The Logic Behind Illogical Ideologies

With Jason Blakely - Associate Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University, California

Episode description:

The political landscape in the US has fragmented into a handful of beliefs, the adherents to which have less and less in common, other than a profound inability to comprehend others’ beliefs. This, unfortunately, is not news.

In a fascinating new book, today’s guest attempts to pierce the incomprehensibility cloak. The guest is Jason Blakely, an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and the book is Lost in Ideology. In it, Jason explains the ideologies at large in our land as simply different answers to a common human urge to make meaning of the world. I found Jason’s explanations fascinating—and potentially a first step towards seeking the common understanding our era desperately needs.

Buy Jason’s book: Lost in Ideology: Interpreting Modern Political Life



Eric Schurenberg (00:01.334)
Jason, welcome to In Reality.

Jason (00:01.646)
Jason, welcome to In Reality. Thank you, Eric. Thanks for having me on.

Eric Schurenberg (00:05.846)
Now, you’re an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine. You’re the author of Lost in Ideology, which is, in my humble opinion, a really fascinating book, especially for those of us not steeped in political philosophy or the history of political ideas. It’s kind of a revelation to realize that those political beliefs that motivate those other Americans, however incomprehensible, I think they are.

Jason (00:17.838)
Thank you.

Eric Schurenberg (00:35.958)
Those ideas also have an intellectual history and an internal logic, and they answer people’s need to make meaning of the world. All of us, I came away from reading your book thinking all of us are driven by the same desires to make sense of the world, even if we arrive at very different answers. So I want to ask you about you and the book. Now the book, is among other things a taxonomy of all the different political philosophies kind of, you know, on the loose in American politics today. But your goal in writing the book wasn’t just to do a taxonomy, it was to offer some insights. Tell us about that.

Jason (01:23.95)
Yeah, and thank you. That’s that’s a wonderful image, by the way philosophies on the loose in American life because in a way they are on the loose and Everyone has a philosophy even if they don’t realize it via their political ideology well one thing that probably the biggest thing I want to accomplish is that I think that ordinary people as well as theorists philosophers specialists just have a bad idea of the idea of ideology and the the version of it we have we actually inherited from

Karl Marx and it’s the notion that ideologies are false beliefs or a kind of insult, you know, so we tend to think that person has, uh, you know, an ideology, whereas I have a theory or I have pragmatism or common sense beliefs. And I think what that really does is it puts up big blinders because it basically makes us unaware of the fact that for better or worse, we all have ideologies and that ideologies can even have not just negative features. They certainly have negative features, which I discussed in the book, but they also have positive.

They have things they do for us that are positive that we need them to do for us. And so I really wanted to resist this reduction of ideology to slander.

Eric Schurenberg (02:32.15)
Hmm. There, I think for a lot of Americans, probably because of our two party system, imagine that there are just two major philosophies at work, liberal and conservative, but actually there are many flavors, many things are absorbed within those two very broad categories. How many ideologies would you say are important to recognize to understand what’s going on.

Jason (03:04.366)
Well, you know, to recognize what’s going on definitely more than just two because part of I think the way we’re so disoriented, you know, the title of the book is lost in ideology and part of the way we’re so lost is that we tend to really simplify or characterize the ideological landscape in part because we’re trying to protect ourselves from the sort of allure or call of the opposite ideology. I have the view that a little bit like that famous line in Hamlet where the lady doth protest too much. I think we’re all the lady…

…We protest a little too much against the opposition. And the reason we do that is actually because we don’t want to listen to the voice of the opposite ideology. We would rather have a shortcut toward dismissing it. And one of the shortcuts we have that you just mentioned is we tend to reduce the entire ideological landscape to just two options. We associate them with the parties. I think that that doesn’t serve us very well for many reasons I could go into, but one really simple…

…upshot and way in which it doesn’t help us to reduce ideologies to just two flavors on the left and the right is that the parties themselves are sort of Conglomerates of different social movements and ideological currents that change over time So, you know, I think it’s a real brain twister for Americans when they hear oh, well Lincoln was was Republican, right? He was a Republican but wait, I thought that the you know Democrats were the ones who cared about race and

