It says a great deal about modern-day democracy in Australia and America that some politicians now think they can insult another politician by calling them "ideological". Last week, when Education Minister Christopher Pyne said he would review university funding in Australia, Labor's spokesman, Kim Carr, claimed it was "an ideologically driven exercise in trying to reshape the university system to their [the Coalition's] liking".
On Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama accused the Republicans of wanting to shut down the US federal government as part of their "ideological crusade" against his health policies.
Media commentators are getting into the act too. For example, the newly elected right-leaning members of the Australian Senate are being warned that their "one-eyed ideology" could wreck parliament.
There's nothing complicated or sinister about the definition of ideology. According to the Oxford Dictionary, an ideology is simply the set of ideas which forms the basis of an economic or political theory. Those ideas can be good or bad.
Even though Carr and Obama were speaking in very different contexts, they were both doing exactly the same thing — questioning both the content of their opponent's ideology, and also whether it was even legitimate for their opponent to approach the question with any sort of ideology whatsoever. Taken to its logical conclusion, the consequence of what they were saying is that there's no scope for conservative and liberal politicians to apply their philosophical positions to either university policy in Australia or health policy in the United States. But ultimately in a democracy, every policy question must be subject to political control from politicians holding an ideological position.
OUT OF TOUCH WITH EVERYDAY PEOPLE
To accuse someone of being ideological is to present them as out of touch from the day-to-day concerns of normal people. An ideologue is also seen as being outside of the prevailing consensus. The reason that politicians on the left are so fearful of ideologues on the right is precisely because policy orthodoxy both in Australia and the US is on the centre-left. It's a strange situation indeed. On the one hand we're told that our politicians lack ideas and vision, yet as soon as a politician does reveal a philosophical position they're attacked for being ideological.
The double-standard of those like Carr and Obama is obvious. According to their reasoning, the left is not ideological when it implements its policies. But the right, when it tries to reverse those policies, is being ideological. In any case it's difficult to think of a more ideologically-laden statement than that made by Obama in October 2008 when he was a candidate: "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America."
THE OBJECTION IS NOT TO IDEOLOGY ITSELF
There's other things at play as well when politicians talk of their distrust for ideology. It's not ideology as such that Carr and Obama don't like. Rather, what they're objecting to is the ideology of a potentially resurgent centre-right political movement. The reason the Obama administration is having so much trouble managing the Republicans is that for the first time in many years, growing numbers of Republicans in Congress genuinely believe that individuals should have more freedom and government should be smaller. In the past, Democrats have happily negotiated with Republicans who were happy to merely slow the growth in the size of the welfare state. Now some Republicans actually want cut the welfare state.
For this and other reasons those Republicans get to be labelled ‘Wacko Birds' by their own side.
Something just as interesting and potentially exciting is happening in Australia. It's exciting that from July next year two free-market senators in Bob Day from Family First and David Leyonhjelm from the Liberal Democrats will hold part of the balance of power in the upper house. Just as exciting is the beneficial influence they could have on the Coalition. An Abbott government that is forced to cut taxes more than it would like in exchange for getting its legislation through the senate is exactly what the ALP, the Greens, and many in the media find so frightening.
What politics in Australia and America needs is more ideology — not less. A true contest of ideas is preferable to any alternative.