Which of our major political and cultural ideologies is winning today? Our print and digital media are full of suggestions…and the pundits are ready to give us the play-by-play reports of who said what, and why it’s important. I guess this is how we think about issues, because during the 50 years I’ve been tracking politics (yeah, it seems really strange that I started when I was 10…sheesh!) the conservatives and the liberals have been battling one another on the political playing field, and ardent supporters have been cheering for their side…and jeering at the other side. Unfortunately, there’s no time to govern these days, because every day is another day in one campaign or another…and the battle of the ideologies takes precedent. I believe our only hope as a nation in the 21st century is that we might finally realize that we need all of our ideologies to work together creatively.
An ideology is an over-simplified view of our basic political problem…out of which flows some logical actions that, of course, will solve only that specific problem. From a more academic perspective, an ideology is a philosophical construct…it doesn’t actually exist, but it has an extraordinary power over human behavior. Ideologies…like religions…are proposed by adherents as holding the absolute truth about the human condition, our contemporary historical challenges, and the survival of our nation. But here’s the big lie…my ideology is true and everyone else’s is not. Bummer…you forgot the ideology you think is so right is grounded on a view of reality that is totally incomplete. That’s exactly why we need to have our ideologies working together…rather than against one another.
Conservatism…this ideology keeps us grounded in the culture and institutions of past, stable and meaningful times. Conservative-leaning people don’t want to constantly tinker with what they see as still working well in culture and in politics…and they tend to have a pretty high threshold for deciding that reform is needed. Problems are many times characterized as a departure from tried-and-true cultural and political norms…and solutions are proposed to get society back to a time when traditional values were the foundation for political decisions.
Liberalism (or the Progressive movement, as some may prefer)…this ideology keeps us learning as new challenges emerge, and as people question the existing patterns of institutional behavior. Liberal-leaning people see learning as a lifestyle, so they see many places in society where change can make things even better…and they tend to have a pretty low threshold for deciding that reform is needed. Problems are many times characterized as a failure to keep our society and government dynamic, and to make our public policies more inclusive and fair…and solutions are proposed to make the ‘American dream’ possible for all people with adequate safeguards provided by the government.
Libertarianism…this ideology keeps whatever we want to do as simple as possible, always trusting the least interference of personal freedoms as a high value. Libertarian-leaning people generally agree with the oft-quoted observation: “That government is best which governs least.” Reform for them should only go in one direction…away from government intervention, and down to the bare-bones of protections of individual sovereignty, like national security and contract law. Problems are many times characterized as unnecessary interference by government in policies that can and should be self-regulated by free and responsible individuals…and solutions are proposed to limit government involvement in the daily lives of citizens, so they can govern themselves.
Our popular culture with great assistance from our 24/7 media has sold us on the illusion that we have to choose an ideology. They’re even advertising their news shows as the ‘play-by-play’ in the ‘game’ of political decisions. It’s time to change this paradigm into a respectful and rational conversation about what each ideology can contribute to solving our public problems. I would want to hear each of these voices in conversations that name our problems, and then try to frame the seminal issues for discussion. Our current gridlock in political problem-solving is caused by our apparent unwillingness to weigh these ideologies with one another in political conversations, rather than pitting them against one another. We literally cannot find solutions to our most complex dilemmas without using all our available tools…and this means we must intentionally balance our most fundamental ideologies to understand the depths of our problems and to plot a course toward mutually-beneficial solutions.