Ideologies Have Consequences

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
Sunrise at the U.S. Capitol, October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)
Sunrise at the U.S. Capitol, October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)

For more than half a century leading global thinkers have heralded the death of ideology. Beginning with Daniel Bell’s famous 1962 book The End of Ideology, prominent scholars have repeatedly maintained that the role of ideology was diminishing and the exercise of pragmatism ascending throughout the Western world. In The End of Ideology (listed by the Times Literary Supplement as among the “100 most influential non-fiction books since World War II”), Bell declared that the “ideological age has ended” in the West (although it would intensify in the developing world).

Bell argued that the rise of affluence and the advance of social modernisation had led to a broad consensus on political values and an exhaustion with grand ideological debates in the developed world. Bell’s thesis was amplified by leading American social scientists including Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset.

Decades later Francis Fukuyama declared that with the collapse of communism we had reached “the end of history”, meaning the great ideological issues of politics (who should govern and why) had been solved. Although (small h) history in the sense of wars and political upheavals might continue for hundreds of years, (capital H) History in the Hegelian sense was over, because liberal democracy had triumphed in the realm of ideas. Fukuyama maintained liberal democracy was the ideological endpoint of humankind’s age-old quest for the best regime. In the future, even autocratic rulers would claim to be democratic or cite democracy as their end goal.

In January 2009 as Barack Obama was being inaugurated as President of the United States, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that “Obama aims to realize the end of ideology politics that Daniel Bell and others glimpsed in the early 1960s. He sees himself as a pragmatist, an empiricist.” Indeed, from the beginning of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the present, scores of books, essays and blogs have been marshalled to argue that Obama eschews ideology and embraces pragmatism. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (who served in the White House from 2009 to 2012) wrote that Obama was “not a doctrinaire liberal”, that “his skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled”, and that, above all, he is an empirical pragmatist who understands that “real change requires consensus, learning, and accommodation”. The journalist Fareed Zakaria declared that “Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist”. Academics and public intellectuals compared Obama’s thought to the tradition of the pragmatist school of American philosophy embodied by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

In response, Hoover Institution scholar Peter Berkowitz noted that, in fact, Obama does share similarities with the pragmatist philosophers in the sense that he is, as they were, a progressive ideologue promoting a decidedly ideological agenda (think John Dewey), while masquerading as a rational non-partisan “pragmatist” committed to “what works” rather than to a progressive utopian vision of the future. Berkowitz quotes the late twentieth-century “new pragmatist” philosopher and progressive political theorist Richard Rorty, to the effect that the “new pragmatist” will make “shared utopian dreams” his guide to politics.

Whether one examines national health care, immigration, racial and gender politics, LGBT rights, executive orders, aggressive “diversity” initiatives promoting “substantive equality” throughout the federal government in education, housing, energy, defence and elsewhere, judicial appointments, and foreign policy openings to Iran and Cuba—after seven years, it is clear that the current American President is the most ideological since Ronald Reagan. After all, the stated goal of the Obama administration is the “fundamental transformation of the United States of America”, which suggests neither a “centrist” nor “pragmatic” agenda.

Obama’s ideology is progressivism, an American branch of a global ideology that could be described as transnational progressivism or global progressivism. The American wing of progressivism (sometimes confusingly called liberalism) shares a broad worldview with the Western Left generally.

The ideology of transnational progressivism has a strong base among Western elites. Its adherents can be found in the editorial offices of the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; among the politicians and global business leaders who gather at Davos; among human rights activists and NGOs; among the leadership of almost all EU, UN and international organisations; and among the “Sixty-Eighters”, the ageing politicians who cut their activist teeth in the protests of the 1960s.

At home, global progressives focus on promoting what they call “marginalised” groups, such as women, LGBT people, racial minorities, linguistic minorities, immigrants, particularly Muslims. For example, the Western Left calls for “gender parity” (imposed proportional representation) across the board in all institutions of civic life, by fiat if necessary (violating the tenets of a free society). They tout an adversarial multiculturalism or identity politics that problematises national patriotic cultures, traditional institutions (religion, family), the concepts of free speech, individual citizenship and equality under the law (because the marginalised groups are awarded special rights). Despite the recent popularity of Thomas Piketty’s neo-Marxist writings and Bernie Sanders’s speeches, the general trajectory of today’s Western Left is (as both Daniel Bell and his critics predicted) away from class conflict and towards new antagonisms. These new (post-1960s) fault lines are based on ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, language, religion, globalism and other issues that are even more divisive for national cohesion than traditional class struggle.

