The power of ideology

Published 12:53 am Sunday, September 25, 2016

By Christopher White

Special to the Salisbury Post

Whether we realize it or not, we all have an ideology, and most of us have multiple beliefs that come from several different ideologies. Although ideology is one of the most important aspects of our political arena, it is a concept that is often misunderstood. A common definition of ideology is a system of values and beliefs about the various institutions and processes of society that is accepted as fact or truth by a group of people. This provides a believer with a picture of the world both as it is and as it should be, and therefore helps to make a complex world simpler and easier to understand.

Some people are far more ideological than others. An ideologue, for instance, refers to a zealous advocate of an ideology, especially anyone who is uncompromising and dogmatic in his or her worldview. If we look at presidential primaries as an example, candidates that are viewed as either far right or far left fit this definition of an ideologue most closely. Senators Ted Cruz from Texas and Bernie Sanders from Vermont were often seen as more ideological compared to their opponents.

Since the majority of Americans are clustered around the middle of the political spectrum, it follows that “centrist” or “moderate” candidates usually have the greatest electoral success, particularly in general elections when there is a need to appeal to a greater swath of the population. The most ideological candidates get their support largely from the political fringes. Donald Trump’s GOP nomination is unusual in this respect, as many of his key beliefs – protectionism, isolationism, and nativism – go against the traditional aspects of conservative ideology held by mainstream leaders like President George W. Bush or Senator John McCain.

Ideology plays a key role in most political campaigns and this is clearly evident in the United States. There is a strong argument that a political system dominated by two parties, especially in the hyper-partisan environment of recent years, leads to an “us versus them” mentality, where each side argues that they, and only they, have the right answers, so the other side must be wrong. And not only is the other side wrong, but if you vote for them the world will end.

Instead of an effective way of resolving political differences, compromise has become a dirty word to many elected officials and those that seek to bridge the ideological divide and build consensus are attacked as traitors or sell-outs to the cause. However, it is interesting to note that politicians are usually more ideological when out of power. It is much easier to criticize and demonize your opponents as a candidate when you don’t actually have to work with them. The situation changes once you are in a position of responsibility and accountability.

The elements that make up an ideology are mutually reinforcing. If you picture a circle, the positive elements the ideology supports are brought into the circle, and the negative elements it rejects are pushed out. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has labeled several Republican politicians as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, referring to those that he views as not conservative enough, or that perhaps are working too closely with Democrats and others who might oppose his particular ideology. The power of ideology, and the mutually reinforcing nature of it, is also readily apparent in the current tensions over police-community relations. The question of “whose side are you on?” is asked of believers, where in this case the influence of ideology seems to force individuals to support either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, but not both.

We see this dynamic of supporting what we like and rejecting what we don’t on a frequent basis. The extreme narrowcasting of network news and other media outlets has no doubt contributed to the ideological divide in the country. This “preaching to the choir” idea is well-known to most of us. While it might be cliché, conservatives tend to watch Fox News, liberals more MSNBC, and judging by the ratings it appears that Fox is more successful at reaching its target audience. Ideology encourages identification with like-minded others and social media is another platform where people seek out those that think like them and often avoid those that don’t.

Malala Yousefzi, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, was shot in the head by members of the Pakistani Taliban for her “crime” of speaking out for the right of girls to be educated. Only ideology can explain how adult men could commit such a heinous act against a 15-year-old girl and then argue their actions were justifiable. Sadly, this is the case in many areas of the world, where people are killing each other in the name of ideology.

Christopher White is an assistant professor of political science at Livingstone College.