Americans have met the lack of ideological intensity in this election cycle with a shrug of the shoulders. Certainly, that kind of intensity has long been ebbing in America. But this year’s political contest seems especially lacking, in that regard. Over the course of his term and the early campaign season, President Obama appears not only post-partisan, he also seems downright post-ideological. And his challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney, has long distinguished himself with an ideological elasticity that cedes to the political context of the moment.
It’s not that Americans have lost their natural yearning for meaning and an articulated belief system, on the part of their politicians. Obama’s triumph in the last presidential election based on a reform agenda reflected such a longing. The president’s adherence to that agenda has been varying—more so than what many seasoned political observers on both ends of the political spectrum expected. But that lack of ideological tenacity does not dominate the electoral debate, and there seems to be a particular reason for its absence.
Many fair-minded Americans seem to be suppressing their hope for ideological integrity because they have developed an aversion to vehemence and dogmatism in general. A kind of ideophobia is taking hold of much of the electorate. That ideophobia facilitated Romney’s rise and has granted Obama much forbearance from his supporters.
Looking back, this ideophobia seems to have gained momentum when the country grasped the strategic, financial and human cost of the Iraq War. And many observers understandably blamed the neoconservative justification of the war as the impetus for that most unfortunate misadventure. And while it is true that many neoconservatives were to blame for a variety of errors and violations, a close look at that recent past seems to exonerate ideology as the primary culprit.
Looking first at President W. Bush himself, every “known known”—to borrow a turn of phrase—indicates that he was more driven by personal psychology, than ideology, if such a distinction can be appreciated. In his public statements, Bush made clear his aversion to the kind of nation building that is central to neo-conservative dogma. And his biographers have documented a compulsion to launch a campaign in Iraq long before 9/11. He appears moved, then, by a desire to both one-up his father and restore his family’s legacy through his own enterprise in Iraq.
Neo-conservatism, in Bush’s case, seems to have served as the doctrinal flourish for the war, not its motivator. And in the case of the neo-conservatives themselves, it seems necessary to carefully parse what were ideological driven errors and the actions that were taken out of run of the mill vice. Surely, ideological zeal can be a dangerous thing. And it probably accounted for the neo-conservatives’ myopia and delusional pre-war planning. But can it be blamed for misrepresenting even the flawed intelligence and alarmist talk of mushroom clouds? To chalk that kind of premeditated artifice to ideology seems to unduly dignify it.
In general, in regards to Bush and Iraq, much of the doctrinal debate often seemed detached from the harder, more pressing realities. Arguing for or against a Bush Doctrine or pre-emptive war in general remains largely beside the point with Iraq, because the government distorted the intelligence that the “pre-emptive” war was supposed to be based on. And surely, the intelligence community might have performed better had then-Vice President Cheney not brought down his head-tilting, ventriloquist intimidation to bear on it. Does ideological fervor explain those actions? It seems more likely they can be explained by personal proclivities, rather than a fit of impassioned neo-conservatism.
It seems difficult to believe that these issues still ring with significance today. But for many reasons, they are weighing on the zeitgeist of the country and impairing healthy activism and debate. If America’s ideophobia continues, it could undercut earnest candidates that already face an uphill struggle in the political system.