Ideology: A Very Short Introduction – Chapter 1 Notes

Ideology is an often misunderstood term, associated with –isms (communism, liberalism) that have a somewhat negative connotation involving, as Freeden puts it “artificially constructed sets of ideas, somewhat removed from everyday life” that the powerful use to manipulate the masses. But that definition doesn’t do ideology proper justice. Everyone is an ideologist. If a person has some understanding of the political world he or she is part of and has opinions about it, that person is an ideologist.

Ideologies inform peoples’ interpretation of the world around then, and thus, peoples’ actions. It’s about the individual making sense of the world, but ideologies don’t have to make actual sense, or reflect what is best for an individual. People can twist the meaning of any given social or political situation or message to fit their own ideology. Regardless, ideology, even misguided, misinformed, or contradictory, is vital to functioning in society. People wouldn’t know how to act otherwise. A pattern of thinking is required.

Freeden asks, why, then, if ideologies are so vital and ubiquitous, are they so reviled and criticized, associated with brainwashing and false dreams? He suggests it’s because the word has been carelessly and imprecisely used.

Antoine Destutt de Tracy coined the term ‘ideology’ just after the French Revolution with the desire to study ideas. That concept was a familiar one for the time, when the positivists were focused on studying society empirically, verifiably, and precisely using the scientific method, like any other science.

Modern science knows the “range of human thought and imagination” can’t be reliably predicted by scientific research, but Destutt nonetheless pointed out the need to better understand ideology, which is the point of this book.

The German Ideology – Marx and Engels. This important early work concluded that the philosophies that were in vogue in German at the time didn’t help people come to terms with the real world. Instead, they concealed reality and thus constituted ideologies. It was Marx and Engels view that ideologies serve the purpose of smoothing over contradictions in the world and an individual’s circumstances to make them seem only natural. Ideology is a sublimation (a way to justify thoughts and actions that distort reality) that maintains social unity. Facing the real world would mean facing the “dehumanizing social relations under capitalism” and the collapse of society.

“Morality, religion, metaphysics,” they are all distortions of reality that help people make what they think is better sense of the world. For Engels, the priests and other purveyors of ideology could manipulate themselves and their followers without intending to distort reality or deceive themselves, but the deception could also be intentional.

I’m confused at the top of page 6, however. Freeden says “ideology was one manifestation of the pernicious effects of the division of labour. In this case, the division of labour caused human thought to be abstracted from the material world, producing instead pure theory, or ethics, or philosophy.” I understand theory, ethics, and philosophy are forms of ideology, but how did the division of labor cause them? As I think about it more, the division of labor requires a lot of cooperation and accepted norms that are purely inventions of man to make social interaction easier. Those norms came about through groups of people developing theories and codes of ethics. They are ideologies. I think I understand. The division of labor is a construct, and constructs are full of ideologies.

Marx and Engels also made an association between ideology and class, that “the ideas of the ruling class were the ruling ideas.” I immediately think of What’s the Matter with Kansas, and how, depending on who is in power — right-wingers or liberals, business elites or crusaders for the working class — their ideas would eventually become common wisdom, and it takes generations for that common wisdom to change.

Rulers can use ideology to rewrite history and control the masses through the authority of the state. And by running interests through the filter of ideology, they can become thought of as naturally truthful. Think about the Nazis, who tried to maintain the illusion of a unified politics through its laws and propaganda to further cement their ideology in the minds of the German public.

The division of labor analogy makes even more sense when Freeden discusses how the dominant members of society are able to convince workers that it is good and natural to work their asses off for next to nothing in the service of their bosses. Remember rural Kansas anyone? People are conditioned to worship money, to think that having money equals having dignity, and it is perfectly inevitable that one has to work in exchange for money and dignity. But none of that is natural at all. For Marx, understanding ideology could lead to the rejection of norms by the ruling class for the benefit of ruling class.

Page 7, paragraph 2 provides an excellent summation of the Marxist approach to ideology. Marx doesn’t seem evil. In fact, he seems intent on freeing the human mind so society can live up to its potential. As Freeden states, Marx’s ideas have been “vulgarized.”

