Ideology is making America stupid

That there is something wrong with the United States – its politics, its economy, its culture, its interactions with the rest of the world – seems to be widely acknowledged by most Americans today. Poll after poll indicates a profound discomfort with the direction of American society, for myriad reasons. While people on the Left and Right will disagree about what exactly is wrong, and particularly what might be done about it, there’s a lot of consensus that the United States has hit a rather rocky patch, and that our venerable two-party system isn’t doing a very good job of ameliorating what’s going wrong. Indeed, our political system seems to many Americans, including this one, to be one of the larger aspects of the problem.

My colleague Tom Nichols has highlighted how the spreading disdain for actual experts and their expertise undermines public efforts at debating knotty problems, where the views of bona fide experts ought to help. Online freedom, which is supposed to stimulate ideas and discussion, instead too often winds up being hijacked by fools, knaves, and auto-didacts who have read a stunning amount of Wikipedia entries, and not much else. Here, Professor Nichols is entirely correct, as my experience with extensive online abuse over the Snowden Operation continues to illustrate. Per Colonel Jessup, some people really can’t handle the truth.

But I also worry about the tendency to dismiss the American people as a bunch of idiots. In truth, I find that average Americans are often more aware of what’s wrong with our country than the better educated are, though they are frequently unable to exactly articulate our national problems. But they get, deeply, that something just ain’t right here, and it hardly furthers debate to portray such common people, who unlike our cautious-lipped elites are often willing to state obvious truths fearlessly, as idiots. Which is exactly what both Left and Right do. There has developed a near-universal hunt for false consciousness among one’s political opponents, and it is cancerous.

The Right has developed the loathsome habit of stating that groups supporting the Left broadly and the Democratic Party particularly – here they cite blacks, women, gays, et al – are residing “on the Democratic plantation.” If only they woke up and looked at their real interests, the FoxNews logic goes, they would suddenly become the “natural Republicans” that they actually are. It seems not to have occurred to the Right that African Americans, single women, LGBT people, and increasingly Hispanics too, support the Left because the Democratic Party is a better vehicle for their collective interests than the GOP, in its current guise, will ever be. Moreover, the use of “plantation” rhetoric, with its enormously freighted historical baggage, indicates how out of touch its rightist purveyors are. At best, such talk is deeply, unacceptably patronizing to vast swathes of the American people.

But the Left does the exact same thing. Rather than accept that there are lots of Americans, mainly white, often religious, many of them traditionalist in their views, who reject the progressive agenda, it’s easier for the MSNBC set to mock them, while more erudite progressives will explain at great length how they are well-meaning but stupid people who sell out to corporate interests. This view has become so commonplace on the Left that back in 2008 then-candidate Obama felt it wise to talk about clinging to Bibles and guns to describe such fellow citizens, while more recently leading celebrities have told them they need to hurry up and die already, so the golden progressive future can be realized. As a historian, I can affirm that when such hatred for your fellow citizens becomes normative, your republic is in deep trouble. Yet, as I said, it’s become entrenched on both the Left and the Right, the only difference I can tell being that if you’re on the Left you can make a very lucrative celebrity career out of it, while doing the same on the Right makes you Larry the Cable Guy.

This really all comes down to ideology, meaning the substitution of preset cliches over actual thought. I’m not here to knock down the notion of ideology altogether, since all of us have some sort of one (and if you don’t realize you do, the more powerful a hold over you it has), rather I want to point out the hazards of letting that framework shut down genuine thought, discussion, and debate, because you know the answer already. The German word Weltanschauung (worldview) comes closest to what I’m discussing here, and in 21st century America lots of people get their designer worldview, pre-fab, off TV and the Internet, without ever thinking critically about what it might actually mean. Contrary evidence is ignored, out of hand, as lies or propaganda – which of course only the other side has – and perhaps “hatred.” The problem isn’t that Americans have ideologies, it’s that so many of them have embraced a worldview based on self-deception. Simply put, they devoutly, unshakably believe things that simply are untrue.

This is a question of Zeitgeist more than naked partisanship, per se, as Americans both Left and Right seem equally devoted to beliefs that, upon close examination, turn out to be false. The failure of American education explains some of this, but by no means all of the problem. There are many examples I could cite, but I shall limit myself to only a few. The Left and Right get themselves into an equally formidable, if diametrically opposed, lather over guns and their role in our society. The Left will not acknowledge that lots of law-abiding Americans have perfectly legitimately reasons to have guns, in no way contributing to crime rates (and in some cases actually helping them), while the Right will not admit the basic fact that America’s appalling murder rates – which make our inner cities look more like war zones than developed countries – are such because so many people are killed by….guns.

Similarly, the Left pretends that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare to normals) is a radical step forward to justice, when actually it is a very modest reform of the existing – exceedingly, unsustainably expensive – system, based largely on onetime GOP proposals, while the Right is in high dudgeon mode over this allegedly vast expansion of state power, when really it’s a huge gift to the insurance industry (a Republican stalwart). Moreover, the ACA manages to do the nearly impossible, namely increasing access to healthcare only very modestly, at considerable taxpayer expense, while doing essentially nothing about controlling spiraling costs, not least because that would upset trial lawyers (a Democratic constituency). If you’re detecting a pattern here, you should.