So how is it that Lincoln was a Republican? Well, this is kind of a self -mystification because the parties themselves are not timeless vessels for ideology. They themselves cycle through different ideologies. And if I could say one more word on that, the really big disorienting thing that happened in 2016 is that the Republican party is in some ways undergoing a massive ideological transformation or tumult interior to it. And likewise, the Democrats also have different insurgent ideological groups. But the idea that you have like team Republican and team Democrat and they’re timeless and that those are the two forms and one’s conservative and one’s liberal, that’s just not a very good map of our political situation.

Eric Schurenberg (05:13.238)
The map actually is a recurring metaphor in your book. And I think it’s a very, very interesting and useful one. If I’m not mistaken, the metaphor is drawn from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called On the Exactitude of Science. And in this story, people create a map that is the same size…

Jason (05:35.47)

Eric Schurenberg (05:40.278)
…as the country it is intended to map so that people get confused about whether the map is the reality or not. So what, I mean, it seems like a short leap from there to how you can be lost in ideology, but how does that metaphor help you in the book make the points that you want to make?

Jason (06:05.71)
Yeah, because part of to the point you opened with Eric about, you know, what kind of lesson do I want readers to take away from the book? And one of the major ones is that ideology is not just a slander, but one of the reasons that ideology mostly looks like an insult, like you’re ideological and I have theory or common sense, is because we mistake our maps for the territory. That’s a major running theme in the whole book. It comes from this famous story, wonderful story by Borges of a weird people, fictional story, obviously, to try to build a map the size of the empires, he said.

I think we actually are all those people when we’re lost in ideology in that we arrive and since we think of our politics oftentimes as not being an ideology, but it’s just immediately accessible, immediately rational, immediately good. We expect other people to submit to our political vocabulary and ideas ipso facto. And if they don’t, they’re stupid, they’re wicked, they’re irrational. And this is a game Americans play with each other on all sides, you know?

If you’re conservative, you do it to your liberal neighbors, friends, family members, and so far as you have them, because we’re siloing off. And if you’re a liberal, you do it to your conservative friends, family members, and so far as you have them, because we’re siloing off. And so that sort of expectation, right, that everyone have unmediated access to our politics, I think comes from having a bad idea about ideology, that we don’t see that our ideologies are cultural traditions. We think they’re almost like natural or just out there…

…obvious and I think that that’s a big mistake not because I don’t think ideologies can be true or false they can or Bad or good they can but just because that’s not how ideologies work They work more like languages or literature where you have to get the hang of them and you can’t just expect people to speak your language immediately

Eric Schurenberg (07:53.91)
Let’s talk about one of those ideologies that was crucial to the founding of the country and is one of the first ones you treat in the book, which is classic liberalism. What are the earmarks of that and how is it expressed today?

Jason (08:12.142)
Classical liberalism is enormously important to American life. It sometimes was even thought of as the sole ideology defining American life. To be an American was simply to participate in some way in the classical liberal tradition. Its central idea is that humans are self -owning and have certain basic rights, rights to speech, rights to property…

…and that society or politics are an outgrowth of that sort of self -ownership and and and those natural rights that spin off of self -ownership and so a constitution or a contract is the basic founding aspect of any politics I think most Scholars of politics and historians now accept that the situation the united states has always been far more complex than simply classical liberalism and something I do try to show in the book is that

Classical liberalism itself underwent, if you like, a kind of great divorce or split. It has family trouble inside of it, and it’s split into left and right variants. And I call these dueling liberalisms in a later chapter. So even liberalism itself is not of a piece. A little bit like if you look at Christianity, you’ve got Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox. Liberalism has progressive liberals and right libertarians and people who hybridize their liberalism with conservatism or with nationalism. So you have different… kinds of liberals that don’t necessarily agree or see each other as in a unified political bloc.

