Skip to content

Prisoners of Ideology

A more reasoned politics is critical to the future of society.

· 13 min read
Prisoners of Ideology

The tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to invest them with moral color and high emotional charge, is to invite conflicts which can only damage a society.
~Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, 1969

A persistent pragmatic streak has long been one of the great assets of American society (and, indeed, most English-speaking societies) in the modern age. To be sure, these societies have endured their share of ideological spats, and even occasional outbreaks of political extremism. But for the most part, they have managed to adjust, albeit too slowly at times, to changing conditions without facing a society-wrenching conflict.

That tradition is now threatened; a victim of partisan zealotry on a host of issues—climate, race, and gender being the most obvious—where advocates pursue only extreme solutions to pressing problems. Rather than find ways to accommodate the views of diverse populations, the current tendency has been to ram through draconian policies by whatever means are at hand.

The good news, however, is that most Americans are not buying this from either party—they do not readily embrace the ideological purity or the authoritarian agenda of radicals on either the Left or the Right. Trump and his backers are losing support as their desire to undermine the Constitutional order becomes increasingly apparent. Like their opponents on the far-Left, they have become impatient with democracy and contemptuous of gradualism that voters instinctively prefer.

Reviving the American creed

The country needs to return to a politics informed by what the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called “the American creed”—an “abiding sense that every individual, regardless of circumstances, deserves fairness and the opportunity to realize unlimited potential.” Given the country’s ideological, regional, and racial diversity, we can address our “American dilemma," best by adopting pragmatism as our guiding philosophy.

This approach enabled the country to address many of its longstanding environmental, racial, and gender-related ills in past decades. It was not an ideological calling, but a practical approach to solving real problems, and it allowed Daniel Bell to proclaim “the end of ideology” in his 1960 book of the same name. Americans, Bell maintained, had “an extraordinary talent for compromise in politics.” The parties were largely non-ideological—each was essentially “some huge bazaar, with hundreds of hucksters clamoring for attention,” while organized labor focussed on material rewards. Frustrated ideologues on the Left and Right may have decried the “radical dehumanization” of American daily life, but “our politics and civilization run like a machine.”

Although those ideologues may have seethed, America became not just wealthier, but more just and more powerful. The move to cleaner water and air began in earnest under Richard Nixon, while African Americans and other minorities made their best economic progress in the three decades after the Second World War. African Americans have served now in virtually all the highest offices, including those of president and vice-president, and have doubled their numbers in Congress since 1991. In the 1960s and ’70s, American women began to enter college in greater numbers, and by the 1990s, had begun to outpace men in terms of college graduation. There were outbreaks of outrage—particularly regarding race and the war in Vietnam—but overall, the society was moving in a positive direction.

What happened to pragmatism?

Sadly, the current political environment is marked by record low national pride, which makes it difficult to rally people around an idea like the “American creed.” Extreme rhetoric, not consensus, has been amplified by technology and social media—what author Cathy O’Neil describes as “weapons of math destruction” in her book of the same name. The Internet, she wrote, has “reversed the equation” of E Pluribus Unum and instead promotes and profits from division. Even belief in democracy has faded. In his 2018 book, The People Versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Yascha Mounk notes that only a third of all millennials think living in a democracy is important, although two-thirds of older Americans still do.

The political class deserves much of the blame for this state of affairs. Elections are more vulnerable to “dark money” groups who often support ideologically driven candidates. We saw this in the mid-terms, where Trump and his supporters backed candidates whose primary qualification seemed to be that they were “king’s men” rather than representatives of their locality. Trumpian politics, which once appealed to basic economic concerns, have devolved since the 2020 election into an increasingly marginal and paranoid cult. The good news is that few of Trump’s anointed candidates, particularly in the Senate, succeeded.

But “dark money”—essentially indirect expenditures made outside campaigns—is now predominately backing progressives. A New York Times analysis found that “15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with the Democratic Party spent more than $1.5 billion in 2020—compared to roughly $900 million spent by a comparable sample of 15 of the most politically active groups aligned with the G.O.P.” This included some $53 million of cynical Democratic support for far-Right candidates, whom they subsequently accused of being “threats to democracy.”