To go with Marx, these five things must hold true:

Marx believed that actual truth, as opposed to the ideologically influenced beliefs that run the capitalist world and obscure reality, was attainable. There was a true nature of human relations that would emerge after ideology was eradicated, Marx contended, which many interpreted as an ideology in and of itself. And indeed, finding the truth isn’t as easy as it sounds. Take the example of the protest from earlier in the chapter. The truth is: ‘I’m looking at a group of protestors protesting.’ But how one reacts to the protestors is all a product of their ideology.

Marx’s view also requires that ideology be dispensable, that humans can function without it. He believes that when truth is discovered, ideology will naturally disappear.

Marx also contends that ideology simply needs to be gotten rid of. All ideologies have no value, basically, so distinguishing between them is useless. Just get rid of ideology in favor of truth for the benefit of the people. “Present defects were worth deploring, not exploring.”

Freeden clearly disagrees and sees the benefit in exploring the depths of ideology to understand the political world people actually live in today.

Marx’s view also requires ideology to account for most, if not all of the political world, that it is ideology entirely that mutes contradictions and keeps the established order of things. Freeden says this can’t be taken as a given as there are many examples of physical force being “necessary to hold ideology in place.”

Finally, it has to hold true that the “role of ideologists has been exaggerated,” that, even though ideology has its origins in whole classes of people, it is intellectual ideologues as groups or even individuals that form the hierarchical structure of society.

So what can still be learned from Marx’s “emphasis on unmasking ideology?” Four things:

  1. Social and historical circumstances mold political ideas. (People are a product of their environment.)
  2. Ideas matter. Marx thought ideology was a harmful illusion, and clearly, ideological ideas are extremely powerful and must be taken seriously.
  3. Ideology is vital to functioning politics, be it dehumanizing or not.
  4. The truth isn’t always visible on the surface. Ideology doubtlessly contains hidden meanings that need decoding. They certainly aren’t the full reality, as Marx would agree.

What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #14: Epilogue

Any real hope of reversing the trends discussed in this book is dashed by the end of the epilogue, but not before the depressing path to conservative dominance is traveled one last time, and liberals are taken to task for allowing it.

Frank contrasts the way things were in his boyhood Kansas to the state of Kansas under a free-market on steroids and a politics divorced from economy and class. Democrats in Kansas conceded those issues, and so have national Democrats. The way they’ve gone about defending themselves against the backlash has been to become moderate Republican, friends of big business and not too concerned about unions or class differences. 

What seems to really bother Frank is that the far right might be defeated by an overwhelming coalition of centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans, because under that scenario, the working man is still the big loser. 

More than likely, however, Frank saw the politics of Kansas going national, and he has been right so far. The parallels between the backlash mentality Frank writes so much about and the view of tea partiers is so obvious, I almost feel that I don’t even need to mention it. 

Today there are Democrats and liberals crusading on the issues that allowed populism to rise to its zenith in the mid-1900s, but I doubt their numbers are any greater than they were ten years ago. Movement politics, so vital to change, are now the purview of the Bible thumpers. It seems unions have lost more power, the country has become more business friendly, and the gap between rich and poor has become larger since this book was written. 

Even if liberals were to learn Frank’s lessons, it may be that the damage done to the nation’s politics are beyond repair, that it will be impossible to repair the damaged connections in the minds of conservative voters that allow them to vote themselves further into the despair that fuels the conservative movement.


What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #13: Chapter 12

We’ve heard plenty about the two kinds of Republican — moderate and conservative — but Chapter 12 identifies the two classes on conservative — true believers and the opportunists who use the true believers to their political and economic advantage. 

As has been mentioned numerous times, it seems very odd that disaffected salt-of-the-earth people (true believers) would be on the same political side as big business interests. But the conduit between the two groups are the skilled politicians that can speak the language of both camps.