However, foreign policy is where the confusion-masquerading-as-thought we call ideology really gets going. The Left seems to think – here President Obama bears his share of the blame – that mere words, especially dramatic speeches, can compensate for a lack of strategy or definable and implementable policy. Words, themselves, count only modestly. Churchill’s inspirational “we shall fight on the beaches” speech in 1940, as Hitler stared with ill intent across the English Channel, would have been irrelevant had not the British military been up to the job, barely, to repel German efforts to subdue Britain by air. Additionally, many Democrats believe that hashtags can change the world. Hope is not a strategy, as I teach my students, and neither is Twitter.

Yet the Right is besotted with equally powerful delusions, namely that what hashtags cannot do, the application of firepower can. This is not to malign the transformative effect of military force – I teach at a War College, after all – rather to observe that, in 2014, there are distinct limits on what it can achieve. The blow-it-all-up approach that prevailed as late as 1945 is simply not on the table anymore while the world is watching; even the Russians have toned down their mayhem, and their soft-touch aggression in Ukraine now, what I term Special War, bears little resemblance to the high-explosive horrors that Moscow’s forces inflicted on Chechnya as recently as the mid-1990s. Moreover, the failure of U.S.-led forces to subdue frankly third-rate insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, thanks largely to a basic political illiteracy about those societies, has seriously eroded the prestige of American military might around the world. Only American right-wingers, who continue to fantasize about using kinetic force to fix problems everywhere on the globe, seem to have missed that memo.

Political illiteracy, misguided by ideology, is the core of the problem. When they look at the world, Left and Right in America today both see several billion people who are either very much like us, or want to become just like us as soon as possible. This, of course, is the WEIRD conceit I’ve discussed before, and it seems to be second nature to Americans in 2014. The only real difference is how we want to help the world to become just like us. While the Right prefers using American capitalism with periodic injections of UAVs and TLAMs   – drones and cruise missiles, that is – the Left likes employing “values,” which in most places boils down to dispatching platoons of activists pushing present-day American views on race, gender, and sexuality. It seldom occurs to either Left or Right that both approaches generate considerable push-back around the world.  My family is more European than American, and over the past decade, I’ve watched many of them transition from strong support of America in the world to various forms of discomfort and worse, thanks to policies enacted by Washington, DC. And if Europeans, who share enormous political, cultural, and historical ties with the United States, feel this way, you can imagine what poorer countries around the world, who have much less ability to tone down U.S. policies they dislike than Europeans do, must feel.

To many people on our planet, the USA in 2014 looks like a broken society pushing itself on others, often aggressively. While this depiction sounds ridiculous to most Americans, we must understand that is widely held by billions of people over the globe, including by many who are not congenitally anti-American. We cannot see this because we believe our ideologies so deeply that we never question their basic assumptions, Left or Right. One of the best things about getting out of the country is noting how, from abroad, the political divisions at home that seem so powerful appear trifling to foreigners, who note that beneath the Left and Right talking points there lie surprisingly common views of the world and America’s supposed place in it.

If you want to be a serious student of strategy, you need to see the world as it actually is, not how we might wish it to be. A reality-based assessment of all players, including yourself, must be the first step in developing effective strategy and policy. That is always a challenging undertaking, yet ideological blinders make it far harder than it ought to be. If you cannot get out of the country, read more. Talk to foreigners, see the world through their eyes for a bit. Get out of your comfort zone. If you think either FoxNews or MSNBC has a monopoly on truth, you need to diversify your mind. If you believe the flaws in our foreign policy can be explained by just one word, and that word is either “Bush” or “Obama,” you’re part of the problem. The decade ahead will determine whether our planet can transition from waning American hegemony to a peaceful multipolar world – or not. American military power will remain important, particularly to deter troublemakers, but it must be used judiciously, as our top brass well know, while how Washington, DC, interacts with foreigners in all domains – political, economic, social, not just military – will determine our place in that emerging multipolar world. Letting our ideologies blind us in domestic matters has serious consequences for America, but refusing to see the world as it actually is endangers far more than our domestic tranquility.


92 comments on “Ideology is making America stupid”
  1. Possibly the best thing you’ve ever written here on I thought that was thoroughly good.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thank you very much!

  2. Mike says:

    Good article…

    When all ideologies can be equally funded with debt….they all look successful because the negative consequences of each are very muted (unless you happen to end up camping in Afghanistan, or wondering where you’re insurance plan went).

    Now that the funding mechanism is wobbling, consequences are slowly coming back into play. It is impossible to have a ‘correct’ ideology in this environment. Unwinding it all is going to end up with conflict–conflict that will either be mild or extreme, but definitely not ordered.

  3. Back to the center firmly….again?

    1. 20committee says:

      If only we could find it!

  4. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? (also Colonel Jessep)

  5. Great piece. Clearly adamantine preconceptions are no place to start analysis. Extreme ideologies of right and left seem to always end up in the same dreary stifling place. I don’t know if it is the sheer altitude of their ‘lofty’ aspirations but breathing is difficult or impossible in the shared near vacuum of their end game. Amazing how erudite and intellectual you seem to be able to argue us MOR folks as being. Maybe in the future you will end up politically indie as well…

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks, actually I am independent now. 🙂

  6. Lyle Smith says:

    I agree with you, but such is the reality of American politics today. To have power in Washington you play the game that acquires and maintains power.

