October 30, 2007

Ideology and Politics

Gary Kamiya argues at Salon that one of the consequences of the Bush administration is the ideological defeat of a certain strand of American Conservatism. Kamiya is not alone in doing such analysis- many political commentators have proved over the years surprisingly inept at describing ideological change- and particularly at predicting when it will happen. That is in part because as in Kamiya's case most predictions are actually aiming for persuasion and not prediction: the pundit argues that the national trend goes in a certain way because he wants others to follow that trend. Partly and this is the case here, the commentator overestimates the impact of either conventional wisdom today or of the reputation and competence of a particular political figure.

For example, the conventional wisdom today holds that George Bush was wrong to invade Iraq and would be wrong to invade Iran. Those are both perfectly legitimate opinions- indeed I myself incline to both of them- and yet they are opinions that may well be discredited by events. Conventional Wisdom in 2003 said the opposite and was wrong and it may well be as wrong today in predicting disaster in the Middle East should the present strategy continue. We may change our minds about this historical moment- it is difficult to see in the present hour through the fog of uncertainty- and it is worth remembering that Presidents before have been unpopular only to become popular later on. Harry Truman was hated when he left office- but now is lauded by everyone across party for his policies in the Cold War. That isn't to imply that Bush's reputation will neccessarily change- and too many on the right take comfort from the fact that reputations have changed in the past (some of course did not change- Lord North is still seen as an incompetent as he was at the time)- but equally its worth remembering that in ten years or twenty years time things may have changed.

One thing though will have changed and that is this. Ten years from now, George Bush will not be the most prominent conservative politician in America. In four years time, it will be someone else who is the big issue for the country heading into another Presidential election. Politics is an unforgiving business and once you are in the past, you are history. Bush therefore won't neccessarily still be the name the public associates with conservatism in the next twenty years- other figures will emerge. And that means that some of Bush's most egregious faults- his incompetence in particular will fade from the public consciousness. We should not mistake ideological decline for the decline of individuals within the political sphere- we should not mistake the temporary effects of a bad Presidency for something longterm. Afterall it is still very possible for a Republican to win in 2008. Furthermore it is not always bad Presidencies or Presidents that end ideological dominance- Warren Harding was one of the worst Presidents of the century and yet he was succeeded by two Republicans. Herbert Hoover may have been one of the best qualified but was faced by a crisis that he couldn't deal with and so it was with his Presidency that the Republican run ended and the Democrats took the White House for the next twenty years.

Political commentators tend in my observation to believe too much in hidden historical rules and moments of intellectual confusion. In truth there are defenders even of Bush's strategy in Iraq, something that should give us pause to think. Ideological change happens often on a much more personal level- one might think in the US for instance of the way that each President gives his party a temporary brand. Margerat Thatcher was indispensible to Conservative ideological change in the UK- no great force propelled her forwards, had Whitelaw or Howe been leader the history of the party and country might well have been very different. Its worth remembering the role of accident in all of this as well- history is a chaotic set of events- as chaotic as an individual life (and its worth remembering how chaotic one's life is- one of my best mates in the blogosphere is Ashok, I met him because I was searching for a post for a philosophy carnival I was running which was on a post 1900 philosopher, did a blogsearch for Heidegger and his blog came up). That being said some ideologies are obviously vulnerable to not providing an agenda which meets the needs of a particular moment- one wonders how a depression would change the consensus around globalisation- but we should be cautious. Mr Bush's departure will change America and American conservatism in particular, but the ways that it does that are not obvious even now- and would be very different depending on whether its President Huckabee, President Giuliani, President Clinton or President Obama in 2009.


edmund said...

This is a very good post (as opposed to Kamiya's article a dreadfull collection of cliche's and stilted thinking) i particuoary like the way in which history often is very different from contemporaries ( I would add history is notn ecessarily more correct than contemporaries and is very often even normally just as partial)

I would say a thing things
a) Is the Bush administraion really that incompetent? I think most of this really comes down to iraq- a mistake of Wilsonian Democratisation as much asny compertence

politically i obviously entirely agree wiht the point - that bush is going is very important for the future including on perceptons of competence

b) Why was Harding such a disastrious president? This is frequently aserted- I never see much basis for it though!

Gracchi said...

On the point about history- yes it can be partial- though obviously how history views a Presidency affects its ideological legacy to the time in which that history is written.

On incompetence- not sure about that Brownie 'heck of a job' at FEMA and various aspects of Iraq like the number of forces sent all seem to suggest incompetence- perhaps I was too strong.

Harding- I'm not committed you can substitute any name that would fit into the argument.