I believe the political currents in America are more unpredictable today than at any time in modern history. We are experiencing a political re-orientation, a redefining and moving toward a new political center of gravity. This movement is bigger than both parties. The need to solve problems and meet challenges is overtaking the ideological debates of the last three decades—as it should. ~Chuck Hagel
There are three things that bother me about Chuck Hagel’s statement. First, he treats the debates of the “last three decades” as “ideological,” which would suggest to me that he thinks they have no bearing on the real world and properly should have nothing to do with government. This seems to me to be rather similar to the treatment some journalists and most secular people give to the intersection of religion and politics: religion is this thing that is unconnected to “real life” that intrudes and creates a number of difficulties for those trying to “solve problems” or “resolve conflicts” or whatever it is that these people believe political work should achieve. For them, religion is an ideology and religion is one of the main problems to be managed in any given society.
We already know that Chuck Hagel has a low opinion of religion’s role in history, so it bears asking whether he thinks religious conservatives have had a net negative impact on American politics over the last three decades (why only three? why not six or four?)? What “ideological debates” is he referring to, and what pragmatic policymaking does he think should have replaced them?
The second thing about the statement that bothers me is that it implies that no one in the last thirty years either tried or succeeded in solving any of the problems identified by voters as matters of concern, as if we have been living in a world of fantasy for 30 years from which Hagel (and Unity08?) will save us. It as if anti-tax activists were not trying to solve the problem of excessive government and anemic economic activity. Were/are some anti-tax people actually ideological about their commitment to lower taxes? Yes. Does that mean that a fight over the level of taxation is simply an “ideological debate”? Obviously not. The same might be said about any number of other policy debates over the last thirty years.
The third thing that bothers me is this use of the word “ideological.” For pragmatists, as Hagel likes to portray himself as being, any strongly held belief, no matter its nature or form, is ideological, while ideology is really properly defined by its abstract quality and its tendency to reduce complex realities to extremely simple yes/no questions. This is the flashcard approach to political thought, and it has unfortunately been greatly encouraged by the rise of televised media and the constraints television will always put on any exchange. (In theory, given their greater space, online publications and blogs should produce a higher level of discourse than the old ha yah na approach, but it is still quite rare to find.)
Ideology is the stuff of party programs and bullet-point lists (Russell Kirk’s lack of a “programmatic” list of “actionable” items, which so annoyed Frank Meyer, was typical of the man who spoke of conservatism as anti-ideology); it is the lifeblood of the revolutionary and the activist. Not everyone who argues from definition and invokes high principle is engaged in ideological debate, but to listen to Hagel you would think that the last thirty years has seen nothing but this sort of “ideological debate.” It has certainly seen its fair share of ideology, but another crucial quality of ideology is the ideologues’ complete lack of interest in debate. Conformity and submission are the goals of ideology, not persuasion, truth or understanding. A debate implies at least some minimal engagement with the opposition and an exchange of views. Ideologues can really only manage to recite slogans (sometimes these are slogans dressed up in very elaborate phrases) and issue denunciations.