Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Elevator Ideology

The New York Review's account of how Bush won the election is well worth reading. The key point, in terms of what the Democrats need to focus on moving forward, is this paragraph:

Many well-known facts—on which Kerry, in his campaign, had laid such stress—were either irrelevant to it (the missing weapons of mass destruction, which went unmentioned) or directly contradicted by it (the failure to demonstrate connections between Iraq and the attacks of September 11). But the facts did not matter—not necessarily because those in the stadium were ignorant of them, though some certainly were, but because the President was offering in their place a worldview that was whole, complete, comprehensible, and thus impermeable to statements of fact that clearly contradicted it. The thousands cheering around me in that Orlando stadium, and the many others who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts. (Emphasis added)
Many Democrats, particularly intellectual Democrats, will likely read this passage and console themselves with feelings of superiority, by asking, as some foreigners did right after the election, "How could 62 million people be so stupid?" But read properly, this account should make Democrats realize what's at work here isn't (just) stupidity; rather, it's the power of ideology.

One thing intellectuals typically fail to recognize about ideology is that while politically influential ideologies -- I'm thinking here, for example, of classical liberalism, Communism, or Nazism -- always produce highly intricate manifestations as they are developed into policies and as their internal tensions are thrashed out, what makes these ideologies politically effective is that they are always reducible to a clear, simple core. E.g., markets are better than governments at allocating goods and values; letting workers rather than capitalists control the means of production will yield a more just society; national greatness depends on race purification. You get the idea.

As I argued in an article published last Spring, for the Democrats to mount a return from the wilderness, they must first recognize that the Republicans have become America's first coherent ideological party since the Civil War, and then respond by developing a counterideology of their own. In other words, Democrats must work on discovering what keeps people in the party, and how that relates to some core, probably almost preconcious, conception of themselves and their country. Moreover, as I've said earlier, to be effective, this counterideology will have to be expressable in the length of time it takes to ride an elevator with someone. Until the Democrats figure that out, the Republicans are going to run circles around them. (I've already stated my own view as to what this "elevator ideology" might look like.)


Anonymous said...

The trouble here is that developing a coherent ideology puts the Democrats in the uncofortable position of having to jettison the truth, Republican-style. I believe that any worldview reducible to an elevator conversation's length necessarily fails to reflect the true complexity of the human condition; that is, ideology is necessarily at odds with truth -- and you almost seem to agree. To put it bluntly using your own "Democratic elevator ideology" as an example, the U.S. is not now and never has been an open and tolerant society based upon the scientific Enlightenment ideals of the founding fathers. Surely I don't need to give the historian examples.... -- Lars

Anonymous said...

I've felt this way for years now: liberals are too nuanced and complex for the "average Amercian." But how can an advanced and sophiticated philosophy be simply explained?

It's easier to tear down then it is to build, and we know that the new Right philosophy is more reactionary and destructive then constructive. People who "buy" the new Right polemic presume the good things about our nation simply came into existence or are due to our special place in Gods eye. They don't understand the role of enlightenment liberalism in bringing about American prosperity and general welfare.

Some days I think the only way Americans will "open their eyes" is after a huge crash brought about by new Right actions. But then, an ignorant and angry populace is as likely to turn on the critics as they are the responsible party.

Ben Franklin was right. I consider America corrupted, and getting the leadership it deserves.

I've seen plenty of anectodal evidence of general corruption directly, signs and indications, no smoking guns. Not much use in convincing "skeptics."

purpleprose said...

Democrats, liberals, and intellectuals need to get over the self-regarding pretense of always needing represent the world "as it is." As we all know, any representation other than a 1-to-1 mapping represents either a simplication or a distortion, and most likely both. So just get over the compulsive need always to present "complexity" and instead just embrace the power of simply stated truths. To wit: creationism is fancified superstition; the war in Iraq is both a sin and a mistake; decent societies require the rich to help the poor; etc. These are not complicated points. Don't be afraid to say them in a simple way.