Eric Schurenberg (09:42.39)
How would you define the difference between liberal and progressive? They’re often used interchangeably, I think, in sort of shorthand political reporting.

Jason (09:52.366)
Yeah, I think that classical liberalism has certain commitments that I just ran through and you could go on, but I think that one thing progressives did is they’re the branch of liberalism that really mined or resourced aspects of the classical liberal tradition that emphasized the sentiments and forms of social solidarity. So even if you go back to probably one of the most important

inspirations for classical liberal theory. John Locke, he was a huge influence on Thomas Jefferson, on the American Constitution, etc. John Locke, you know, he has aspects of the treatise that are about economic interests and forming a contract to enter into politics. But he also talks a lot about certain sort of social sentiments or pro -social aspects to human behavior. So he says in a state of nature that no one would hoard so many acorns that the other person wouldn’t be left with enough to eat.

So there’s a kind of proto recognition of a basic right to subsistence. Progressive liberals emphasized a background necessity of security and material wellbeing as necessary to securing your individual rights. Whereas right libertarians emphasized interests and contracts more. And so you basically have this like intra -liberal argument between progressives who emphasize kind of sentiments and social aspects of liberalism more and right libertarians who emphasize.

I kind of hard -nosed contractualism and individualism more.

Eric Schurenberg (11:19.798)
Well, let’s do the same kind of dissection of the conservative end of the political spectrum. What are the factions or the ideologies that make up sort of what we think of as the Republican party or at least the conservative movement?

Jason (11:38.574)
Yeah, if you look under the hood of the Republican Party, it’s been changing. I would say, so I was born in the 1980s and for a long time, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party represented a sort of intramural liberal dispute that we’ve been talking about a little bit here. And it was basically liberals against liberals, sort of right liberals versus left liberals. However, the Republican Party has also always drawn on other political traditions. A big one is conservatism.

and different themes of sort of anti -modernism or a criticism of individualism and rights as corrosive to the traditional moral order. So this is of course the conservatism we think of when we think of evangelicals or Christian conservatives that are often actually quite critical of liberal rights because they see them as possibly secularizing or undermining a kind of moral order.

that is older and necessary for the stability of society, a notion of the sacred, a notion of sacrifice and so on. So you’ve got that strain in the Republican Party. And then since 2016, you also have arguably the radicalization or intensification of that strain becoming more strenuously anti -liberal. So one way you can think of the tumult that’s going on in the Republican Party right now is, if you look at the split between, for instance, Trumpism and MAGA and never Trump, conservatives. That split is in a way between conservatives who still wanted want to emphasize liberalism more, like freedom of the press, et cetera, and a kind of conservatism that whatever name we find for it emphasizes more of a social or communal reassertion of traditional values, Christian cultural life, and so on. And so in a way, you could see the Republican Party right now splitting between groups that are more emphatic.

about a kind of liberal consensus in American life. Think of someone like maybe Mitt Romney or McCain or some of the old style Republicans, the Bushes, that got upended by MAGA. And then MAGA is, I think it’s fair to say, in some ways playing with post -liberalism or possibly violating some aspects of liberal political ideology.

Eric Schurenberg (13:56.054)
You have a chapter or a section on fascism and I wonder how that fits into, and in that I think I recognize some of the more performance oriented right wing commentators. Tell us about that and what role it might play in American politics.

Jason (14:23.022)
Yeah, fascism is an interesting one because in part due to the fact that liberalism has been so influential for so long in American life, Americans are very bad at sort of decoding political cultures that are not within that dominant mainstream. Fascism is one of those, communism is another one where for better or worse, Americans just aren’t very good at either talking or thinking about it. And so one thing liberals tend to do when they see fascist politics is they tend to try to reduce it to a

private neuroses or to just people acting irrational. For many of the reasons I was saying before, which is that I think one of the ways we go wrong in politics is we assume that politics is just immediately accessible. It’s not a language. It’s not a map. It’s just the terrain. And so I should be able to touch it the way I can touch a mountain or, you know, confront some feature of the natural terrain. Fascism is has been difficult for liberals to wrap their heads around because it has its own political culture. It has its own meanings.

