Purity of Reason

March 19, 2024 Culture Wars Netherlands Ideology Post-Truth Geert Wilders Populism

Resisting attempts to redefine ideology” in the culture wars.

Over the past months, I’ve noticed the term ideology” become weaponized: Where we used to talk about socialist or conservative ideology, the term is now used more broadly—and with a distinctly negative connotation: People will talk about the climate ideology” or gender ideology”, always implying that a given political issue is based on a broader, shady agenda.1

Although the dictionary defines it—innocuously enough—as a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”, ideology is no longer an innocent term. The argument goes that anyone following any ideology will push for a given ideal without concern for reality. It’s effectively an insult to call someone an ideologue”.

And yes: On its face, ideology might seem that way; we can disagree with a set of ideas and consequently disagree with the person pushing for it. But that doesn’t discount having ideas in the first place.

View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, Jacob van Ruisdael, 1665View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, Jacob van Ruisdael, 1665

Shortly after moving to the Netherlands in 2006, a brochure fell into my hands. It had been written to explain the country and its wider mindset to freshly-arrived foreigners like myself. That included the usual pleasantries about human rights and individual liberties, but what struck me at the time2 was that the society understood itself to be built on political consensus.

The brochure devoted two pages to previous governments, particularly the so-called Purple coalition” from the 1980s-90s, which had operated on what’s know as the polder model to bring about political cooperation. Politicians— irrespective of their party ideology—got together to reach compromises, and the Dutch were all-too happy to celebrate themselves for it.

#Bayern verbietet das #Gendern an Schulen, Hochschulen und Behörden. pic.twitter.com/2ruAfULm03

— Markus Söder (@Markus_Soeder) March 19, 2024

Earlier this week, the Bavarian government banned the use of gender-inclusive language in the state’s schools, universities and government offices.

That decision itself is noteworthy, but what struck me was that a speaker of the governing party went on to explain that any ideologically-tinged language is exclusionary”, effectively flipping the issue on its head: Trying to make language more inclusive, he postulated, was based on an ideology, and since not everyone agreed with it, the attempt itself was exclusionary.

The ban wasn’t really about the language then: It was about stopping ideology” from seeping into Bavarian society by way of language.3

The trouble with dismissing any idea of ideology implies that there’s a way to reach decisions—to make policy—that doesn’t rely on ideology but purely on the cold hard light of reason. It postulates that there’s some purity of reason that inexorably leads to the one correct decision.

But all politics are choices, and with every choice comes a fork in the road. Doing one thing necessarily means not doing another thing, and even decisions that seem correct today can appear entirely misguided tomorrow.4

Also, politics are piecemeal, complex, and the devil is in the details: Change one thing and you’ll affect another. History is rife with unforeseen consequences and unanticipated side-effects of the best intentions.

Sometimes, ideology is all we got.

What I’m saying is that sometimes ideology is all we got. For all its failings, ideology provides a strategic underpinning, an ideal to strive towards or a reason for why you are embarking on a particular fork in the road. Ideology lends a purpose—no matter how ill-guided.

Clearly, politics shouldn’t be driven by ideology alone. Compromise is a prerequisite for a healthy society. Ideas can and absolutely should change: They evolve, they are modified. Those Dutch politicians in the 1990s we’re free of ideology, but they were able to reach consensus.

I want this to be more than a hand-wringing appeal for compromise.

It would be too simple to leave it at that, at some hand-wringing appeal for compromise with a reference to Dutch politics. After all, what happened in the Netherlands is the same thing that has happened all over the world: Over the last 20 years, populism took over, consensus was thrown overboard and the once boring, bloodless politics gave way to a spectacle that very nearly just delivered a premiership to notorious right-wing hothead Geert Wilders.

That’s why I’m more interested in the mechanisms at play; to understand what is going on and if there’s anything we can do about them.

Geert Wilders’ dramatically simple election poster: Devoid of any slogans, it encapsulates post-content politics with its simple appeal to “Vote PVV”. The abbreviation stands for the equally meaningless name Party for Freedom.Geert Wilders’ dramatically simple election poster: Devoid of any slogans, it encapsulates post-content politics with its simple appeal to “Vote PVV”. The abbreviation stands for the equally meaningless name Party for Freedom.

The current polarization is both the cause and the effect of a society that’s been wound-up by culture war populism. By a discourse that promotes flashy, incomplete fixes for complex, thorny issues and artificially keeps people mad to gain political capital.

The fix to that can’t be trying stamp out ideology itself—because that’s just populism.5 It is recognizing that as long as politicians can build political capital by appearing unwavering, uncompromising, or even unpleasant, the polarization will only get worse—irrespective of of their ideology.

Recognizing that politics as spectacle allows people to gain and exploit power through populism also means recognizing the mechanisms at play and trying not to be consumed by them. To resist those people who want to redefine innocent terms like ideology or become aware of the terms we throw around. To reject quick fixes to complex problems. And perhaps to champion a kind of politics that’s necessarily more boring, more complicated, and more compromising if we truly want to be governed with a concern for reality.

  1. It reminds me of the supposed homosexual agenda” that American conservative politicians liked to talk about around the turn of the millennium, always implying that asking for equal rights was in fact part of a wider, more nefarious plan. The agenda” has always been an effective scare tactic.↩︎

  2. A very different, widely pro-European, pre-Brexit and—if I may say so—pre-post-truth age.↩︎

  3. I’m fully aware that this ban is pure populism promoted by a populist party trying to outfox another populist party, but let’s take them by their word for a moment.↩︎

  4. Kurt Gray puts this more eloquently in an article for The Guardian: (…) all policies cause some harm, whether they concern tax, transport, immigration or drugs. Every law or initiative involves messy trade-offs: costs and benefits that help some and cause suffering to others.↩︎

  5. If anything, ideology is in decline as the political ideologies that defined the past century have fizzled out and given way to bespoke realities.↩︎

Next: History Rhyming

Previous: Quantified Culture

Imprint   Hand-made since 2002