What America needs is more ideology, not less

Shadi Hamid wrote an article a few months back called Why the Center-Left Became Immoderate that really got me thinking. His first brilliant observation was pointing out that the "moderates" are also the most rabidly partisan.
This is the exact opposite of what the news media tries to sell us, and yet it is obvious.

. Ideologues are the ones less amenable to compromise. But although centrists are by definition skeptical of ideology, that does not make them any less prone to partisanship...
Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

The leadership of both parties are neoliberal domestically and neoconservative on foreign policy because they are both owned by the very same corporate donors. With little of ideological substance to distinguish them from their opponents, partisan tribal-based politics is the only game in town.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

On the other end of the spectrum, leftists like Gabbard and Sanders sometimes find common ground with right-wingers like Rand Paul on matters such as foreign policy. Moderates denounce Gabbard and Sanders as traitors for agreeing with the right-wing about anything, and yet still claim that being moderate is necessary to "get things done" with the opposition.
Orwell would point out that this impossible contradiction is known as double-think.
Hamid also noticed that the so-called moderates are in fact the most resistant to seeing their own flaws.

Those who find her standard center-left technocratic worldview congenial are disinclined to accept ideological explanations, so they look for scapegoats: Russia, James Comey, even the voters who supported Donald Trump....Centrism may seem an obvious solution, but too little ideology can be as dangerous as too much.
Politicians who are committed to a set of ideas also tend to have less to prove. They don’t need to play to the base; they can lead the base. Congress—and the country—could use more of them.

This article got me thinking.
In a healthy political system we would have a socialist party, and a capitalist party, a nativist party, etc.
But we don't have a healthy political system. We have a corrupt one.
A political system bereft of ideologies needs some sort of game to distinguish the teams, and that is partisanship.
The bigger problem is that this partisanship, which is nothing but phony tribalism, has been internalized by the voting public, and that is making society sick.

The overwhelming majority of Americans were free of anything that resembled coherent liberal or conservative ideologies — indeed, only “about 17 percent of the public could both assign the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ correctly to the parties and say something sensible about what the terms meant.”

Which isn’t to say that voters didn’t have opinions, much less party and group loyalties. They did, and they do. But the internally coherent (or at least semi-coherent) ideological frameworks that drive the activities of politicians, pundits, and other political actors are foreign to most voters.

That is just sad. Most Americans are so far removed from coherent ideologies that they wouldn't recognize them if they encountered them. When they encounter people with a principled and reasoned ideology they are usually confused and mistrustful.
That's when it occurred to me that politics for most Americans is nothing but Identity Politics.

"Americans are dividing themselves socially on the basis of whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, independent of their actual policy differences," argues political psychologist Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland. The roots of today's political polarization, she writes, "are largely based in our social attachments to ideological labels, not only to thoughtful collections of opinions."
...She notes that social identity "fills two basic psychological needs—one of inclusion (being part of a group) and one of exclusion (distinguishing oneself from others)."

I don't simply mean a Disnyfied version of race, gender, and sexual orientation, although those are critical identities for Democrats.
I don't simply mean a Disnyfied version of capitalism, Christianity, and a very narrow definition of patriotism, although those identities are critical for Republicans.

I mean being supporters of each of the two parties has become identities in and of themselves. Sort of like people who are too into their local professional sports team.
People have gotten emotionally invested in their chosen, immensely corrupt political party, which is probably the most stupid thing you could possibly do. You may as well be emotionally invested in a corporate brand.

When you identify and are emotionally invested with a political party, any criticism of that party or success by the other side becomes a personal attack upon your being.
Finding common ground becomes very difficult.

To a large extent, this inflexible partisanship bleeds over into what we think of as Identity Politics.
Identity Politics can be good. For instance, the Civil Rights movements and the first two waves of feminism did a lot of good. What makes modern IP different is that it is more against people than for people. The reason for this is prejudice, and prejudice grows only in ignorance.

Take for example Stacey Abrams' response to Trump’s State of the Union on Tuesday. It was a strident defense of Identity Politics.

U.S. history abounds with examples of members of dominant groups abandoning class solidarity after concluding that opportunity is a zero-sum game. The oppressed have often aimed their impotent rage at those too low on the social scale to even attempt rebellion.

