Does Ideology Matter?

Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie argues that the Big Government consensus that has marked American politics since the New Deal has solidified to the point where “Left” and “Right” are virtually meaningless.

[D]oes it really matter, say, whether it’s liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi or conservative Sen. Rick Santorum pushing for a minimum-wage increase? Whether it’s Sen. Ted Stevens pushing for content regulation of cable and satellite TV or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton spearheading an attack on the dread menace of video games? Sen. Trent Lott or Sen. Robert Byrd shipping the federal treasury to constituents back home a dollar at a time? Attorney General Janet Reno or Attorney General John Ashcroft pushing for a surveillance state?

It’s an old joke—among libertarians, anyway, a famously funny group (just read the novels of Ayn Rand sometime)—that conservatives want to be your father and liberals want to be your mother. Despite superficial differences, both groups want to be your parent and treat you as a child who must be shielded from your own worst impulses. This isn’t to say that specific policies and individual politicians don’t matter, but it is to suggest that in the aggregate, liberals and conservatives are less like Cain and Abel and more like Chang and Eng.

There’s not much doubt about that. As I’ve argued numerous times, this is simply the nature of a political system where two centrist catch-all parties vie for power. The “center” constantly moves, sometimes “left” and sometimes “right” but the two parties are seldom that far about at an aggregate level. George Will once likened it to a football game played between the 40 yard lines.

The chief benefit of such a system is that it prevents radical swings when the “out” party is elected to power. Unfortunately, that’s also the chief drawback.

Both parties advocate big government, just in somewhat different forms. Democrats tend to be in favor of redistributionist policies that shift wealth from the successful to the unsucessful and regulation to protect people from their own foolishness. At the same time, they tend to favor individual privacy and want to “get government out of the bedroom.” Republicans, conversely, support a giant military-security apparatus and to enforce traditional mores. Yet, they support “getting government off our backs” in the form of laissez-faire economic policy.

From a libertarian point of view, neither of these options is very attractive. Most American libertarians will chose the lesser evil, depending on whether they are more interested in making money or getting high and/or engaging in nonconformist sexual practices.

It’s hardly surprising, however, that it has worked out this way. While Americans are culturally libertarian, theoretically supporting maximum freedom and supporting the “rugged individualist” mythos, the vast majority utter the phrase “there oughta be a law” several times a day. People may claim that they want small government but they simply want to cut programs from which they don’t personally benefit.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What concerns me is that, at least to my eyes, more self-identified liberatarians are arming themselves and making more truculent noises.

  2. Bandit says:

    ‘depending on whether they are more interested in making money or getting high and/or engaging in nonconformist sexual practices. ‘

    Why not all 3?

  3. Anderson says:

    My vague recollection of Marxist theory of ideology is that the economic realities are invisible to most people, who occupy themselves with the “superstructure” of ideologies.

    Without buying into that, it does seem that the parties are interested in maintaining the status quo while fighting about either ephemeral social issues (gay marriage, stem cells) or symbolic economic issues (estate tax, minimum wage). The fundamentals aren’t up for grabs.

    Switching gears from Marx to Burke, is that such a bad thing?

  4. cian says:

    An outsider’s perspective- With the christian right gaining influence over the Republican Party, and leftest blogs fighting hard to become the dominant voice for Democrats, I think the gap will grow, not on matters of real substance, but certainly on social issues and, of course, the Iraq war.

    Listening to US talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity,and Anne Coulter, we in the UK are amazed not only by their hatred for anyone even mildly on the left, but also by the huge audience figures they clock up. While there are a lot of crazies on the left (Micheal Moore etc) they don’t come anywhere close to these guys and gal either in terms of vitriol or popularity.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that at present the centre in American politics no longer has the power to motivate or inspire while the worst are full of it.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    cian, sounds like you’ve been reading Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood dimm’d tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.