It’s not just an irrational sort of fit. It has a pattern. And part of what I try to talk about in the chapter on fascism is, okay, what’s the cultural pattern around fascism? And just like liberalism emphasizes things like individual rights and contract into society, fascism has certain themes it emphasizes, like cultural emergency. You could think of it as a radicalism of the right where there’s a cultural emergency and…

you need to suspend the usual order of things, but not in order to make a move forward, say the way that Marxists sometimes envision or socialists, but maybe to make a reversion backward to some golden period in which the nation was said to be rightly ordered. And oftentimes it’s thought in fascist politics that an individual, a remarkable or miraculous individual is capable or necessary for the suspending of the moral and political order in order to revert backward. So it’s…

It’s associated with a dictatorial politics and with a justification of dictatorial politics.

Eric Schurenberg (16:20.534)
There certainly are echoes of that, it sounds like, in much of what we encounter today in the MAGA movement. Why do people fall so hard for the ideologies? The common mistake you note is that people mistake the map for the territory, and they think that…

it should be immediately accessible. Their belief is not an ideology or a language or a culture. It is the thing itself. It is science. It is fact. Why is that so powerful an appeal?

Jason (17:01.614)
Because human beings order their lives around meaning. I definitely think we’re an animal. I just think we’re a really weird animal. If you ask a cow what’s the meaning of your life, the cow doesn’t have an answer to that question. The cow has immediate needs, it satisfies. If those are satisfied, you could more or less say the cow is happy. If they’re not, you could more or less say the cow is not happy. Humans are not like that. You can give them enough to eat. You can give them a house. And they still might not be happy. They may not want to get up in the morning.

They may not… see that there’s any purpose to life. And so humans, we tend to order our entire lives around a horizon of ultimacy or meanings. And what occupies that space of ultimacy or meanings is different for different humans. And it enters oftentimes into violent clash. Ideology is so intense because it makes a claim on ultimacy. It makes a claim. It tells a story about what everything is about or the highest things you could care about are about. So for instance, freedom, liberty, dignity, justice, order, the sacred, religion. Ideology has stories it tells about the place of all those things in human life. And so humans are willing to even sacrifice the material goods that a cow would not sacrifice for ideology. And ideology is not the only source of meaning for humans, but in the modern world, it’s a major one, which is one of the reasons I think we’re so…

…leery around ideology and would almost rather that we didn’t have one. You know, we’d all rather not have it. Maybe we could just not have an ideology if they’re that dangerous. If they make that big a claim on us, maybe we think, oh, well, maybe we can exit them, even though I don’t think we can entirely exit ideology.

Eric Schurenberg (18:46.454)
There are professions though that make that claim. So even the people who would admit that they subscribe to political ideologies would say that they can sweat ideologies out of the work they do. And so I’m thinking of scientists say, or a courtroom where all the mechanisms and the adversarial proceedings are meant to uh you know titrate out the ideology and and in a newsroom when it’s operating well is supposed to do the same and get at the truth that is independent of people’s perspective is that possible um does that happen or is ideology just so um pervasive that you can’t get away from

Jason (19:41.07)
That’s a great question. And it is something we’re living very dramatically right now, isn’t it? But, oh, your facts are post facts or alternative facts. And what is this very vexing slogan, alternative facts, other than a sort of claim about your facts are completely bundled into your ideology and you just don’t see it. And you’re trying to pawn them off to me as though they’re just the facts. I have something sort of subtle I want to say there in the book, which is there are facts. I’m not post -truth.

there is an important thing about getting the facts right. And science is wonderful and we should listen to scientists. However, in humility, the facts and science cannot resolve our political and our ideological disputes because ideologies and politics always exceed the facts to some vision of what’s good or what we ought to have things look like. So,

