Everyone thinks ideologically, but no one wants to admit it. Most of our responses to events in public life are immediate, firm, and quite untouched by reflection. When I react to a particular political development with enthusiasm or dismay, or to someone’s political judgment with Yes, that is the way things are or That is pernicious nonsense, I am typically acting according to instinct, not rational evaluation. And I am pretty sure I’m not alone. When it comes to politics, we all, most of the time, operate on intellectual autopilot.
We are from infancy creatures of habit, and as we learn to think seriously for ourselves our habits of cognition about politics and life take on increasingly consistent and stable form. We each create a framework of understanding that shapes our reaction to new events and information. The longer we live, the more elaborate that framework becomes. By middle age, at the latest, we almost all have worked out an integrated set of ideas and beliefs about how the world works and ought to work.
Which is to say we have developed an ideology—and ideologies are laborsaving devices. They automatically process and make sense of what the latest news cycle has to offer. It’s hard to imagine our functioning without them. In their absence, after all, we would all face the absurd and impossible prospect of each day recreating from the chaos of information that washes over us a coherent structure of meaning.
Indulgence in ideological thinking may be all but inescapable, but that does not prevent our developing bad consciences—and no small amount of self-deception—about it. Most people are loath to concede that their reactions to events are programmed and reflexive, that they consider new situations or information with anything but disinterested intelligence and objective analysis. Yet a moment’s reflection reveals the truth: We may prefer to think ourselves immune to ideologically determined snap judgments, but who among us is not certain that he detects them every day in most of the people around him?
The fact that we are all susceptible to ideological thinking does not mean, of course, that we are helpless before it. Even the most knee-jerk conservative is not conservative all the time about everything; he will at some point on some issue depart from the conservative consensus. The most mindless of partisans will now and then stumble on an independent thought. And we do have second thoughts. We have instinctive ideological reactions to most things, but we sometimes, on reflection, change our minds.
Sometimes, indeed, we change them radically and comprehensively. Once fully formed, ideologies are durable things, but mid-life conversions are hardly unknown. The transition of FIRST THINGS’ founding editor Richard John Neuhaus from left to right, for example, was unusual but not shocking. A considerable number of his fellow neoconservatives had followed the same intellectual trajectory.
And in at least occasional instances, the twice born become the thrice born. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, during his service in the Nixon administration, was perhaps the most prominent of the left-to-right neocons—though the term was not yet in common use—but after his election to the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1976 he reclaimed his identity as a liberal (if a sometimes idiosyncratic one).
The question of why people change their minds takes us to the prior matter of how they make them up in the first place. The making of an ideology is normally a lengthy process; it is also, finally, a mysterious one. Children in the first instance almost always take up their parents’ view of things, including their politics. But even those who never repudiate that initial unthinking choice feel the need to think their way into it for themselves. No one wants to admit—even if in some deep sense it may be true—that he’s a Republican because his father was one. (Or, for that matter, that he’s not a Republican because his father was one.)
We need reasons for our ideological identities that make intellectual sense to us. Yet we know—again, if only by looking at others—that rational deliberation is but one, and not necessarily the most important, of the factors that determine where we will make our ideological home. Beyond our parents’ example (and a majority of people duplicate their parents’ politics and general outlook on life), there are economic and social interests, racial and ethnic characteristics, religious convictions, the influence of peers and respected authority figures, and the myriad other things—including, not incidentally, genetic predisposition—that go into making us the kind of people we are.
However we arrive at them, ideologies do shape our thinking. (And, by extension, our associations: In George Will’s nice phrase, ideas cluster and people cluster politically.) The trick is to not let our cognitive instincts take over our thinking entirely. The cultivation of self-doubt is an intellectual and moral virtue, even if, pushed too far, it can leave us incapable of decisive action. As RJN regularly reminded us, we need to learn the fine art of acting in the courage of uncertainty. (In his case, truth be told, the acting part came more naturally than the uncertainty.)
People of faith need to be especially sensitive to ideology’s lures. It is not for nothing that Enlightenment thinkers, in the aftermath of the post-Reformation wars of religion, sought a domesticated Christianity purged of the doctrinal certainties and intensities that had torn Europe apart. It took Catholics and Protestants a long time to realize (in another Neuhaus formulation) that it is God’s will that we not kill each other over disagreements about God’s will.
Still today, we too commonly witness putative spokesmen for the Deity invoking the gospel in serene assurance that it mandates a particular set of comprehensive political preferences. Pat Robertson or Jim Wallis, take your choice.
In light of Christianity’s unenviable record of encouraging ideologies of the most rigid and militant sort, one sympathetically recalls Herbert Butterfield’s advice in Christianity and History (1950) that we should “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.” But perhaps, as my friend Wilfred McClay has argued recently in these pages (“Whig History at Eighty,” March), that puts the matter too baldly. While he agrees that it is presumptuous of us too readily to claim knowledge of God’s purposes in history, McClay asks whether it is not another, and perhaps greater, presumption for us un-Godly creatures “to assume a God’s-eye view of events” that comfortably relieves us of the broadly civilizing tasks it is given us to pursue as best we can.
It is the assurance of the gospel that should free Christians from the compulsion to grasp for the illusory assurances that ideologies put on offer. It is not wrong for us to attempt to discern, according to our best lights, that set of beliefs about human flourishing that most adequately approximates, however provisionally and imperfectly, the God-given ends of justice in a fallen world. That is what in any case people do by nature. But even as we are well advised to put not our faith in princes, so also does it make equivalent sense not to place on our schemes of human betterment more moral weight than they can bear.
We look foolish enough at our most undeceived. It only adds to the spectacle when we rely, often quite mindlessly, on the flimsy imitations of the transcendent with which, sustained only by occasional glimpses of the real thing, we on our pilgrim way are condemned to make do.