We live in a new political era fraught with unprecedented gridlock and an inability to reach compromises. Politics in Washington has devolved into ideological warfare as politicians butt heads over their drastically different but equally dogmatic philosophies on how to govern this country. Gone it seems are the days where crossing party lines was commonplace on major legislation; instead bitter partisanship has taken over Washington. The middle ground in Congress is increasingly becoming a dead zone that nearly every lawmaker seeks to avoid. There are even candidates in the 2016 presidential race that eschew “deal making” as a form of capitulating to the other party. Whatever happened to political pragmatism? Why have politicians regressed toward ideological purism?
The central issue I’m examining in this post is the role that ideology, a systematically coordinated and cognitively salient set of politically focused beliefs, should play in politics. In an ideal world (yes, I understand the irony), all lawmakers would be rational, pragmatic decision-makers capable of divorcing themselves from their personal opinions in favor of working to produce the best possible policies that provide the greatest net benefit to society. Instead of working within a narrow worldview that prescribes a set of one-size-fits-all policies regardless of their overall societal utility, these solons would craft unique solutions on a case-by-case basis in order to maximize benefits and minimizes costs. For example, small-government conservatives that oppose government intervention on the grounds that each individual should have maximum autonomy might support a set of policies like the New Deal if it meant digging the economy out of the ground, even though they would ideologically object to government handouts and market distortions.
Granted, I call this an ideal world for a reason; in reality, politics doesn’t work this way. Politicians are not omniscient automatons that can use formulas to spit out the perfect policy. First, not every lawmaker has access to the information necessary to make rational, pragmatic decisions. Incomplete information distorts cost-benefit analysis and creates misperceptions that could produce disagreements over and warped understandings of what constitutes the “best possible policy.” Second, there’s no universal method of cost-benefit analysis. Different people have different perceptions of costs and benefits that could complicate the decision-making process. Finally, there’s the glaring issue that not all lawmakers – or humans writ large – operate rationally; many act a certain way in spite of cost-benefit analysis. Almost all of them suffer from cognitive or emotional biases that cloud their judgment and ability to make rational decisions. That is to say, ideological politicians are inevitable.
I’m not saying that having a political ideology is a bad thing when it comes to decision-making and passing legislation. In fact, it can be a very good, and sometimes necessary, thing. As I said above, there is no universal method of interpreting costs and benefits because each individual will perceive them differently. An overarching ideology can help standardize the way one calculates those costs and benefits by providing a lens through which to view the world rather than an arbitrary method of assigning values to costs and benefits as one may see fit. For example, in economics, different schools of thought assign different values to efficiency and equity. Capitalists would argue that efficiency is a much greater benefit to society whereas Marxists would argue that equity should be society’s chief economic goal. Each side has a standardized worldview under which it operates, even if both sides have different interpretations of what is most important.
But don’t take this to mean that lawmakers should always work to promote whatever they view as most important regardless of other considerations. Ideology does not trump rational decision-making; politicians’ worldviews should still operate within the framework of cost-benefit analysis, and in situations where adhering to an ideology would result in incurring a greater opportunity cost than deviating from it would, politicians should compromise their principles in favor of benefit maximization. The issue with politics today is that many politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, refuse to do just that, and instead prefer to remain ideologically pure. For Sanders, that might entail vilifying any and all corporate influence in politics, and for Cruz, that might entail voting against any legislation that has even the slightest tinge of liberalism, no matter how beneficial it would be for society.
Ideological purism encourages dogmatism by reinforcing the idea that one’s principles are incontrovertibly true, and any view deviating from those principles is invariably false. This sort of obstinacy and self-righteous absolutism has drastically negative implications on the political system. First, it polarizes Congress to the point where its members fall victim to ingroup and outgroup biases, causing them to demonize any position that conflicts with their ideologies, and by association, any fellow members who hold such positions. Debates over legislation devolve into a set of ad hominem attacks that work antithetically to the creation of sound policy. Second, it mitigates any ability for lawmakers to reach compromises because neither side will concede. Compromise becomes a sign of weakness because it creates the impression that those involved are not firm in their convictions and would rather betray their principles by selling themselves out for short-term political gain. This leads to obstructionism and gridlock, which complicates a government’s ability to act swiftly and decisively in times of crisis, all while dissolving the political middle ground.
The fact of the matter is that most policy issues, regardless of how one feels about them, cannot be understood in absolute, black-and-white terms. Just about everything operates in shades of gray. There usually is not a definitive answer as to what policy is the optimal solution for any given problem. While I realize I mentioned this argument toward the beginning as a reason why pure pragmatism is impractical, it applies equally, if not more, as a critique of dogmatism. Some issues are much more cut-and-dry than others, but on a broader scale, no single worldview is universally correct. Politicians should not have license to act as if their stances are inherently more enlightened than anyone else’s.