This is particularly true in the catchall category known as “the working class.” Conflict between black and white laborers stretches back to the earliest eras in U.S. history, which witnessed tensions between African slaves and European indentured servants. Racism and sexism have long tarnished the heroic story of the U.S. labor movement—defects that contributed to the rise of a segregated middle class and to persistent pay disparities between men and women, disparities exacerbated by racial differences. Indeed, the American working class has consistently relied on people of color and women to push for improved status for workers but has been slow to include them in the movement’s victories.

This clip is full of half-truths.
The first two sentences are entirely true, but she doesn't mention that this is often being coordinated by the ruling class.
'The catchall category known as “the working class” is an actual thing that is a lot more real than 'the catchall category known as “the middle class.”
As for tensions between slaves and indentured servants, Abrams forgot to mention the fascinating counter-history of Bacon's Rebellion.
Racism and sexism tarnished the U.S. labor movement, but only the conservative unions like the AFL. The socialist labor unions, like IWW and CIO, were largely inclusive and diverse.

So while what she said was mostly true, what she left out made the full picture look entirely different. That full picture leads to an ideology resembling MLK's vision, that included socialism, opposing imperialism, and uniting the working poor of all races.
Abrams leaves off those important facts because modern Identity Politics is fundamentally different from the Civil Rights Movement, due to its limited vision and its tendency to punch down.

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The Liberal Moonbat's picture

It's the inverse of civil rights: Nationalism.

Civil rights is about Chaos: Breaking rules and restraints, expanding possibilities, recognizing the worth and dignity of the individual, and empowering those who are different.
Nationalism is about Order: Establishing exclusive truth, constricting possibilities, proactively telling people who and what they are, and erasing everyone and everything whose existence contradicts aforementioned exclusive truth.

Chaos was never the enemy; fear of Chaos is - and "Order" really just means oblivion.

I really do feel like the nameless woman from of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who finally reached the grand cosmic answer that the planet Earth had originally been built as a cyclopean supercomputer to generate, only for it to be disintegrated by tiny-minded galactic bureaucrats to make way for the interstellar equivalent of routine urban sprawl.

Speaking of which, what I'd really like to know is: How the hell did all this leak into arts and entertainment in ways it never, ever had before???

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In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is declared insane when he speaks of colors.

To paraphrase Jodie Foster: Human is not something to aspire to, it's something to get away from.

detroitmechworks's picture

@The Liberal Moonbat She showed up again in So long and thanks for all the fish.

Then Adams killed her off... and then brought her back when Dent dies in the end...

IMHO Adams was severely depressed and you can see it all through his work.

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

thanatokephaloides's picture

Your well-crafted (as always) article can be succinctly stated by the old saying:

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

And modern American politicians who actually stand for anything are few and far between, with those who stand for us 99%ers far fewer still.

All the rest willingly fall for anything the 0.01% uberfilthy rich pay them to do.

Diablo Bomb

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"US govt/military = bad. Russian govt/military = bad. Any politician wanting power = bad. Anyone wielding power = bad." --Shahryar

"All power corrupts absolutely!" -- thanatokephaloides

To me this explains something that's puzzled me. Mainly how after years of voting and supporting candidates, and occasionally winning, things got worse.

While democrats say they're for every one, they focus on being the anti racist, the anti misogynist, the anti homophobe. The arenas become narrow and struggles so large nothing will get done. The focus is on being "not them" as a substitute for actually doing anything. They police language to affirm their vigilance and aid discovery of possible antis. Meanwhile police kill kids, trans get murdered, Sheryl Sandberg leans in and nothing changes.

It's all about power, and keeping it, and both parties derive their power from essentially the same source by the same means. When not aiding each other in hammering wedge issues, the bulk of their time is spent in consolidating power in the 1% and their sources of wealth. All of this happens because everybody knows center is best, it's common knowledge, it's obvious. It's a manufactured mythology that's losing its power of illusion. Even if it's "mostly true".

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It's all about power, and keeping it, and both parties derive their power from essentially the same source by the same means.