Frank uses the example of the rebel Vietnam vets rallying around Phill Kline, someone with little in common with the crowd, but who can backlash with the best of them. And that backlash anger trumps any class differences between the two groups and absolves almost any hypocrisy, if the hypocrisy is ever noted at all.

What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post # 12: Chapter 11

Frank reinforces religion’s role in the rise of the far right in Chapter 11 by taking the reader on a tour of kookiness in Kansas, and the parallels between levels of fundamentalism and the politics of the backlash could not be more clear. 

Pope Michael I personifies the point. Utterly dissatisfied with the liberal changes to the Catholic Church since the 1960s, Michael I lashes out against the established order of things and anoints himself pope, based of course on the premise that the popes since the 1960s were all illegitimate puppets of the intellectual elite. Michael I, however, sees himself as more authentically catholic. But this common man pope is tragically misguided. He is not fighting for the “little guys” of the church. He’s fighting the current establishment for the purpose of empowering the old establishment, which was more strict with more power at the top of the hierarchy. 

This is a familiar scenario by this point in the book. It’s a small-scale example of what has happened to the Republican Party and voters in Middle America on the large-scale. A Democrat wasn’t in the Oval Office when this book was written, but compare Frank’s description of the backlash against the Catholic Church — even to the point of rejecting the legitimacy of its leader — to conservatives’ backlash against liberal intellectualism — even to the point of rejecting the legitimacy of the president.

What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #11: Chapter 10

In Chapter 10, Frank discusses the anti-intellectualism at the root of the backlash movement, and once again, I’m surprised by how far back in time that root reaches, all the way to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. That administration unleashed professors on the economic problems of the day, which lead to government programs and regulations big business hates. 

This was the first wave of anti-intellectualism, when leaders of the capitalist elite riled up anger about federal overreach in the face of the New Deal. The second wave came in the form of McCarthyism, when the commie infiltrators were inevitably intellectuals, liberals: college professors, hollywood actors, government officials, inauthentic people educated on the coasts with scary ideas from foreign lands. 

All of this can lead me to forget, as Frank reminds me, that conservatives once feared the working man’s backlash against the free-market faithful. Now the working man is the conservatives’ biggest ally, and thinking is the enemy. What climate change denialism, anti-evolutionism, and strict free-market loyalty have in common is that those positions don’t require much thought. What they require is faith. And god’s role in the backlash can’t be overstated. 

The same attitudes that lead a person to be an unquestioning Bible adherent can lead that same person to reject evolution, climate change, or interference in the free-market. Those are concepts of man, not of god. How presumptuous of intellectual liberals to think they can amend god’s plan. As Frank puts it, “critical thinking gets in the way of holiness.”

In struck by Frank’s statement that conservatives prefer charismatic leaders over organized, well-thoughtout systems as agents of change. I wonder if it is appropriate to think of this idea as ‘give me Reagan, not that fancy New Deal philosophizing’? This seems to be another point in the ‘authenticity vs. arrogance’ argument.

Again, the reader sees another example of conservatives using the tactics of the left, this time questioning experts like populists used to question business leaders, experts in the free-market. Frank sees parallels between these anti-intellectuals and the Whigs of the 1800s. He does not discuss whether he thinks Republicans are headed for the same fate the Whigs suffered. 

Of course, as is plain to see today, conservatives have built up a system of anti-intellectualness with its own publications and media outlets to keep the pot of anger constantly stirred. You don’t even need to click the links on The Drudge Report to get the point: You should be scared, and intellectuals are to blame. 

The latter part of the chapter discusses the importance of Roe vs. Wade as a rallying point for anti-intellectuals. That decision was a demonstration of the power of the professions to override the will of authentic Americans, as well as the church and individual states. The court sided with the doctors, professors, and lawyers to impose their will on the humble country folk. Frank writes that Roe vs. Wade cemented the liberal stereotype of a coalition of godless smart asses bent on interfering with issues that should be left to god. What could they do next? The answer from the backlash machine: everything. 

So, education is bad in the eyes of the Con. After all, that’s where intellectuals come from. That doesn’t just apply to east coast universities, but to the K-12 public schools where the indoctrination begins as well. 

