Correct Use Of The Word "Ideology"

I have noticed of late that Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine and posting on their "Daily Intellegencer" blog, does a good job of using the word "partisan" where other writers incorrectly use the word "ideological."

As I have been saying, the difference is important. The GOP in its current Reaganist form has a policy agenda that serves the interests of most GOP voters at least some of the time. The party is controlled by a coalition of rich oligarchs and Southern whites. The top priorities of the rich are low taxes on high incomes and low regulation of businesses. Southern whites want reduced benefits for black people, increased benefits for old people, and increased regulation of women's health services. Not surprisingly, these are the five priorities of the GOP. 

A combination of intellectual laziness and inertia has given us academics and journalists absolutely determined to analyze this in terms of "ideology" instead of interests and preferences. 

Under this framework, the GOP is the right-wing, Conservative party that believes in small government. But Medicare Part D is big government. So are subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. And what about government requirements that doctors shove a medical instrument into the vagina of a pregnant woman, against the will of both the woman and the doctor?

To make sense of it all we get conventional wisdom like this:

One of the most persistent and defining features of American public opinion is that as a whole, the electorate is what political scientists call "symbolic conservatives" and "operational liberals." That is, when you ask them abstract questions they sound like conservatives expressing a dislike of big government. But when you ask them specific questions they sound like liberals, expressing support (and wanting to increase funding) for just about everything government does. The parties understand that, which is why Republicans tend to talk about principles and Democrats tend to talk about programs.

If I want to know what policies a GOP voter wants, I look at their interests and preferences and tell you the correct answer.

The ideology theorist says, Well, they are conservative, so they want small government. But on abortion or Medicare that gives the wrong answer! Yes, that's why the 'operational/symbolic distinction' is so important. Ok. But how do you know when that applies? We use polling data to figure that out. But that's just Kramer doing Moviefone: 'Why don't you just tell me the movie you want to see?' If you have to resort to polling, the why bother with the theory in the first place?

The theory that "ideology" is connected in some meaningful way to politics in the United States is exactly like the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. The closer you look at reality, the more crazy stuff you have to put in the theory to make it work. All this operational liberal, symbolic conservative nonsense is so many epicycles and retrograde motions.

But "ideology" does have meaning, and, used correctly, it can help us understand things. Back to Jonathan Chait, as he explains Justice Scalia's dissent in a recent case on the EPA's power to regulate emissions:

At the risk of venturing further into the sort of entrail-reading to which we must frequently resort when predicting the Court’s behavior, the vituperativeness of Scalia’s dissent implies that he, too, saw harrowing intimations of a larger defeat looming. He read his dissent out loud, lacing it with fearful and ideologically laden warnings. “Today's decision feeds the uncontrolled growth of the administrative state at the expense of government by the people,” he opined. With familiar sarcasm, he lacerated the EPA’s staff, whose “calculations can be performed at the desk, whereas the ‘from each according to its ability’ approach requires the unwieldy field examination of many pollution-producing sources with many sorts of equipment,” thereby raising the specter of Marx. And, he warned, the ruling “comes at the expense of endorsing, and thereby encouraging for the future, rogue administration of the law.”

There's no need to wonder about what it means to call Scalia "conservative". In this context, the label is useful.