Monday, July 20, 2020

How Ideology Works - and Why You Cannot Have a Rational Discussion with an Ideologue

Solzhenitsyn once noted that, while greed and revenge can fuel the killing of a few people, to kill millions, you need an ideology. While definitions for “ideology” vary, and the concept is a bit slippery, here is my version, for use in this post. 

Ideology: a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

In addition to this, I believe that for ideas to become a true ideology, they must be believed to be absolutely true, in all circumstances, and against all evidence. 

Let me give an example. My worldview is in significant part derived from Christ’s command - the greatest commandment regarding fellow humans: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. While that guides my life and my political vision, it is not a true ideology, because it isn’t specific enough when it comes to policy, it could manifest differently depending on the circumstances, and the specifics of implementation could easily change based on evidence. You could convince me, using evidence, that a particular policy is or is not loving toward my neighbor. 

In contrast, here is an ideology I recently ran up against:

“Government is bad, private sector is good. Thus, we should fight against the public sector and regulation.” 

In context, here is the discussion. A friend was noting that the best treatment we have for Covid-19 is expected to cost thousands of dollars for each patient, despite being an existing drug developed years ago. Predictably, those with the above ideology jumped into make some ludicrous claims:

(1) The cost is high because US healthcare is too regulated. 

(2) Regulation would make things worse

(3) Single Payer or other universal healthcare would be a catastrophe

(4) If we would just get the government out of healthcare, all our problems would be solved. 

And, of course, he had to give a bunch of talking points, such as “do you want healthcare to be like the DMV,” which pretty clearly indicates he has never in his live had to dispute a claim with an insurance company - something I do as part of my legal practice - or he would have realized how logical the DMV is by comparison. 

It’s pretty obvious that this is an ideology. It is believed to be true, and dictate policy in all situations, regardless of the evidence. 

I jumped in a bit to point out some indisputable facts:

(1) The entire rest of the first world (and some of the third) does in fact have universal (and often single payer) healthcare. 

(2) The US pays twice as much per capita for healthcare, despite failing to cover tens of millions of people. 

(3) Most outcomes are statistically similar in the US and the rest of the first world, however:

(4) For some significant outcomes, such as maternal and infant mortality, our outcomes are significantly worse than the rest of the first world. Furthermore, bad outcomes are tied to poverty, and outcomes have gotten worse during my lifetime, despite the cost of healthcare skyrocketing during that time.

(5) The US has less regulated healthcare than the rest of the first world, so it can’t be too much regulation driving the fact that we pay so much more. 

(6) We already have Medicare, which is more popular and less wasteful than the privatized sector of our healthcare system - why not expand that to cover everyone?

Before said commenter bailed out, he (and it’s usually a male) stated that he was “highly suspicious” of all my points, despite the fact that I supported them with evidence. (And he was clearly completely uninformed He was literally highly suspicious that healthcare costs less elsewhere (that’s factually indisputable), or that outcomes are the same or better elsewhere (again, not factually disputable). 

The reason he had to do this is that the facts - the very reality as it exists in the world - conflicted with his ideology, and he couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance. 

That’s how ideology works.



Ideology isn’t the same thing as religion, but there can be some overlap. My example of my own religion, above, is non-ideological religion. Ultimately, my political views hinge on what accomplishes my goal, which is the common good. But how we get there is not a matter of ideology. There are different ways to get there, and circumstances change. What worked in agrarian 1500s is unlikely to work in an industrialized 21st Century. Ideology believes in the dogma, not the goal. 

That said, the overlap can be troubling. Ideology, whether it is Communism, Fascism, or Social Darwinist economics (which is, in practice, what the guy was arguing for), is usually believed with the same fervor as religion. In fact, it becomes a person’s religion. 

Peter Enns recently pointed out white Evangelicals do not actually get their views from the Bible. Rather, the Bible functions as a weapon to baptize Evangelical political ideology. Bits of the Bible are twisted to support Social Darwinist economic policies like the one above - they are used to justify denying basic benefits of society to the poor and various minorities. 

And that is kind of at the root of this. 

Ideology functions to eliminate the need to think critically, morally, or empathetically. 

It ends the conversation by stating an ideology that may not be questioned. Government bad, profit good. No matter what. End of conversation. Those who cannot afford healthcare can go ahead and die, because my ideology says so. Facts be damned. Reality be damned. 

It isn’t just healthcare, of course. It is so many other things, from climate change to mass incarceration to wearing masks to prevent Covid transmission. 

On all of these issues, I have presented evidence - peer reviewed evidence, duplicated studies, examples of how other countries do things - none of it matters. Ideology wins for so many people.

