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Lifelong Learning Lecture: Ideology as the Factor in American Politics

A Lifelong Learning Lecture by John M. Miller
Hilton Head Island, SC – October 12, 2012


The United States of America is a nation that was born in ideological struggles.  Political ideology has shaped the life of our nation from its earliest years, well before the American Revolution.  Religious ideology is what impelled many of the colonists to leave England and settle in various parts of the American Colonies where “their kind of people” would choose to live.  Economic ideology further divided the colonies, and, after the Revolution, the nation.  There was a strong ideological affirmation of slavery in the South, and an ideological aversion to the “peculiar institution” in the North.  Cities were ideologically devoted to manufacturing, while rural areas and especially the frontier were committed to agriculture as the primary factor in the American economy.  Ideology is as American as apple pie. 


The word “ideology” came into linguistic vogue not long after the American Revolution.  It derives from two Greek roots, meaning “idea” and “the study of.”  The dictionary states that its preferred pronunciation is “eye-dee-ol-ogy,” but it may also be pronounced “id-ee-ol-ogy.”  I prefer to pronounce it the second way, and here is why: Ideology has long since ceased to be the study of ideas.  Now it means a very limited collection of ideas which alone may acceptably be studied.  Ideology has ceased to be a way of thinking about political or economic or religious concepts; now it is claimed to be the way to perceive concepts, the only way, the single suitable method for understanding central concepts.


American Sphinx is Joseph Ellis’s biography of Thomas Jefferson.  In it he refers to some correspondence about ideology between Jefferson and John Adams.  As you know, the two men were close friends and associates when the Declaration of Independence was being written.  They became bitter rivals when Adams was President, and later when Jefferson defeated Adams for the Presidency in 1800.  Later they became friends again in old age, although mainly at a long distance (Monticello to Massachusetts).  It is one of the happiest of happenstances of world history that these two revolutionary geniuses and cantankerous codgers both had the historic presence of mind to die precisely on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, July 4, 1826, just a few hours apart, although neither knew at the time that the other had quietly and unceremoniously shuffled off this mortal coil.


Jefferson first used the word ideology in 1816 when writing to Adams about a French philosopher.  Adams humorously wrote back, “What does it mean?” he asked.  “I was delighted with it, upon the Common Principle of delight in every Thing We cannot understand.  Does it mean Idiotism?  The Science of Non compos Menticism?  The Science of Lunacy?”


Adams intended only to make jokes about ideology, however, but he also insisted that Jefferson’s political thinking was “much indebted to the invention of the word IDEOLOGY” (American Sphinx, p. 246).  John Adams thought Thomas Jefferson was far too devoted to ideas and ideals, and far too little committed to practicalities.  Their differences on this matter were the differences of an idealist and a realist.  Much political discourse over the centuries has been a debate about these two opposing concepts.


In this brief glimpse into the minds of two of America’s greatest political giants we see how ideology can and does divide people of presumably good will.  For ideologues, principle is everything, and practicality be damned.  For pragmatists, doing the right thing is what matters, rather than the ideals by which these things are done.  It is, as Yeats said in his poem, that “the center cannot hold.”  The people committed to their ideas cluster at the edges of the political spectrum, and few are willing to compromise with the others in the middle, where pragmatically things get done.  This philosophical debate largely explains why the United States Congress has fallen into such widespread division.  Neither side will budge an inch on its ideology, and so very little happens.  The current Congress is one of the most noteworthy for getting nothing done; no Congress in our lifetime can come close to their record for political ineptitude.


What are some examples of political ideology?  Nearly ten times the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted bills to rescind the Affordable Health Care Act, otherwise labeled Obamacare, and every time the Democratic-controlled Senate has refused to pass these bills.  No annual US budget has been adopted for the past three years, because neither house of Congress is willing to work with the other to do what political reality clearly demands.  That is ideology hard at work in the halls of Congress, and on both sides of the aisle. 


In a recent Gallup poll, citizens were asked to state how their political views have changed in recent years.  Among conservatives, 58% said they have become more conservative, 36% said they are unchanged, and 5% said they have become more liberal.  Among moderates, 33% have become more conservative, 48% have not changed, and 18% have become more liberal.  Among liberals, 14% are more conservative, 43% are unchanged, and 42% are more liberal.  What this suggests is that there is a definite ideological shift toward conservatism in the country, which should be evident to everyone who is remotely alive and is even remotely aware of what is going on in our country.  But what is striking about these statistics is that conservatives are becoming more ideologically conservative, liberals are becoming more ideologically liberal, although only slightly, and moderates are also becoming more conservative.  In all of that, Mr. Gallup sounds accurate.