Bingo! Nothing can threaten the power structure.
Modern IP is about the equivalent of affirmative action and busing without the vision of a better world. It has all the feel of policing and censorship, without an end goal.
It's about things like this.
It's also about things like this.

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@gjohnsit Civil Rights was about human rights.

Why was it so clear when it was a movement?

We saw laws passed, some change and were lulled into thinking this fixed the wrongs. It took social media and video phones and an outlet to post the files to, for it to be shown most of what was accomplished was brutally washed away. Reluctantly, the establishment media was forced to follow the peoples media when they couldn't avoid it..or the police suppress it. This should have been a new movement, but we're just howling about what the politicians want us to howl about, including what key to howl it in.

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@gjohnsit disheartening about the CIA. These organizations don't want change, they want consistency. It was a woman in the FBI that brought the 811 hijackers to their offices attention, and was shut down. It was a woman accountant that told Ken Lay that most of what Enron was doing was illegal. You won't make it in the CIA being that kind of woman (or man).

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The Aspie Corner's picture

And the pigs who own it would never allow even that.

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Modern education is little more than toeing the line for the capitalist pigs.

Guerrilla Liberalism won't liberate the US or the world from the iron fist of capital.

Pluto's Republic's picture

...because the topic finally confronts the third rail that has blown unity apart in the US. All movements should begin here.

Your comments throughout are very insightful. as well. Not the same points I would have made; I think my spectrum of issues and grievances is more concentrated than yours. You open many windows for a wider view.

I did read Hamid's essay recently, and the idea that we do not have enough ideology in our characters really resonated with me. Republicans were notorious for being lost without their talking points to tell them how they feel about issues. Daily, they would get them! This is now the case for Democrats, as well. We see them stumble and make misstatements they later walk-back, especially when talking about the Party's "platform" or about their positions on emerging issues. This blindness comes from the lack of a cohesive vision from which they can extrapolate the "right" answers. Without a mindful ideology at one's center, critical thinking cannot be tapped.

Ideology was jettisoned in order to commodify the opinions and positions that politicians might (suddenly) hold after consulting with their Donors and future clients. Their opinions and legislative promises do not flow from an ideological vision for society. Instead, their opinions flow in the river of capitalism and personal profits. Legislators now memorize convoluted narratives to explain themselves on various issues. There's no obvious logic at play.

Albert Einstein explained this very pitfall more than fifty years ago in his article, "Why Socialism."

Identity Politics, then, became the crutch for those with a compromised or unformed ideology. It's a deceptively shallow pool of shiny things that takes the place of a deep and profound vision for a civilization that works for everyone. Millennia of Western Philosophy has been replaced by a time-saving lapel sticker that says, "HELLO! My Identity is ____________".

A reviewer that you link to offers this timely observation on the role that ideology plays in leadership; the kind of leadership that naturally unites the People:

Hamid argues (and one may not entirely agree with him on this) that the more leftward members of the Democratic leadership, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — who do have a guiding ideology — have concentrated more on such issues as inequality than on dislike of President Trump.

Hamid's final argument, however, is compelling and counterintuitive: Ideology has a bad name, but Hamid says that we need more politicians who are "committed to a set of ideas" because these are the men and women who lead rather than merely and constantly having to rally their base.

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Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
— Voltaire

gulfgal98's picture

This is one of your best essays of late. It gets to the very core of what is so dangerously wrong with American politics and to an extent, American culture.

I did not watch the State of the Union address, but I read that at one point, members of Congress were chanting "USA, USA, USA" like they were at a freaking football game! The transcript of the speech below shows exactly what Congress was chanting for...our military might. Sigh.

No nuances about our foreign policy and the destruction it is having worldwide as well as bankrupting this country from within. No one in Congress is even willing to talk about it, except for Tulsi Gabbard.

After 24 months of rapid progress, our economy is the envy of the world. Our military is the most powerful on Earth, by far, and America


America is again winning each and every day.


Members of Congress, the state of our union is strong.


(crowd chanting USA)

We and our elected representatives are willingly allowing ourselves to be divided by identity politics. The those divisions are becoming more numerous resulting in more but smaller groups battling one another for the few scraps of attention while the oligarchs continue to rob us ALL of our livelihoods and futures.

