one of the staple arguments of american liberals,from presidents woodrow wilson to bill clinton, from education reformer john dewey to newyork times columnist tom friedman is that they "donâ€™t believe in labels." liberalsare "pragmatists," and "realists," and "empiricists." they only care about "what works." conservatives,meanwhile, are "ideologues" â€“ or extremists, or dogmatists, or just plain lunatics â€“ whoare blinded by ideology. hereâ€™s what president barack obama saidon the subject: "what is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in ournation, but in our own lives from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry." did you catch that?
if you have an ideology, you belong amongst the bigots and the mentally confused. once you start paying attention, youâ€™llhear variations on this claim all over the place. in truth, it is a very old technique,pioneered by none other than napoleon bonaparte, who sought to demonize his critics as mesmerizedtheorists enthralled to an ideology while he put the needs of the nation above all considerations. marx picked up the technique, arguing thatonly the people who agreed with him were free of mind-warping ideology. the desirabilityand inevitability of socialism was to them a scientific fact, and therefore anyone whodisagrees with scientific fact must be, in effect, brainwashed.
in the 20th century, the american progressivesoffered their own version of the same idea. they created a whole philosophical school– pragmatism — which as a matter of principle rejected philosophical principles. williamjames, the most important founder of pragmatism argued that we should measure ideas not bywhether they are right or wrong, but by whether they "work." ideas are right if they have"cash value," according to james. herbert croly, the founder of the new republic,responding to the criticism that his liberal magazine was too pro-mussolini — whose ideasseemed to be working in italy at the time — said it well: "if there are any abstractliberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. nor if they are formulatedby others do we recognize their authority.
liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity." contemporary american liberalism has inheritedthis pose. it is certain it knows "what works" â€“ liberalism! and what is liberalism? whatliberals do! itâ€™s an activity! — and they denigrate opposing viewpoints not as competingideas or positions, but as the products of a warped, "ideological" worldview. how often do you hear people say, "i donâ€™tbelieve in labels?â€ whether its liberal politicians, tv news anchors, columnists,cable news hosts or your brother-in-law, harry, the line always goes something like this:"why canâ€™t we move beyond these partisan labels? why canâ€™t we get beyond this philosophicaldivide and get to the hard work of dealing
with the problems facing the american people?" warning: people only they say these thingswhen they want you to shut up and get with their program. what you never hear them say is: "we needto move beyond these partisan labels, we need to get beyond the philosophical divide andfor that reason iâ€™m going to abandon all of my principles and agree with you." look, iâ€™m not saying that liberal ideologicalpositions are wrong. thatâ€™s another discussion. my point is that liberals are wrong when theysay they donâ€™t have ideological principles in the first place.
moreover, thereâ€™s nothing wrong with havingideological principles. to say that you have ideological principles isnâ€™t really all that different from saying that you simply have principles. like with anything else, there are good ideologiesand bad ideologies, good ideas, bad ideas. think of ideology as a checklist of your prioritiesâ€“ your first principles. do you consider economic freedom important or trivial? isthe right to life fundamental or frivolous? is private property a more valuable principlethan economic redistribution? these are all ideological questions, and asking them doesnâ€™tmake you closed-minded, it makes you more serious-minded. there is no "un-ideological" answer to thesequestions. on abortion, for example,
if you come down on the pro-life side, youâ€™re beingideological and if you come down on the pro-choice side youâ€™re still being ideological. the difference is that people who take theirprinciples seriously understand that they have principles. and when they string themtogether, they have an ideology. it is the people who constantly reject rigorousthinking because they are afraid to be led beyond their easy instincts who are closed-minded.the fear of hypocrisy, of judging people, of making hard choices on principle: thisis the fear of ideology that causes people to retreat into relativism or nihilism orwhat we might call here no-labelism. as gk chesterton wrote:
trees have no dogmas and turnips are singularlybroad-minded. in terms of ideology, serious people shouldaspire to be more than a tree or a turnip. iâ€™m jonah goldberg for prager university.