I am having second thoughts about my last post in which I assert that the nomination of Paul Ryan, because he is a right-wing ideologist, assures the re-election of Barack Obama. I don’t wish to revise my observations or judgment, but think I need to explain a bit more. I realize that I should be clearer about what I mean by ideology and why I think, and hope, that it spells defeat for the Republicans. My thoughts in two parts: today, I will clarify what I mean by ideology and my general political prediction; in my next post, I will consider further implications of ideological developments in American politics, addressing some doubts and criticism raised by Deliberately Considered readers.
I also want to point out that my thoughts on Ryan and ideology are related to my search for conservative intellectuals worthy of respect. In that what I have to say is motivated bya conservative suspicion of the role of a certain kind of idea and reason in politics, I wonder what Paul Gottfried and Alvino-Mario Fantini (two conservative intellectuals who have contributed to Deliberately Considered) would think. As I understand it, my last post was a conservative critique of right-wing ideology, pointing to its progressive consequences. As a centrist who wants to move the center left, I am hopeful about this, but I imagine committed conservatives would be deeply concerned. I am still having trouble finding a deliberate dialogue with them.
A brief twenty-five year old encounter comes to mind as I think about ideology and its political toxicity, trying to explain my Ryan judgment.
We were in a taxi in Prague in 1987, Jonathan Fanton, the President of the New School for Social Research, Ira Katznelson, the Dean of The New School’s Graduate Faculty, Jan Urban, a leading dissident intellectual-journalist activist, and I: the preliminary meeting between The New School and the small but very vibrant, creative and ultimately successful Czechoslovak democratic opposition. In the end, we did some good in that part of the world, starting with a donation of a computer that enabled Urban and his colleagues to more easily publish their underground newspaper, Lidove Noviny. As we were exchanging pleasantries in the taxi, I became serious and asserted that I am against all “isms”: communism, socialism, fascism, but also liberalism and conservatism. Urban turned to me and happily declared that we were comrades in thoughts. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, based on our deep concern about the ideological politics of the sort that is now to be found in the Tea Party on the American radical right, and also played a unfortunate role in the politics of post–Communist Czech Republic under the stewardship of Vaclav Klaus.
Urban and I agreed that true-believing politics was extremely dangerous, whether or not the beliefs were attractive. We were suspicious of systematic overall positions. We understood together that the too intimate connection between ideas and assertions of power was extremely dangerous. Ideas then blind. The difference between fact and fiction become difficult to discern. Newspeak prevails.
There was, of course, exaggeration in our agreement, the danger of ideology is not neatly summarized by suffix “ism,” but we shared a common sense, the same sense that informs my judgment of Ryan and the likely Republican fate. Ideology for Urban and for me is a term that is best understood not as the confluence of interest and political ideas, enabling political action (ideology in the sense of Mannheim and Geertz, beautifully interpreted by Ricoeur). Rather, implicit in my exchange with Urban is an understanding of ideology that draws on the position of Hannah Arendt (and more conservative thinkers such as Eric Voegelin), as she and we try to make sense of a particularly pernicious form of political ideas.
Thus in the present situation, following the ideology of the free market true-belief, constitutional fundamentalism and a theological reading of the American tradition, rich people become “job creators” by definition. A moderate Democrat becomes a “dangerous socialist” who doesn’t understand what America is. Changing the fundamental principles of Medicare and Social Security becomes “saving” them, while controlling the cost escalation of Medicare means destroying it. We also have the “failed stimulus package,” the “racist” Attorney General Eric Holder, not to mention the Muslim president born in Kenya. All of this passes for the conservatism of Tea Party Republicans, and Ryan is said to be its great intellectual leader. This is ideological politics pure and simple.
I disagree with the substance of Romney – Ryan’s positions on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, something that Michael Corey identified and criticized in his response to my post. He believes that the Republican and the Democratic plans for “entitlements” should be dispassionately evaluated and seems to be disappointed that I didn’t do this in my post. But this wasn’t my point. There are indeed different ways to address the problems of medical care of the old and the younger that have their strengths and weaknesses. A debate about such things is a normal part of politics. What concerns me is the Manichean way this debate is presented and understood by the new right-wing ideologues, as a grand battle between good and evil, with the very future of America in the balance. Ryan reduces all political conflict in this way, as he put it in 2005: “the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.“
I think that this is the sort of thing that a great majority of Americans reject. There may have been a drift to the right in recent years. Belief in the possibility that government can address social problems may be down, but the certainty of free market true-believers makes little sense to people as they try to get by in tough times. It’s a matter of form, not substance, and again to paraphrase Barry Goldwater in order to criticize his position: extremism in defense of freedom doesn’t win elections in America, not for Goldwater in the early sixties and not for Romney – Ryan now.
As a consequence, the Republican ticket will prevaricate. They will back down. This has defined Romney’s career, and Ryan himself, to get re-elected, has also compromised his stated principles to deliver the “collectivist” government goods to his constituents. Yet, in the glare of the national campaign this sort of thing is less likely to work. Romney – Ryan will reveal to the electorate the worst of both worlds, the repellent dogmatism of true-belief, combined with the apparent cynicism of hack politicians who will say anything to be elected.
Thus, I think that Obama will be re-elected. I also have a hunch. This may allow Obama to be Obama. Perhaps just as the decisive defeat of Goldwater established the political opportunity for the reforms of “The Great Society,” the Romney – Ryan defeat may open up the opportunity for “change we can believe in.”