Americans have been ideologically committed to executing criminals for many years, although support for capital punishment is waning a little, despite our conservative swing.  Only twenty nations still engage in capital punishment.  Excluding China and Iran, who lead the world by a large percentage in killing their own citizens but who do not release their figures, in 2011 the US ranked third in executions behind Saudi Arabia (82) and Iraq (68).  We executed 43 of our fellow citizens.  None of the other G-8 countries (the wealthy ones) executed anybody.  Only an ideological nation could be lumped together with the likes of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq in any category.  As for citizens killing other citizens with firearms, we lead the entire family of nations.  The National Rifle Association, one might observe, tends to be a tad ideological.


Had John McCain been elected President in 2008, I predict that the Democratic Party would have nominated an ideological left-wing Democrat, someone like Rep. Barney Franks of Massachusetts or California Governor Jerry Brown in one of his previous manifestations.  They would not re-nominate Barack Obama, assuming he would not ideologically pass muster.


A couple of years ago Robert Bennett, as conservative a Republican Senator as existed in the US Senate, was defeated in a Utah primary by an even more conservative Tea Party-backed candidate.  It was the Tea Party which engineered Sen. Bennett’s defeat.  A few months ago Richard Lugar, the long-time Republican Senator from Indiana, was also defeated in his state’s Republican primary.  His opponent, Richard Mourdock, also a Tea Party favorite, said of Mr. Lugar’s willingness occasionally to work with Democrats, “It’s time for confrontation, not collaboration.”  The race between the two candidates wasn’t even close.  The Tea Party, plus Super PACs like Freedom Works and the Club for Growth, outspent Sen. Lugar by many millions of dollars.  Dick Lugar is one of the finest Senators we have had over the past thirty years, and now he is gone.  Ideology triumphed again.


Both political parties have become much more ideological than they were in the Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan years, or conversely, in the Truman, Johnson, or Clinton years.  The GOP has taken a very marked lurch toward ideology since the election of George W. Bush in 2000.  This is seen in a few minor examples by otherwise sensible people who still insist that Barack Obama was not born in the USA and that he is a Muslim.  Anyone who truly believes that is by definition ideological.  It is seen in those Republicans and others who declare that far more banks and corporations should have been allowed to fail in the Great Recession of 2009 and following.  In such thinking, economic ideology trumps practicality by a huge margin.  For purity’s sake, ideology would welcome another Great Depression rather than merely a major recession.


Republican ideology flourished in the Republican presidential primaries this past winter and spring.  In past decades candidates like Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum would have garnered few primary votes, but the GOP wanted somebody, anybody, who could ignite the party to defeat Mitt Romney.  In poll after poll of Republican voters during the primary season, most respondents said that Mr. Romney was most likely to defeat Mr. Obama, but they voted for Santorum, Gingrich, or Paul anyway.  By a two-to-one margin, these people said defeating President Obama was their No. 1 priority, but they still voted for anyone but Gov. Romney.  That indicates ideological purity.


However, this is by no means the first time Republicans have been at best lukewarm about a candidate who was perceived to be too moderate or liberal.  In 1952, many in the GOP didn’t really like Ike, despite the banners and lapel pins which insisted they did.  At the Republican convention that year, Douglas MacArthur said the Democratic Party – quote - “has become captive to the schemers and planners who have infiltrated its ranks of leadership to set the national course unerringly toward the socialist regimentation of a totalitarian state.”  Sen. Joseph McCarthy, that political mystery from Wisconsin, said the Truman Administration “had built up Russia while tearing down the strength of America.”  Sen. William Jenner of Indiana told the convention that “a secret invisible government” was leading the USA to its demise.  Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to you in 2012?  Ideology gets recycled as often as ideologues think it is a political necessity.


In 1959, before he ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency, Richard Nixon was asked if he thought an ideological realignment such as we are currently seeing would be good for the country.  He said, “I think it would be a great tragedy…if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line.”  He added, “I think one of the attributes of our political system has been that we have avoided generally violent swings in Administrations from one extreme to the other.”


Those are very interesting comments from a man whom many today consider to be an ultra-conservative.  But that judgment is made only compared to what is going on in our nation today.  Both parties consider the other party to be irrational ideologues determined to crush the opposition of the opponents.  As Mr. Shakespeare said so eloquently in Romeo and Juliet, “A plague on both your houses.”     


