In Defense of Ideologues

When did standing on principle become a bad thing?

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Rush hour traffic on Independence Ave. makes its way past the U.S. Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006, in Washington.

When did "ideology" become a dirty word in politics?

In this moment of turmoil, it is fashionable to blame all the nation's ills on a small number of "ideological extremists." These individuals are portrayed as recalcitrant – as people so wedding to their worldview, so certain of its correctness, that they will dig in their heels to get their way regardless of the consequences.

This is implicitly assumed to be a bad thing. It's seen as mucking up the political system, inhibiting compromise and leaving us with gridlock. In Sunday's Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson calls the current government shutdown a "triumph" of our increasingly ideological politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

However, it's worth considering what the alternative would be.

To have an ideology means only to possess and be guided by a coherent set of ideas about the world. To be an ideologue, then, is to operate in accordance with your deeply held beliefs. In another time, we called that acting with conviction. Samuelson himself describes ideologues as "standing on principal" and exhibiting "moral courage." Yet he does so disdainfully, as if these are attributes best exiled from the public sphere.

In fairness, ideologues can make things messy by increasing the potential for passionate disagreements in which no easy or obvious middle ground exists. But are we sure we would prefer a politics with no room for convictions worth fighting for?

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Over and over in focus groups, I hear voters say they want lawmakers who will do the right thing, even when it hurts their chances of getting re-elected. Americans are hungry for leadership that puts principal ahead of partisanship. They're asking for a government of ideologues.

As Samuelson reminds us, "the foot soldiers of ideological causes don't usually enlist for tangible benefits for themselves but for a sense that they're making the world a better place." Yes, this makes them less inclined to compromise. Call me crazy, but I'd rather that than the other way around.

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