Why politics can’t function without ideology

A sensible centrist has many loves. Civility — wonderful! Reason — the best! The West Wing — what a show!

Their list of peeves is equally extensive, but there’s one word that tops the list — one dirty word that sends a shiver down their spine.*

Ideology.

Ask a centrist to explain their world view, and after an extended tribute to the efficacy of markets, they’ll inevitably start to lecture you about the pitfalls of political ideology. They’ll tell you that what they really crave is a politics free from ideology — a technocratic utopia where hysterical ideologues are pushed to the fringes, and every decision is made purely on the basis of facts and evidence.

“Ideology is a distraction”, they’ll pontificate. “Let’s listen to the experts! Can’t we just go where the facts lead?”

The answer, of course, is a resounding no, because facts alone lead nowhere. Facts themselves give no impetus, because they describe the world as it is, not as we want it to become.

Consider a poverty statistic. We know that 2.9 million Australians live in poverty, but unless that fact is paired with an understanding that it’s the responsibility of the state to prevent poverty (and if you think this understanding is in anyway uncontroversial, do a Google deep dive on the history of austerity) it brings no call to action.

If philosophical jargon is more your style, I’ll put it this way — facts are descriptive, not normative. They tell us what is, not what should be. They tell us how to do something we want to do, but not why we want to do that thing in the first place.

The reason we can’t have politics without ideology is that politics, quite simply, is ideology. Politics, at its very heart, is about debating why we should and shouldn’t pursue certain outcomes.

And that’s all ideology is. Despite its pejorative association with history’s infamous -isms, ideology is just a preference for how society ought to function; a set of principles we use to judge what is fair or unfair, just or unjust. Facts are the what and the how, ideology is the why.

Politicians, even the ones who claim to be unideological, have to use ideology, because every policy contains a value judgement — a position on what outcomes we believe are right, and what outcomes we believe are wrong. Whether we like it or not, every political decision is an ideological one, reflecting the values of the person or party who made it.

An “unideological” politician is — like a professional chef who claims not to care how their food tastes, or a prosecutor that couldn’t be fussed what the jury decides — either lying to you, or incompetent.

There is, I suppose, a third possibility. Perhaps centrists misspeak when they say that politics should be devoid of ideology, and what they really want is a politics underpinned by one common ideology — a unifying, universal set of principles that all politicians hold as true.

Were such an ideology to exist, politics could become a domain of pure facts, contracted out to technocratic bureaucrats (or, no less, bureaucratic technocrats) who can decide the best way to pursue these shared goals.

But you don’t have to be an expert in anything to know that this one true ideology doesn’t exist, and has never existed. We all have different views on what is right and wrong, and the history of democracy is a history of ideological conflict; pacifists vs imperialists, libertarians vs authoritarians, capitalists vs socialists, nationalists vs globalists, conservatives vs people with souls.

This is no historical accident, nor is it something we can ever hope to overcome. Pluralism is an explicit design feature of democracy, and as long as our political institutions are shared between tens of millions of people, all from unique cultural backgrounds, it is one that can’t be done away with.

People, quite simply, are going to disagree, and it’s fanciful to suggest that politics will ever be more than a partisan scrap for ideological supremacy.

And that’s not a bad thing. If our values and principles are worth anything, they should be worth fighting for. We shouldn’t just meekly defer to ‘experts’, and we should be willing to say — this is right, this is wrong, and the minute my side takes office we’re telling every technocrat on the public payroll to keep that in mind.

Just like you wouldn’t eat in a restaurant whose chef wasn’t bothered by taste (“sweet, salty, cooked, raw — it’s all the same to me!”), you shouldn’t vote for a politician who isn’t bothered by ideology.

Because when our politicians claim to stand for nothing, then… well… who knows what’s on your plate.

*In hindsight, spine maybe wasn’t the best metaphor to apply to a centrist.

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Dan Crowley

Dan Crowley

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