The Curse of Ideological Rigidity

Much has been made of the red state-blue state division in U.S. politics, and more recently of the rise of “tea party” Republicans as a political force.  However, the seeds of much of our current political mess were sown back in the early 1960s by Barry Goldwater and his allies in the Republican party.  They insisted that ideological purity was essential to revitalizing the party.  In particular, they lambasted pragmatists like Eisenhower and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller for tarnishing what they considered to be the core conservative values of the party.

While Goldwater himself was blasted out of the water in the 1964 presidential election, giving the liberal but pragmatic Lyndon Johnson the most lopsided win (61% of the popular vote) since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency — a margin that no president since then has reached or exceeded — nevertheless his conservative ideology had taken hold within the party.  The failed Nixon presidency weakened the moderate wing of the party, and Gerald Ford’s decisive loss to Jimmy Carter was, for conservatives, more convincing evidence that Americans were tired of bland, centrist, Republicans.

The nomination, and then election, of Ronald Reagan, who had started out as a main-stream Democrat but shifted rightward politically as he grew older, completed the ideological victory of the right-wing within the Republican Party.  From that point onward, the battle within the Republican Party has only been between those who wanted to see a right-of-center government in coalition with conservative Democrats and those who insist that Republicans deserve and need to govern alone, based on an ideologically pure ultraconservative political philosophy.

The latter perspective is, perhaps ironically, best exemplified not by a presidential candidate or Congressional leader, but by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his trusty sidekick, Clarence Thomas.  These two justices have loudly proclaimed their adherence to “original intent”, the doctrine that the Constitution is to be interpreted based entirely on the “intent of the framers.”  This doctrine suffers from the flaw, common in statutory interpretation, that it’s almost never possible to discern a single unified intent in the actions of a legislative body made up of many individuals with differing interests.  A review of opinions written by the Scalia/Thomas wing shows, however, that they are guided, not by original intent, but a rigid right-wing ultraconservative ideology that wants to see a federal government with only extremely limited powers and controlled by a strong “imperial” president.

Ideological rigidity did not, of course, originate with Barry Goldwater.  Indeed, one can argue that it goes back at least as far as some of the harsh punishments for sinful behavior set forth in the Old Testament.  Indeed, a good case can be made that Jesus’ rejection of the traditional Jewish faith of his time stemmed at least as much from revulsion against that rigidity as it did from his rejection of the corruption of the Jewish officialdom of Roman era Palestine.

The Romans themselves also showed a strong streak of ideological rigidity.  One thinks of Cato the Elder, who, it is claimed, ended each speech he gave in the Roman senate with the same sentence, “Carthago delenda est!” [Carthage must be destroyed!]  The Catholic Church has also had its periodic bursts of ideological rigidity, perhaps the most notable being that demonstrated in the Spanish Inquisition.  More recently, the Jacobins, and most notably Robespierre, espoused an extreme ideology during the French Revolution, imprisoning and guillotining those whom they felt threatened the purity of the revolution.  In the Twentieth Century, ideological rigidity has had its adherents on both the left and the right, ranging from Lenin to Stalin to Hitler and Franco to Mao, especially in his later years when the cultural revolution was proclaimed.

One would think that the list of sordid adherents to ideological rigidity would have given this political approach a bad name.  One would be wrong.  Why is that?  I believe it is because ideological rigidity allows people to reach simple answers to complex and vexing questions, ranging from what to do about the federal deficit to what should the country’s stance be towards immigration.   Once one accepts a pure ideological approach to political issues, one need not spend one’s time poring over volumes of data and listening to the complicated explanations of experts.  As the saying goes, “Don’t bother me with evidence, I know THE TRUTH.”  In this, political ideologists have much in common with religious ideologists, and it seems to me far from coincidence that many Tea Party adherents are also adherents to fundamentalist evangelical sects.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers about how to deal with those who have succumbed to the siren call of ideological rigidity.  Perhaps the best one can hope for is that recent disasters such as the Great Recession and the gulf oil spill will cause some of the far-right’s current adherents to begin to question whether their leaders really do have all the answers, and wonder whether it might be worth turning their brains back on.


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