I suppose all political parties are a mixture of ideological and pragmatic elements.
Some parties are predominantly pragmatic, however, and deserve to be labeled pragmatic parties; others are predominantly ideological, and deserve to be labeled ideological parties.
Generally speaking, Communist parties have been ideological parties; that is, their aim has been to use political power to transform the beliefs and values of this or that country so as to bring those beliefs and values into close alignment with a Marxist philosophical ideal. Once in power (e.g., in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Viet Nam), though, these parties began drifting in a more pragmatic direction, and if they remained in power long enough (as was the case in the USSR and as is today the case in China), they gradually became more pragmatic than ideological, although without renouncing the ideology.
In the United States, major political parties (Democrats, Whigs, Republicans) have, with only the rarest of exceptions, been predominantly pragmatic. The ideological element, while never entirely lacking, has been no more than a minor thing.
When I say a political party is pragmatic, I mean that its main aim is to confer benefits upon its supporters — such benefits as jobs, tax cuts, old age pensions, welfare payments, free or subsidized food, housing, transportation, education, etc.
But there have been exceptions to the pragmatism of American parties. At the time of the 1856 presidential election, the new Republican party, which had almost overnight become one of the nation's major parties, was predominantly ideological. It was an anti-slavery party — although not an abolitionist party — if "abolition" is defined as the non-gradual abolition of slavery in the United States. The party was definitely anti-slavery. Its immediate aim was to "contain" slavery; that is, to prevent the spread of slavery outside of the slave states then in the Union. Its long-term aim was to preserve the Union while slavery gradually, but inevitably, withered away in the slave states.
As an almost purely ideological party in 1856, the Republicans — running John C. Fremont as their candidate — were decisively defeated in the presidential election. Growing politically wiser over the next four years, by 1860 they made alliances with two pragmatic constituencies, Eastern businessmen interested in multiplying their wealth, and midwestern farmers interested in acquiring cheap Western farmland.
And in the 1860 election, they ran as their candidate a man of the soil who was also a successful corporate lawyer, a man (Abraham Lincoln) who was a perfect blend of ideologue and pragmatist. This time they won. Twenty years later, slavery having been abolished, they had become a decidedly — indeed an overwhelmingly — pragmatic party.
Another exception to the rule that American political parties are predominantly pragmatic parties is, I suggest, today's Democratic party. Before saying anything about the present-day Democratic party, however, I should note (full disclosure) that I myself am an old Democrat — a paleo-Democrat one might say — who has been profoundly disillusioned with his old party because of its ideological turn.
To be sure, today's Democratic party still contains plenty of pragmatists; not all of them have been driven away. The party still tries to "deliver the goods" to its supporters, but increasingly it focuses on an ideology that it wishes to make dominant in American society and culture. Roughly speaking, and keeping in mind that new elements might be added at any moment, today's Democratic ideology has three main elements.
- Support for nearly unlimited sexual freedom: that is, support for premarital sex, out-of-wedlock childbirth, abortion, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexualism, same-sex marriage, transgenderism (including transgenderism for young kids), sex-change surgery. And this support includes taxpayer subsidies for some of these activities (e.g., free contraception, free abortion, free sex-change surgery).
- Anti-Christianity. This takes four main forms:
- Anti-white-ism. I refer here to the belief that America, a predominantly white country, remains today what it has (allegedly) always been since 1619 — a racist country. There are two forms of this racism:
(a) The personal racism of most white persons — but not all white persons, for there are honorable exceptions here and there: whites who are more or less ashamed of their whiteness;
(b) An impersonal kind of racism called "systemic" or "structural" racism. Since this is built into the very structure of American society, a structure that benefits all whites, this means that even the "good" whites (those who are not personally racist) are implicated in this.
In a pragmatic political party (the kind of party the Democratic party used to be), ideologues — by the nature of things — have only a small amount of influence. But in an ideological party (such as the Democratic party is today), ideologues — again, by the very nature of things — have an immense influence. They may even be said to control the party, for they control the party's ideas.
Sometimes these ideologues have held political office (e.g., Lenin, Trotsky, and Bukharin in the early USSR). But in America today they operate behind the scenes. They are leftist intellectuals found at universities and progressive think tanks. Their ideas, planted and nourished in these ideological hothouses, eventually "leak out" (like a virus) and infect, first, the mainstream media, then the entertainment industry, then well-educated parts of the general public, and finally rank-and-file Democratic politicians.
These last soon learn to speak like ideologues. And so we find Democratic politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden claiming to speak for the people, but mimicking the patois of leftist sociology professors.
David Carlin "A Party Transformed." The Catholic Thing (May 14, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: email@example.com.
Image: The Laughing Fool by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (attributed), c. 1500 [Davis Museum, Wellesley, Massachusetts]
David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.Copyright © 2021 The Catholic Thing
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