Historically, we’ve relied on expert thinkers like Karl Marx or Louis Althusser to define complicated words like “ideology” for us. If you’re not familiar with their intellectual contributions, a decent starting point begins with thinking about how we commonly think about political ideology. It usually entails one of our favorite buzzwords: division.
Here’s what it does: ideology propagates a latent barrier between ourselves and people who are different from us. It also never begins with ourselves. What this means is that, as both Marx himself and neo-Marxist theoreticians would agree, ideology is reproduced. But how? One way ideology sets up division is through government. Our systems of government fortify the varying, often antagonistic, assumptions that underlie our complicated ways of being and the value systems that undergird them. And sometimes, many times, the passing down of those assumptions leads us to failure.
Assumptions about political difference, for example, can cause unbridgeable divide because they’re often reproduced, handed-down from powerful systems of control. Our political climates often create trenches of separation between citizens by developing legal and economic policies that create radical divisions. They perpetuate things like inequality and class struggle, things most of us can agree we despise, through political antagonisms over things like hyper-regulation and unwise public spending. Furthermore, political difference in America makes it overall difficult for leaders to decide what legislative acts produce the greatest value. In effect, we end up making band aid fixes to serious problems.
Despite all its successes, America has undoubtedly failed to live up to our current definition of “public responsibility” and has created band aid fix after band aid fix to cover up our deeply invasive and pandemic political illnesses. We let students get shot, we let poor people go unfed, we let unsupported mothers fail at supporting their children, and so much more. And even where programs exist to positively address these shortcomings, they produce even more barriers to entry that they get unused by the folks who need them most. Meanwhile, many of us stockpile our wealth out of some generically selfish ambition, without any apparent hope of it being used in ways that sustainably support the people who have no access, no ability, or no practical right to a higher quality of life. How irresponsible! Even though we are most certainly to blame for this evil in a very personal way, perhaps even more blame is rightly due the system we’ve established. It can be so much better.
Recently, I watched a video, more the continuation of a non-establishmentarian discourse than an interview, featuring Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro. During their hour-long discussion, they cover a wide range of political topics highlighting differences between “Right” and “Left.” They balance the rules of logic with pragmatics about controversial things, but ultimately miss the boat on a concept severely absent from our public discourse on political philosophy: compassion.
In their banter, Shapiro says that he simply does not agree in a progressive tax system. He, I think rightly, asks, “Why should I pay more in taxes simply because I earn more money than others?” A staggering, generally over-looked question. In truth, morally authoritative answers to this question are very hard, nearly impossible, to adjudicate.
Hard Left-wingers would argue that economic inequality produces nothing but a bunch of haves and have nots, a neo-Marxian perspective that aims at reducing the disparity between those with greater access to mechanisms fostering wealth accumulation and eliminating the incongruent opportunities that members of certain social strata have at their fingertips to manipulate and take advantage of capital. In short, the Leftist argument goes: some people have more barriers than others, so we should help them out.
And in their response, conservatives today really don’t get their fair share of respect—evidenced by the fact that the Leftist logic train fails to really answer the question (again, “why should I pay more in taxes simply because I earn more money?”). The Leftist logic certainly provides one potential answer, but it is not the only answer. In fact, it is subject to producing the same kind of social and economic hegemony as does the conservative right to hoard money earned for oneself. Both are value propositions. Both are ideas steeped in moral, cultural arguments. Both are even highly principled, but truly neither can be adjudicated as “gospel.”
And that’s where the rubber meets the road. I think most of us know this, and I think we also know that the media seems to avoid letting us rest in this in-between space where neither moral vision seems to be met with real, sustainable, and actionable support. Instead, politicians and the media exacerbate the problem and lead it down a road of perpetuation. Nothing gets done.
In fact, this is the point where most of us give up. We often respond, “Ugh, I just wish we’d stop bickering and actually do something good that everyone agrees on. In a big way. Not just another tax break or public expenditure.” This visceral response, invoking the deep and non-politically correct pains that we humans feel in our American space, indicates a collective sentiment that “good” may yet be around the corner. It’s a sign of both an unpalliated public malady and an unfulfilled optimism. We’ve not entirely given up on the idea that social values can’t be negotiated, and so we continue looking for answers.
But even our smartest thinkers, no matter how intellectually robust and sound their arguments may be, have missed the mark entirely. They allowed the system to get the better of them. They’ve mistakenly put philosophy above the need for what I’ll call: compassionate politics. That’s the kind of politics that thinks about how to care for people, not just how to help a few people turn profits.