The Iron Cage of Ideology

Let’s encapsulate the problems of the Democratic Party in a single tweet:

Ossoff not down for single-payer, says no chance of passage. “We need a lot less ideology around health care.” @WABENews @PBSAtlanta debate

— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) June 8, 2017

The implicit assumptions underlying this position, insofar as it can be called any sort of position at all, are worth examining, and they point directly to a fundamental difference between America’s two major parties. Republicans never behave like this; you will never see them apologizing for their ideological approach. You could waterboard Paul Ryan and he’d never admit that tax cuts could have anything but a salutary effect. Tax cuts, under any circumstances whatsoever, are always good; this is the Republican party line, and damned if they don’t stick to it. By contrast, the signature rhetorical maneuver of the modern-day Democrat is the attempt to position oneself above “ideology.” The Republicans are ideological, goes the thinking, and since we are the opposite of Republicans, we must be non-ideological. What does this non-ideology consist of? Mostly maintenance of the status quo, with occasional tweaks around the edges if it seems like the status quo is threatening to end up somewhere truly catastrophic.

This, then, is the essence of the modern Democratic governance: “technocratic” “competence” in the service of vaguely-defined ends. Any suggestion of systemic change is foreclosed on before a discussion can even get going because it’s ideologically driven Governance denuded of any specific moral content coupled with campaigns devoid of rhetorical appeal; can you think of a better electoral strategy?

It should go without saying, but does not, that this position is, of course, [extremely Zizek voice] PURE EEDEEOLOGY. It just happens to be an ideology that places a kind of procedural neutrality above substantive advances. The important thing is not that the system be made more just, but that the unjust system be administered more competently. The current generation of Democratic politicians has this ideological construct bred in the bone, with the consequence that even when they can desire substantive justice, they are at a loss to draw a connection between ends and means. Sure, it would be nice if we could get everyone health care, say Ossoff and his clones, dime a dozen, but we can’t. Thinking that you can do a thing, viewing politics as a substantive struggle between competing visions, that’s ideology; keeping the rickety ship afloat by patching on the fly only what needs to be patched, well, that’s just “common sense.”

Lionel Trilling once famously described conservatism as a “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” That description still holds, but sadly, today’s liberal imagination is little better. The reflexive position of the Democratic party leadership is that anything which threatens the utter supremacy of the donor class is such a non-starter that it can’t even be vocalized for fear of driving away the moneyed interests that keep the party a going concern (if barely). In the past, this strategy worked pretty well for suppressing dissenting leftist voices, but with the rise of the internet, it doesn’t work anymore. Anyone who is interested in actual ideas can quickly ascertain for themselves that the top of the party pyramid is a barren wasteland devoid of intellectual sustenance. You might venture into the wastes as a practical matter because there’s something there that you need (e.g. registering as a Democrat in order to vote in primaries), but the ideas and the motivation aren’t going to come from the conventional Democratic politicians.

Ossoff lost his special election race, underperforming Clinton in the district by several points. Could a more committed leftist have won? Maybe, maybe not. GA-6 is hardly the ideal testbed for left politics, comprising as it does some of the wealthiest households in the state (although, as even the neoliberal Matt Yglesias observes, there are good reasons to take class warfare to the suburbs). Still, the perennial emptiness of Ossoff-style campaigns has failed to succeed there as well, so about the worst you could say for an openly left-wing campaign is that it wouldn’t do any worse than the current strategy. Even a losing campaign might have positive knock-on effects, by motivating activists and creating potential for future changes. Instead, Democrats spent literally the most money they have ever invested into a Congressional race, staffed it up with a bunch of DNC flacks, and still lost, by more than their presidential candidate in the same district (in which, previously, they ran someone named “Rodney Stooksbury,” who I’m not entirely convinced is a real person, and still got nearly 40% of the vote despite literally not campaigning at all).

Today, Republicans embrace their ideology while Democrats run from any recognizable form thereof. Mainstream liberalism has done such a good job of embedding itself into the background assumptions of its practitioners that they no longer even recognize the ideological underpinnings of their own beliefs. They want to act as if some form of procedural neutrality coupled with technocratic competence is a trans-ideological position, failing to recognize that politics is fundamentally a conflict about power: who will have it and what they will do with it. If you are unable to offer voters a vision that says “I will use the power of the state to make your lives better,” it’s not clear why they should entrust you with that power. Republicans, for all their terrible policies, understand this on a basic, primal level, even as they fuck over their own constituents, hoping that in the ensuing general confusion they will be able to slough off responsibility for doing so. Democrats, apparently, do not.

You can go down tweeting about Donald Trump’s manners, or you can go down swinging. Maybe you go down either way, but when you swing, you have a chance to connect fist with nose, and that’s worth something.