  7. Niccolo Salo says:

    “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.”

    – Colonel Pogue, Full Metal Jacket

    This one line from Kubrick’s excellent film encapsulates both the prevailing ideology of American Exceptionalism and its effect on American foreign policy succinctly and perfectly. The overwhelming majority of Americans still believe that their country is the ‘beacon on the hill’ and if only the other party weren’t in power things would be better.

    As the USA continues to increasingly dictate the way people in other countries live and try to organize their societies, the pushback will only increase….subtly at first and then more directly later as you’ve alluded to.

    I’m one of those Europeans who have gone from a pro-American view by default due to cultural and historical affinities to a loathing of the USA and in many instances a firm opposition due to the reasons that you’ve stated.

    When talking to Americans, one always runs into the strange situation that when you criticize a politician from Party A, they automatically assume that you agree that Party B would do a better job. The idea that you find both parties abhorrent in respect to their policies (particularly on the world stage) simply doesn’t register with the mainstream of Americans.

    1. 20committee says:

      Ah, Kubrick …. you are exactly right about the built-in binary assumptions, which don’t help real discussion of anything.

  8. MarqueG says:

    I keep tryin’ to tell the stupid whackos all this, but they won’t listen! 😀

    Hmm… Stuff to mull over.

    Seems to me that the divide is greater than it appears because folks on each side have a set of neatly packaged, coherent premises that are diametrically opposed to those on the other side. The foundations for these opposite premises rest somewhat in population geography. Angelo Codevilla described the two sides as the Country Class and the Ruling Class. That goes a bit beyond the age-old Rural/Urban divide.

    Our two-party duopoly doesn’t quite capture that Country/Ruling, Rural/Urban division. Then again, they aren’t ideological parties as much as many in their respective activist bases tend to believe, which accounts for why the Dems are plagued by their self-appointed ideological bouncers in the progressive movement, and why the establishment Repubs have their resurgent Tea Party tormenters. But the parties are generally less rigidly ideological by nature, although they’ve each been becoming more coherent at opposite poles in recent years than they’ve been since, say, the 1910s and 1920s.

    Our ruling classes, which are from both parties, seem to have in common their meritocratic rise through similar institutions. They’ve been trained in a shared worldview that, well, encompasses the World. They think in terms of foreign policy and global strategy. The Country Class is far more ambivalent, and not at all that passionate about the goings on outside America, so long as we’re not under outright attack.

    So that’d be my initial take on this interesting theme. Thanks for provoking thought.

    1. 20committee says:

      You’re welcome and thanks for the feedback.

  9. AIM9 says:

    Well. It would seem odd that a mere fourteen days ago I typed what I thought would be my final comment here ending, I don’t always agree with you Sir, but my sincere thank you for the challenge.

    You are Sir, and somewhat surprisingly to me, becoming less challenging.

    Carry on.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks….I think. 🙂

      1. AIM9 says:

        Just to be sure, ensuring the “thanks” is mutual – we needn’t be in high dudgeon over what appears to be our common observance – I’d considered your May 3rd post the best I’d seen on this site.

        With this one I had to reconsider.

        I’d deploy a “smiley” but, that stuff is just not me.

        I realize for a guy teaching at a War College, italicizing isn’t becoming either.

        But I’m betting, neither of us sweats the small shit. In the great scheme of things.

  10. Beth says:

    I’m perfectly willing to admit that “”inner city”” (lol) crime rates are contributed to by guns. But–and of course this is forbidden discussion–if you compare gun crimes committed in the US by whites to gun crimes committed by whites elsewhere in the world, the difference isn’t enormous, which is remarkable given the extremely high gun ownership rates in the US.

    The US doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a different kind of problem, and naming it makes you a racist.

    1. 20committee says:

      I dont believe in any “forbidden” topics, personally. Debate is a necessary thing for democracy to function.

      1. Beth says:

        You don’t, but the people controlling the national discourse do. Thankfully we have the “gun lobby,” as you put it, to protect the rights of people who want to own guns responsibly.

      2. Beth says:

        Oops, apologies, i see you didn’t use the term “gun lobby.” That was from someone you retweeted. My mistake.

    2. Lyle Smith says:

      Yeah, guns are obviously required for gun crimes, but the gun crime in inner city America is a problem of culture and not guns.

    3. BigR says:

      I’m Black and I don’t think it makes someone ‘racist’ to discuss the higher rates of inner city crime amongst inner city Blacks. Honestly and respectfully discussing the problem could help find a solution. However, the problem is when people fail to differentiate. The so-called underclass is only 10% of almost 40 million Black people. To say we don’t have a ‘gun’ problem but instead we have a ‘Black’ problem pretty much papers over these nuances and tries to get away with racial code words in the name of ‘analysis’. Middle Black neighborhoods are generally not high crime or violent (I grew up in one).

      I support the 2nd amendment and own several guns, but I do think there is a huge difference between discussing crime in America and throwing out red meat that paints a whole group in the same light.

