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Ideology vs. Principle

Scott Galupo reviews Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches for the July issue of TAC:

Now, about this business of ideology: an adherent of an ideology, Goldberg writes, isn’t someone who is “dogmatically immune to facts.” For Goldberg, ideologies are like that unprintable cliché about opinions. Everyone has one. He writes: “An ideology, at the most fundamental level, is simply a checklist of ideas you have about the world. Having an ideology doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed, it means you’ve come to conclusions about how the world works at some basic level.”

To be sure, some ideologies—fascism, to name one—can be very bad. But ideology is not bad in and of itself. Indeed, ideology is an essential feature in the life of the mind as well as a practical necessity, he argues: “whatever word you choose, humans need limiting principles, bright lines, ideals, dogma. Bundle them together and you’ve got a field guide to life that helps you sift your way through new facts and data.”

Well, it matters which word you choose, because ideals, dogma, and principles are words that refer to things that are significantly different from ideology. If these words all seem to mean the same thing to some people today, that is evidence of their thoroughly confused thinking. An ideal is a standard of conduct or virtue to which one aspires. Dogma is a religious teaching that it invested with special authority because it is believed to represent an eternal and unchanging truth. Principles are firm moral and/or political commitments that one has made and relies on to guide one’s practical judgment and actions. Ideology may borrow elements from each of these, but it typically twists the meaning of each and perverts it.

Ideology is above all intended for the justification and use of power over and against other people. Ideologues can and do adapt their ideologies to suit changing political circumstances, but they are also equally willing to employ coercion and force to conform existing realities to their vision of how the world should be. “We have always been at war with Eastasia” is a familiar extreme form of an ideological claim. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” is another. One important difference between ideology and political principle is that ideology is generally used to excuse and permit vicious behavior against others for the sake of some supposedly “greater” purpose, and political principle typically creates obstacles to committing vicious acts. For ideologues, the ends usually justify the means. In the end, the most important difference between the two is that ideology is used to deny the dignity and humanity of other people because they happen to fall on the wrong side of the “ideological struggle” of the moment. One might be inclined towards ideological thinking in politics and also hold certain “limiting principles,” but the two are going to be in conflict and the latter will be eroded by the former over time.

P.S. I should add that Goldberg’s working definition of ideology (“a field guide to life that helps you sift your way through new facts and data”) is what Burke referred to as prejudice, which Burke set up in opposition to the speculations of revolutionary thinkers. Ideology doesn’t serve the function that Goldberg claims it does.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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