Politics should be about working in the best interests of society, and that generally necessitates compromise. Political parties with differing ideologies will always exist and disagree with one another, but they should be competing in a race to the middle, not a race to the fringes. Borne out of this conception of politics is “syncretic politics,” the idea that legislators should break from the traditional confines of the left-right political spectrum in favor of aggregating a set of solutions from both sides that work most advantageously for society. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, champions of the popular “Third Way,” managed to combine ideas from both the left and the right to achieve reconciliation between opposing worldviews and formulate good policies. Obviously, disagreements are inevitable, but whenever they arise in Congress, lawmakers should work them out through horse-trading, smart concessions, and deal making in order to assuage both sides and solve societal problems. Childish intransigence and parochialism only serve to exacerbate gridlock and shift the focus away from constructing the most ideal policy proposals onto settling ideological vendettas against the other side of the aisle.
It’s important to understand that while both sides of the aisle deserve at least some of the blame for the present situation, the current gridlock is largely the fault of congressional Republicans. This has nothing to do with the Republican Party or its platform writ large; the issue lies with its elected officials and the methods they choose to employ in their attempts to actualize the party’s policy goals. Many congressional Republicans insist on standing firm on key issues instead of working toward achieving compromise, going so far as to allow a government shutdown while playing chicken with the debt ceiling when they didn’t get their way. As Sam noted in a previous post, this could have a lot to do with the Republican Party being out of power for some time, as parties out of power tend to become more radicalized because they feel marginalized and mistreated. A brief analysis of both the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections supports this theory: numerous small-government conservative Republicans whose primary collective objective was to stand firm in their principles and deny President Obama a chance to further his progressive agenda ran for Congress. In other words, they sought to eliminate the “deal making” and compromise that helped bring about liberal policies like Obamacare in favor of being stubborn. Playing into conservatives’ dissatisfaction with being out of power, these Republicans mobilized a base of voters that had become fed up with the administration and “politics as usual” and managed to get themselves elected. As a result, the Tea Party movement migrated from the fringes of the Republican Party to center stage of intraparty politics.
The deleterious consequences of Republicans’ shift toward ideological purism are manifesting themselves in this quagmire of an election cycle. The reason Trump’s campaign exists in the first place is because the Republican Party created a situation that allowed for him to rise. To quote Harry Reid, “Republicans have spent the last eight years stoking the fires of resentment and hatred, building Trump piece by piece.” As Republicans continued to bash the idea of “politics as usual” under a Democratic administration that did not yield to the party’s desires, it encouraged portions of its base to vote for candidates with the unwavering resolve to defend conservative principles. When those candidates could not deliver on their promises because of the gridlock they created, portions of the base turned to even more radical ideologues masquerading as politicians until the more pragmatic establishment lost its grip on the party. Now, we’re witnessing an egomaniacal demagogue run away with the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties in American politics.
Ultimately, if Trump, or even Cruz, wins the Republican nomination, it might be in the party elites’ best interests to hope that Hillary Clinton wins the general election. Such an outcome might give the Republican establishment enough of a case to prove that staunch ideological purism is bad politics and cedes control of government to the Democrats. Then again, it might be possible that the Republican base won’t have learned its lesson and will continue to elect ideologues, as it did following Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential defeat, causing the party to drift further away from political relevance.
I could write normative statements about politics for hours on end, but regardless of my opinions, it’s an unavoidable fact that ideological biases will impinge on politicians’ abilities to make rational decisions. Having principles and an overarching worldview is a good thing, but allowing them to impede pragmatic action has detrimental ramifications. To quote Beau Willimon, head writer of one of my favorite TV shows, House of Cards:
Ideology — firm unwavering ideology — reduces your flexibility. Sometimes it is necessary. Martin Luther King and Gandhi had to remain inflexible because any form of compromise was a form of defeat. And yet most politics day to day does not operate with those sort of stakes or that clarity of vision. And when you back yourself into an ideological corner with nowhere to maneuver, it makes it more difficult to compromise. And as evil a word as “compromise” has become in the last several years, good government is about compromise. It is about people of different beliefs coming together.
I’m not advocating for Underwood-esque “ruthless pragmatism,” but Clinton-esque syncretic politics would be preferable to the status quo. I hope for the sanctity of our political system that the current trend toward ideological purism is a blip in history and not indicative of a greater shift in how politics is conducted. Otherwise, we could end up with something far worse than the treacherous rise of Donald J. Trump.