The Number One illustration of conservative ideology is the astounding showing Rick Santorum made in the Republican presidential primaries.  On the campaign trail, Mr. Santorum openly rejected John Kennedy’s insistence on a strict separation of church and state.  He remonstrated against “the dangers of contraceptives,” and he attacked what he called President Obama’s “phony theology.”  He even had the temerity to blame the Roman Catholic pedophile abuse scandals on liberal culture.  “When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected,” he said.


Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, polls showed that Sen. Santorum lost the Catholic vote in every primary he entered.  So where did his millions of votes come from?  From extremely ideological conservatives, that’s where.  He consistently spoke out against contraception and abortion in any circumstances, and for passing a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  He also strongly supported reinstating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the military.


In the primaries, Mitt Romney finally received enough delegate votes to win the Republican Presidential nomination, but it remains to be seen whether he will win the election.  At the moment it certainly looks good for him.  But will the ideologues reluctantly pull the lever for him, especially since he has swung somewhat to the center, or will they sit out this election?  Which will triumph on November 6: political purity or political practicality?  I do not believe Mr. Romney is fundamentally ideological.  If I am correct in that assumption, the misperception may damage his chances with Republican ideologues, and further damage him because of the ferocity of Democratic ideologues.


An equally telling illustration of ideology is seen in the most conservative strains of both political parties.  For the Republicans, that is the Tea Party.  It was they who have supported Sarah Palin so strongly, and it is they who unabashedly decry the “compassionate conservatism” which George W. Bush so strongly promoted.  There is an unmistakable meanness of spirit in many of the positions taken by the Tea Party.  Then, on the other hand, there are the Blue Dog Democrats, the small group of federal legislators who want to drag the Democratic Party hard to the right, kicking and screaming.  For example, West Virginia has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.  But late last year a Gallup poll showed the President’s approval rating at just 33%.  In a state where coal is king and the EPA is the enemy, ideology wins over practicality.  Two of North Carolina’s Democratic Congressmen have refused to support the President in his bid for re-election. 


If far-right ideologues were to take control of the Republican Party, it could not win another federal election for the foreseeable future, because traditional Republicans would not support them.  And if the Blue Dog Democrats should somehow take over the Democratic Party, it also would be unelectable for years to come, because traditional Democrats would not support them.  We may deduce from this that ideologues are inimical to the political health of this nation, but neither party has the courage to tell them either to silence themselves or to leave the party altogether.  And so we continue with what might be called Ideologically Incipient Insanity.


In state legislatures, there have been many successful efforts by ideological gun enthusiasts to enact “Stand Your Ground” laws, such as the one presumably employed to kill Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Now the National Rifle Association, which is nothing if not excessively ideological, has convinced the US House of Representatives to pass a National Right to Carry Act, which would force gun-control states like California and New York to allow gun-toters from gun-toting states to carry their concealed weapons in non-gun-toting states.  The bill passed 274-154.  Democrats have given up trying to pass gun-control measures, because they fear they might lose votes, which probably would happen.  Similar caving-in on same-sex marriage referendums in many states has caused Democrats and Republican centrists to withdraw from the field of battle, in order to remain on the field, they hope.  Ideology is killing rational American political debate.


Nowhere is Ideologically Incipient Insanity more in evidence than in the Congress of the United States.  For most of our history, there have been two major parties in Congress.  Their names and descriptions have changed some through more than two centuries, but generally there have been just two parties.  Very unfortunately, now there are four.  They are the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, the Tax-and-Spend wing of the Democratic Party (more for spending than for taxing), the Republican wing of the Republican Party, and the ideological right wing of the Republican Party.  Sadly, at the current time there is little evidence of strong traditional wings of either the Democratic or Republican Parties.  Instead, the headlines go mainly to the extremist ideologues of both parties.


Because centrists of both parties have not been able to convince the extremists of both parties to pass a reasonable federal budget, unless something is done after Nov. 6, 2012 and before Jan. 1, 2013, Congress might cause us all to collapse into a minor fiscal Armageddon as of the first day of the new year.  The Republican House passes a proposed budget bill, and the Democratic Senate scuttles it.  Unless they summon up some sadly absent common sense, there will be enormous and painful cuts in both social programs and defense, and nobody will be happy.  The fact is this: Without a bipartisan agreement, $110 billion shall automatically be stricken from the 2013 federal budget.  IF it happens, it will happen because ideology shall triumph over reason, and the “purity” of calamity will trump the placidity of compromise.  