I often cite here my four plus years with the small local Peace vigil in western NC. It was very eye opening to see both how divided we are and how much commonality we share if we are patient enough to search for it. This is why I abhor pigeon holing people by race, economic status, gender, social class and political identity. When we ignore the differences that have been used to divide us, most Americans have far more in common than we have differences. The oligarchs have emphasized our differences in order to keep us divided, but every one of us wants a fair shake from the system, the ability to feed their family, a living wage, health care and education without being bankrupted, clean air and water, a safe place to live, and the ability to provide a good future for their children and loved ones.

When you identify and are emotionally invested with a political party, any criticism of that party or success by the other side becomes a personal attack upon your being. Finding common ground becomes very difficult.

To a large extent, this inflexible partisanship bleeds over into what we think of as Identity Politics. Now Identity Politics can be good. For instance, the Civil Rights movements and the first two waves of feminism did a lot of good. What makes modern IP different is that it is more against people than for people, and the reason for this is prejudice, and prejudice grows only in ignorance.

The other place is a prime example of identity politics in all of its forms. Identity politics is used as a cudgel to beat any informed dissent out of those who dare question it. I hope we will never fall into that trap. We can learn more from listening to dissent than we will from echoes.

Thank you for this great essay.

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Do I hear the sound of guillotines being constructed?

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." ~ President John F. Kennedy

Bollox Ref's picture

And people wonder why nothing substantive/useful ever gets done.

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from a reasonably stable genius.

@Bollox Ref but I left it off because the essay was getting long

Writing in Slate, Mischa Haider argues that men who wish to be distinguished from rapists and abusers must do more than — focus, now—not be rapists and abusers. She makes the obvious connection to race:

The complicity of all white people in racial oppression stems from the systemic nature of white supremacy, in that it is collective and engineered into social machinery; this counters the long-held misconception that racism operates only at the individual level, in a conscious and intentional manner. This is the same framework we must apply to the gendered hierarchy — it is not enough for men to simply not abuse women just as it is not enough for white people not to be avowedly racist.

Haider’s essay is mostly a nonsensical mishmash of words about words written in a risibly stilted pseudo-academic style, but the fundamental moral illiteracy is there: “the complicity of all white people in racial oppression.” The category of “all white people” is vast, and its members include Anne Frank, Jesus, medieval Europeans who never saw a non-white person and may not even have known that they existed, babies born in Lenox Hill Hospital this morning, etc. The cant and jargon are necessary to disguise the fundamental crudity of the idea: If you are one of Those People, then you are guilty of the sins of Those People, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what sort of life you have lived. You must be forgiven not for your own sins but for those of others, and the price of forgiveness here — as it always is — is joining the cult, prostrating yourself to its idols, adopting its ridiculous language, etc., and, above all, investing the cult with power.

Some people surely will respond that way, though they are bound for disappointment: You are never woke enough.

I think "woke" is an offensive term.
It implies that someone knows "the truth" about other people, without bothering to actually know other people.

Conservatives don't get a pass either.
They are the original snowflakes, with their imaginary War on Christianity and their refusal to acknowledge our evil GWOT.

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detroitmechworks's picture

@gjohnsit @gjohnsit Admitting to racist/sexist thoughts in the past is now a thought crime. Even if you are attempting to make amends.

The SJW cult will not be happy until they are allowed to execute anyone they feel is not properly deferential. They already assassinate people financially, and death threats are common. Funny how that whole Stochastic Terrorism thing only ever counts when its an "oppressor" they wanna take down, when the MSM message of lynch the wrongdoer is always everywhere.

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

Roy Blakeley's picture

@gjohnsit of the church doctrine of original sin, except that everyone is born a sinner whereas one's degree of social original sin seems to depend on race and gender. Also with the church there is the prospect of salvation, whereas, I am not sure a white guy can ever be saved socially.

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@Roy Blakeley
That's what I thought too.
Anytime you say "everyone in race X is Y" you have committed to a racial stereotype.
That is always and without exception 1) racism, and 2) wrong.
But liberal IP is a cult, and thus they honestly think they are exempt from this logical conclusion.
It never occurred to me before to reply back to them, "So this includes newborn babies then, right? You are saying that those newborn babies are racists."

