The Problem with Ideology

The National Dictionary of 1939 defines ideology as “the science of ideas.” Since then, ideology has taken on other meanings—specifically of dogma and a rigid, doctrinaire understanding of the world. After the Second World War, both communism and fascism were labelled political ideologies, but that label can be applied to a variety of political beliefs. Ideology today constitutes a rigid set of political or social doctrines and ideas that frame a ‘black and white’ worldview.

Ideology is harmful because it reduces 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 the solution 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 is either ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous–a political enemy. He or she is unable to understand how anyone can see things a different way.

When ideologues seize political power, this conviction often manifests itself in purges and exiles. The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Nazi Germany’s Night of Long Knives, and the Soviet Union’s Great Purge 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 ideological solutions fail, as they inevitably do, the ideologue will often fall back on conspiracies to explain away the failure. It is never the result of flawed thinking, but of an evil person or powerful, shadowy forces. The ideologue takes an “all or nothing” approach to solving problems. He or she will often dismiss incremental progress made by others toward his or her larger goals as evidence those individuals have “sold out,” been “co-opted by the system,” or the change itself was meaningless.

Recognizing that problems can be approached with a variety of 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.”

I’m not saying 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. Finding lasting solutions to real social and economic problems, however, requires grasping onto what works and applying those solutions where they are needed.

To fix a complex machine, an engineer must be able to draw from a full tool belt. Don’t let ideologues tell you a wrench will always be the best tool for any job.

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