Paul Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and now he is also the Republican nominee for Vice-President.  Whenever anyone is nominated by either party for national office, he or she is always portrayed as a centrist, whether or not the portrait is accurate.  However, no one has attempted to depict Paul Ryan as a centrist except Paul Ryan.  A centrist he is not.


The budget Paul Ryan proposed (which budget has not passed, and shall not pass until 2013, if ever) would, by 2050, reduce federal spending to its lowest point since 1951 as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product.  It would intentionally gut many social programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants, and the like.  But, in the best ideological fashion, it would keep defense spending at its current relative level for decades to come.  The congressional Budget Office, a purportedly nonpartisan organization, estimates that by 2050 the Ryan plan would mean government discretionary spending, including defense, would represent just 3.75% of the total budget.  And since defense spending has gone up an average of 3% per year since George Washington wore short pants, if George ever did wear short pants, the true figure for discretionary spending would be .75%, or in other words, 3/4ths of 1%.  That means less than 1% for all social programs.  Cut them to the bone, but keep the powder – and the F-35s and nukes and drones and ABMs – dry.


It may sound like I am ganging up on Paul Ryan.  I readily admit to it, because this is a lecture about ideology, and he is nothing if not an ideologue.  Of the four candidates for national office, he is the only true ideologue.  Anyone who orders everyone on his sizeable Congressional staff to read everything ever written by Ayn Rand is a certifiable ideologue, just by that decision alone.  In 2005, Mr. Ryan gave a speech to the Atlas Society, so named because of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.  In it he told the ecstatic listeners, “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”  In other words, presumably it is rugged so-called American individualism vs. so-called European socialistic collectivism, where individuals presumably are crushed by an all-powerful state.


It has been said by many that Paul Ryan is a libertarian.  Anyone who has such a positive regard for Ayn Rand cannot be anything other than a libertarian of some variety.  In an interview with Ryan Lizza for The New Yorker, Mr. Ryan complained that “Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature.  As if we’re some bizarre individualists, who are hardcore libertarians.  It’s a false dichotomy, and intellectually lazy.”   Is it truly a false dichotomy?


We were in Wisconsin, Mr. Ryan’s home state, in August.  When we were driving in Madison, we were about 250 yards from a traffic light, and a pick-up truck raced by us.  In the back were a young man and woman, speaking earnestly to one another about something.  It is illegal to put people in the back of a pickup truck, but there they were.  On the back bumper of the truck was a sticker which asked, “Who Is John Galt?”  John Galt is the Number One hero in one of Ayn Rand’s novels.  Probably those who know this are meant to identify the driver of the truck as a proud libertarian.  Well before we got to the traffic light, it turned red.  Not to be deterred, the driver sped through.  It was all a perfect symbol of libertarianism.  Had anyone on the side street been so unfortunate as to have gone swiftly into the intersection, he would have been hit hard in the driver’s side of his vehicle.  But maybe that is a false dichotomy to make that observation, and intellectually lazy.  But it did happen exactly as I have told you, and it could have been a tragic disaster.  Libertarians are fanatically interested in “Me,” and fanatically disinterested in “Us.”


An old libertarian aphorism is to declare, “That government is best which governs least.”  The purpose of government is to govern, and to do it the best way possible.  “Governing the least” may mean to govern well or poorly, depending on the circumstances at any given time.


Some libertarians may actually be anarchists by another, softer, name.  Might it be that the GOP prefers the newly adopted ideology of a moderate Mormon who is not really ideological and the extreme social conservatism of a libertarian?  Why else would Mitt Romney have agreed to place Paul Ryan on the ticket, if not to win the votes of right-wing ideologues?  Surely it is a calculated risk, carefully calculated but also an undeniable risk. But by their party decision, the GOP may have in effect bid a not-at-all-fond-adieu to however many genuine independents there are in the land.  Who among those who are truly independent (and their numbers are growing) shall cast ballots for the likes of either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?  What if the independents just sit out this election?  Then what?


The same Ryan Lizza to whom I referred last week wrote another fascinating article about Barack Obama for The New Yorker called The Obama Memos (Jan. 30, 2012)It had the curious subtitle The making of a post-partisan Presidency.  According to Mr. Lizza, who would insist he was reflecting the thoughts of Mr. Obama, Barack Obama meant --- and means --- to be a President who is above partisan politics.  If that is accurate, it may come as a surprise to nearly everyone, because for four years the President has been characterized as anything but post-partisan.  However, partisan and ideological politics are the primary political problem of the USA, says Obama, says Lizza. 


