Ideology: Unreason, Antifaith, Part Two

When people vote their pocketbooks, as they often do, they are giving some color to Marx's more down-to-earth definition of ideology as a set of ideas concocted to advance the interests of a social class.  The creed of classical liberalism—low taxes, free trade, individual liberty--is the ideology of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, while socialism is the ideology of those who expect to be dependent upon government largesse: schoolteachers, promiscuous young women, and the politicians and public servants, who have so nobly given up brilliant careers in the private sector because they wished to serve the people.  No one claims the ideal of public service more loudly than outgoing public officials who have abused their authority. In his farewell address, Albert Gonzalez (George W. Bush's attorney-general)  lauded “the power of the people in this Department to give of themselves selflessly and to provide hope to others.” For a moment I took him more seriously when he thanked George Bush for the appointment and declared that Hispanic Americans now had an attorney-general of their own, but, since his loyalty was only to his boss and not to any part of the American people, we can conclude that, fortunately, he was only kidding.

Politics is about power, and mainly the power to get money and sexual favors.  The antics of Warren Harding, Jack Kennedy, and Bill Clinton were not aberrations.  To devote one’s life to seeking power requires an addiction to testosterone, which has almost inevitable results.  Some men, in the interest of holding power, do not risk the scandal generated by extramarital affairs, but they know that the lust for power is supposed to be accompanied by plain old lust.  Hence the sanctimonious—and ridiculous--claim made by Cherie and Tony Blair of the frequency with which they pay their marital debt.

Political parties, whatever ideologies they may profess, function as coalitions of interest groups.  The Democratic Party attracts, as I said before, government dependents, resentful ethnic and racial minorities, and immoralists; the Republican Party, while claiming to represent the middle class, remains the party of large corporate interests.  Republican farm policy, for example, subsidizes the huge profits of agribusiness while leaving the smaller farmers, who actually live and work on the farm, to starve.

In a vast continental empire the size of the United States, there is no way for a major party to take account of the true interests of the nation, which may be regional, socio-economic (farmers vs. bankers), or even ethnic and religious.  The very size of the country encourages politicians and parties to adopt ideological slogans that trick voters into thinking that the Democrats really want to help poor blacks or that the Republicans are trying to protect innocent life and save western civilization, when in either case nothing could be farther from the truth.  We are on the verge of perceiving a general rule: While statesmen, in the early days of a commonwealth, may wish to defend the interests of the whole (e.g., these United States) and of their little part (e.g., Virginia or Massachusetts), it is the politician’s object to substitute an ideology or party loyalty for the real interest of the people.  Contrast, for example, statesmen such as Adams, Jefferson, and Calhoun, with politicians like Van Buren and Lincoln.

One example of how the old system worked, even on its last legs, should suffice.  In 1848 the election of Zachary Taylor, one of the most popular presidents in our history, served to unify an increasingly divided nation. As an Indian fighter and the hero of the Mexican War, Taylor had an unquestioned reputation for patriotism; as a Whig (though he virtually ignored the Whig platform of a national bank and federal investment in development), he had the support of much of the northeastern establishment; as a slave-owning Louisianan he appealed to the South, even though he opposed the extension of slavery; but as a sugar planter, he supported protective tariffs without which the entire sugar industry was unprofitable.  I do not say he was a prudent politician or an especially effective leader, but in representing substantial interests of his country, he was able to steer a course, which, had he lived, might have avoided the war. 

In talking about over 200 years of the history of a vast and diverse country, I have inevitably simplified and probably trivialized our national history.  We can see the process more clearly in a smaller scale society, such as ancient Athens, before the Persian Wars.  There, the basic struggle was not so much between rich and poor (though the class conflict was real enough) as among three regions of Attica, each dominated by one or more powerful aristocratic clans.  

When Cleisthenes, the leader of one of those clans (the Alcmeonids), came to power by taking an anti-Spartan line, he reorganized the polity by eliminating the traditional tribal structure, reducing the role of the cult-based clans (the phratries), and assigning every little community (or deme) to larger entities that cut across traditional boundaries of region and kindred.  The result was what they called democracy, and it worked for a while until Pericles (related through his mother to Cleisthenes) made a faction of the lower classes and destroyed the barriers to mob rule.  As Thucydides shrewdly put it, they called it democracy, but it was really the rule of one man.  

Athens could not survive either the class conflict or the ideological cheapening introduced by Cleisthenes and Pericles, and the city swung from a well-managed tyranny (Pericles) to mob-rule under demagogues (Cleon) to an irresponsible fascistic dictatorship (Critias) back to a moderate democracy that gradually sank into oligarchy—the best fate that any democracy can suffer, once it has turned its back on the authentic interests on which a legitimate commonwealth is based.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    It seems then, that when people vote their pocketbooks, whether for classical liberalism or for socialism, both ideologies fail, because special interests are employed instead of reason. But since our country is so vast east to west, it is a given that interests will be different. In that case, it is the job of politicians to get the people to “yes” – like salesmen. In that case it appears that we all are unreasonable because we are driven by our appetites for more and better. At some point, will Humpty Dumpty fall off the wall?

  2. Khater M says:

    “To devote one’s life to seeking power requires an addiction to testosterone, which has almost inevitable results.”

    Then how do we explain the increasing number of crazed female politicians? Would you say it’s just due to the disorder and loss of masculinity in modern society?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    First off, females do have testosterone. Secondly, most female pols are–like nearly all feminists–aspiring males who hate themselves for being women. They count for nothing more than the dying canary in the coal mine.

  4. Khater M says:

    Of course females have testosterone, but I was under the impression that an addiction to it wouldn’t really be possible for them. Then again, what d9ni know about modern women?

  5. Clyde Wilson says:

    Quite right, politicians are motivated by lust. But let’s not forget greed, vanity, disdain for useful work, and a psychopathic ability to feign empathy with normal human beings.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Perhaps, Clyde, we should do the country a favor and list the motivations

  7. James D. says:

    “a psychopathic ability to feign empathy with normal human beings.”

    Bingo. That, couple with “respectability” (especially for Republicans) is the currency of the modern politician. I witnessed this first hand while working in politics 15-20 years ago.