The Danger of Ideologues

The challenges we face are complex. Addressing them will require curiosity and creativity.

My father died a few years ago and one of his friends said something at the funeral that made everyone chuckle and nod in agreement. He described my father as someone who had a very large circle of certainty. Even those who shared much of that certainty knew this to be true. The fact of the matter is that my father was an ideologue, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.”

I was reminded of that recently when a friend was talking about a documentary he’d seen in which archaeologists had discovered some remains that challenged their original assumptions about the origins of humankind. My friend said, “that’s what I love about scientists, they change their mind when they find new data.” The scientists he was referring to are the opposite of ideologues. That doesn’t mean that they purport to know nothing. It’s just that their circle of certainty is relatively small, while much of what they know is held with less certainty and a willingness to adjust to new information.

The changes that are happening on a global and domestic scale these days are having ripple effects everywhere. In response, a lot of people are scared and find themselves attracted to ideologues. Certainty brings great comfort during times of dramatic change.

But ideologues are the opposite of what we need right now. Not only do they espouse certainty, they cling to the past with absolutist ideas that grant no room for curiosity or questions. They also tend to require a hero to conquer the identified villain, rather than a pluralistic coalition that values diverse thinking. Those who refuse to fall in line are attacked for a lack of character and their motivations are questioned.

What does an ideologue do when presented with data that doesn’t fit their beliefs? They challenge the data or call it an anomaly. In other words, the circle of certainty isn’t just large, it is impenetrable.

Certainty also leads to what some people call a “missionary complex.” Armed with what they believe are all of the answers, ideologues become committed to saving the world from itself. But as H.L. Mencken said, “the urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.” In other words, it is a recipe for authoritarianism.

It is obvious that conservatives have succumbed to ideologues, especially the Christian nationalists who have become the defining base of the Republican Party. But liberals are not immune to ideologues, which is why I once asked whether uncertainty is a liberal value. That was spurred by some of the rancor that was building in the 2016 Democratic primary. As I observed, no one seemed to be listening.

I’ve come to believe that listening requires a suspension of certainty – at least long enough to hear what the other person is saying and attempt to empathize with where they are coming from. It also requires some curiosity about perspectives different from our own.

As thoughts about all of this were rolling around in my head a few days ago, this song came up on my playlist.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine

The challenges we face in everything from the climate crisis to healthcare, immigration, and income inequality are complex. They don’t lend themselves to black and white answers that draw primarily on the solutions of the past. They also won’t be dealt with by simply relying on a mindset that looks for heroes and villains.

What they will require is curiosity, creativity, and listening to one another. That’s not a recipe for instant gratification, but it’s how we’ll get closer to fine.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.