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The Inefficacy of Political Ideologies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Wilson
March 26, 2018

All political ideologies suffer from the same inherent, inescapable problem. Succinctly stated, the problem is that it is impossible to postulate an ideology that is, at one and the same time, both true and useful.

There are many reasons why this is so. Chief among them is that the human experience is vastly bigger than the human capacity to understand it. As Hamlet put it, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The wisest and smartest among us can claim at best to understand only a few tidbits here and there about human affairs. No one understands well enough to predict future outcomes.

But the purpose of political ideology is to set forth ideas and concepts from which guidance can be derived about what should be done. The finest political minds of the past 300 years have done their best to produce viable ideas and constructs. Despite such efforts, however, there are vastly too many political causes and effects for us to understand past political outcomes much less predict future outcomes.

To be sure, savvy thinkers craft political worldviews that honor belief in and support for political values such as human rights, the rule of law, and democracy while acknowledging the vagaries and unpredictability of human behavior. But not even the savviest thinkers can instruct activists for human rights and democracy in terms of what they should do next, to promote their goals, in the specific circumstances they face. It would be enormously helpful to such advocates, especially those in oppressed places around the world, if a reliable and instructive worldview were on offer.

But if we want to fashion a political worldview that is true, it must be broad enough to cover the full range of human circumstances, which renders all such generalizations too broad to be instructive. For example, one might assert a precept such as, “Governments that respect human rights and democratic processes are preferable to those that do not.” Arguably this is a valid and universal political principle. But there is nothing in it that offers instruction about how to obtain human rights and democratic processes, or how to apply them once obtained.

Nor does it help to craft worldviews that are narrower in scope. Consider, for example, the worldviews of “conservative” Republicans and “liberal” Democrats. They stand staunchly for less or more government services, depending on what one has in mind. But such general outlooks connect weakly at best to specific political issues, from highways to health care to defense. One might assert as a matter of principle, for example, one’s opposition to federal government involvement in health care, but an outbreak of plague would instantly override such principled objections. It is impossible to assert “liberal” or “conservative” principles that apply to all cases.

Democrats and Republicans rightly make fun of each other for the inherent shortcomings of ideological conviction. For example, Republicans deride Democrats for allegedly believing that the answer to every problem is a government program, while Democrats deride Republicans for allegedly believing that the answer to every problem is less government. These stereotypes affirm the underlying inadequacy of ideological persuasions in the first place.

If we can’t look to political ideologies to tell us what we should do, where can we look? The only possible answers to human problems are the answers that humans come up with through democratic processes of government. There is nothing inherently virtuous about these processes, or about the answers they will produce. But human history tells us that there is nothing better out there. If one wants to assert a political belief, believing in democracy and decency is about as full and rich a political belief as can be found.

Democratic processes are uninformative about the specifics of what should and should not be done, leaving those things to be considered and decided on a case by case basis. Unlike political ideologies, democratic processes are inherently flexible, accommodating error as well as changing circumstances and opinions. Political ideologies are, in contrast, rigid and resolute, leaving their adherents all but unable to factor in new and different considerations.

Doctrines of ideology are and always will be inefficacious. Democratic processes, in contrast, are highly efficacious in that they confer legitimacy on the decisions people make with respect to their governments, whether those decisions produce more or less or better or worse government. People in democracies are free to choose more or less government, for better or worse. Then they are free to change their minds. Adherence to ideological conviction, on the other hand, is prohibitive in these regards.

We don’t know what the future will bring, but democratic societies have the best possible means of shaping and responding to it. In comparison, political ideologies have little to offer. What this means for the institutions of government will be the subject of my next column.

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, Melvin & Leigh, Publishers, Irvine, California, 2016. Mr. Wilson is also a columnist for PA Times and Governing.com. 

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