Abroad, Western Leftists promote (in varying degrees and where politically possible) what they call “global governance”, meaning the building of supranational institutions and policies that diminish the role of the nation-state, including the democratic nation-state. The ultimate goal of this grand ideological project is the creation of an increasingly integrated global order with laws and institutions that are superior to those of the nation-state.

The problematic questions that this raises for consensual democracy, civic identity, individual rights, free speech, and even the practicality of day-to-day international relations are noted by globalist advocates, but not successfully addressed. Thus, for example, EU adherents have still not explained the union’s “democratic deficit” to the satisfaction of their citizens. In a powerful new book, Todd Huizinga of the Acton Institute labels the transnational progressive ideologists of the European Union “soft utopians”, distinguishing them from the “hard” utopianism of totalitarian movements.

Western progressives appear to approach external and internal politics with sharply different mindsets. International relations are viewed through the prism of “win-win”. The idea is that hostile ideological regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran or geopolitical adventurers like Vladimir Putin’s Russia can be won over through negotiations, bribery and appeals to what the Western Left considers the “real” (that is, material) interests of the outlier regimes, premised on a global progressive view of the world. In this view, anti-democratic adversaries can be persuaded into abandoning their zero-sum approach to international politics and embracing the globalist “win-win” or non-zero-sum scenario, as Robert Wright (Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny) argued more than a decade ago.

On the other hand, the progressives view domestic politics as strictly a zero-sum game. Their opponents at home, Western conservatives, are often excoriated as racists, xenophobes and reactionary retrogrades. The current President of the United States and the leaders of, for example, the European Parliament and European Commission, appear to expend much more vitriol on Republicans and Eurosceptics, respectively, than on the West’s anti-democratic enemies. This hostility is often reciprocated, hence the increasing polarisation of Western politics.

While international relations in Asia are focused on the geopolitical implications of the rise of China, ideology plays an oversized role in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Both the Shiite and Sunni wings of millenarian radical Islam exemplified by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS) attest to the significance of ideology in the world of twenty-first-century global politics (as opposed to simply national interests, pragmatism, economics and material power). The Washington Post has reported that ISIS’s media-propaganda “emirs” receive higher pay than their combat officers, suggesting the supreme importance that ISIS attaches to ideology.

First and foremost, in the West today, an intense ideological struggle is raging non-stop over the most momentous issues of world politics, including the singular, primary political question: Who should govern? The current migrant crisis and the ongoing issues of mass immigration, multiculturalism and cultural assimilation highlight this ideological conflict throughout Western politics.

Who decides immigration policy: democratic nation-states or hundreds of thousands or millions of migrants on their own? Who accommodates to whom: host nationals or newcomers? What principles determine policy: government by consent of the governed or evolving concepts of global human rights? If the latter, who decides what those universal human rights are?

On these most basic of political questions, the West is polarised. On one side of this grand ideological conflict are the transnational progressives. On the other side are what could be called democratic nationalists. This counter-ideology could be divided into two wings: Reaganism-Thatcherism in the Anglosphere nations, and Gaullism in most of the non-English-speaking West and other Western-allied developed nations.

The spirit of Reaganism-Thatcherism is captured in a recent article by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard in National Review. Unlike progressive Western elites who focus on building a global order of transnational institutions, Howard emphasises national sovereignty and bilateral international relations as opposed to multilateralism. He explicitly rejects the “pooled sovereignty” touted by EU elites and notes that the British are justifiably angry that “their nation’s courts are subjugated to the European Court of Justice”. Howard insists that border control is “a basic element of national sovereignty” and proudly reminds National Review readers that in 2001 he declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

The spirit of contemporary Gaullism is exemplified in Poland’s new conservative Law and Justice Party government. Like the original French version of Gaullism, the new Polish government promotes the country’s patriotic and cultural traditions and favours strong and honest state institutions within a vibrant democracy. National sovereignty is emphasised over post-national EU institutions as party leaders insist that “the EU should benefit Poland, not the other way around”. As firm defenders of Poland’s often historically challenged national identity, the new Polish government takes a decidedly more cautious and sceptical approach to the current migration crisis than EU elites generally, or Frau Merkel in particular.

In a recent Telegraph essay, the Thatcherite Charles Crawford (the British Ambassador to Poland from 2002 to 2007) looks favourably on what he describes as Poland’s “carefully Eurosceptic etatist-patriots”. Crawford remarks that just as de Gaulle had “a certain idea of France”, today the Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslav Kaczynski “has a similarly subtle but powerful view of Poland”.

