ineffective ways. For that matter, there really isn’t a legitimate ideological debate with respect to climate change either. The scientific evidence is irrefutable, the case for decisive action, clear. The fights over such issues are partisan but they are not really ideological: There is nothing in, say, the political philosophy of Edmund Burke that would lead one to deny the existence of human created climate change or the virulence of a virus. Even in areas subject to real normative debate, left/right ideological thinking often distorts the real stakes. For instance, immigration involves an unprecedented phenomenon of global population migration, with implications for the definition of national community, labor markets, population density, and distributive justice that transcend conventional ideological thinking. Indeed, not so long ago, immigration reform seemed a subject of potential bipartisan agreement rather than one of bitter ideological polarization.
Alas, there is plenty of disagreement surrounding these issues, but talk of ideological polarization dignifies what amounts to primitive tribalism and unalloyed self-interest by suggesting it is rooted in anything as lofty as “ideas,” much less “ideals.” Especially in the case of the Republican party under Trump, there is almost no actual relationship between partisan politics and any coherent ideology. This was already apparent when the self-styled party of fiscal prudence readily created a ballooning budget deficit in order to cut taxes for their wealthy benefactors and when that party, which had long been the champion of law and order and national security, turned against our national intelligence services to downplay our nation’s greatest geo-political enemy’s interference in our elections because it served their short-term interests.
The etiquette of ideological balance would require me to recount a similar litany of hypocrisies by Democrats. But there is no similar litany—the corruption of the Republicans under Trump is unprecedented—and in any case this misses the point because the misdeeds and incompetence of today’s Republicans have nothing to do with ideology. Unlike the Republican party of, say Ronald Reagan, which reflected some sincere ideological conviction with which one could agree or disagree, Trump’s Republican party is not defined by or motivated by ideological conservativism; it is motivated only by the pursuit of power and, perhaps secondarily, simple graft—a fact that must be a source of profound regret and outrage to those who are actually committed to conservative ideology, as it is to anyone who believes that honest and thoughtful conservatives have something to contribute to robust and open political dialogue.
The radical political theorist Fredric Jameson famously described ideology as a “cognitive map”–a “conception of the social totality” that can to help us identify political stakes and stakeholders in social conflicts, look beyond official justifications and self-serving rationalizations, and imagine a better world. Because most policy questions cannot be settled by neutral expertise alone, we need such worldviews. But we don’t need an antiquated ideological division that imagines our politics as a continuation of that of France in the 17th century —or Berkeley in the 1960s. Today’s pop ideologies describe an imaginary terrain, populated with mirages and defined by a mythical topography; they make simple matters of fact look like vexing conflicts over values and obscure the real stakes of our most pressing concerns, many of which do not line up on a tidy, two dimensional left-right continuum. Trying to take a liberal or conservative approach to unprecedented global migration, impending environmental collapse, or a global pandemic is like trying to navigate modern London with a map of Hobbiton. Little wonder we’ve lost our way.