  11. Greg says:

    Outstanding 20committee…. I’m afraid there’s far too much debt and far too much focus for preserving rather than innovating for the transition to be a peaceful one.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks, and I hope you’re wrong!

  12. Austin Miller says:

    Really well done, even if it did take a few more words than Walt Kelly and Pogo.

  13. David in Mn says:

    Great article, and a terrific blog. It seems to me that this Left/Right split opened wide shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech at the ’92 GOP Convention was its Commencement Address. It seems that once a serious external threat was removed, we Americans turned against each other, and away from the rest of the world. We revisited disputes that go back to the days of Calhoun. Is that not a symptom of greater security? I’m suspicious that ideology is a symptom of something else, and our history may explain it. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the historical context around what you described.

    1. 20committee says:

      That would require a whole book, but I agree the ideology is a reflection of something deeper. But TV and the Internet have, shall we say, sharpened the contradictions, to briefly wax Marxist.

      1. AIM9 says:

        XXcommitee actually David in Mn in my opinion points somewhat to what I gather is your suspicion in paragraphs 2 & 3. Mind, I’m only thinking through this myself.

        Nichols’ essay points unassailably to a tendency technology wrought which I think it fair to admit none of the “experts” appreciated the portents of, I happen to be one less inclined to assign the simplistic “reading Wiki” as the … or one of the worst problems which afflicts current debate. However as another fellow observed when asked another seemingly straightforward question,

        “It’s too soon to tell.”

        But our host it seems to me is on likely the correct path as he puts it, “But I also worry about the tendency to dismiss the American people as a bunch of idiots” because of that simple yet illuminated sentiment but – in part our host’s later reference to “the common people” at least in appearance seems to be reinforcing language albeit – in my humble estimation – totally unintended.

        Mind, I’m typing extemporaneously – and this is a mere blog comment but I have given this some thought. A James Madison could take for granted all would recognize the “common” but in these enlightened times “regular people” fully understand being at minimum three tiers up from the common man who lives most usually somewhere between Senegal and Cameroon.

        What “we have here” nowadays is no Cool Hand Luke but rather and emphatically what my WWI Diplomat Uncle would’ve referred to as A Sea Change. What’s happened over the years is not Wiki – though that’s a symptom – the diagnosis is Cacophony. And my fear is, it’s terminal.

        I’m tempted to delete this out of hand John – feel free to not allow this through ‘moderation’ as you Sir see fit.

  14. Disdain for science and other experts? That’s a solidly republican virtue.

    Ignorance? “Republicans are destined to live in poverty because they’re ‘Born Into Ignorance’” -Neil deGrasse Tyson. Complain all you want, but red welfare states are on the bottom of the list decade after decade in education, health, mortality and prosperity. These things are facts.

    “natural republicans”? You couldn’t offer a valid reasons for African Americans, women, gays or minorities to vote republican for the last four decades. This demographic IS voting in their own best interest.

    Given that republicans have stood in the way of healthcare progress for nearly a century, the ACA is a radical step forward to justice.

    Poor effort. There is no ‘both sides do it’.

    1. 20committee says:

      You are exactly proving my point.

    2. Beth says:

      Hahaha. What a clown. You’re so blinded by your ideology that you can’t even see it. Btw, Neil Tyson is not a practicing astrophysicist. He has a very small number of publication credits, entirely in unprestigious journals, with his name far down the list. He’s not an impressive person.

      1. DrFood says:

        Wow. Neil Tyson is not an impressive person.
        OK then.

  15. JohnMM says:

    Hi John. Great stuff as usual. I’ve been saying for years that a lot of America’s problems can get solved (or bettered at least) if we go back to 50 states and minimize the role of the federal government in domestic issues.

    For example, today is the 10th anniversary of gay marriage in Massachusetts. And, like lot of people I thought it was a crazy idea. Even better one of the plaintiffs was my son’s 5th grade teacher. But 10 years later, the change has had zero impact on my life, so who cares?

    However, I expect that eventually the gay marriage issue will reach the Supreme Court and the Court will expand gay marriage to 50 states. And we will have 40 years (and counting) of battles in the trenches, just like the abortion issue. And nothing will be solved, just crazies on both sides making everyone miserable.

    If we go back to 50 states, we’ll have a bunch of states with gay marriage, one or more with polygamy (you know Utah will have it :)) and so what? If that’s what the people in the states want, then more power to them. If you don’t like what your state does, you can move.

    Not to hijack your blog with a rant about gay marriage but the people in Massachusetts don’t necessarily have the same values/culture/education level/ethnicity/etc. as the people in Alabama. Let Massachusetts be Massachusetts and Alabama be Alabama, the framers were smarter than the clowns running things now.

    Oh and term limits and no gerrymandering for any reason. I want that added to the Constitution.

    Hope all is well.

    1. 20committee says:

      That’s why we have a federal system….or used to. Cheers, amigo!

  16. Jay says:

    This is really good, although I have to quibble on ACA — the insurance and for-profit healthcare industries are stalwarts of both parties, and that has much more to do with how the legislation came out than trial lawyers, whose supposed lobbying power has always been more of a Republican talking point than reality.

