Is Ideology Necessary?

Okay.  So I was hoping, when I asked myself that question, that I could reason myself to a “no” answer without much difficulty.  I was thinking, in my typically specious manner, that ideological purity is the source of most of the world’s evils these days.  That is, until I gave the matter the thought it deserved.

The abolition movement was passionately ideological, as was the temperance movement.  I view the first of these as absolutely necessary for those of us who live in the United States to fulfill the lines in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address that speak of us all being “created equal.”  So maybe abolitionism was a “good” ideology.

What about the temperance movement?  I happen to believe that ideology went too far, ultimately spawning a backlash, though one could argue that the original ideology was founded in the interests of public health, and was consistent with lines in the preamble to the United States Constitution about promoting the “general welfare” or “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.”  Or something like that.

The point here is that when I think back on the various ideologies that have captured out nation’s imaginations for awhile, some appear to have had long term effects that were mostly positive, while others turned out to be not so positive.  But the long term effects weren’t always known at the time when passions were at their peaks.

Here are few more ideological movements that come to mind, in no particular order.  Note that some were arguably beneficial to our society, while others were arguably less so, or had effects that were predominately negative:

  • The civil rights movement
  • The “red scare” and the McCarthy anti-communist crusade
  • The anti-Vietnam War movement
  • The Know-Nothing movement (and the recent “Build That Wall!” echo of Know-Nothingism)
  • The movement to build public school systems in every state of the Union
  • The Jim Crow movement, including Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi ideologies
  • The movement to ensure immunization from all children against childhood diseases
  • The movement to add fluoride to water supplies across the nation
  • The movement to require seat belt usage

And you could add your own bullet points.

What troubles me, I think, is that some of our nation’s greatest leaps forward may have resulted from the narrowly focused passions of single-issue ideologues.  So much for my hope that we could make something a bit more reasonable out of all this.

Or is there yet some hope?

Rather than focus on just the ideological nature of these movements, or their narrow focus, perhaps we can observe that the historical ideologies we deem most beneficial tended to be those born of compassion for our fellow citizens, while the more problematic ideologies tended to be born of a fear of some segment of society that was different from our own?

I’m not quite ready to confirm that I have proven that theorem quite yet, but I think it’s worth toying with thoughts in that general direction.  My hypothesis would go something like this:  When determining the virtue of any social policy, a society should consider the motivation behind the policy.  If born of fear of a subgroup of our world’s citizens, the policy is likely to result in long term consequences that are negative to the society, even if there are short-term consequences that seem beneficial.

So maybe it’s not “being ideological” that’s so bad.  Maybe we need more tools for determining the motivations underlying our ideologies.

If they exist.