If we make a distinction between two kinds of politics, pragmatic and ideological, we may say that American politics has mostly been pragmatic in its 200-plus year history. Whether Americans have been liberal or conservative, they have mostly agreed on fundamental values. They have agreed that wealth, both national and individual, is a good thing; that American power on the world stage is a good thing; that a high degree of personal liberty is a good thing; that democratic elections are good things; that the rule of law is a good thing; and so on. In politics we Americans haven’t fought about these great fundamental issues; instead we’ve fought about the practical questions of how best to achieve these values.
But twice in our history politics has veered away from pragmatic questions to ideological questions. The first time was during the Revolution and the years immediately preceding it. Shall we consider our rights to be British rights or natural rights? Shall we be an independent nation or a section of the British Empire? Shall we be a monarchy or a republic?
The second time was in the 1850s and during the Civil War. Shall we continue to tolerate slavery or shall we abolish it? Shall we be a loosely connected confederation of states, or shall we be a unitary nation?
We have now entered, it seems to me, a third great era of ideological politics. For the time being the ideologues are mainly found on the political left — ultra-liberals who more and more control the Democratic Party. They are the “brains” of the party. Blacks, Latinos, labor unions, and women provide the party’s “muscle.” And just as the human brain controls the human body, so ultra-liberal ideologues control the great body of the Democratic Party.
For the time being there are fewer ideologues on the right. The Republican Party is still pretty much controlled by pragmatists, that is, “Wall Street” people (and their semi-rich and non-rich cheering squads) who still adhere to the non-controversial value of making American richer and richer. (Though there is much controversy surrounding the Wall Street folks, this has to do not with their goal — ever-increasing prosperity — but with the means they wish to use to achieve this goal.) But if Newton’s third law (“To every action there is always an equal reaction”) applies to politics, and it often does, we may expect that Republican ideologues of the right will increasingly organize to do battle with Democratic ideologues of the left.
What do ultra-liberal ideologues want? They want a transformation of American society. On the cultural side, they want a society that will be religion-less (or at least close to it) and will allow a maximum degree of individual moral freedom, especially sexual freedom. On the political side, they want a central government that will have the power and resources to assure “happiness” for all Americans.
What will be the Newtonian reaction from ultra-conservative ideologues? They will strive for precisely the opposite: a revival of religion and morality (especially old-fashioned Christianity and its moral code) and a neo-Jeffersonian system of decentralized government. The elements of this counter-ideology can be found today in the Tea Party and the Religious Right. If these two effectively merge, we will be into a full-scale ideological struggle between left and right.
Will this struggle become bloody and violent? Let’s hope not. But it probably will, for such is the way with ideological struggles, witness the Revolution and the Civil War.