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detroitmechworks's picture

@gjohnsit http://time.com/67092/baby-racists-survival-strategy/

Yes, academia has decided that children less than a minute old are racists.

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

detroitmechworks's picture

Doesn't need an external Identity.

Took me a long time to figure it out. When I did... Even breaking a bone becomes a part of that. It's not living if you don't live.

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

Lookout's picture

...and sadly it seems most citizens are captured by the CIA talking points which is the focus of the MSM. When all people hear and read is propaganda we end up with a misinformed population.

Even in counties with several parties, the people seem captured and brainwashed. Despite the yellow vest movement in France, we see France supporting the Venezuelan coup. Italy is standing up against them. They remember France's bombing of Libya, and the subsequent refugee migration which has fallen to Italy.

We can't even have an honest conversation about Socialism and Capitalism in America because of years and years of pushing a false narrative. Consider the discussion of climate collapse on the fossil fuel owned corporate media. Most citizens do not realize how quickly we are speeding toward extinction. All these substantive ideas are avoided.

When our focus is on personalities and identity instead of ideas it is a distraction. That's why we don't hear a constant litany for:
medicare for all
ending the wars
living wage and fulfilling jobs
sustainable living and how to live with less
carbon free energy and carbon sequestration
...and on and on

So I guess my point is that media is as important to reform as the political system. We have to discuss ideas in order to develop them. I like RA's comment last week...Propaganda - learn to recognize it.

It is a world of "manufactured consent" (9 min)

Thanks for the essay and all your good work here on the site, gjohn.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

OzoneTom's picture


"They remember France's bombing of Libya, and the subsequent refugee migration which has fallen to Italy."

So the people in Italy are well ahead of the mass of Americans on recognizing that refugees are coming from countries that have been turned into hellholes.

In most cases this has been perpetrated by the United States. From oppressive authoritarian regimes in our own backyard to failed states in the ME.

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Roy Blakeley's picture

It is one of the most important, but obscured events in colonial history. In primary and secondary education and in the media, US history has been reduced to an often misleading cartoon. Southern colonial history is basically reduced to mentions of Jamestown, slaves, and a half-assed version of the American revolution.

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snoopydawg's picture

By golly I think you nailed it. Well done. I agree that this is one of your best.

People have gotten emotionally invested in their chosen, immensely corrupt political party, which is probably the most stupid thing you could possibly do. You may as well be emotionally invested in a corporate brand.

Pelosi is the corporate brand and no matter what she does or doesn't do the centrists will stick with her and over look her 'flaws.'

Nancy Pelosi Keeps Testing The Left — And The Left Keeps Taking It

In just over a month as speaker, Nancy Pelosi has deftly navigated Democrats through the shutdown and solidified her position atop the House Democratic Caucus. But at what point does the reluctance of progressives to hit back at Pelosi’s mounting slights start looking less like sophistication and more like an indication that “the resurgent left” is soft?

When The Intercept revealed this week that Pelosi’s top health care staffer met with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and criticized Medicare for All, progressives generally took a pass on attacking Pelosi.

And even though the sponsor of the Medicare for All bill, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said she was “not happy, obviously,” she praised Pelosi’s support for hearings on the legislation.

When Pelosi dismissively called the Green New Deal “the green dream or whatever they call it” — “nobody knows what it is,” Pelosi added — Ocasio-Cortez once again avoided criticizing Pelosi.

“I think it is a dream,” Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday.

But Pelosi owes much of her power to progressives. They never made an issue out of the California Democrat’s history of taking corporate PAC donations, and Pelosi quickly locked up their support during the speaker’s race, even though high-profile Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez had initially wavered on Pelosi. With the more liberal wing behind her, Pelosi was able to define her opposition as a group of white, moderate men, which in turn put pressure on those Democrats to get behind her.

Of course there are many more examples where Nancy has shown that she is going block any 'progressive' legislation, but people will stand behind her no matter what. Let's not forget that she stood for hours in 4" heels to filibuster a bill on the floor, but didn't take any other options to block it from passing.

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It is not until the tide goes out that you discover who has been swimming naked.