The Tyranny of Clichés

Eight years ago Jonah Goldberg wrote The Tyranny of Clichés to argue that American politics was full of little phrases that are often used but have little to no meaning and only serve to dodge actual arguments– and the biggest one is that someone is not ideological. Mr. Goldberg takes this premise and applies it to American liberalism. He argues that although liberals like to think of themselves as fact-followers who seek a middle ground, they too are guided by ideology.

But what does ideology mean? Simply put, an ideology is a belief. As Mr. Goldberg puts it, “If Nazis are ideologues, so are peace activists. If lovers of the free market are driven by ideological imperatives, so are those who wish to spread the wealth around.” Ideologues– people who believe in an ideology– are people who have a certain view of the world and with that a set of beliefs. That does not mean they are rigid, unchanging and inconvincible– as is often associated with the word. On the contrary, Mr. Goldberg explicitly says that ideologues can “debate and modify” their views “from time to time”. To quote Mr. Goldberg himself, “an ideology, at the most fundamental level, is simply a checklist of ideas you have about the world.”

Mr. Goldberg argument is chapter one is simple and can be broken down into three premises. First, being an ideologue and having an ideology is not bad. It can be bad or it can be good– it depends on the ideology. Second, conservatives are ideological and that is okay. Thirdly, while liberals bash conservatives for being ideological they are ignoring the reality that they themselves–right or wrong– hold an ideology. Therefore, Mr. Goldberg argument can be put, in short, as: we are all ideologues and that is okay.

There is also a corollary built off the third premise. While liberals ignore their own ideological tendencies, they all view themselves as objective truth seekers, guided by only facts. To open the chapter, he quotes President Obama’s 2008 campaign chairman David Axelrod in saying “He’s [Mr. Obama] consumed by either tactics nor ideology. He is more concerned about outcomes than he is about process or categories.”

Mr. Goldberg brings a variety of examples to bat for his argument. For example, he points out “there’s a deep statist bias to the whole discussion. Who says life expectancy is the government’s business?” The point here is simple, the belief government has a role in life expectancy is an ideological claim. It is not self-evident in empirical analysis. It requires a prior, non-objective belief to justify. Similarly, Mr. Goldberg quotes prominent liberal Jonathan Chait in “mocking” the great free-market economist Milton Friedman for being an ideologue. Friedman claimed economic freedom is part of freedom more broadly so economic freedom is in itself an end. Of course, as Mr. Goldberg points out, mocking Mr. Friedman for what he believes requires believing economic freedom is not an end in itself is not an end– in short, having a mini-ideology. At the end of the day, Mr. Goldberg says “liberal commitment to these principles may be weaker than I would like or they would claim, but we should all be willing to concede they’re in liberalism’s philosophy somewhere.”

The corollary is similarly supported by a plethora of examples. One prominent example is when Mr. Goldberg quotes Mr. Chait again saying “the United States ranks just 37th in overall health care performance.” Mr. Goldberg then goes on to point out how while the World Health Organization does rank the United States thirty-seventh, it is because their methodology measures how socialized a healthcare system is, and not how good it is. Mr. Goldberg points out, an unbiased and objective truth seeker would not have let such a faulty statistic cloud his argument. Similarly, Mr. Goldberg goes through argument on infant mortality rates– and how the methodology for determining it differs– and life expectancy rates– and how they actually the highest in the world when adjusted for non-health care related deaths– to show their faults.

Given that, the appeal of ideology for conservatives is simple: conservatives have a view of how the world works. They believe something but they are not arrogant enough– as Marxists are– to call their beliefs scientific. While all conservatives are guided by a belief in conserving something, that can differ from conservative to conservative. Natural-law conservatives believe in supporting the natural law tradition while social conservative believe in conserving the past social order and libertarian conservatives believe in conserving liberty.

At the end of the day, I think Mr. Goldberg is right. Everything comes down to first principles and like it or not, those first principles are your ideology. Often time, those who claim to be non-ideological claim they want what works. By working they tend to mean what makes the most people the best off– a utilitarianism of sorts. The problem is, what does better off mean? Are people better off with equal slices of a smaller pie or unequal slices of a larger pie? How should we measure what works? Should we use median income, poverty or Gross Domestic Product per capita? Better yet, why should we make people better off? Why is it my responsibility– or the responsibility of the government– to make sure people are better off? Whether people like it or not, at the end of the day, these are ideological questions and they come with ideological answers. Their ideology does not have to be a consistent and first principles philosophical view of the world but there are ideas underpinning the rationales.

Let me be fair, a liberal may respond by saying that while liberals have a basic idea that guides their objectivity, conservatives are ideologies in a more derogatory sense– that they want the world to look a specific way no matter the outcome while liberals are okay with the world looking any way as long as it makes people better off. On this note, Mr. Goldberg quotes Mr. Obama saying that he would take any idea– from Ronald Regan or Franklin Roosevelt– so long as it worked. This conveniently ignores how liberal ideas always manage to be in line with that Franklin Roosevelt would want and never in line with what Ronald Regan would want. Mr. Goldberg similarly points out then-candidate Obama said he would be okay with raising the capital-gains tax, even if he knew it would decrease revenue, out of fairness. I am not the smartest person, but I know there is nothing much more ideological than fairness.

An observer would just need to look at American politics for a short while to see liberals want the world to look a specific way. Whether it be favoring public education over private education, the popularity of “social justice” or the idea the rich should pay their “fair share”. There Is nothing obviously true about these ideas that would make an objective fact finder come to them. As Mr. Goldberg would say, these are simply part of a “checklist of ideas” and there is nothing wrong with that. We can disagree, but we should not give our ideas a false pedestal to stand on. Let them stand on their own, own their merits. We are all ideologues and we should not let a cliché muddy our discourse or drive our politics.

An adjusted version of an essay I wrote for a political science class. 

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