To be sure, Reaganism-Thatcherism and Gaullism differ on economic policy. In the Anglosphere, contemporary conservatives in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have looked to Adam Smith, Hayek and Von Mises and placed free-market economics front and centre on their political agenda. Gaullists look more to the state and favour protectionist policies defending national industries and companies.

Nevertheless, the two blocs are united on the core issues of national sovereignty, national cohesion and patriotism, and oppose the Western progressives’ promotion of both an increasingly post-national global order externally, and an expanding multicultural ethos internally. Hence, principled democratic nationalists, whether Reaganite-Thatcherite or Gaullist, have more in common with each other than with their leftist opponents who emphasise identity politics, or with the non-ideological centre-Right politicians in their own parties who accommodate to the prevailing progressive media zeitgeist.

Thus, it is not surprising that the Polish Law and Justice Party sits in the European Parliament with the British Conservatives (whose intellectual leader in that parliament is the quintessential Reaganite-Thatcherite, Anglosphere conservative Daniel Hannan). Under the banner of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), a centre-Right Reaganite-Thatcherite-Gaullist coalition is locked in ideological battle with the forces of Western transnational progressivism. To complicate matters, the Christian Democratic European People’s Party (EPP) standing to the left of the AECR, consists of both Gaullists and globalists, while to the AECR’s right, a group of parties usually labelled “populist”, contains both decent democratic Gaullists as well as unsavoury thuggish elements.

To further complicate matters, Western Left elites often attack British Tory allies, including the Law and Justice Party, as xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and given the party’s broad-based support they can find examples. But when, in a move to pressure Israel, the European Parliament voted by 84 per cent (525 out of 626 votes) to fix “labels” to goods produced by Jews from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (Benjamin Netanyahu complained that “we already have a historical memory as to what happened when Europe marked products of Jews”) the Law and Justice Party, in opposition to the entire Left and the centre-Right EPP, stood with the 16 per cent that did not gang up against Israel. Daniel Hannan explains the hostility to the Law and Justice Party by Western progressives as: opposition to the Poles’ criticism of Brussels overreach; attempts to undermine the Tory-led AECR coalition; and rejection of the Law and Justice Party’s determined effort to check the influence of corrupt post-communist elites in Poland.

Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, portrays the European refugee crisis in particular (and by extension, immigration generally) as a clash of competing rights and moral arguments. The moral argument in favour of the admission of asylum seekers (and, for some, economic migrants) is met by the moral argument “for a community’s own sense of self-determination, which presumes the right of self-definition and self-composition”. Garfinkle is starting to put his finger on the main issue, but the stakes are even higher.

What is at stake in determining refugee-immigration-assimilation policy (which must be seen as one interdependent issue) is the right of societal preservation and societal reproduction: Does a free people have the right to perpetuate its way of life or not? That “way of life”, Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote, is based on particular political foundations (laws, institutions) and, most importantly, on cultural foundations (mores, manners, customs, habits, principles, religious and philosophical presuppositions).

Do the French, British, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Americans and Australians have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to perpetuate their cultures, institutions and ways of life? Or will these questions be decided for them (and against their will) by transnational elites (through ideologically partisan interpretations of global human rights) and/or by millions of migrants from the developing world “voting with their feet” and arriving without the consent of the host nation’s citizens? The American conservative thinker Willmoore Kendall once wrote that the greatest political “right” of all was not any individual right, but the right of a free people to rule themselves.

Whatever one’s political viewpoint, it is clear that we are facing, not pragmatism, but a question of ideology par excellence. Put otherwise, we are facing a capital W, capital H, World Historical question: Does Western-style government by consent of the governed have the moral right of societal reproduction in the twenty-first century? The immediate migration issue and the continuing immigration-assimilation question tells us that the contemporary West is not living in a Kojevian post-historical world with “pragmatic” civil servants adjusting bureaucratic post-national rules because all the big questions have been settled (Francis Fukuyama) or because “the ideological age has ended” in the West (Daniel Bell). Instead we are still addressing Hegelian big issues, specifically, the most important question of political philosophy: Who should govern, and by what moral authority?

Ideas have consequences. Ideology, whether democratic or non-democratic, Western or non-Western, positive or negative, continues to shape history as much as so-called material factors.

* Article appeared in January-February 2016 issue of Quadrant