Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Ideologues at Work

If there is a single word that describes the miasma that emanates from our nation’s capital, it would be arrogance. Not the arrogance of power, (though there is that, too) but the arrogance of the ideologue.

Russell Kirk,* in his prescient 1969 book Enemies of the Permanent Things, defined the ideologue as a political fanatic who believes “that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.” The ideologue, he goes on to say, is dogmatic, Utopian, demands unquestioning agreement and disparages the motives, intelligence (and sometimes the patrimony) of those in opposition. Nancy (AstroTurf) Pelosi, among others, comes to mind.

A contemporary example of ideologues at work is the effort to remake the American health care system. Critics correctly point out that the economics of the legislation make no sense; the costs are too high, the savings speculative and the tax increases prohibitive. What these critics don’t understand is that none of that matters.

As Kirk explains, “Real thinking is a painful process; and the ideologue resorts to the anesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and the grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality he stretches or chops away to conform to his dream-pattern of human nature and society.”

In the Journal of the American Medical Association, June 18, 2008, Ezekiel Emanuel, the president’s health care advisor, explains what health care reform requires. “Savings,” he wrote, “will require changing how doctors think about their patients.” In his view, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath too seriously, “as an imperative to do everything for the patient regardless of the cost or effects on others.” His prescription (Hastings Center Report, Nov.-Dec. 1996) is that doctors consider the good of the community rather than the needs of individual patients. Ezekiel believes care should be reserved for those who are likely to contribute most to the common good, not provided to those “who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens . . .” Needless to say, the disabled and the elderly are not on his list. Another ideologue, in another time and place, designated such individuals “useless eaters” and quietly (at first) disposed of them.

On Emanuel’s list of beneficiaries, adolescents and young adults trump infants. He explains, “Adolescents have received substantial education and parental care, investments that will be wasted without a complete life. Infants, by contrast, have not yet received these investments.” (The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9661, Pages 423 – 431, 31 January 2009.)

This kind of parsing, Kirk explains, is very much in keeping with how ideologues think. “The ideologue promises social, rather than personal, salvation; and this salvation, occurring in time, is to be achieved through a radical transformation of social institutions, involving the destruction of existing law and institutions, and probably requiring violence against the present possessors of power.” Unless, of course, the ideologues already have the power they need.

When Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff and brother of Ezekiel, said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before,” he was being candid. What he didn’t say was that “the things you couldn’t do before” could not be done because the electorate opposed them. It is not outside the bounds of such strategizing to create or exaggerate a crisis, for a noble cause, of course. As Lenin, perhaps the most infamous ideologue of all, said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

Crisis or not, the ideologues’ grand designs are difficult to accomplish due to the limitations placed on government by the American Founders. However, appointed czars, not vetted by Congress, can move the ideological agenda forward and executive branch agencies (the EPA and the IRS to mention only two) may accomplish by regulation what cannot be achieved legislatively.

As others have written, the ideologues see far beyond the next election. Nancy Pelosi recently importuned her colleagues to approve the health care bill by fair means or foul, saying it doesn’t matter how many of them lose their jobs as long as the president’s health care legislation becomes law. Pelosi understands, as does the president, that doing so will change the nation, perhaps irrevocably, greatly expand the role of government, and diminish the independence of that pesky electorate.

Kirk turns to Edmund Burke** to describe a hubris that transcends time and place. “We moderns tend to be puffed up with a little petty private rationality, thinking ourselves wiser than the prophets and the law givers, and are disposed to trade upon the trifling bank and capital of our private intelligence. That way lies ruin. But though the individual is foolish, the species is wise; and given time, the species judges rightly. The moral precepts and the social conventions which we obey represent the considered judgments and filtered experience of many generations of prudent and dutiful human beings—the most sagacious of our species. It is folly to ignore this inherited wisdom in favor of our own arrogant little notions of right and wrong, of profit and loss, of justice and injustice.”

We would be well advised to heed Burke’s warning and Kirk’s advice. “If American order, justice, and freedom are to endure, some of us must look into the first principles of politics and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to the troubles of our time.”

* Russell Kirk  (1918-1994) Political theorist, historian and novelist and one of the most influential social and literary critics of the 20th Century. He is credited with launching the contemporary conservative movement.
** Edmund Burke (1729-97) British parliamentarian, orator, and political philosopher, strong defender of constitutionalism, and regarded as the founder of modern day conservatism.


1 Quinn Woodworth { 03.26.10 at 4:51 am }

Your post about the Ideologues was informative and interesting. I am not acquainted with the author, Russell Kirk, or his book. I will have to look him up. He provides some good definitions (and understanding) of current politicians’ rhetoric. I appreciate knowing these things.


2 2maik7 { 06.29.15 at 1:29 pm }

Unfortunately, there were ideologues on both sides of that issue. No partisan ever wants to admit they are motivated by ideology rather than reason. I question any person’s ability to accurately understand the Constitution when their mind and critical faculties have been so surrendered to a political ideology.


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