You know, you can come up with some series of facts that, you know, would be important and that all perspectives should recognize. And these can get into very heated, you know, pun intended ideological controversy, like is the globe warming or not? That kind of a thing, right? There is a fact out there and we should want to know about it. And some ideologies might be better or worse at being able to recognize that fact. However, even if you got to a place where everyone sort of recognized the facts of science,

My view is that you still would not have resolved ideological controversy because ideology involves claims about what’s significant What’s not significant what’s good? What’s not good? and you know, for instance, there’s a chapter at the end of the book on ecological politics and Yeah ecology is usually uh for the reason you were saying earlier eric associated sort of simplistically with just the left in the united states part of what I try to do in that chapter show that ecological politics have always been found across the ideological spectrum and have been inflected into different interpretations. So you could have someone say, sure, the globe is warming and that’s why we need to completely close off the borders to climate refugees that come from other racial groups. I call this eco -fascism, make an impregnable nationalist life raft to save the white race from… So there’s nothing that… Ideology always exceeds or goes beyond the facts to questions of meaning or significance and how we think society ought to look like.

Jason (22:03.214)
So I’m all forgetting the facts, right? It just, I think we shouldn’t overestimate the facts. And I think it’s a big error when we think my ideology is just the facts. So I tend to be sort of hard on all the ideological traditions when they say, well, Marxism is just the facts. Or in this house, we believe in science, as you sometimes see progressives put up as like, well, you believe in science, but science doesn’t resolve for you whether society ought to pursue goals of egalitarianism or whatever it is that you think also goes along with that, or even wellbeing for that matter, you know.

Eric Schurenberg (22:34.646)
Is it a question that you would want to try to answer? In the age of ideology, how does anyone know what is true?

Jason (22:47.726)
Well, part of how we know it’s true is if we’re asking questions of fact, let’s rely on let’s rely on science. Let’s rely on, you know, and logic still has a role to play. I mean, I can know if something is true or not by whether or not it has internal contradictions. The real the real devil is in the issue of when we have these entire frameworks that I do think is a tricky question. You know, so if I’m actually in ideological rivalry with other people.

Or I’m feeling the contest in myself in some ways because in my own mind I’m kind of tacking back and forth between different ideological takes or visions. How do I resolve that? You know, and how do I not just bottom out into relativism? The last chapter in the book gives several strategies for how to be objective about ideology and sort of the spoiler here is I do think you can be more or less objective about ideology, but unlike saying the sciences where say we have some factual question about

How many people are in a room? We have some answer to this that is objective and non -controversial in ideology Our objectivity is provisional. I think so It’s comparative and it’s provisional. We have to look at the way internal inconsistencies um in ideology, I give different strategies I don’t have to go into here. But my point is that We shouldn’t be expecting our questions to go away politically We shouldn’t be expecting ideology to resolve itself the way that a scientific question resolves itself precisely because it’s a meaning question for us. It should be a little bit. Well, we should be expecting is a little bit more like who had the best interpretation of the movie. There are absolutely wild, bad interpretations of movies. It’s not just all subjective. However, you don’t, when you leave a movie or when you leave a story, you don’t expect it to have been resolved the way you resolved a science question where, okay, there are X number of people in the theater, right?

Eric Schurenberg (24:42.774)
Since ideologies are hard to resolve, I mean, there is, you don’t get to win an ideological argument. How do you have a dialogue with someone whose ideology is different from yours?

Jason (24:59.758)
I think one way to really do damage to ideologies is to be able to tell the other person’s story better than they can. And that’s something I try to do in the book. So one way you can show an ideology is false is on its own terms. You can show there’s an internal contradiction here. In the book, like you said, it’s a tour of ideologies. Every single one of the ideologies I try to show has different contradictions or pressure points inside of it. And if you’re in a debate with someone ideologically,you can try to look for those internal pressure points and try to offer a story about politics or about social reality that makes better sense, that doesn’t fall into those contradictions and alternative so that they can make a gain by moving from one story to another, which is in fact what I think happens when people convert from one ideology to another. They find that the ideology they hold just isn’t making as much sense of the world as it ought to be making, or they get stuck on certain problems and they can see, oh, this other ideology maybe fulfills or…

Um narrates what’s going on better with less contradictions But it’s that kind of a move where you move from one story to another a story that makes more sense Out of reality than another one, but it’s going to be kind of holistic comparative Work when you’re in debate with someone and if I can say one more thing about that You’re never going to be able to do that if you don’t understand the other person’s ideology. Well, because they’re just not going to recognize themselves in your own language in your words and and that’s a big thing for me is capturing the other person’s ideology in a way that they recognize it as their ideology.

