Is Ideology really the enemy? It Depends…
The Congressional Elections are next week. Most forecasters think that the Republicans will recapture the Senate by a slim margin. The reasons for this are largely considered structural; the Democratic Party is fighting to save seats in states that were won by Romney in 2012 and these states are getting more and more ideologically Republican. The same forecasters think that it does not matter because the GOP will be on the ropes for similar reasons in 2016 plus with a Presidential Election year which currently favors Democratic politicians.
One hope for the Democratic Party is the appearance of third party insurgent candidates in Kansas and South Dakota. Independent Greg Orman in Kansas is considered such a strong contender that the Democratic Party jettisoned their own campaign even as they have a good chance to take the Governorship.
Over the past few year, Tod Kelly has been writing a series of articles on his belief that Ideology is the Enemy. The basic thrust seems to be that the ideology eventually blinds people and makes them more likely to defend the ideology that is core to their identity over anything else. Greg Orman would agree. According to the Atlantic, he was going to write a book called “Good Politics is Bad Policy” but the project was never completed.
Unsurprisingly I don’t think that Tod or Greg Orman is completely right. I know it is rather popular to decry the existence of political parties and ideologies among the American Public and certain form of wonk but I am not surprised by their existence. Humans are social creatures by nature and we tend to form communities of like-minded individuals for protection and prosperity. It should not be surprising that people whose policy preferences are more or less similar join together to enact said policies. There is strength and numbers.
There is also an issue that it is one thing to say what is good policy and why but it is much harder to get people to agree with you. A lot of “good policy” is basically ideology even if the wonks would rather call themselves non-partisan technocrats. My general view of people like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias is that they love politics but hate the messy aspects of running for Democracy. They remind me of the stereotypical law professor who thinks the study and teaching of law is divine but the practice of law is vulgar because you end up needing to deal with people and all their contradictory desires and goals and that is really hard. Writing a white paper about what is theoretically the best policy is very easy.
Matt Yglesias’ work on transportation is a good example. Matt hates light rail. He thinks it is a boondoggle and that cities would be better served by just adding more buses. Many transportation policy experts seem to agree. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that people and politicians seem to like light rail and street cars and find them much more aesthetically pleasing than buses. The self-described technocrat is taking any aesthetics and preference even though those are core to human psychology and well-being since forever.
Where I think political types mess up is that we tend to overestimate how much time the average voter spends thinking about politics especially in making all their ideas about what should and should not exist into a logically consistent picture. Here is where ideology matters and could probably be stronger. There is a body of political research that shows that voters blame politicians for things that are beyond their control like natural disasters or the economy and this never quite made sense to me. I think it makes more sense to have a worldview and believe in policies X, Y, and Z rather than saying “The economy is good, I will vote for the party in power” or “The economy is not so good, I am going to vote for the party currently in opposition.” I don’t agree with Republicans or Libertarians on much but I have more respect for them because they vote what they believe as opposed to voting based on short-term issues beyond the control of people. Our politicians cannot control the weather or the stock market.
The problem with ideology is that no cause is so noble as to not attract idiots and opportunists who are more interested in their brands and getting power over anything else. I think John Edwards and Elliot Spitzer were sincere in their beliefs in fighting for the ordinary American but were foiled by their vices and vanities. Anthony Weiner always struck me as being on the look out for Anthony Weiner. The problem for political partisans is that they will face one or many elections where they need to vote for an opportunist in their party over a relatively or very honest person from the opposition. The calculus issue being is that the person from your party might be an opportunist but he is probably going to vote or enact policies and issues that you support while the honest member of the opposition is going to support policies that you find incorrect. I simply do not agree with the Republican Party on almost anything and the idea of voting for policies I oppose is perplexing to me. There are relatively moderate Republicans out there but they tend to get forced into the fold once elected.
the bad guys seem all powerful and incapable of error
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