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Philosophy, Ideology and American Politics
Philosophy versus Ideology
American political life features two symbiotic forces. One is the set of fundamental principles and values. The second is the group of decisions, claims, proposals and goals that stem from that underlying framework. We can sum up these two forces a bit crudely as "philosophy" and "ideology." Implicit in the definition of philosophy is a certain humbleness of temperament, based in the assumption that truth is terribly elusive and short term beliefs are often incorrect.
Philosophy, in its purest form, is simply the effort toward discovering truth and gaining greater understanding of life and the world. By contrast, ideology emphasizes action, and focuses less on the process of knowledge discovery, and more on the "truths" already discovered.
With the important distinction between philosophy and ideology understood, one sees the utility of religion from ideology's perspective. Ideas such as God, sin, salvation, morality, providence, divine favor, magic, supernatural law or fate are all very amenable to political ideology and its short term urgency. In the effort to advocate for and pursue specific temporal ends, the symbolism and perceived legitimacy of the "sacred" can be highly effective.
European monarchs were keenly aware of this, and for many centuries they sought the blessing and approval of the Catholic Church and the Popes. The phenomenon was not limited to Europe--emperors, kings and governors from China to Africa have always claimed divine legitimacy for their beliefs and actions. Priestly classes and religious authorities did not miss out on the game either, readily using their prestige, recognition and social standing as means for a variety of secular ends. Religion and ideology have always been cut from the same cloth: advocating and promoting the "truth," rather than discovering it. Modern American political life is no exception.
Ideology and philosophy in politics
By necessity, politics must incorporate ideology to a significant degree. Ideology must even constitute the majority of political discourse. This is because politics is primarily concerned with action: which actions should be taken by government, how should public money be spent, what are the biggest priorities facing society, etc. The downside is that emphasizing action can easily become an exercise where critical thinking is dismissed as an impractical luxury, and where true curiosity and intellectual openness is shrunk so far as to become irrelevant. Politics is then left as a discourse of empty slogans, tired rhetoric based on tired assumptions and market-tested symbology.
Philosophy, in its openness, represents flexibility and adaptability to new circumstances and new challenges, where ideology represents the rigidity and narrowness imposed by short term reality. It is this rigidity that, when exaggerated, becomes a liability limiting society's power to respond to a constantly changing world. And this is precisely the situation that so much of American political discourse presently finds itself in. In the wake of economic crisis, and faced with significant challenges (but also opportunities) in foreign policy, America's political classes are stuck without authentically fresh ideas. Even the Tea Party, a genuinely new political movement, is based on genuinely old philosophical and ideological assumptions.
It is not as if there is a dearth of ideas in American society. To the contrary, intellectual and academic life is as fertile as ever (with the possible exception of economics). Rather, there exists an invisible wall between the realm of ideas and the realm of political action. Although this wall is nothing new, and in normal times might not even be notable, in times of great challenge and difficulty (which, by definition, are directly linked to actions and the low level assumptions underlying actions) the great vitalness and, indeed, urgency of philosophy is revealed.
Short term fixes and proposals aside, if the United States is to overcome its deeper structural and long-term challenges in the economic, fiscal and foreign policy realms, it must cut down the wall between ideas and action, and allow intellectual openness to play a relevant role in the real world once again.