Society and Culture

Missing the mark on ‘ideology’

In the hometown paper this morning, Charles Lane scolds “ideologues” for being insufficiently willing to compromise on principle, saying that a slavish attachment to beliefs is ultimately bad politics. You’ve seen this movie before.

Lane uses the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the topic of University of Minnesota law prof Dale Carpenter’s much-discussed recent book, to illustrate his point: Lawrence would never have been litigated all the way to the Supreme Court had the attorneys for Texas not been so blinded by ideology.

But what Lane misses is that Lawrence vindicates rather than vitiates the case for making and holding principled stands. It is only by standing on principle and litigating for these principles—whether in courts of law or courts of public opinion—that opinion changes and bad ideas and flawed ideologies give way to better ones.

It is true that if Texas had dropped the matter, Lawrence would never have been decided. But it’s equally true that if the plaintiffs, Lambda Legal, and the gay-rights legal community hadn’t stood on principle and litigated the case, it wouldn’t have been decided either. Like with many landmark legal cases, two principles went into court, but only one walked out.

This is equally true in the realm of practical politics. America is litigating, mostly through elections but also in the high court today, a discussion about the relationship between individuals and the state, free enterprise, the welfare state, and economic growth. This litigation is based on principle and on ideology. And it’s better to have this contest between principles than to try to paper over what aren’t cracks but chasms. That never ends well.

As Jonah Goldberg writes in his forthcoming book The Tyranny of Cliches, “An ideology, at the most fundamental level, is simply a checklist of ideas you have about the world. Having an ideology doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed; it means you’ve come to conclusions about how the world works at some basic level.” Ideology is not a bad word.

Lane is correct that, if your goal is to hold power for its own sake, then standing on principle is foolish; far better to chase the median voter. But if your goal is to change minds and move the median voter, then standing on principle is the only real option.

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