Against Ideology, in Favor of Pragmatism
By Michael Kleen
January 7, 2011
Originally, the concept of ideology was not very alarming. The National Dictionary of 1939 defines ideology as “the science of ideas.” Since that time, however, ideology has taken on other connotations—specifically of dogma and of a rigid, doctrinaire understanding of the world. After the Second World War, both communism and fascism were said to be ideologically driven, but the same could easily be said for a wide variety of political beliefs. Ideology, as I will use the term, constitutes a rigid set of political or social doctrines and ideas that frame a ‘black and white’ worldview.
Ideology is particularly harmful because it seeks to reduce the complexity of human life and society to ultimates. It substitutes conscious reflection and careful consideration with axioms meant to apply to all situations. To an ideologue, for instance, ‘X’ will always supply an answer or explanation for every problem. “One simply turns to the ideological vending machine,” Daniel Bell once wrote, “and out comes the prepared formulae.”
Ideologues believe in an interpretation of history that places them at the peak of a great historical project—the sum total of enlightenment and progress. Anyone who doesn’t agree with him or her is either ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous. In short, anyone who disagrees with the ideologue is an enemy. He or she is unable to understand how anyone could see things a different way. When ideologues seize political power, this conviction often manifests itself in purges and exiles. The Terror of the French Revolution, the Night of Long Knives in Nazi Germany, and the Great Purge in the Soviet Union are famous examples, but they are only the most extreme examples. In everyday life, this intolerance for dissent manifests itself in broken friendships, divorce, and even severed family connections.
When his or her ideology fails in the face of reality, as they all inevitably do, the ideologue will often fall back on conspiracies to explain why things haven’t gone his or her way. It is never the result of a flaw in his or her thinking, but the result of an evil boogieman that confirms a need to purify the ideology and take it to even more extremes. Because this boogieman must always exist to justify the need for any particular ideology, the ideologue will often dismiss progress that is made by others toward his or her larger goals as evidence that those stride-making individuals have “sold out,” been “co-opted by the system,” or that the change itself was meaningless. But, of course, he or she would never consider surrendering those advances.
Every defeat is rationalized or explained-away by an excuse that confirms the ideologue’s previous belief about the nature of society. For instance: America is a sexist country, America is a racist country, or the American public has been duped by their opponents. These explanations draw on certain facts about society at large-―some Americans certainly are sexist, racist, or easily persuaded—and turn them into convenient universalisms that can be called upon to explain every failure.
The practical problem with ideology is that it closes a person’s mind to alternative possibilities. Recognizing that different situations and problems can be approached from different angles and with different solutions is called pragmatism. Pragmatism means accepting a situation as it is and making the best of it. It requires looking at our own behaviors and ideas and asking ourselves whether or not they work and whether they getting us where we want to go. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Is pragmatism itself an ideology? No. To suggest that we should be flexible in our approach to the analysis of problems and in our solutions to those problems, and that we should view every situation with a multifaceted lens, is in itself inherently unideological. It is the negation of ideology, and therefore cannot be the same.
I am not saying that ideologies are never appealing, convenient, and therefore useful to some people. Given its prevalence, many individuals have clearly chosen ideology as a governing influence over their thoughts and beliefs. What I am saying, however, is that we must choose otherwise. If we are ever going to find solutions to the problems that we face in Middle America today, we must jettison black and white thinking and grasp onto what works. We must we find solutions that work and apply them where they are needed. One solution need not apply to every area, nor does that solution have to be maintained if it ceases to be useful.
In my article “Cast Down Your Bucket Here,” I praised Booker T. Washington because he was willing to work with people he did not agree with in order to help his locality prosper. He did not point fingers or blame others for his own problems. He taught that hard work and self-responsibility would elevate his people. He knew that his situation demanded a moderate course, and so he did what he could with what he had. There is nothing contemptible in that.
Likewise, we must not succumb to ideologies that seek to divide us into neatly opposing categories. We must chart a pragmatic course and remain open to a wide variety of ideas from a diverse pool of thought. On the other hand, we must be careful not to slip too far over the edge and embrace a course that is wishy-washy and lacking in substance. That is how we got into this mess in the first place.
To fix a complex machine, an engineer must be able to draw from a full tool belt. It would be insane to suggest fixing a computer when your only tool is a wrench. Ideologues, on the other hand, would tell you that a wrench will always be the best tool for any job, no matter how multifaceted the job might be. In the spirit of pragmatism, we must be ready to compromise at certain times and be steadfast at others. There is no contradiction or weakness in possessing a variety of tools from which to draw.