Thursday, August 26, 2010

Having an Ideology

Jonathan Bernstein has a terrific post up about what it means to have an ideology. What are we saying about someone when we call him a “conservative” or a “liberal”? Without taking issue with anything Bernstein says, I want to elaborate some on his suggestion that being an ideologue has something important to do with membership in a group. (Note that I’m not using "ideologue" pejoratively; I use it to refer to anyone who cares enough about politics to aspire to make his political positions answer to an identifiable set of political principles.)

I suggested here that serious political deliberation is importantly a matter of testing inherited principles about social justice and how the social world works against our common-sense reaction to their application in novel situations. The reference to “common sense” invites a question: common to whom? Whose reactions should carry weight in our deliberations?

Not just our own. That’s how the Unabomber, holed up in his Montana cabin contemplating the dire effects of technology on our civilization, decided to start mailing bombs to prominent technologists. But not everybody’s reactions either. Assigning equal probative weight to everyone's heartfelt reactions to political developments would make it impossible to sustain any political commitments. That wouldn’t make us admirably open-minded; it would make us culpably irresolute.

Ideological communities present an intellectually habitable middle ground between the uninhabitable extremes of deliberating alone and deliberating with everyone. Your ideological community is the class of people whose moral and political sensibility, their inventory of political principles and battery of moral reflexes, carry weight in your political deliberation. An ideologue is prepared to reject a favorite principle when enough of her ideological comrades have sufficiently powerful moral qualms about its applications. And she’ll swallow her own moral qualms about a principle when she and her comrades can’t think of a better one.

This needn’t be a matter of peer pressure subverting one’s better judgment. All other things being equal, a conviction’s being shared by a deliberative community large and culturally diverse enough not to be taken in by idiosyncratic or narrowly parochial prejudices, but sufficiently like-minded to unite behind a substantive political agenda, is a good reason for believing it. That makes the gravitational pull ideological communities exert on the content of their members’ beliefs an essential feature of political rationality. When such a community deliberates effectively, its members draw on the wisdom of the group to attain a measure of objectivity they can’t achieve on their own. When it deliberates less-than-rationally, its members’ views will be ill-considered.

The politics of abortion over the last thirty years exemplifies this process of collective deliberation. Calling someone a liberal now raises a reasonable presumption that she believes in high and progressive tax rates and expansive abortion rights. Calling someone a conservative raises an equally strong presumption that he supports lower and flatter tax rates and stronger legal protections for unborn life. There are exceptions, but pro-life economic liberals like Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey Jr., and pro-choice economic conservatives like Rudy Giuliani, are now sufficiently exotic specimens in our politics to prove the rule.

How did beliefs about taxes and abortion come to be associated ideologically? There’s no obvious inconsistency in taking a recognizably conservative view of one issue and a liberal view of the other. Some of the most orthodox ideologues used to do it all the time. Before he emerged as the senatorial gladiator of the pro-choice movement, Ted Kennedy believed that "the legalization of abortion on demand . . . is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life." He wasn’t the only liberal who would soon decide, with evident conviction, that civilization was wrong. There’s evidence that politicians now as staunchly pro-choice as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Dick Durbin followed a similar path. It would take a pathological cynic to believe that they all changed their minds purely out of political opportunism.

Pro-life liberals weren’t the only ones to see the light. Lots of conservatives were for abortion rights before they were against them. The most notable example is Ronald Reagan. As Governor of California in the 1960s, he signed the most permissive abortion law in the nation before becoming the first emphatically pro-life president. And who could forget that, before he was socially conservative, pork rind-munching, pro-life president, George H. W. Bush was so determined a champion of “enlightened” sexual morality as a congressman that Wilbur Mills, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, took to calling him “Rubbers.”

The polarization of liberals and conservatives on issues of sexual morality began to take shape only in the late 1970s, when the culture war erupted in full force. Only then did conservatism start to become a pro-life, and liberalism a pro-choice, ideology. The process of ideological realignment was complicated. Ideologues of various stripes struggled in their own way to reconcile their inherited assumptions about the sanctity of human life with the moral responses triggered by newly appreciated facts about the effects of illegal abortion on women’s health and unwanted pregnancies on their social independence. Some, like Reagan and Kennedy, changed their minds about abortion as a result of coming into contact with otherwise ideologically congenial people who had strong opposing convictions about it. Substantial numbers of socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics, on the one hand, and socially liberal Republicans on the other, maintained their views on abortion but changed their economic views enough to find a home in a new ideological community.

The crucial fact for present purposes is that most confirmed ideologues gravitated toward one camp or the other. That doesn’t reflect badly on them. Ideologues have perfectly good reasons for running in packs. They only get into intellectual trouble when they run in herds.

1 comment:

Kylopod said...

You raise some good points, but I think you oversimplify the abortion issue. You fail to mention how hard it is to separate the issue from religion. While there are many religious pro-choicers, there are very few atheistic pro-lifers (the most prominent example is probably Nat Hentoff). Religious conservatism has taken hold of the GOP and conservative movement, but there are still many secular conservatives, nearly all of them pro-choice.

Using politicians as your prime examples of people who shifted due to principle will not be very convincing to many people. You'd be better off examining the views of political commentators. Furthermore, the issue is more complex than you make it out to be. For example, Al Gore moved leftward on the issue of federal funding of abortion, but there's no evidence he ever sought to outlaw the procedure. And there are many legal scholars who consider Roe v. Wade a bad decision on constitutional grounds but who still want abortion to remain legal.