It is interesting to note that Rush Limbaugh has joined the chorus of people who have all determined that it is the party, not “the ideology,” that has failed.  (Hat tip: Rod Dreher)  In one sense, this is a true statement.  It is true that Republicans did not lose because they were conservative (because they were, by most standards, not that).  It is not true, contrary to Limbaugh’s claims, that they lost because of their lack of “conservative ideology” (whatever that is).  Whatever “the ideology” is, however we might describe it, the GOP embodied it, try as some might to push the defeat off onto allegedly non-ideological, morally compromised “Lincoln Republicans” or whatever fantastical oppositionist faction Headquarters can conjure up to excuse failure.  To hear some disillusioned GOP supporters tell it, it was a lack of commitment to the ideology that brought them down because there continues to be the belief that somewhere among them this ideology perseveres unsullied and unconnected to the party in whose support it was constantly invoked.  Surely, if the GOP stands for certain things in the minds of its adherents, there is no sense in which the party was insufficiently committed to the ideology that calls for strong military action (wherever and whenever!), nationalism, democratism, “creative destruction,” trusting the government, disregarding the law in time of emergency, subordination of all things to the will of the executive, a belief in an epochal struggle for our very existence and the supreme unfitness of the political opposition to even be on the same planet, much less in positions of power.  The list is not entirely exhaustive, but those are some of the main things that have taken priority in GOP rhetoric and the rhetoric of its supporters, and the rhetoric that people use, if we take them at their word, reflects their priorities and their view of the world  In that case, that is the ideology of the party and it is most assuredly that ideology that was repudiated on Tuesday.  

The “ideology” of which they speak was certainly never conservative (far from it!), but if the vehicle of the ideology has failed then the ideology has failed as well.  We are constantly told, usually by some of these same people, that Marxism was discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union–when it was really discredited by its own falsity the moment Karl Marx started putting pen to paper–but watch how many of these people will rush to the defense of their own ideology even after the political vehicle bursts into flames around them.  When a car breaks down, it is normally because there is something wrong with the engine–you cannot blame the car’s failure on the steering wheel and the reclining seats when there is smoke pouring out from under the hood.  One should never rule out corruption, sheer ambition, pride and flawed execution in understanding why a political movement fails to win support and actually manages to lose a good number of its old supporters, but it is impossible to ignore the reality that the things that the partisans claimed as their ”ideas” contributed mightily to both the practical failures of the government on their watch and also contributed to the alienation of people who were previously favourably inclined to them.  Conservatives know that conservatism hasn’t failed, because they know full well that it hasn’t been tried in recent memory.  Whatever dreadful thing that has been inspiring people, though they might call it conservatism, clearly has failed.       

To watch all of the movement folks go rushing for the exits is really quite funny in its way.  It is as if multitudes of people only just now discovered that the people whom they had been pushing, defending and justifying for years were actually, viewed “ideologically,” deviant.  Who knew?  Yes, there have been grumblings and mumblings for years, and there have been some mild criticisms from within the movement proper, but at every crucial turn most of “the movement” proper was on board or willing to tolerate temporary concessions to expediency for the greater good (Medicare Part D takes on a role similar to the NEP, I suppose).  The ideology and the system never fail–it is the obstructionists, deviationists and refractory kulak-types who prevent the realisation of the high ideals of the Movement.  But before I continue, an important distinction needs to be made.

Because conservatism is not an ideology, there are legitimate conservative-minded criticisms than can and should be made against the now-weakened GOP rule, and I have been making some of them for a while.  As Republicans and those who consider themselves conservatives have become more ideological and more consciously favourable to describing what they believe as an “ideology,” they have almost by definition become less conservative than they were before.  A rule of thumb should be that anyone who refers to conservatism as an ideology or accuses the party of lacking in ideological zeal or purity in those specific terms cannot be talking about conservatism, try though he might to describe “the ideology” as a “conservative ideology.”  That phrase is about as meaningful as the idea of an ethereal rock: an ideology cannot be conservative, and conservatives strictly speaking cannot be ideological.  A “conservative ideologue” is as conservative as a zombie is actually alive.

