Ideology Is Not A Four-Letter Word: A Follow-Up

Posted on February 6, 2009

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In a previous post, I lamented the misuse of the term “ideology” and “ideological” in recent political debate.

Click here for the post.

After hearing Obama and Jon Stewart both incorrectly employ the word, it finally occurred to me why people are misusing it.

People are equating “ideological” with “partisan” which means, according to Merriam-Webster, “a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person ; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance.”

It is easy to see how one might begin to use these words interchangeably but to do so is a mistake. All persons who are ideological are not partisans and all partisans are not ideological. A person may make decisions based on a certain set of values and not exhibit an unreasoning allegiance to anyone or anything. After all, she might change her goals or her opinion about the set of values she employs in the light of new evidence. Similarly, a partisan might justify her allegiance to some faction based on any set of values which will do the trick.

The confusion probably arises because of the word, “ideologue,” which means, according to Merriam-Webster, “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.” In other words, an ideologue is someone who is a partisan to a particular ideology. Now, I agree partisans and ideologues are not very helpful to political debate, but the answer is to reject “partisanship” not “ideology.” Political people may have a hard time seeing this distinction because contemporary party politics remains primarily and lamentably partisan in nature.

This distinction, however, is important not only for politics but also for public education. For fear of ideologues, many public schools jettison all talk or debate about ideology and values — whether it be secular or religious — and this is a grave error. Children need to learn to share, defend, and debate their ideologies without becoming ideologues themselves and schools are the very place where this should happen, with the help and guidance of a teacher. If this were to happen, there is a much greater chance they will grow up to engage in non-partisan political debate and that would be good for everyone.

For more of my political commentary, click here.