Friday, January 2, 2009

Without Ideology, There Is Only Anarchy

The word “ideology” has a somewhat offensive ring to most Americans. You often hear politicians on the campaign trail saying things like “Americans are not interested in ideology”, or “we will work in a non-ideological, bi-partisan manner”. All that ideology really is, is a coherent structure of ideas that are meant to appeal to voters. So how can that in itself be offensive?

When the United States was founded at the end of the 18th century, it was founded on the idea of independence from the British king. That a subordinate country broke free from a colonial power was certainly nothing new, but the great novelty in the American case was how this was done, and how the new country moved forward. If a political commentator in 1788 would have guessed what the future of America was to be, using history as a guide, he or she would most likely have guessed that the heroes of the revolution would battle it out with each other for supremacy in order to ascend the “American throne”. In other words, we could very well have had a “King George Washington”.

The founding fathers chose instead to give away power to a segment of the general population, using a model that resembles that which was used in ancient Greece, where property-owning men were made a part of the political process. Indeed, many argue that the parallels between contemporary American and ancient Greek democracy are many still today, especially with respect to Socratic ideals of the good citizen and politician who is financially and morally responsible for his household, community, as well as being a prudent policy maker in the legislature. Another important factor and parallel was the belief that politics should be primarily a local affair. This early model of democracy is hence based on the leadership of a (hopefully) benevolent elite.

When The United States was founded, all European countries were still dictatorships. This fact created a struggle for something better in Europe, which eventually created the ideologies we know today. Without question, the two most important ideologies to come out of this process are liberalism and socialism. Conservatism is not an ideology, as much as it is an absence of ideology, because it only seeks to conserve, and not to renew. Today, in the entire western world, with the exception of the United States, the political landscape in each country is basically made up of two blocks of somewhat opposing ideologies:

Right: Classic liberals along with conservatives, and

Left: Socialists along with social liberals.

The United States hence defies what seems to be the “natural order” of a Western political landscape, in that it has two blocks on the right (Republicans and Democrats), and none on the left.

Due to the fact that America was never a dictatorship governed from within, the struggle for political change with respect to economic differences between different segments of the population never quite took off. America was only a dictatorship vis-à-vis its colonial power, and not vis-à-vis a domestic dictator or domestic elite. Also, The United States was founded before a real crystallization of the ideologies occurred, so little inspiration could have come from them. At the time of its founding, The United States had the most modern form of government on earth, but because of the inherent, incredibly conservative nature of the constitution, that was eventually about to change in a big way.

Being the first one to embark on something has its pros and its cons. The early adoption must be followed by constant updating, otherwise you run the risk of lagging behind quickly. The United States was among the very first to adopt standards for electricity and TV, never to change them after that. Hence, the low Volt grid (110V as opposed to 230V in most other countries) is less efficient, and the American TV standard now has a lower resolution than that of most other countries. The United States never updated its constitution to include things like proportional representation, a unicameral legislature, a separation of the head of government from the head of state; things that most citizens of other Western countries now enjoy.

The American political system can now only be described as an 18th century dinosaur in an increasingly complex world. The recent financial crisis is the perfect example of how the individual nature of American politics is unable to deal with complex problems. Because the system is based on the perceived good personal qualities of the “benevolent elite” (meaning the individually elected Congressmen), American politics has become an awkward expression of the individual gut feelings of the elected individuals. When the financial crisis came, a motley crew of individuals who had no idea whatsoever about what they were doing or what they were dealing with, signed away trillions of dollars of taxpayer money in the biggest misguided give-away in history. The inability to act swiftly, responsibly, intelligently and successfully is, in a nutshell, the biggest problem with the American political system. In order to act swiftly, responsibly, intelligently and successfully, you don’t need a gut, you need an idea.

Negative statements about ideology from American politicians come as no surprise. Systems and institutions have a way of perpetuating themselves in their own self-interest. American politicians have been able to convince voters for centuries that ideology is bad, because that is all that voters are ever exposed to. If ideology were introduced in a big way in American politics, it would not only make it more difficult for wealthy individuals to get elected on vague policies; politicians would be able to be held accountable on a moral and philosophical level. That would in turn, by definition, take away large elements of self-interest from politicians and give that self-interest to voters. Naturally, an American politician would not want to do this.

As a direct result of this, the vagueness and lack of ability to foresee the actions of an elected politician creates a highly watered-down political process in a do-nothing government. Politicians won’t want to do anything because that goes against their self-interest. In that situation, politics inevitably moves towards a type of anarchy. Small government, less regulation, less social security, less concerted action in all things political; these are all anarchic tendencies.

Without ideology, there is only anarchy

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice and intrestingss story.