    If they were so powerful, tort “reform” wouldn’t have been enacted in many states at the behest of insurers and other business groups, largely serving to screw legitimately injured people out of any recovery by adopting one-size-fits-all caps and the like.

  17. Steve says:

    Is there a good case to be made that this hyper-partisan political environment is caused by (racially) gerrymandered voting districts, (both those set aside for minorities and those with scant minority voters) which makes the winning strategy for politicians and consequently the political conversation to race to the extremes rather than try to try to meet in the middle?

    1. 20committee says:

      Agreed there.

  18. “As a historian, I can affirm that when such hatred for your fellow citizens becomes normative, your republic is in deep trouble.”

    Agreed. I think we’re in some sort of pre-civil war mode.

    1. 20committee says:

      Certainly possible. There are some similarities, politically, with the 1850s. Not a good sign.

  19. mrmeangenes says:

    Well done !!

  20. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Hardly words of comfort-but badly needed !!

  21. Joe DeSimone says:

    When you consider the FACT, the UNDENIABLE FACT, that we are spending far too much more money than we have any right to claim, the game is lost! Until we recognize we don’t OWN MONEY, we will never collectively solve the world’s problems.

    1. 20committee says:

      Concur that fiscal problems may yet make the USA a bigger Argentina.

  22. M. Noonan says:

    So, what’s next? It is true that left and right talk right past each other – and while I’m of the right, I get frustrated with my own side because of a monumental obtuseness born of a demand for ideological purity (this trait, I believe, is even stronger on the left). So, how do we square the circle? Where to we get back to a general political consensus which will allow American policy to operate within certain, fixed parameters?

    1. 20committee says:

      It starts with individuals. If people don’t start genuinely thinking, rather than mouthing ideology-driven platitudes, the USA is headed for difficult times.

      1. Then we are headed for difficult times. There are those who, after making a serious effort to see, as you suggest, ‘the world as it actually is’, have come to understand that there are a great many ‘truths’ — essential axioms shared, as you point out, by both sides of America’s ideological divide — that simply aren’t true. (One sure sign that these axioms have no grounding in reality is the accelerating rate at which they seem to change, but a little hand-waving about ‘the right side of history’ usually takes care of that. After all, an axiom’s still an axiom, even if it wasn’t one just last year.)

        The problem with this, though, is that when you do begin to see ‘the world as it actually is’, and work up the nerve to talk about it, you immediately get it from both sides, good and hard. There is a very real danger of social, professional, and financial ruin, and for most people, it simply isn’t worth it.

        I’d say the ‘difficult times’ have already begun, and will get a great deal more difficult in fairly short order.

      2. 20committee says:

        Very possibly ….

  23. JJ says:

    A thoughtful and interesting article, but it seems to have a particular blind spot which pops up here: “This really all comes down to ideology, meaning the substitution of preset cliches over actual thought.” Do we have a cause or a symptom here? There is a strong tendency among intellectuals, observed at least since Plato, to assume that political problems are tractable to our thinking, to assume that social problems can be reduced to problems of thought. All we need to do is get our minds right.

    As per Haidt, I suspect that ideology, like moral reasoning, is mostly ad hoc or post hoc justification for decisions that were arrived at by innate or instinctual impulses. Our rationality and higher mental functions explain very little when it comes to human affairs. As the old saying goes, “A man cannot be reasoned out of what he never reasoned his way into in the first place.”

    In the case of ideology and America, I suspect that the country has fractured ideologically because it is fractured physically. We are no longer one people in any meaningful sense, but a collection of ethnies, histories, families, customs. We do not live together. What unities do we share? For the most part, Americans agree only that pleasure is pleasant and pain is to be avoided. In short, the country has become diverse and unity is no longer possible. As per Putnam, increased diversity means increased tension within and among groups. I suspect the competing ideologies we have today are what they are because of this tension. As you rightly point out, even ordinary Americans sense that “something” is wrong – they sense it because it is not an intellectual divide, but an animal divide. The competing ideologies are just ways that man, the thinking animal, tends to express himself divided.

    The narrow range of the ideologies we have also owes a great deal, I think, to the influence of global capital, which strongly prefers that certain subjects be ignored and certain questions never be raised. Anything interfering with the free flow of labor and money (notions of community, for instance) is typically suspect. Since so much “official” discourse answers to global capital in one form another (a typical example being working for a news organization: they are usually owned by mega-corporations), we get the phenomenon today: fiercely opposed ideologies which only disagree along a fairly narrow range. No one in a position of authority really questions whether diversity is good, whether globalism is good, whether the endless pursuit of technology and technical solutions is good, and so on.

    1. 20committee says:

      You are on to something but, like Haidt, we’d need a book, not a blog post, to explore that meaningfully, IMO.

  24. miguel cervantes says:

    Now lets consider, the left has dominance in the bureaucracy, almost absolute unanimity in academia, and in media, and they pushed forward every scheme like Obamacare, the Stimulus, without any opposition, their success in these policies is very much open to debate, to be charitable

    they helped undermine the successful counterinsurgency campaigns in
    Afghanistan and Iraq, as a consequence they are even more sanctuaries for insurgencies, abetting the Arab Spring, in Libya, has destabilized that country, and spread AQ’s reach into Equatorial Africa. In Central Asia, Volodya’s ‘flexibility’ has enabled the ‘czar in all but crown to
    dominate everywhere from the Caucasus and threaten the Balkans, and gain influence in Nordic countries

  25. miguel cervantes says:

    Who is practicing effective counterinsurgency, I would gather the Algerian did, the irony is lost on Mr, Brahimi when lecturing Assad’s men, through provocation and eradication, the Russians with their typical ‘light’ touch, adopted some of this, and the Syrians follow through, of course the former reap blowback, which often is inflicted on other countries, 9/11 being a typical example,

  26. tony kubiak says:

    MSNBC is NOT the left. Moron . . .

    1. 20committee says:

      Ummmm….would you prefer the Khmer Rouge 24/7 Network?

  27. boricuafudd says:

    Reblogged this on Justice For All and commented:
    Great article by the 20 committee. Ideology might be makings look stupid and a need to find a Center is a laudable goal. Yet, finding a Center requires much more than generalizations. We need a guide, remember what has worked and what has failed. Pretending that all Social Experiments are equal despite the results will just mean more of the same. Aiming for the Center is great is we only can agree where that is.

  28. pkaymcguire says:

    Reblogged this on East Asia Thought and commented:
    Citing Mr. Schindler once again on the powerful and corrupting effects of ideology

  29. Mort says:

    I think that as reality tv and news entertainment have grown gradually into the American consciousness, we’ve effectively lost our ability to comprehend everything we take in. Most Americans will never travel to Afghanistan, nor will they even be able to truly empathize with all the various factions within our own society. In an increasingly unreal world, we respond by “filling in the gaps” of what we understand with convenient and entertaining fiction. With the media we have available, believers have fewer and fewer incentives to step outside the cloister. This paralyzes cooperation; our political system becomes a football game where the purpose is to grab the prevailing reality and run with it as far as you can.

  30. erc says:

    Thanks,enjoyed this. I am not so sure the rest of the world is pushing back against America as much as pushing their own way of doing things, that something more is happening than emerging economies simply ‘catching up’ to our way of life, our laws, our standards, etc. Too many Europeans and *some* American lefties are just giving up but enough Americans want to stay in the game. To me, that’s the source of the tension you describe so well. And you are correct, today’s ‘right’ and ‘left’ boxes are not adequate to the task at hand. Maybe that’s why … what 40%? of us are now ‘independent’.

    1. 20committee says:

      “Perhaps” 🙂

  31. Want2no says:

    A good question to ask might be to what extent the ideological-driven politics we see today are a symptom of unprecedented demographic and cultural change which the parties have embraced and often exacerbated as a way to victory? What is not in doubt is that, today, the Red-Blue divide is both cultural and geographic, in almost all regions, in a way that was it was not in 20th century modern history.

    Before the 1990’s, most Presidential winners ran truly national campaigns. What we see today may have had its roots in the 60’s, but even Nixon, with his 1968 southern strategy, carried states in all regions of the nation, any of which no GOP candidate would today seriously contest. (for example, California). In 1972, Nixon won his greatest percentages in the increasingly GOP south, but carried every other region as well. Reagan, in the 80’s, won New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey twice. As late as 1988, Bush One took Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont, as well as states like Michigan. Only in the 1990’s, did the Red-Blue divide begin to fully emerge. It solidified in the 2000’s and became absolute with Obama. Today, very few GOP candidates will make serious efforts in the Northeast and few Democrats will do so in the South or Mountain west.

    It is the same for congressional elections. Until the last decade, it was common for many deep red or deep blue states to have one or to Senators from the other party. Today, you see very few Democratic senators left in the South or, most states of the mountain west. You also far fewer GOP senators in the Northeast.

    Yet it is in the House of Representatives that we can see the clearest impact, because the demographic/cultural changes have also made gerrymandering much easier. It used to be much more common for members of congress to come from districts that were more demographically and culturally diverse. To be successful, a member had to pay attention to the different views and needs in his or her district. Now, there are far fewer “swing” districts left and the biggest consideration for many members of congress is how to keep ideologically pure enough to avoid a primary challenge. The result–members of congress are far more ideological and party “discipline” is reaching levels one expects in a European parliamentary system.

    Could it have been otherwise? I can’t say, but even a basic look at the groups who form the base of each party makes it clear that demographics and culture now trump economics, education and (very often basic facts) in determining which side of the Red-Blue divide one is on. It even impacts the regions of the country people are choosing to live in. It also leads to a couple of questions that the XX Committee might want to tackle some day–Can a highly ideological politics fueled by major cultural and demographic divisons work well with the system of government we have? And, might it be worthwhile to look at some basic things that might be done to reduce these divisions so that our system can work as it was intended to?

    1. 20committee says:

      AKA The Big Sort

      1. Want2No says:

        Sort of!

  32. antiflashwhite says:

    Very good post, thank you. I’ve enjoyed and pondered this blog since discovering it about a year ago, and I hope you keep it up. We need your kind of analysis now and (perhaps since 1861, 1941, or at least 2001) more than ever. Those challenges were met by a much healthier society, culturally speaking. We have to be realistic about this without conceding too much.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks – I’m doing what I can here!

  33. tigertiger says:

    By the way, a woman with a beard (a man with a beard dressed as a woman?) by the votes of jury has won the EuroVision contest. And you think that you’ve got a problem? 🙂

  34. Dave says:

    Thanks for a very personally honest article.
    I agree with the general tone and texture of your arguments, however I have learned from years of working with lawyers, politicians and other invertebrates that language is very important and I have to point out a failure in your point on the inner city use of guns:
    People in the inner city are killed with guns, not “by guns”. More accurately they are killed by people. People will tend to use the most efficient tool commonly available to them for a given task.
    Also as an autodidact, I thought it funny (and not just a little correct) that many self educators believe what they read just about anywhere. Not all of us forgot to seek out and consider “the other side” of what we think we know. It’s important to blow holes in what you think you know and see if it still holds water. Its called honesty. If one fails to perform this opfor thinking its called lazy.
    You present some powerful arguments in your blog that always leave me thinking (especially when I disagree) and I appreciate your sharing. As long as there are people such as yourself out there voicing opinions and sharing viewpoints, there is still hope for this Great Country we share.
    Thanks and don’t forget to take a swim at 2nd beach this summer!

    1. 20committee says:

      I will, thank you for your kind and thoughtful feedback.

  35. Dirk says:

    Can I vote for you for President?

    1. 20committee says:

      Only if I run, thanks! 🙂

  36. Dr. Schindler,

    This piece is the very first thing I’ve read on your blog here and I was very impressed. Impressed enough, actually, to “share” it on Facebook, something I rarely do with anything serious.

    Sadly, I am also pessimistic your words of wisdom will be drowned out by the bleating of the sheep or fall on the deaf ears of the willfully ignorant.

    When a right-wing conservative friend argued a political point using textbook Marxism and I suggested he read Das Kapital to get a better understanding of the concepts, he replied “I don’t need that garbage in my head.”

    It seemed an apropos summation of where we are as a society.

    I will keep reading.



    1. 20committee says:

      Sadly, yes … sounds familiar. But thank you for reading and offering your kind words. 🙂

  37. Jon says:

    “Similarly, the Left pretends that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare to normals) is a radical step forward to justice, when actually it is a very modest reform of the existing – exceedingly, unsustainably expensive – system, based largely on onetime GOP proposals, while the Right is in high dudgeon mode over this allegedly vast expansion of state power, when really it’s a huge gift to the insurance industry (a Republican stalwart).”

    What in the world are you talking about?? Please point to ANY place on the left where ANYONE has stated that the ACA is some radical idea. Yes, there are PLENTY of supporters of ACA on the left. But NONE of us – and you cannot point to ANY source that claims that ACA is “radical” – didn’t see ACA as a modest reform. WE all DID want something more radical, and got NO WHERE NEAR what we wanted. To conflate support for the ACA, an incremental change for the better, with some make believe, fictional claim that the Left “pretends” something about it is an outright lie.

    YOU’VE done exactly what you’re accusing the left of doing – pretending something is going on that isn’t actually happening. YOUR ideology has forced to you to foist an example on your argument that is demonstrably false. YOU have this idea that ‘both sides are the same’, and in the name of that argument have fallen into the very hole you accuse those on the left of.

    Then you drop this pile of manure: “However, foreign policy is where the confusion-masquerading-as-thought we call ideology really gets going. The Left seems to think – here President Obama bears his share of the blame – that mere words, especially dramatic speeches, can compensate for a lack of strategy or definable and implementable policy. Words, themselves, count only modestly. Churchill’s inspirational “we shall fight on the beaches” speech in 1940, as Hitler stared with ill intent across the English Channel, would have been irrelevant had not the British military been up to the job, barely, to repel German efforts to subdue Britain by air. Additionally, many Democrats believe that hashtags can change the world. Hope is not a strategy, as I teach my students, and neither is Twitter.”

    The LEFT has this problem?? Point to ONE person on the left who actually thinks that “hashtags can change the world.” What drivel. Come on. Am I really supposed to take anything you say seriously after you write THAT nonsense? And WHO imagines that mere words will accomplish anything? What in the world are you talking about?? Can you point to something SPECIFIC instead of your vague ‘intuitions’ and ‘feelings’ on this subject?

    While Bush the Idiot paints pictures of his feet in the bathtub, Obama took out bin Laden and stopped the war that he and Cheney cooked up years before the 2000 election. NO FOREIGN POLICY? That was rather conclusive and coherent. To isolate supposed failures on the Left while not even mentioning the Iraq debacle seems either naive or intentional. The Iraq War is NOT old news.

    Perhaps we’ve all just taken a soma holiday and have forgotten that FACT that the RIGHT dragged ALL of us into a couple of wars that just MIGHT have been ideological as hell. What fools fell for the argument of “mushroom clouds”? The fictitious “war on terror” was a brilliant but evil idea used by the Right to lie us into a war with someone who posed NO threat to anyone on this continent. It was the neocon’s who managed to lie us into an unjust war of choice that has set the stage for much of what Obama has attempted – with NO help from Republicans – to undo. To fail to bring up the utter catastrophe of the Iraq War while lambasting the Left for things that AREN’T REALLY HAPPENING weakens fatally your entire argument. There WAS no equivalency in Iraq between the left and the right. We all know who the cheerleaders were. They weren’t on the Left.

    1. 20committee says:

      Do you always SHOUT? It makes you seem like a crazed hack, FYI. Thanks for EXACTLY proving my point, perhaps better than I even could.

      1. DrFood says:

        OK, without shouting. I’m not clear about who on “the left” tries to present the ACA as a radical step forward. I mean, it’s grand to achieve anything, but we couldn’t even get a public option in there. . . You are completely right, that the ACA is built on Republican ideas–it’s basically Romneycare writ large. A “left” solution would be single payer. It seems you haven’t noticed that we are currently operating far to the right of the 50 yard line. Most Republican congressmen seem unwilling to cross the 10.

      2. 20committee says:

        I agree it’s not a big step at all, IRL, but there’s been a lot of cheerleading over it, for ideological reasons.

  38. Donal Jones says:

    In several respects, I don’t think you make a very convincing argument. I’d suggest your readers peruse Davis Schorr’s reply to your post at Talking Points Memo blog. He – more eloquently, and respectfully than I could hope to – points out a couple of critical instances in which you mischarac-terize the “partisan rancor” on both sides that cripple political compromise. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who wrote about this over 2 years ago, called it asymmetric polarization.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for EXACTLY proving my point.

      1. Tom says:

        Umm. Not to be painfully obvious, but the commenter pointed out that there is a response to your argument, with scholarly (expert! per your colleague Nichols) analysis of the question of ideological polarization in American politics. And you reply with a bit of “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” FWIW, I think your piece is a shoddy piece of work, not because the Right is evil, but because you mischaracterize the positions of the left to create a false symmetry of ideological sin. If I were to guess motives, it would be because the actual record of Republicans with power since 2009 is one in which precisely the asymmetrical polarization Ornstein and Mann describe can be seen. For actual evidence, see this: You will note the increase in far right Republican representation in Congress and no similar left-polarization on the Democratic side.

        All this by way of saying nice try: it’s an emotionally rendered piece complaining of an abstract problem that actually has very specific and partisan tinged roots — if you’re willing to look at the evidence.

        Plus — your account of the ACA is, to put it charitably, deeply flawed. There’s a lot of data out there on the gains in access, impact on cost increases, and system savings that come from the system. I would note, but you already know this, that Obamacare is the Republican health care plan of a decade or so ago, rendered ideologically unacceptable by the party affiliation of its sponsor. Which proves your point, except that it doesn’t — it is another instance of asymmetrical polarization.

        I never think much of the argument from authority, but I do trust its inverse. When someone writes stuff that’s at odds with easily identified facts, it becomes a default position to go all Reagan on you: Trust (not really) but verify…always.

      2. 20committee says:

        Your bias is showing, glaringly actually.

  39. “One of the best things about getting out of the country is noting how, from abroad, the political divisions at home that seem so powerful appear trifling to foreigners, who note that beneath the Left and Right talking points there lie surprisingly common views of the world and America’s supposed place in it.”

    It reminds me of the quote, “”Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

    When I talk to young people in foreign countries, outside Europe, I always fee a strong urge to say that they deserve a better government than they have.

    The major divisions in the US appear to me to be largely either wedge issues or partisan rhetoric. Further, there is a steady stream of absurd negativity regarding the world status and future of the United States.

    I spent some time in Argentina, a country with enormous potential and a well educated and population that is a chronic underachiever. Anyone wringing their hands over the $US should see the extent to which it is worshiped there. Bring crisp $100 bills. All real estate transactions are conducted in $US. American currency is the only safe liquid store of value, given their tendency to inflate away their currency every decade.

    And yes, there are some critical international issues that need close attention. I haven’t heard much discussion — because they aren’t ‘urgent’ news but rather long term issues.

  40. MWolfe says:

    Interesting…I agree that a blindly held ideology often replaces actual thought on an issue, but I think you go way overboard trying to sound evenhanded, as if both sides are equal in their delusions. It simply isn’t true, for instance, that “the Left will not acknowledge that lots of law-abiding Americans have perfectly legitimately reasons to have guns, in no way contributing to crime rates.” The reality is that any modest attempt to control guns to reduce the occurrence of the all-too-frequent tragedies is met by the knee-jerk reaction “right to bear arms”, with no acknowledgement that the 2nd Amendment concerns “a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state.” Furthermore, you state “If you want to be a serious student of strategy, you need to see the world as it actually is, not how we might wish it to be.” And yet you fault Obama’s foreign policy when he is trying to do exactly that: deal with the world as it is and not go guns a-blastin’ every time something takes place in the world that we don’t like. (In that regard, there is an excellent commentary by Timothy Egan in today’s NYTimes:…/egan-the-wars-not-fought.html…). Your representation of “the Left’s” view of foreign policy is ridiculous, simply setting up a straw man to sound evenhanded.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for sharing your deep, intractable, blinding bias with us today.

      1. MWolfe says:

        And thanks for snappy but substance-less reply.

      2. 20committee says:

        Never lose your passion!

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