Conservative politicos can use anti-intellectualism to their great advantage at election time. Frank uses the example of the debate over evolution instruction in public schools. It is laughable to think Cons could ever win the evolution battle (and when Kansas enacts anti-evolution curriculum, it is thoroughly laughed at) but it’s not about doing god’s will. It’s about winning elections. And evolution can certainly get the far right fired up. The criticism that comes from holding such a ridiculous point of view is interpreted as persecution and only serves to martyr anti-evolution advocates.

There are just a few pages left, and I’m beginning to wonder if Frank thinks the hold conservatives have on Middle America can ever be broken.   



What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #10: Chapter 9

Frank sets out to prove that racism was not responsible for the big shift to the right in Kansas, and pretty much does just that, while acknowledging the influence white fear had on the beginnings of the backlash. 

Quite the opposite of racists, the far right in Kansas see themselves as modern-day abolitionists in the best tradition of some of their state’s most celebrated historical figures. In reality, however, Frank shows how today’s Kansas right winger would have far more in common with the ‘pukes’ who went so far as to outlaw criticism of the institution of slavery, which they saw as unquestionably good, and who criticized eastern elite ideas and had the overwhelming power of the status-quo behind them.

I do think white fear and racism play a somewhat larger role in all of this than Frank seems to. Some of the issues he mentioned were not such a big deal in Kansas, and thus evidence of lack of racism — welfare, affirmative action — probably are much larger issues today. It seems that more white fear may have crept into the backlash mindset than was there a decade ago.

For instance, Frank mentions La Raza’s support of Sam Brownback in Kansas and that Brownback touted this support as part of his open immigration stance. I doubt he’ll be doing that while campaigning for governor this year. 


What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #9: Chapter 8

The first couple of paragraphs of Chapter 8 do a nice job of summing up the lessons of the book so far: “The standard reaction in Kansas to the vulgar machinations of the state’s self-perpetuating ruling class, to its cronyism and its brazen flaunting of its wealth, to its business scandals and the grinding destruction of the farm communities, is to push deeper into the alienated right-wing world of the culture wars.”

The far right offers a comfortable place for disaffected individuals, where they are the victims, again, not of capitalism, but liberalism.

And, as Frank explains, it’s no coincidence that the tactics and terms of the left are used. Liberalism is an unstoppable force in the view of the far right, so in adapting its tactics, maybe some of that historical inevitability will wear off on the right’s own ideas. Basically, coopting liberal tactics for good instead of evil. See examples every weeknight on Fox News, where the likes of Sean Hannity feverishly rage about injustice, oppression, and persecution … of wealthy white Christians.

The free market is sacrosanct, which means capitalists can’t be blamed for economic problems, and with a freer the market the better mentality universally accepted, what is left to fight over besides cultural issues, and who else could possibly be to blame for all the problems of the world but liberals. In their limited analysis of the world around them, there can be no other answer.

What was particularly fascinating about this chapter was the role Clinton Democrats played in assuring the rise of the right. What I had always thought of as a good faith effort to bridge gaps, find common ground, and ease political gridlock — the platform of the New Democrats — actually undermined the cause of the left, leaving no other place to turn for disaffected Middle Americans by more fully embracing the economic philosophies of the right.

The New Democrats supported international trade agreements that destroyed unions, became part of the free-market faithful, and agreed that government sucks. As I recall, Clinton himself declared the “era of big government” to be over at one point. That was pretty Con of him.

What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #8: Chapter 7

The only problem with mixing the cultural bitterness of old age with the wide-eyed gullibility of youth and applying it to politics is that it produces an utterly unrealistic view of the country and the people trying to make a living in it. It produces a view of a country where there are no class differences, the U.S. Constitution is a religious text, and the culture is in a constant state of collapse. Being a far-right conservative would be a depressing existence if not for their unrelenting and seemingly contradictory sunny side. 