Here in America, in the 21st Century, this isn’t equal across the political spectrum. Because we do not have a functional Left, the few true leftists we have don’t have much of a platform. Thus, the really crazy far left is pretty obscure. I mean, I guess Natural News? But by global and historical standards, what we call the “Left” in the US is really Center Right to Center. I mean, even the pretty Right Wing guys in the rest of the first world, like Boris Johnson, are fully in favor of universal healthcare as infrastructure, and affordable higher education. 

What we have in the US really breaks down like this: Mainstream Democrats - Center Right; “leftist” Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - Center; Republican Mainstream before Trump - Far Right; Trumpian Republicans - full on Fascism

And that is why most of the time you find ideology that is impervious to facts, you find it on the Right. 

This is also why, as Stephen Colbert pithily noted: “The facts have a well-known liberal bias.” 

At its core, the modern American Right isn’t so much conservative as reactionary - that is, it is trying to return to a mythological past that never really existed.

That, inherently, is a reality-denying exercise. Which is why ideology is necessary to sustain it. 

Sadly, this is why Evangelicalism is in the state it is in. It is why I pretty much cannot discuss anything political or religious with the overwhelming majority of Evangelicals anymore. (Including a lot of extended family.) Reality doesn’t matter. The obvious cruelty inherent in their policies doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Empathy doesn’t matter. Nothing I can say or show them will convince them to reconsider their ideology. Because that is the core of their religion. Not Christ, not ethics, not traditionally religious concerns. Rather, it is the embrace of a certain reactionary political ideology that is the core of their beliefs. And they cannot deal with the cognitive dissonance when that political ideology is challenged, so they have to fall back on repeating platitudes and slogans and talking points. And they wonder why young people are leaving the faith in ever-increasing numbers? 

I think that, when the history books are written, Covid-19 will be recognized as a turning point in a number of ways. It will be, for example, the point at which global leadership pivoted away from the United States. From now on, most of the world will ignore us and our opinion. After all, we couldn’t even deal with a pandemic in a remotely constructive way - we are far worse at this point than most of the rest of the world. At the Federal level, the Trump Administration seems content to just ignore things and rush to open everything back up in the hope the stock market gets Trump re-elected. At the ground level, belief in science seems to have split on partisan lines, with the Right mostly in denial, and many refusing to even wear masks. Again, reality has a strong “leftist” bias here, because “leftist” in a pandemic is nothing more or less than a willingness to take action based on the best scientific information we have, and adapt the plan as better information becomes available. The Right, in contrast, has broken down into a cesspit of conspiracy theories (most of which require that medical professionals like my wife are intentionally committing fraud in order to boost hospital revenues - in reality, they are being run ragged by the explosion of Covid patients, which are on the verge of blowing past normal capacity.) And, again, this goes back to ideology. When you believe that science is a conspiracy, that disease is something that comes from “those people,” that leaving a large portion of the population without health coverage and paid sick leave is necessary or economic catastrophe will ensue, well, you end up with the shitshow we have. 

Ultimately, neither viruses nor our atmosphere give one flying fuck about ideology. Reality doesn’t care about your ideology. Denial of reality will bite you in the butt, as we are just beginning to see on a global scale. I wish I could say I have hope that people enslaved by their ideologies will see the light. Maybe some will. But most will probably go to their graves chanting slogans and platitudes and talking points. And that is because abandoning their ideologies would require them to look inward at the way their cruelty, greed, ignorance, and hypocrisy have damaged everyone else. And so, it is more comfortable to believe that the world itself is wrong, and they are right.


The sad thing is, look what the ideology is trying to protect: a system that leaves tens of millions without coverage, leads to thousands of bankruptcies for medical bills, has the same or worse outcomes, and costs twice as much. That’s worth it? We have to settle for that? We can’t do better?

And that’s before you get to the history. We have the fucked up health system we do because it was designed to be racist. We refused to go to universal coverage back in the 1940s because the all-white American Medical Association didn’t want to have to treat people of color. Full stop. 

And this still colors our debate. Most middle-class white people do not want to have to put up with the shitty care available to poor minority neighborhoods, where hospitals are few and grossly underfunded, doctors are rare and have waiting lists, and medical outcomes are poor.

I am still astounded, however, that so many are so eager to defend the idea that our society should just let a significant percentage of the population go without meaningful access to medical care. “I got mine, sucks to be you” is the motto of the American Right. 

The point of the post is this, however: you can’t really have a meaningful discussion with someone in the thrall of ideology. You can’t counter with facts and evidence, and you can’t appeal to empathy. Nothing pierces the defenses built around the ideology, which must be protected at all costs. 


For a good perspective on the political machine that created this ideology, Doug Muder has a good discussion here

For just one of many stories of how it is in other countries, here is a quick and accurate one. I have friends and relatives who have lived overseas, and the idea that the rest of the first world is worse off than the US is so laughable as to be hilarious if it weren’t just sad. We could do so much better, and for less money.


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