"Ideology" Is No Longer A Useful Tool For Understanding American Politics

What do people mean by the word "ideology"?

An example comes from political scientist Jonathan Bernstein (wrong about most things, not just the proper use of the term "ideology") who writes about why Republicans have adopted the view that climate change is not real:

What’s harder to answer is why movement conservatives have accepted that view, and why the rest of high-visibility Republicans go along. This goes back to the theme of the broken and post-policy Republican Party. Healthy parties seek the best policy results they can for constituency groups and party-aligned interest groups. Republicans, however, have put an inordinate amount of energy into demonstrations of ideological purity, and have at least flirted with the idea that compromise and deal-making are themselves inherent signs of ideological failure.

How did we end up here?


Originally meaning "the science of ideas", the word "ideology" was coined by  French philosopher A.L.C. Destutt de Tracy in the heady days of the Enlightenment when, especially in France, there was a sense that human beings could "systematize" everything using logic and the scientific method. Destutt de Tracy drew on Francis Bacon's notion that "the destiny of science was not only to enlarge human knowledge, but also to 'improve the life of men on earth'"(1).

The science of ideas was a science with a mission: it aimed at serving people, even saving them, by ridding their minds of prejudice and preparing them for the sovereignty of reason.

The term entered the language and is now used by social scientists in several fields. Intellectual historian Maurice Cranston makes sense of the resulting variety of meanings by identifying two different definitions, one loose and one strict: 

In the loose sense of the word, ideology may mean any kind of action-oriented theory or any attempt to approach politics in the light of a system of ideas. Ideology in the stricter sense stays fairly close to Destutt de Tracy's original conception and may be identified by five characteristics: (1) it contains an explanatory theory of a more or less comprehensive kind about human experience and the external world; (2) it sets out a program, in generalized and abstract terms, of social and political organization; (3) it conceives the realization of this program as entailing a struggle; (4) it seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment; (5) it addresses a wide public but may tend to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.

The claim: "There is no climate change" is not "ideological" in either sense. What system of ideas might it fit into? Or what theory of human experience might contain it? Unlike, say, evolution, there is no religion based alternative to chemistry and physics. Climate change denial is a bald claim, standing in isolation, and any attempt to rationalize it into a system of ideas is going to become incoherent in short order.

Of course, we know the source of the claim, and it's not anything nearly so intellectual: climate change denial is a post hoc justification for maintaining our policy of subsiding the fossil fuel industry. It has been put forward by a) the fossil fuel industry, and b) politicians who either represent the employees of that industry or who win election thanks to money from that industry. 

Notice the comparative usefulness of the two accounts, Ideological vs Interest. The first is more or less useless. Climate change is something conservatives believe because they are conservative. Meanwhile, interest analysis sheds light on the democratic process, the role of voters and the role of money. 

Why bother with ideology? 

More to come... 

(1) "Ideology", Cranston, Maurice, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014.