Ideological Infarctions

SANTIAGO – Donald Trump’s health-care bill – nicknamed “Ryancare,” after House Speaker Paul Ryan – would have deprived 24 million Americans of health insurance, according to the US Congressional Budget Office. But that was not the reason the most conservative Republicans rejected it. Even though it would have handed Trump and their own party a political victory, conservatives refused to vote for the bill because it did not go far enough in abolishing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) they hate.

Ryancare would have retained Obamacare’s rule preventing insurers from excluding people with preexisting conditions. And it would have provided tax credits to help low-income people buy health insurance. But to the conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus, both features, though popular, smack of socialism. Their opposition was a triumph of ideology over political expedience.

The return of ideology is not only a right-wing phenomenon, and it is not confined to the United States. Consider Jeremy Corbyn, who has moved the United Kingdom’s Labour Party sharply to the left and away from the pragmatic approach of Tony Blair’s New Labour. His dismal standing in the polls suggests that Corbyn, like conservative Republicans, prefers feeling ideologically pure to being politically effective.

But what exactly is ideology? And why is it making a comeback?

Political ideology, like cholesterol, comes in two kinds: good and bad. Good ideology is an organizing device to make sense of a complex world. Economists’ models are a kind of ideology: they simplify the world, emphasize certain causal links and minimize others, and allow us to get a sense of who is doing what to whom. As Dani Rodrik of Harvard University puts it, “understanding requires simplification.”

Is capitalism just? Some people would answer that it is, because competition in markets ensures that workers are paid for what they produce; other people would answer that it isn’t, because the owners of capital shamelessly exploit those workers. These (ideological) propositions could be right or wrong. But by putting them forward, and confronting them with reality, we learn something about the world.

A less solemn – and more fashionable – word for ideology is narrative. Writers and successful politicians have long understood the importance of a good narrative. Social scientists are only now beginning to appreciate the key role it plays.

Nobel laureate economist Robert Schiller defines a narrative as a “simple story or easily expressed explanation of events.” A new “narrative economics,” Schiller maintains, should study “the spread and dynamics of popular narratives... – particularly those of human interest or emotion – and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.”

If the predictions of a narrative or ideology conflict with reality, one can either change the narrative or change the facts. The second option is where bad narratives – and bad ideology – come in, and where the politics of post-truth starts.

It is an option that arises because ideologies are not just learning devices; they also serve social and psychological purposes. In their classic 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, German social theorist Theodor Adorno and his coauthors pointed out that “ideologies have...different degrees of appeal” depending on “the individual’s needs and the degree to which these needs are being satisfied or frustrated.” More recently, NYU social psychologist John Jost has argued that “ideologies and other belief systems grow out of an attempt to satisfy the epistemic, existential, and relational needs of our species.”

To understand the recent comeback of ideology, zoom in on the word relational in that quote. Someone who believes that capitalism is unjust shares something with others who hold the same belief. If that coincidence endures for some period of time, and if the holders of that belief meet, discuss, organize, and agitate in favor of that belief, a group identity develops. In the end, ideology may be more important as the glue holding the group together than as a source of enlightenment on the nature of capitalism.

As Chile’s finance minister a few years ago, I learned this lesson the hard way. At an end-of-year celebration with parliamentarians of my own coalition, I toasted our success at getting many high-quality bills passed with opposition support. The toast fell flat; the room was silent. Then a senior senator spoke up: “Who cares about broad support, Minister. To keep our coalition united, we need bills that allow us to pick a fight with the opposition.” That was a Chilean leftist speaking, but the logic (or illogic) was similar to that of the right-wing Freedom Caucus that sank Ryancare.

So the politics of extreme ideology is, in the end, a kind of identity politics. One casualty is truth: the prize goes to arguments that cement group identity, not to arguments that stick to the facts. Another casualty is the quality of public policy: evidence-based policies that change according to circumstances on the ground, or pragmatic approaches that retain policies that work and discard those that don’t, cannot sustain a group’s clear identity if the policies the group advocates are shifting all the time.

But the very reliance of ideological politics on identity also sets limits to its revival. As Columbia University’s Mark Lilla has persuasively argued, in complex and diverse democratic societies, political appeals based only on narrow identities – whether linked to class, religion, ethnicity, or, yes, ideology – ultimately are doomed. If you appeal only to zealots, in the end only zealots will vote for you. Just ask Corbyn.

But in other cases, those limits become evident only with time. Between now and then, the politics of extreme ideology, like the bad cholesterol it resembles, can do a great deal of damage. The US health-care debate is one example. There will be others.