If so, the GOP has been enormously successful in portraying the President as a leftist ideological Democrat, someone who, behind the scenes, makes Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid look like conservative Democrats.  There are countless millions of Republican voters who honestly believe that the President of the United States is an out-and-out socialist.  There is nothing in the tenets of traditional socialism which indicates that, but Karl Rove and Co. have done a masterful job of convincing the already convinced of something which is intellectually utterly unconvincing.  Objectively, most students of politics would say the Republicans have gone ideologically more to the right than Democrats have gone ideologically to the left, but the Republicans have been far more adept at obscuring that reality.  Give them credit.  Barack Obama does.


“Hope and Change” sounded very good to a majority of Americans in 2008, but neither commodity is much in evidence in 2012.  That isn’t because Republicans say so; that’s because it is so.


Why?  What happened?  Why couldn’t the slim, bright, persuasive, charming, very junior Senator from Illinois pull it off?  Was it because his ideology didn’t fit?  He says he doesn’t have an ideology!  He says he is a self-identified pragmatist.  But it is hard for anyone to perceive him that way.  And in any case, a pragmatist in a sea of ideology doesn’t have much of a chance.  I referred to this in my first lecture last week.


Barack Obama seems ideological to most American voters, but that is because he is compared to a considerable majority of Republicans in Congress, who are definitely ideological. Many rational Republican legislators have bought into the kind of rightist ideology which has become a party prime requisite. If they don’t do it, they fear they won’t be re-elected.  And they’re probably correct.  But, to alter a major idea in a memorable statement by a long-ago Republican which suits my purposes here, though almost certainly not his, “I remind you that extremism in the defense of Republicanism is no virtue, and moderation in the pursuit of pragmatism is no vice.”  But the present-day Grand Old Party shall refuse to see it that way.  Barry Goldwater never said that, but in 2012 I think he might possibly agree with it.  Without question, in the 1964 presidential primary and campaign he spoke out frequently against the kinds of extreme social issues so beloved by the right-win ideologues of his day and ours.


George H.W. Bush and his other, more temperate politician son, Jeb, have chided the GOP for not making a deal with the President to raise taxes and lower spending.  Referring to compromises made with Democrats, Jeb Bush said, “Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad – they would have a hard time if  you define the Republican party (and I don’t) as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.  Back in my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time, they got a lot of stuff done with bipartisan support.”


So what shall happen?  It is impossible to diminish the importance of the election of 2012.  I don’t know what will happen, but I suspect the Republicans will take both houses of Congress.  If President Obama wins, he won’t be able to do much, because both houses of Congress shall likely thwart him at every turn.  If Mitt Romney wins, it likely will be because Mr. Obama and the Democrats will have failed to present a positive and compelling alternative to far-right ideological conservatism.  In any event, Super-PACs will have swamped the voters in an ocean of late-term attack ads.  What shall be the result of that remains to be seen.


  As many partisan pundits on both sides have said, we must raise taxes and cut spending.  But if the majority of both parties insist on ideology over practicality, our fiscal malaise can only get worse.  In the cruel clutches of ideology, there is no alternative.


Should the GOP win the Presidency and both houses of Congress, repressive government of some sort would likely ensue.  Government based on prohibitions (no abortions, or very restricted abortions, no same-sex marriage, no legal appeals in drug-related cases, no gays in the military or in the classroom, all the hot-button ultra-conservative social issues) is bound to become repressive.  You need look only at some reactionary Islamic states to verify that dangerously anti-democratic tendency.  In a few years, we could be like them.


Alternatively, should the Democrats win both the White House and the congressional houses, which is extremely unlikely, ideological leftists could attempt to force through their own radical agenda without consultation or negotiation with either centrist Democrats or any Republicans of any variety.  It wouldn’t happen, but they would try.


As long as both our parties are too ideologically oriented, we will continue to deal with political minutiae which matter almost not at all, because nothing else will happen.  Major substantive changes are a necessity, but they shall not occur given our current impasse.  Ironically, Barack Obama may be the only hope, if he truly is a post-partisan politician.  If that is who he is, he has been appallingly ineffective at convincing anyone of his true identity.  And his own party hasn’t helped to convince us of his identity either.  However, that may be because they, like their counterparts across the aisle, don’t want to be post-partisan.


I have no doubt that some of you, perhaps many of you, think what I have said in these first two lectures and shall say in the next four lectures are not what Lifelong Learning is all about.  If so, the critiques after the last class shall tell the tale.  But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever heard me yammer about anything would be surprised to hear these particular yammerings.  After the break, I look forward, perhaps, to your questions and your comments.