Universities have also played a particularly destructive role in recent years. The credentialed experts that Bell referred to as “the priesthood of power” have become remarkably uniform in political perspective; in some university departments, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 98 to one. This ideological shift has occurred while the percentage of young people getting degrees has increased roughly five-fold since 1960. They frequently come to college poorly equipped to challenge their professor-indoctrinators; as Mounk notes, today’s university students may be sure of their views, but likely would fail a conventional high-school civics exam from a generation ago.

Once the fount of liberal thinking, parts of academia today disregard values like free speech. This influence is not necessarily to the Democrats’ advantage. Clinton uber-strategist James Carville scathingly calls it “faculty lounge politics,” and sees it as an obstacle that his party must somehow overcome.

Americans are mostly moderate

As Carville knows, most Americans are political centrists, and are not likely to accept rule by notions foisted upon them by a cognitive elite from Berkeley or Cambridge. A study by More in Common found that traditional and “passive” liberals outnumber progressives by three to one. Meanwhile, traditional conservatives and moderates are more than five times more numerous than “devoted” right-wingers.

Source: “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” by More in Common (2018) 

Overall, notes Gallup, 42 percent of Americans identify as independent, 16 percentage points more than Democrats and 12 more than Republicans. This trend may be amplified by the post-midterm decline in Trump’s popularity among Republicans. The former President has been both a cause and result of political polarization, but as he has faded, the Democrats have not gained. It’s the independents who have grown instead.

Middle-of-the-road politics are still popular when voters are offered that choice. After all, the most popular Governors in the country have been center-Right Republicans like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker. The biggest winner in last year’s election, Virginia’s Greg Youngkin, was a product of this tendency and has urged his party to follow his pragmatic lead. The problem lies with the choices that voters are handed. Chicago political scientist Anthony Fowler says that the electorate’s voices “are silent in no small part because in political surveys, the public is often not given the opportunity to express its moderate views.”

Some progressives believe they will triumph as younger, more radical voters become the majority. But pollster Sam Abrams has found that, among current students, more describe themselves as independents, and only support the Democrats due to their detestation of Trump and Republicans’ hardline position on issues like abortion. Half identify as moderates, although many may be unable or unwilling to speak up against their ideologically more rigid fellow students and professors. It’s the squeaky wheels who get the attention, but they are not necessarily the wave of the electoral future.

Generation gaps are not rigid. After all, the famously rebellious baby boomers of the 1960s became the Reaganites of the 1980s. During the midterms, voters under 30 support Democratic candidates by a margin of 12 points, significantly lower than Biden’s huge lead over Trump. The recent announcement by Arizona’s Senator Kyrsten Sinema that she will register independent could be a critical breakthrough for those voters increasingly alienated by both GOP and Democratic extremism. Sinema’s decision appealed to those who, as Newsweek put it, “hate both parties.” Increasingly, independent voters are a decisive part of the electorate, and rallying them can provide a clear path to victory in the future.

Looking beyond climate hysteria

Ultimately, a more reasoned politics is critical to the future of society. Nowhere is this more true than in the climate debate. Increasingly extreme, societally disruptive positions have replaced the gradualist approaches that prevailed even in the Obama administration, which supported a diverse “all of the above” approach to energy development. Many climate activists are now demanding a highly disruptive radical reordering of the economy and society.

Often based on predictive models that years of experience have told us are often highly exaggerated, loud and well-financed activists are pressing for a rapid move towards “net zero” in Western countries. They are doing so even though there’s no chance that China, which emits more greenhouse gasses than the US and all developed countries combined, will agree to such an agenda. This spells disaster for the global middle and working classes. The idea of relying solely on renewables, without developing natural gas and nuclear production, may be popular in Manhattan or Malibu, but it will be particularly devastating for workers involved in material production sectors like energy, agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing, and logistics.

In the past, changes to reduce emissions would be worked out between interest groups and the general electorate. But catastrophizing ideologues have little patience for open debate, much less the burden of democratic procedures. Like dogmatic Medieval scholars, they prefer to indoctrinate young students than persuade. As former Obama energy advisor Steven Koonin has pointed out, the oft-repeated notion among media and academic advocates that “the science is settled” is profoundly unscientific. This Medieval dogmatism extends to the Internet, where discussions about climate—even among highly credentialed experts—are consigned to the digital gulag by firms like Google.

In a sharp turn from the American focus on problem-solving, environmentalists are less concerned with finding ways to adapt to climate change than they are with waxing hysterical about it. In this effort, they are supported by mainstream media outlets. One New York Times reporter even proposed that “we should be hysterical.” This does not seem like a very effective way to conduct reasoned public debate. But even with the ceaseless propagandizing, Gallup finds that barely three percent of voters name environmental issues as among their top concerns.

Given the political realities, Eric Heymann, a senior economist at Deutsche Bank Research, has noted that the only way to advance this agenda would be to impose an “eco-dictatorship.” Former California Governor Jerry Brown openly favors a massive expansion of the “coercive power of the state” to achieve environmental goals, including even “brainwashing” the uncomprehending masses. This view is widespread in elite circles. “Democracy is the planet’s biggest enemy,” averred Cambridge politics professor David Runciman in an article for Foreign Policy.

The bloody flag of racism

In the United States and much of the English-speaking world, the entire discussion about race is dominated by extreme and often dangerous ideologies. On the far- and even not-so-far-Right, the notion that non-whites are “replacing” people of European descent is widely popular. Further on the fringes, some have embraced old Nazi ideologies about race and antisemitism.

But the political momentum—particularly in government, corporate circles, and non-profits—lies with the ideologies of the “antiracist” Left. Just as the far-Right complains about preferences for racial minorities, progressive racialists like Ibram X. Kendi want them expanded and entrenched to compensate for the effects of past discrimination. Like the radical climate agenda, this will require powerful state support, which it has duly received from President Biden. The Biden administration has promised to remove the sting of “racism” and encroaching “white supremacy” by backing discriminatory policies like special assistance to prospective black homeowners, race-based support for black farmers, and attempts to end inflation by promoting “equity” in the financial sector.

Like climate extremism, this approach neither conforms to the “American creed” nor is it particularly popular. Quotas, hostility to law enforcement, and opposition to incarceration for all but the most heinous crimes are not popular positions, even among blacks and Hispanics in whose name they are proposed. Asians widely oppose preferences that clearly hurt their kids, and many own small businesses that are vulnerable to the current crime wave.

But perhaps the worst thing about preferences and other “corrective” measures is that they suggest minority hopes rest on the very people who activist academics denounce as irredeemably racist and exploitative. The emphasis on reparations and other preferential remedies seems to assume that non-European peoples lack agency. Sociologist John McWhorter suggests that blacks and other minorities learn “therapeutic alienation” from preferential policies—that is, they develop a “preference for anger and scapegoating as opposed to the work needed for success.”

Critically, the new racial approach makes little sense in a rapidly diversifying country. By 2050, according to Pew, Hispanics will be 29 percent of the population, more than twice the black share. Asians, meanwhile, will have grown from barely 12 million in 2000 to more than three times that number by mid-century. Taken together, Asians and Latinos will account for 38 percent of all Americans, and the vast majority of non-whites.

The war on the patriarchy

Western societies have made enormous progress in terms of female empowerment and protecting gay rights; in some ways this has happened more quickly than for racial minorities. Yet today, radical feminists have expanded their assault on the “patriarchy” as the enemy of women while urging men to repress anything perceived as “toxic masculinity.” This includes negative behaviors but also many that are harmless or natural sex differences.

As scholars Richard Reeves and Nick Eberstadt point out in their respective books, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to do About It and Men Without Work, the notion that women are being oppressed is a bit odd in a world where females—particularly those with higher education—are ascendent. An ideology of victimization is not congruent with Western reality. After all, women now account for the vast majority of college students, have gained income faster than men, and are performing better in a marketplace that favors females with the social ability to collaborate. Women’s wages, Reeves notes, have risen while those of men have declined. The gender wage gap, he suggests, has diminished as women ascend to higher skilled, better paid jobs.

In contrast, it is boys and men, notes Reeves, who are increasingly “left behind,” beset by psychological disorders, loneliness, and economic and social deprivation that combine to make family formation fraught. The consequent decline of intact families, more than residual sexism, constitutes arguably the largest social problem facing the US and other developed countries. As Reeves puts it: “You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects.”

Unfortunately, disdain for the family has deep roots in feminist thought. In the late 1960s, second-wave feminists like sophisticated Manhattanite Gloria Steinem ridiculed the “house-bound matriarchs of Queens and the Bronx.” More recently, the anti-family drumbeat is evidenced by the rise of “queer studies,” the agenda of which seems to be to replace the “nuclear family” with some form of collectivized childrearing. Groups like Black Lives Matter have made opposition to the nuclear family a part of their basic original platform. This despite the fact that the biggest victims of a collapsing family, notes Reeves, are poor males, most notably African Americans.

This agenda seems to be no more popular than climate and racial extremism. The progressive female voter may be dominant in the universities, particularly outside the hard sciences, and in the ever-more powerful non-profit world, where they make up the vast majority of the workforce. But the vast majority of Americans still believe in the importance of marriage, the importance of having a parent at home, and in the existence of biological differences between men and women.

And despite academic theories of “intersectionality,” most minorities are particularly hostile to the radical reinvention of family. According to one recent survey, immigrants are more socially conservative than the general public and generally reject sexual identity politics. Latinos also tend to be more religious than whites, and new permissive sex education standards, popular on the Left, have provoked opposition from Latino, Asian, African American, and Muslim communities.

Can we find our way back?

The hope for a way back lies with the common sense of the American people. They displayed their moderation in the 2022 midterms by rejecting extreme candidates, particularly Trumpistas, while “normies” and incumbents in both parties did well. Those who benefit from polarization—the political apparatus, the universities, and large corporations—have continued to lose public confidence. Under Eisenhower and Kennedy, 75 percent of Americans trusted government institutions. As recently as 2000, half still did. Today, notes Pew, that trust sits at 20 percent.

A return to realism could be in the offing. In the midst of the Ukraine war, super-green Europe is having to face reality. Without ample natural gas and oil, the continent is turning back to gas and nuclear power. President Biden has also been forced to allow new drilling, while California has decided to keep its last nuclear plant open rather than face the prospect of blackouts. There is growing interest in promising—and perhaps economically more sustainable—new technologies like hydrogen and geothermal. The shift to working at home and to electric and hybrid vehicles could reduce emissions without destroying physical mobility and the economy.

Change can be seen on other fronts, too. Across the country, school boards have been elected that reject teaching racialism or gender fluidity to grammar school students. Yet voters in states like GOP-leaning Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky have also turned back rigid abortion controls advocated by doctrinaire Republicans. The impetus to preferences and reparations is being undermined by a more diverse population that seeks results not posturing. Former Democratic Strategist Ruy Teixeira notes that most minorities, like their white counterparts, are unlikely to support preferences or reparations but look first at inflation, rising crime, poor schools, and threats to their livelihoods posed by draconian green policies. He notes that for several years, particularly in the recent midterms, Republicans have gained among minorities, particularly Latinos.

Rather than a racialized future in which people are categorized by their ethnic heritage, we should look instead towards promoting integration and welcoming the mélange of cultures mixing and matching customs and traditions. This is what Mexican American writer Sergio Munoz has called “the multiculturalism of the streets.” We are reaching, if imperfectly, Myrdal’s vision of America’s progress. This can be seen in the extraordinary growth of interracial marriage, which is up from three percent in 1967 to 17 percent today. Virtually all the measurements of prejudice are declining, notes the Brookings Institution, as more of us have friends, if not spouses, of a different race.

American politics needs to move away from culture war issues and address the economic issues that impact most families. According to an NBC News poll, for instance, nearly two-thirds of Americans say their paycheck is falling behind the cost of living, and half are now considering taking second jobs. These concerns—not “saving the planet,” wiping out gender distinctions, or racial reparations—are what can bring back a more pragmatic politics.

Hopefully, this trend will become evident even to the media and the political classes. It’s already clear that most Americans want neither Biden, now governing from the progressive Left, or a demagogue like Trump. A Trump-Biden race may help CNN’s sagging ratings and provide extremists on both sides with a national voice, but it is clearly not what most Americans want.

After all, despite its awful leadership class, the US retains the technology, brainpower, and resources to create a society that improves lives—one that hectors less but accomplishes more. The “art of the possible” has underpinned Western progress throughout history. Our out-of-touch, out-of-whack politics has driven the country to the edge of madness, and it needs to be replaced by one that remembers its essential “creed” and values positive results over abstract theory.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His most recent book is 'The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.'

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette