Why Ideology Matters in American Politics


Political polls in recent years have shown how little citizens approve of U.S. politics, with Congress receiving an approval rating as low as 16%, while the president’s approval-disapproval differential shows a 16-point deficit (41% strongly disapproving vs. 25% strongly approving). Most would agree this reflects a general dissatisfaction with national politics in America.

Ideology has taken the brunt of the blame for this, with the label ‘ideologue’ tossed around like a pejorative. But this would be a popular misconception promoted by the media, as are most of our political myths these days. Ideology is not really the problem, and may be the best solution to our partisan dysfunction.

Ideology, as promoted in the 21st century, is different than that of the 20,th which was defined by the clash of “isms”: principally liberalism vs. fascism, socialism, and communism. There have been other variants of lesser appeal, such as nationalism, collectivism, racism, and linguistic or ethnocentrism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China, ideological conflict has been decided in favor of liberalism, as manifested through democratic capitalism founded on the moral principles of liberty, equality, and justice.

Political parties use ideology to define themselves under the broadest of terms, but in America our ideologies have always been variations of liberalism. Those other “isms” of the far left and far right have never gained a foothold on our shores. After defeating the more malign extreme ideologies overseas in two world wars, our political parties at home split hairs over progressivism vs. conservatism, as defined by the economic class interests of capital vs. labor.

Sometime around 1968 our two major political parties began to redefine their “ideological identities” to fit those of their targeted voters. In effect, the question of moral principles became liberty, equality and justice: Yes, but for whom? The Democrats focused their efforts on minorities, unionists, feminists, and gays with policies such as affirmative action, welfare, collective bargaining for public unions, women’s and gay rights, while the Republicans focused on religious groups, finance, and business with culture wars, tax cuts, and deregulation.

This has created serious problems for the governance of a pluralist democracy based on constitutional principles. For example, our country’s past was cleaved by racial conflict, inciting a civil war and deeply affecting our politics to this day, a full century and a half later. (Many today mistakenly blame the history of racism for the political divisions we see now between the “red” region of the South and the periphery vs. the “blue” regions of the north and Pacific coast.) The true lesson of the transformation of the South is that the ideology of racism was defeated not by the grievances of the oppressed, but by the moral power of liberty, equality, and justice. White European Americans could not deny the moral justice of emancipation, liberty, and equal rights, as stated in the Constitution, but unrealized for almost two centuries.

Unfortunately, the problem we have today is that we have reverted to this “Southernization” of national politics that pits immutable identities against each other. A political party based on an ideology of identity is little different from one based on skin color. The result has been the fractionalization of national politics into a civil war of self-identified Democrats vs. self-identified Republicans. There is no route to negotiation and compromise under these terms – it’s a zero-sum game of win or lose. This is the nature of elections, but it cannot and has not yielded good governance. In a nutshell, this is why we can’t stand our politics.

Instead, we must return to the true nature of ideology based on ideas rather than identities. These ideas are present in our politics, but, when engaged, quickly revert to imposed identities. Our political discourse should not focus on rich or poor, black, white or brown, straight or gay, but on the moral principles that guide citizens in their personal and social behavior. These moral principles include liberty, equality, security, solidarity, justice, charity, civic responsibility and accountability—not for whom, but for all. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans differ in their emphases on these moral principles, but the larger point is that different ideas can converge on these principles over how society should be governed and ultimately how we govern ourselves. The continuum we need to negotiate travels from libertarianism at one end to statism at the other.

Electoral politics in a democracy is about dividing and conquering the opposition, but ultimately democracy is defined as “government by the people, for the people,” not “by the party, for the party,” or “by the elites, for the elites.” It’s time to redefine our politics according to moral ideology based on first principles. It would be helpful to push public discourse in that direction.