I have personally run across this phenomenon. I’ll ask a tea partying friend of mine how he can stand to live in a world so devoid of freedom, where the government has so thoroughly ruined the lives of working people like him. He will answer that he has a great life that he wouldn’t trade for anyone else’s. He says he is blessed. It is what is happening around him that concerns him. He will adhere to the Constitution even as the liberals ‘play god’, as Frank puts it, but messing with it. 

And much like the child version of Frank, my friend cannot conceive of conflicts between business and workers other than the ones the evil labor unions start. As a result, he holds no animosity toward the business world, which in his view is just trying to make a buck. It is the American way. 

Frank was able to break out of the delusion when he personally had to face the reality of class differences in the real world. Is there any hope for those fraternity members who never have to confront society’s inequalities?

What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #7: Chapter 6

After reading Chapter 6, I think I am beginning to understand the conservative mind a bit better. I had hoped the divide between tea party types and everyone else in America was not just about racism and sexism. It is easy to get that impression when the backlash movement seems to have peaked at the exact moment Barack Obama was elected president.

But it is not about the color of his skin (at least entirely), or even his policies, but what he represents — multiculturalism, change toward more tolerance on practically every level of the culture war. In the mind of a conservative, how can any policy dreamed up by someone so ‘unauthentic’ (anyone remember arugula?) be good for anyone other than the latte-drinkers Obama represents. 

Anyone who supports Obama supports the liberal agenda, even if Obama’s idea is ripped out of The Heritage Foundation’s own pamphlets. 

Now, take a more ‘authentic’ Democrat like Arkansas U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, or former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who can get elected in red states despite there being little difference between their and Pres. Obama’s world views. 

Still, there is the issue of class. Shouldn’t the fact that greedy bosses are using every effort to keep wages as low as possible, cutting benefits, and generally adding to the economic problems of poor rural communities be enough to get people in those communities to stop voting for the politicians enabling the policies that are hurting them? Not when Republicans are able to divorce class from politics. 

The line of reasoning goes something like this: “I’m super rich, you’re poor, but that’s just business. That’s the free-market, and we know that’s how it has to be. But leave that aside. We’re all in this together against liberalism. Culture is liberal. Class is what it is, and the culture wars trump it.”

This is why conservative television pundits get so squeamish when someone mentions the implications class has on politics. The accusations of class warfare are immediate. Backlash politics only work in the perceived absence of class with an intractable liberal enemy that can never be fully defeated. 


What’s The Matter With Kansas – Reaction Post #6: Chapter 5

The epic battle between moderate and conservative Republican in Kansas is, yet again, mirrored by the current political environment, right down to the recent Republican Senate primary in Mississippi that saw Democrats come out in support of Republican Thad Cochran — a Mod — over far right Con Chris McDaniel. 

Abortion was the chosen cultural battle most responsible for the hard-right shift in Kansas, but that issue can be substituted with pretty much any other on the right’s list of grievances with a similar outcome, or so goes Frank’s argument. 

Of course, the Mods win no matter what, because the Cons enact the economic policies that benefit the Mods anyway. But it is the Cons who are more trained in the language of the backlash, and better able to whip up the fury of Middle Americans, even against moderate members of the their own party. 

And thanks to the right’s deftness at using the changing culture to its advantage, the lower a person is on the socio-economic ladder, the more conservative he or she is likely to be. What seemed like a total contradiction in the introduction is now starting to make some sense. The moderate Republicans, in the eyes of the small town Cons, are little different from the latte-drinking east coast liberals they despise so much, and are part of the problem. 

Frank does such a great job of illustrating the absurdity of his point in this chapter. The image of an angry mob of disaffected far-right conservatives beating down the doors of the mansions to demand lower taxes for the residents of the mansions is hilarious. 

Another interesting tidbit in Chapter 5 is the warning from Kansas Rev. Robert Meneilly that the Cons “efforts to baptize government would one day backfire, discrediting Christianity and setting back its larger spiritual mission.”

As the national triumph of Con over Mod seems close to complete, it will be interesting to see if Meneilly’s prophecy comes true.