Ideology is not a four-letter word.

Posted on December 10, 2008


In December 2006, I returned to Canada, after living in New Zealand for five years, and was fortunate enough to find work as an Adviser to a Member of Parliament in February 2007. Having all but ignored Canadian politics in my time away, favouring Kiwi politics and political philosophy instead, I was immediately struck by the fact that some Canadian politicians and commentators were using the term “ideology” in a curious fashion. It has, for some reason, become fashionable to accuse the Conservatives of employing ideology to make policy decisions as if this was proof enough the decision was wrong and bad for Canadians. I want to call attention to this curious use of this expression because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of democratic politics. Let me explain.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary provides as good a definition of “ideology” as any other. It indicates that an ideology is 1. a system of ideas and ideals forming the basis of an economic or political theory; 2. the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual. So, to accuse the Conservatives of ideological policy decisions is to imply, roughly-speaking, that they alone base their decisions on a particular set of ideas, ideals, and/or beliefs characteristic of a theory, group, or individual and that policy decisions should not be made in this fashion. This is, of course, nonsense. All humans–Conservative or otherwise–make decisions–explicitly or implicitly–based on some set of ideas, ideals and beliefs and it is simply impossible for humans to do otherwise. We are all ideological in some sense of the word.

Surely what the commentators mean to say, when they label certain decisions as ideological, is that the Conservatives are making decisions based on ideas, ideals, and beliefs not wholly representative of all or most Canadians. Now this is, I think, a fair observation but the Conservatives are not unique or at fault for doing so. Politics exists precisely because persons do not share the same ideas, ideals, and beliefs and because we often draw different conclusions about how those ideas, ideals, and beliefs are best realized in everyday life–including policy. Democratic politics, in whatever particular form it happens to take, is a set of social practices that have emerged to help us deal with our disagreements and party politics, in particular, have developed as a way to organize persons who more or less share certain ideas, ideals, and beliefs–that is, an ideology. All political parties are ideological and to accuse the Conservatives of making ideological decisions is simply to accuse them of making decisions in accordance with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of their party which is presumably precisely what their supporters would have them do. Yes, of course, the Government of Canada should try to serve and represent the needs of all Canadians, whichever political party happens to be in charge, but different Canadians have different views on how that will be best accomplished and, accordingly, a particular policy decision will necessarily be more representative of the views or ideologies of some Canadians rather than others. There is nothing wrong with this; it just the nature of politics and democracy.

Of course, it is true the Conservatives govern thanks only to a modest share of the popular vote and they probably should, because of the nature of parliamentary politics, and as sheer matter of tactics and strategy, make some effort to be conciliatory to the opposition. Indeed, if they stopped acting like an alienated opposition party of protest, Canadians might be more inclined to see them as a party worthy of broader support. Nevertheless, whatever their rhetorical temperament may be, it is no great sin on their part to make policy decisions which seem to be more in accord with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of their supporters than that of, say, the Official Opposition. In fact, it is plausible to say that the Conservatives are succeeding precisely because they have a group of supporters who steadfastly believe that their political leaders are making decisions which more or less accord with their own ideas, ideals, and beliefs. It is also plausible to say the Liberals are doing poorly precisely because they are presently incapable of convincing anyone–even their core supporters–that they will govern in a fashion which accords with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of anyone but those Liberals who happen to belong to a tiny inner circle. The recent decision to bootstrap Mr. Ignatieff into the Leader’s position without a whiff of grassroots consultation will only bolster this impression. 

So, rather than trying to fault the Conservatives for being ideological, those political leaders and commentators who would like to see them return to the opposition benches should instead emulate their ideological tendencies. The imaginations of the vast majority of Canadians who do not support the Conservatives can be won but it will only happen when those Canadians are convinced that a leader and party share their ideas, ideals, and beliefs and are committed to acting on them once in power–that is, when a leader and party convince Canadians that they share–and will act on–their ideology. In the meantime, Canadians may just throw their support behind whichever politcal party seems the most ideologically consistent simply because–if nothing else–we will at least have some sense of what to expect in the future. The Conservatives, I think, should also keep this in mind, as they duck and weave from one opinion poll to the next.

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