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You Can't Have Ideological Conflict When One Side Abandons Ideas

In 1960, the sociologist Daniel Bell published a book titled The End of Ideology that argued the ideological battles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had subsided. A “rough consensus” had emerged, Bell wrote, at least in the West, on the need for a welfare state, a mixed economy, and political pluralism. President John F. Kennedy echoed Bell’s theme in a speech at Yale’s 1962 commencement. “The central domestic issues of our time,” Kennedy said,

relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals—to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues…. What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy.

The moment didn’t last. Ideological warfare resumed in the United States with the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s and with the rise of the New Right in the early 1980s. Today, those ideological storms have subsided. This time, though, ideology is over not because right and left have reached rough consensus; far from it. The contest is done because the Republican Party walked off the field. We have arrived at the end of GOP ideology.

Obviously, we haven’t reached the end of political division; that’s worse today than it’s been since liberals and conservatives duked it out during the ’60s and ’70s over civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Indeed, the angry prejudices, paranoia, and folklore ricocheting through social media, talk radio, and Fox News enjoy much greater reach today than they did half a century ago.

To the contemporary ear, the word “ideology” is synonymous with that kind of toxic stew. But when I say that GOP ideology has ended, I’m using the word differently. I’m not using it to describe pathologies, or resentments, or ethnic hatreds. I’m not using it to describe the mob’s surrender to an authoritarian leader. I’m not using it in any of the broadly pejorative senses in which the term is commonly used today.

Rather, I’m using the word “ideology” to describe, in a neutral manner, some set of reasoned and coherent principles and policies, however mistaken, around which a society can be organized. That’s how Bell (mostly) used the term. He called ideology “the commitment to the consequences of ideas.”

The GOP no longer even pretends that its pursuit of power is rooted in any such commitment. The conservative ideas that came to fruition four decades ago during Ronald Reagan’s presidency didn’t stand the test of time, either because they were faulty from the start or because circumstances and public opinion changed, and the few new ideas taken up by some Republicans in recent years inspire too much disagreement, within either the party or the broader electorate, to rise to the level of party doctrine. The Republicans’ failure to produce a party platform in 2020 proved beyond a doubt that there was no such thing as a GOP ideology. There remains none today. Instead, we have what is commonly, and accurately, described by political observers, including many conservatives, as GOP nihilism: a party’s self-perpetuation for its own sake driven by an opportunistic indifference to fact and reason, expressed through coarse and incendiary rhetoric.

Editor's note: click through to the original source for a deep dive into the intellectual trajectory of conservatism since the 1950s. 

Read entire article at The New Republic