The Blog

Alive and Kicking

Reports of conservatism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

11:00 PM, Feb 24, 2009 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

No person of sound judgment is in favor of "ideology," if by that word one is referring to the holistic systems of thought represented by Marxism or Jacobinism or Fascism, all of which repudiate constitutional politics. If the term is to be used differently as the basis of a fundamental taxonomy in a democratic nation, it would seem only proper to define it in a way that makes sense. Tanenhaus instead employs it, in one of the oldest ideological tricks in the book, as a tool of denunciation. At most, what one can glean from Tanenhaus and Dionne is that conservatives, besides vilifying certain categories of people (something liberals never do), put more emphasis on explicit principles or foundations than do liberals, who prefer to preach their in-tunedness with the march of humanity and their progressive values. (What, after all, is the need for explicit principles if everyone who counts already knows what is right?) But denouncing a stance that takes a great first principle seriously as "ideology" without exploring the merits of that principle would seem almost as unreasonable as defining pragmatism as a position without principles that embraces change for change's sake.

The end of conservative authors seek to create for themselves a neutral perch from which they can peer down and pronounce a priori objective judgments, calling, for example, a John Boehner or a Mitch McConnell an ideologue and a Nancy Pelosi or a Harry Reid a pragmatist. Pragmatism is the magic word to describe what liberals want, but do not want to argue for. It is at this point, as Burke might have said, that we enter "the fairy land of philosophy."

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.