The Perils of Ideology: the Consequences of Ideological Purism
By Khan Shoieb '13
There has been a great deal of talk about the rise and fall of empires in recent months. Bold pundits across the nation are dusting off their Livys and Paul Kennedys, placing the United States beside Ancient Rome and bemoaning a rapid decline.

While most of this discourse is hyperbolic, the underlying sentiment has certainly trickled down through the masses, spawning a national gloom. We are told that the principal cause of our demise will be our sustained deficits and an eventual inability to fund the nation’s mandate. Our melancholy, however, is fueled not by the red ink — America has been in worse places before — but rather by the paralysis in Washington to do anything about it.

That is why the most important legislative vote during President Obama’s first term will not be health care, will not be immigration, nor will it be climate change. In fact, it has already been cast. Five weeks ago, 46 Senators, more than enough to deny the necessary supermajority, voted against the establishment of a debt commission to find ways to deal with our fiscal quagmire. The commission, upon its findings, would require the Senate to vote up or down on its entire recommendation — undoubtedly a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

The vote was significant because of the insights it gives us into the harrowingly grave nature of governance in Washington. The rhetoric of deficit reduction espoused by virtually every Congressman — played over and over in sound bites in the 24-hour news cycle — failed to align with the reality of politics. Seven of the original co-sponsors of the bill voted against their own legislation. And the hypocrisy was not tied to a single party — out of the 46 Senators voting against, 22 were Democrats, 23 were Republicans and one was an Independent.

The solution is clear to everyone — concessions must be made on both sides of the aisle. Yet it is far easier, and more comfortable, to be able to perpetually preach to your constituents about what ought to be done, and how the opposition is always preventing you from getting it done, than it is to be the one to vote, on record, in favor of a painful sacrifice. The irony, of course, is that you will be demonized for casting a vote in the best interest of the very constituents who will run you out of office.

Thus the principal cause of our demise will not be our sustained deficits, but rather a broader issue that speaks to recent changes in the dynamics of our society — the growth of ideological purism. In an era in which we can choose a news media that sticks strictly to a political narrative of our liking, in which the sensational nature of the media responds frenetically to inconsequential events, we all end up hearing and reading things that only serve to reinforce our pre-existing conceptions of how the world ought to be.

Ideological purism is to be feared because of its detachment from reality, because of the nifty way in which it allows us to strengthen and reassert a need to return to our “principles”, even when the facts don’t fall our way. The “Great Society” efforts for a visionary liberal order only exacerbated existing problems, but many on the left only entrenched their views. George W. Bush’s faithful adherence to the tenets of conservatism, and the resounding failure of those policies, only moved those on the right to call for a more conservative “conservatism.” It follows, then, that ideological purism means being able to never admit that you are wrong. It polarizes our politics, cementing facile positions on increasingly complex issues and rendering unprincipled traitors those who attempt to compromise.

What ideological purism doesn’t do is allow our elected representatives to deal with the real problems that plague our society. It is truly telling that when Republican Representative Paul Ryan recently and boldly came out with a plan for American solvency, a plan that called for sacrifices to be made, members of Congress sought to distance themselves from it. The Democrats, sensing political opportunism, threatened to bring the plan to a vote to try and eviscerate Republicans who dared to cut popular entitlement programs. The Republicans, fearing political fallout, repudiated one of their own in Ryan.

Indeed Paul Ryan’s plan, however flawed, remains the only standing idea in Congress for how to save America. It was erased from the public discourse in less than a week.

Issue 17, Submitted 2010-03-03 04:49:55