The “ideology” talk seems to have been everywhere on the right in the past two years, where many of those using it have given the idea of “ideology” positive connotations.  Mr. Bush was a leading offender in talking about the “ideology of hope” defeating the “ideology of hate,” which doesn’t really mean anything (all ideologues hope for a man-made utopia or near-utopia, and all of them hate non-ideologues and thought criminals).  Then, cribbing from Lenin, it was time for the “ideological struggle of the 21st century.”  I think a great many people, unaccustomed to this languageand easily fooled into thinking ideology is the same thing as, say, a philosophical persuasion or a religious belief, are inclined to align themselves with people who talk about having an ideology on the grounds, mistaken though they may be, that maybe having an ideology has something to do with having ideas and therefore knowledge and therefore the possibility of a truer understanding of the world. 

Unfortunately, calling what ideology produces ideas is to give it a lot of credit it doesn’t deserve.  When pundits say the GOP is the “party of ideas,” they mean that the GOP is the party with the most clearly hammered-out programmatic action and talking points that can either be barked out on cable television or elaborated upon at length in writing (”central front in the war on terror!”; “it’s not torture!”; “what, do you want the terrorists to win or something?”), but essential to these calls to action are that they are programmatic and tied to specific policies, they can be boiled down to slogans and they are not too terribly complex.  It’s sort of like a game of word association: I say, “Diplomacy” and you say, “Appeasement”; I say, “The government of Iran” and you say, “Islamofascist!”  It’s fun! 

I suppose such things may be necessary for partisan politics (though I am sometimes unclear on why partisan politics are necessary), but to call them ideas is getting a bit carried away.  In some sense, I guess they are ideas, in the way that all sorts of notions that come into our heads are ideas, but if we are talking about the true images or models in our mind that we use in a process of learning, reflection and reasoning that leads us to some intellectual understanding of reality (aletheia) these other things hardly qualify.  At best an ideological slogan points towards some more substantial understanding out of which it has been violently and awkwardly ripped.  Unlike actual ideas, the recognition of which would require extensive reflection and contemplation, these points must be quickly formulated, easily digestible, readily repeatable and, if possible, divorced from their proper context to make them a kind of free-floating assertion which you accept in order to define the intensity of your partisan loyalty.  The difference is very much like the difference between real, informed opinion, which is something based in considerable understanding and training on a given topic, and what we tend to refer to as ”opinions,” which are somewhere between morally satisfying poses and half-baked thoughts.  The ordinary hack no more has ideas than the philistine has a real opinion about the quality of a Rubens.  Like the philistine and beauty, the hack doesn’t know the truth but he knows what he likes (and God help the fool who tries to tell him the truth!).   

Thus we have all been trained to delineate who and what we are by which side on a given “issue” we take.  We have an assortment of labels that we fasten to ourselves to make clear which issues matter to us.  When it has been handed down to us by those who determine these things (who they are and why they get to determine them is not something you are really supposed to talk about) that, for instance, aggressive war is an important “issue” and that support is the right “position” to take on this “issue,” everything else falls into place.  We now know what the right position is, and anyone who disagrees is objectively not one of us (protest though he might that he is remaining true to previously accepted principles) and therefore must be allied with our worst enemies.  Of course, the war won’t be called aggressive war.  That might be harder to digest and repeat.  It will be called a war of liberation.  That’s easy to swallow, and makes you feel satisfied.  See?  It’s easy. 

As it is used, having an ideology supposedly means that you Believe Certain Things Very Strongly, which does discredit to serious, well-considered conviction and mistakes intellectually brittle regurgitation of talking points (or their more elaborate magazine article-length versions) for considered and informed opinion.  In the same way, such a person might think that to be well-spoken you would have to be extremely loud and abrasive or that persuasive rhetoric is simply a matter of shouting, “War on terror!” or “Islamofascism!”  It is perhaps no accident that cheap sloganeering and the free use of the word “ideology” on the right have coincided with the rise of blogging, since it is a venue uniquely suited to the former and the propagation of the latter.