Eric Schurenberg (26:32.598)
Jason, can you give me an example of how you might have that kind of dialogue with someone in a specific case?

Jason (26:37.23)
Yeah, absolutely. So, uh -huh. Yeah. So a specific case from the 20th century, for instance, is classical or orthodox Marxism held that there were going to be working class revolutions in Paris, London, and New York. And those were predictive claims that capitalism would immiserate the working class. It would radicalize. It would form a workers party. That didn’t happen, right? So there’s a dilemma there internal to Marxism itself. There was a prediction. It didn’t happen.

Does that mean socialism and Marxism dissolve? Not necessarily. They can try to re -explain the dilemma, say, well, why is the revolution postponed? But one way you could enter into debate, say, with a Marxist is you could sort of pose the question, OK, if you’re expecting radicalization of the working class and revolutions in the most advanced capitalist societies, but instead, insofar as communist revolutions happened, they happened in societies that had not yet industrialized, that were not on the forefront of capitalist development.

You can put pressure on someone who’s a Marxist on their own terms If on the other hand you start from the outside and sort of just say well Marxism equals Stalinism you might not get very far because you know someone who’s a Marxist might just say well You know Stalinism is like a perversion. It’s a it’s an offshoot. It’s not what I believe So that’s an example of you pick something inside of someone’s ideology and you see how it works And then you you put pressure on on that particular belief

Eric Schurenberg (28:03.03)
Got it. So, you know, looking at the landscape as it is right now, as well as we can map it, and seeing how hard it is to talk to people without a depth of understanding about their ideology. And even so, you know, knowing that we’ll always kind of have this, this, level of incomprehensibility people talking across ideologies. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the American project?

Jason (28:44.11)
The American project is very shaky right now, in part because of the intensity of ideological conflict. And unfortunately, part of what Americans have done with their ideological befuddlement and their scandal at, oh my goodness, my coworker believes this, or even a family member or neighbor or a person the next state over in Texas, they think that, in California, they think that. Unfortunately, part of what Americans have done with that energy is they’ve become more oppositional and they’ve let…politics be colonized by the language of war and One thing I’m very disturbed by is that Americans really use the metaphor of war and of total opposition to one another right now and have lost a space for dialogue or the possible Collaboration around issues locally or so there’s no comp the Americans are losing a kind of common space and that’s that’s the negative side on the positive side

Humans are, you know, I’m trying to show in the book that humans are all in the same boat and that we share the same existential questions. We all have problems of meaning. We have problems of trying to discern what’s a good society, what’s a good life. And that’s always a space in which humans can rally to again and think again together about, you know, what politics is about. And so I always think there are resources for humans to…

Repair their societies and their politics. I do think it’s a very troubling, um development in a society, however, when citizens neighbors Let alone family members and so on start to view each other as oppositional sides in a war with which you cannot dialogue or find commonality but only Unlessly opposed even violently sometimes it right now the the language is violent in american life And I would hate to see that be a prelude to actually violent actions, but it’s hard not to worry about that when people intensify the sort of metaphor of war more and more with each other in politics.

Eric Schurenberg (30:48.758)
Well, that is a difficult point in which to leave it, but we have to end it here. I think I would recommend to anyone your book, Lost in Ideology. It is a great way to wrap your arms around the intellectual ferment that we are all living with right now. So Jason, thank you for being on In Reality.

Jason (30:55.982)

Jason (31:11.502)
Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you for such great questions.

Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: May 21 2024

Share this episode:

All episodes are streaming on these platforms: