The Nature of Ideology

A conversation with Jason Blakely

We’re all ideological, even if we don’t admit it. We like to think of everyone else as ideological, but imagine our own views to be “reality-based,” simply a clear-eyed picture of how things really are. That’s nonsense, and today’s episode is all about why.

My guest is Jason Blakely, a political science professor at Pepperdine University and author of the new book Lost in Ideology: Interpreting Modern Political Life. I loved this book. It's deep while still managing to be a breezy read, and the clarity it brings to issues that aren’t just complex, but are in fact invisible to many of us, makes it a hugely valuable contribution to one of the most important aspects of our political and social lives.

We discuss what ideology is, what purpose it plays, how it differs from religion, and why we should think of ideology as both a culture and a map.

Full transcript below.

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This is probably the first time I've wished I was capable of doing accents, because I wish I could ask this first question in Zizek’s theatrical Slovenian: “What is ideology?”


For the person at the everyday level, it's an insult. It's a way to say that someone doesn't really have a good grasp on political life or is crashing around in a crazy way. I don't think it's that, though. Ideology has both negative and positive features, and that's a lot of what my book is about. We have to grapple with the fact that we all have ideology, and then, in fact, ideology is not synonymous with distorted beliefs, false beliefs, or false consciousness.


People talk about having a personal philosophy. This is my philosophy on life, or we might have religious faith, or we might have just a political perspective. Are those distinct from ideology? Are those all forms of ideology?


That gets into some complexities. But I think the simple thing that can be said initially is that I'm working out of a tradition that sees ideologies as cultural maps that are formed inside of history. And ideologies have both the negative and positive features of maps. They orient you the way that a map does. Modern people need those maps to even know what steps to take politically. So much so that I suggest in the book that those people who think they don't have ideology are the ones most lost in their map because they think they can do without it. 

On the other hand, there's something about ideology that can be englobing, so it can swallow up some of the other things you talked about. So ideologies can certainly be sharpened up into philosophies, and ideologies can certainly imply a whole metaphysical or cosmic view. You think of some forms of conservatism or progressivism or Marxism, where the metaphysics are pretty near the surface and come out relatively quickly, whereas other articulations of an ideology maybe not so much. I do make a lot out of the similarity between the last thing I think you mentioned, ideology and religion, though I think there are differences. I think it is very helpful to see some of the similarities. But I also talk about why ideologies are not just synonymous or the same as religions. They can swallow up religions, they can have religious graftings and hybridizations, but I don’t see them as the same as religion.


I want to dig into that, but first, a clarifying question about ideologies as maps. If I'm going to go on a road trip, I know where I want to get and I've chosen where I want to go. I then pick out a map to get there. So I can pull up Google Maps, or I can pull up Apple Maps, or I can get one of those enormous road atlases my dad used to have in the car. But I have chosen the destination, and then I choose the particular map that I think is going to be most effective in getting me there. But that doesn't feel quite the way that ideologies aren't something where you say like, I'm going to choose to be a progressive because this is the destination I want to arrive at, particularly when you talk about them and you mention them as cultural. But culture is also something we don't really pick out in this instrumental way that we approach a map.


Yeah, that's a wonderful point. And what an age to be living with maps, by the way, because some of those digital maps are just so, I mean just almost beautiful and mind bending, like Google Maps and whatnot. I mean, whatever else you might say about the age of tech and all the downsides of it, wow. I don't think the human race has ever seen maps like that before. But you're right. Something that I think is really important to realize is that although ideologies are like maps, they're really weird maps. And my term for the way in which they're really weird, the term of art I try to use is called world making. So, you know, your typical map, the map is a description of maybe a topography or geography out there. And it does involve interpretation, without a doubt. Questions of scale, questions of inclusion, that sort of a thing. However, the map doesn't change the terrain in any way. You know, your dad's road atlas or my dad's road atlas, I remember those. You know, you look at the road atlas and if the road atlas is wrong about some street that is now not there highway that's been closed down, it doesn't change the world out there that the map continues to show that street or road. However, ideologies have these world making features. We inhabit the map, so to speak, because the map is also sort of like a blueprint, or it has what I try to call ethically magnetic dimensions that really grab human identity and motivation and desire. And they move us collectively in our traditions and our various rival ideological traditions toward making society look that way. And in fact, modern society is the artifact of different rival ideologies. I mean, that's one of the reasons you can't do without ideology, because if you just say, well, I don't have an ideology, all you do is inhabit the sort of world making artifacts of the various maps in our society. There's a lot of various kinds of liberalism, but that's not the only map that's helped shape our political topography. So you're right that the metaphor, though it's a very important one to the book, has its limits, and I try to modify it and play with it precisely to help us understand what kind of maps and ideologies are.


I like the point about many of us say we’re non-ideological. So was it Jon Stewart and his first run of the Daily Show would talk about reality based community. I think that was him. But there's this sense among progressives. There's, we're just the ones who understand how things really work.


Team reality. Yeah. 


I spent much of my career in libertarian think tank circles, and libertarians tend to think of... We just, we're the guys who understand, say, how economics really works and what the state actually is. And when you understand how economics really works, and you understand, and you have a clear eyed picture of what the state really is, you'll see that libertarianism is just rationality in action.

But that papers over a lot of these fundamental... So why do we, we don't seem to have much problem using maps, although there's the classic stereotype of, like, the dude who won't ask for directions, right? But, like, for the most part, we're not bothered by maps. We're not bothered by recognizing that we have a culture. We're not bothered by recognizing that we, our nation, determines certain parts of our tastes and preferences and values, like where we grew up or the religion that we have. But we seem put off by the very idea of acknowledging that we are ideological, except for maybe some groups on the fringes.


Yes. And a big thing I'm trying to do in the book is across all the different ideological traditions, I'm trying to unsettle and upset those partisans of particular ideologies. And they exist in all the major ideological traditions, from feminism to socialism to, as you said, libertarianism to progressivism, conservatism, those partisans who mistake their map for geography. And I take this beautiful story by Jorge Luis Borges. It's the epigraph to the book, and it's this very famous story about a totally fictitious people that supposedly existed in some foggy, mythic past, but basically became obsessed with making maps. They tried to build a map the exact same size as the empire, point by point, and roll it out over the empire. And the reason I like this story so much is I think it is an extremely helpful parable and little puzzle for thinking about precisely what you were asking about, which is, why do we have so much trouble accepting our ideological maps as maps? 

And I think one reason is because, although I don't want to make a caricature out of the philosophy of cartography, it does involve interpretive decisions about significance and so on. We don't tend to have our entire identity shaped through the performance of a map. And ideologies are the kinds of maps in which our very identity is inspired and reshaped and reconfigured. And this, going back to the point about religion, shows us one way in which ideologies are much more like religious traditions. You can undergo conversions into them. The maps of ideology are always visions of a good or just society. So they have an exorbitant feature, and they emerge as a cultural tradition. I'm not a relativist I think that's a misreading some people sometimes have of this claim. But I make it very clear in the conclusion of the book, I'm not at all a relativist when it comes to philosophy, ideology and so on. 

What I do think is that when we're going to argue about ideology, we have to recognize that we're not arguing about it the way we're arguing about Plymouth Rock out there or the Rocky mountains or something like that. We're arguing about something that we can either make the world more or less like. So my beef with, say, the libertarian who just says, well, there's a science of economics, or the marxist who says they're just a science of history. To me, these are the people that are the least aware that what they're trying to do is mobilize around exhortation toward a vision of society. And they're always fudging the sort of prescriptive, exhortative, inspiring dimensions, world making dimensions with claims about geography, almost like, this is just how it is. This is reality. So I tend to think that the people who think their ideology is most plainly and obviously real, scientific, natural, are actually the ones that are most like Borges story, that have actually covered over the world with their map, and they have the least sort of ideological self awareness.


Yeah, I was thinking when I was reading that discussion in the book about Roland Barthes and his theory of mythology, which seemed rather analogous, which is, he says, myth is “naturalized history.” And so you have these features, these pieces of your culture, these historically contingent beliefs, and in order to give them more heft or make them more permanent or wall them off from critique, you tell a story why these aren't actually historically culturally contingent, but are instead features of the natural world. And so you might say I have kind of misogynistic tendencies. But that's not really just like my ideological perspective. Evolutionary psychology tells me that they are, actually.

Is there a similarity there?


Oh, yeah. And that's wonderfully put. Yeah. I think that we live in a really weird age because in some of my other work prior to this book, lost in ideology, in my prior book, we built reality. And I have a couple other books about this. We live in a really weird time where the way in which modern people are superstitious is through the overextension of scientific authority. Our ancestors, you know, our parents, parents, parents, parents, they abused myth and theology in this way, and we still do that sometimes, but far, far more common in the modern age. Is to try to ascribe the authority of science to our preferred form of authority, be it moral, ethical, or political. And one thing is that so our ideologies can become sort of mythic in the way you just described. One big difference. Another feature of ideologies that I try to define in the opener is they come from an age of disenchantment. So what everyone does, even conservatives who follow Edmund Burke and sort of rue the sort of rationalism of the age, everyone plays the same game ideologically, of trying to sort of sharpen up the concepts theoretically as a framework, even if those concepts are the concepts of tradition, and then mobilize around them. And so I do think in an ideological age, we've all taken the style of the politics of the French revolutionaries that Burke so lamented. But Burke, and I say this in the conservatism chapter, ironically did to the concepts in conservatism what the french revolutionaries had done to the concepts in liberalism of rights and so on, which is he made them concepts. He theorized them as a map, he gave them shape, contour, and then it became a question of mobilization. Right? And so ideologies are from a secular age, what Charles Taylor calls a secular age, an age of disenchantment and an age of mobilization. And so that's the one place where I think you were saying something very true there about, well, somehow our science becomes mythic and superstitious at the same time. We're doing something that our ancestors didn't do, which is kind of science crazed because the sciences are good. I should say for listeners who think, I’m an anti science guy, I’m not. I just think humans are so given to delusion that even when we get something good on our hands, we turn it into its opposite, or we have a tremendous ability to do that.


This would all seem to make ideology sticky in a potentially really troubling way, because if you go back to the map example, if I use Apple maps and it gives me wrong turns or it seems to take a lot longer than Google Maps, I’m not terribly invested in it. I could just say, well, that map didn't work, I'm going to try this one, or if someone points out that, hey, you got to check out this new map that came out, it's pretty cool and seems to be better than the one you're using.

I don't have an ideological reason not to try out the new app, but if these things are presenting us with a picture of the good and a better world that we have committed to, and so they're competing with each other, at least to some degree, in terms of competing conceptions of the good, which is a big thing. A differing conception of the good from someone else is a pretty big deal.

They give us a sense of meaning and we have in modern terms, we've imported science and reality into these such that it's not that I have chosen this because it makes me feel good and is a way to connect to the communities that I like right now, but because I believe that it is truth and reality supports my assessment of it as truth, then it would seem very difficult to correct, to say, well, maybe this isnt working. And I think about this, spending so much time in DC, the oddness of you have ideological conservatives who had a whole bundle of policies that they were very into during the Reagan era, or when Paul Ryan was the intellectual North Star of the Republican Party. And then when Trumpism came in, these people still saw themselves as ideologically conservative, but they had switched to policy preferences that looked a lot more like the Marxists, that they couldn't stand right, than the Reagan free enterprise and so on.

But the ideology stuck. And so this seems like a real problem because these ideologies, it's not just that they're like a set of preferences for what movies you watch on which streaming service, but they're like how you govern and how you exercise power against others and the effect that you have in the world. It seems really troubling how sticky these things can get.


It is, and I like the term sticky, and I don't use a term like that, but it is very congenial to my way of thinking. One thing I say about these maps is every one of the ideological maps has been written in the ink of human blood. People die for these maps. They kill for these maps. So the stakes are extremely high around ideology, which is why modern people sense the danger and also why we try to reduce ideology to just its negative or pejorative connotations so that we're not contaminated, so that we don't have the ideological contagion. And I think that the reason for that is actually anthropological, which is that I think one of the things Aristotle, going way back, was right about is that humans are a political animal and that we rank our goods from everyday life. Like what I want to eat right now or what I'm going to do in my immediate activities all the way up to architectonic good or vision of what's good communally. And that's the level at which ideology hits. And so ideologies are kind of completing something about our very human agency. They're filling something in. So the anthropology here is that we’re naturally cultural animals, we’re naturally ethical, moral animals, and we assume some vision of the good, which Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics. I don't say this in the book, but your question makes me think of it, because I think one of the reasons ideologies penetrate so deeply has to do with the existential situation humans are in. And that I do talk about in the book that I’mreally trying to clarify for readers, that we share a basic predicament, which is we’re meaning making animals that are seeking out to order the goods in our life and to orient ourselves about the goods in our life. And ideology makes a huge, powerful, articulate bid on ultimacy, on really what the highest goods are. And in that sense, that's why it, again, has some kinship with religion, though I would distinguish it from it because religion, of course, also does that. And I think you can, you know, to your point about in the beltway, now in the beltway, I mean, there's a lot of machiavellianism and instrumentalizing of ideology going on, but there are true believers in every ideology, too, and there are true priests and clerics and every ideology, and they really fall hard. And I'm trying to get people to see that these, what I call the ethically magnetic features, which might be related to your term, sticky, you know, those, those are really powerful calls on human conscience and identity. And you can convert, you know, in a polarized age, it seems impossible. You can convert from conservative to liberal to progressive to socialist. It is possible people do this because the new map starts to make sense in a way to them, and it starts to click and it starts to shape and orient things for them. Right. And so you can make these shifts just like someone can go from, say, atheist to Islam or to Buddhism or something like this.


So this maybe a good time to get back into what distinguishes ideologies from religious beliefs, religious faiths, in part because we often accuse ideological foes of being religious, like Marxism is just a secular religion or high church orthodox Randian Objectivism feels in a lot of ways to have elements quite analogous to a fundamentalist religious faith. So what distinguishes the two?


Yeah, that's a great point. And I'm thinking, too, all the post liberals have become so big online, and their whole schtick is that liberalism is just a religion and always has such and such shape, which I'm actually quite hostile to because I think ideologies are liquid and can take many forms. So I think there's no way to kill off or slay any given ideological tradition with just one arrow, I think I say in the book, or with a silver bullet. But, yeah, I think that you're pointing to something really important there. Because one thing that can happen in the modern age is that ideology can become your substitute religion or it can become utterly and completely identified with your religion. So a clear case of this is something like a form of religious nationalism, where it's just hard to tell that there's any breathing space between, say, the founding texts and figures of your religious traditions and Muhammad and the Quran and your mobilization around whatever it is, Iran or there are many variants of this, or a really ugly one would be like ISIS or something like that.

And so it can appear in an ideological age like there's no difference. And, yeah, and then you can get into this game of, well, and then secular ideology is just secular religion. Now, one thing I think it's very important to keep in mind, to get our bearings again in ideological age is to realize that if ideologies have these features that I've been talking about, that they come from an age of mobilization, that they have features of theory building, that they come from a kind of age of disenchantment, then it's really important to see that religions are a lot older than ideologies, and religions often make a sort of bid on cosmic or transcendent meaning that can go beyond or be a sort of exceed the ideological horizon. Right. And so although people in the modern age often swallow up religion into ideology, I think that precisely because the world religions are older than ideologies, they're in some tension with all of them. So particularly Buddhism. Or you read what Muhammad says or Christ and the Gospels, yeah, you can completely submerge that into your ideology. But all these figures predated, antedated the ideological traditions we're talking about. Moreover, followers of all those traditions end up in all the different ideological traditions. So you've got liberal Islam, you've got nationalist Islam, you've got conservative Islam, etcetera. And same with Christianity, Buddhism, et cetera. So religions are older and they are not out of an age of mobilization, but religion can be reduced to the level of ideology. That's the tricky thing about it.


We've been talking about ideology in, and I'm not sure what the right term for this would be, but in a positive sense that you've, you have latched onto, there's an appealing conception of the good and because of that, certain beliefs follow, or you personally find certain beliefs and the various aspects of it appealing enough to commit to. And that, I think also religions have that feature. I am persuaded by the christian story, or I am persuaded by the arguments set out in Buddhist texts and so on.

But how much of ideology is negative, too? So we talk about negative partisanship a lot today where it's like I'm actually less committed to the ideas and principles of my own political tribe. It's just I really don't like those guys over there. And so that's why we stick together, because I was thinking about that in the sense of if this is about conceptions of the good, there's often a lot of common features and what people want from you ask people, what do you want in the world? And it's like, well, I want peace and prosperity, and I'd like to be generally free to live the kind of life that I want. Sometimes I might not want others to have that same freedom, but there's a lot of common features, and it feels like it's difficult to find people who have wildly, radically different conceptions of what a good world looks like. And yet the ideologies are incredibly distinct. And so I wonder, to what degree that negative partisanship is, my views start to form in opposition to theirs as opposed to. As positive ways to get at a particular conception of the good.


I think you're quite right. I see two different points there, and they're both really interesting. So the one about, I kind of agree with you that at an abstract enough level, people seek a good that sounds somewhat similar, right? Like they want peace or they want justice or they want the order set right. You can almost quote Hamlet: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!” Who doesn't want to set it right? From Mao to Thomas Jefferson?

But I think one thing to keep in mind there that this kind of cultural approach to political philosophy helps us with is the more abstract you go, the less content those terms have. And so a lot of the human fighting happens at the thicker cultural level, if you like. So, you know, you hate to bring up his name because he comes up too often, but, you know, just because it's an evocative example for, for, for all of us. You know, Hitler also wanted peace in Europe. It just required total war for a while, right? And then genocide and all kinds of vile things. But the mystification there a little bit has to do with what level we're describing. Where the rubber hits the road on ideologies is at the thicker, cultural side of things. Your other point, which was, remind me...


Negative partisanship and how much they’re defined in opposition to each other.


Yeah, that's a great point. A lot of that depends on what the cultural modality is within the ideologies. And the book's various chapters are sort of tours, brief tours through all the ideological traditions with the philosophical compass of ideology that we've been kicking around here. But oppositionalism, I mean, I even thought of maybe just because I was just teaching him, but maybe some of your listeners are familiar with. Friedrich Nietzsche has an idea that Christianity is just born out of resentment. It's a kind of hatred for others, and you avenge yourself on them through moralizing and so on. I don't have this view of Christianity at all, but it's a very famous view that Nietzsche has, that Christianity is mostly oppositional. It's not about loving your neighbor. It's actually about resenting your neighbor and trying to drag them down under the law and morality and whatnot.

I think ideology probably can be oppositional in that way that it starts from sort of reactivity, I think, of the post liberals here. I mean, sometimes it seems like I read someone like Patrick Deneen or Adrian Vermeule, and it seems like what mostly animates them is a hatred of liberalism and liberals. And then after the fact, it's, oh, we'll make Catholics interrelate, whatever the heck that is.

But any ideological form can be shaped by a certain oppositionalism over a positive vision. And there are members of the different traditions that posit it in different ways. And if I can say one more thing about that, the chapter on fascism and Carl Schmitt, if there's one theorist who's really theorized all ideologies as having a logic of opposition, it's Carl Schmitt, the nazi jurist. And he says all politics is about the friend enemy distinction.

I think he's sort of lost in ideology because he's trying to narrate all the cultural maps through fascism, where everything is about, all you can do is oppose the enemy negatively, and there's no dialogue, there's no talk. But there are many of the world's ideologies that wouldn't accept that, or at least versions of them. So liberals place a lot of stress on talk and on a community of peoples and on securing other peoples rights.

Socialists have their own reason for being universalists so they can become more oppositional. So one thing I do try to make a claim in that chapter is that we're all becoming a little bit more hybridized with fascist politics right now in the United States, precisely because we view politics about an unbridgeable friend enemy distinction in which politics is just war by other means. But that's the colonization, I think, of various ideologies by other ideologies, if that makes sense, because I should add here for listeners that my view of ideology is that they can hybridize precisely because they're cultural traditions.

There's no reason why you can't have a certain porousness between ideological traditions. So the big oppositionality of politics right now, I think, has to do with probably a slide toward authoritarianism in American politics across the board, and it's got more of us than we first realized. Yeah, they're the open, sort of pro authoritarian people, unfortunately, right now in American society. But then I think actually everyone has a little bit more of this in them right now, that all we can do is cite and oppose and hate the enemy, et cetera.


That's a fascinating and deeply troubling point, but I think that sounds right. And what I want to highlight to listeners, because I think this is a tremendously valuable book, is not just as I was reading it, there were a lot of people I was like, I want to give them just the introduction to read, to get a sense of how deeply ideological thinking plays a role in our lives and to clarify what's meant by that, to give metaphors that will help in thinking about our own political views, our own cultural views, our engagement, and so on. But the other part of the book that is tremendously valuable is the presentation of these different ideologies, and particularly in ways that center and highlight their ideological commitments, as opposed to just their policy or institutional preferences, distinctions.

I wanted to ask you, this podcast has a lot of libertarian listeners. What are the ideological commitments or beliefs typical to libertarianism that someone who thinks of themselves as like a mainstream libertarian might not be aware that they hold? To go back to the. Well, I'm just kind of the reality based community.


Yeah, and each one of the chapters I try to sort of highlight or flag. I tried to do two things. I try to give the positive vision, as you just said, what's the vision of the good that is attractive and ethically magnetic and a source really for people of orientation and action, and is a kind of positivity that ideologies have, even when we think it's gone off the rails or whatever. But also what you just said, which I try to also highlight, okay, where are people making the mistake of naturalizing their ideology or treating it just like it's common sense or science or something like that? So I would say libertarian. Well, first of all, in all the chapters, I try my very best to show that because these are cultural traditions, there are multiple forms. So there are many libertarianisms, just like there are many conservatisms and many socialisms. So anything I say is against the backdrop of there are varieties and variations and creative reinterpretation of the sources. However, I think that mainstream libertarianism, at least at the end of the 20th century in the United States, became much more beholden to utilitarianism, which might sound odd to listeners because, of course, libertarians, on the positive side, put the vision is of high human dignity and attainment, of autonomy and independence as a person that is the basis for freedom. So it might sound a little odd to some listeners to say, well, utilitarianism, which oftentimes is presented publicly as a cost benefit analysis where your rights or autonomy might go under the bus, right? Because if the calculus points in the direction of rights, dont benefit overall social utility, then there go your rights.

So it might surprise some listeners to think, okay, well, why are libertarians at all beholden to utilitarianism? But I think neoclassical economics is the short of it. I think that libertarianism didn't do itself favors the way that Marxism didn't do itself favors when it went in the direction of dialectical materialism. It didn't do socialism favors when it said, oh, there's a logic to history, it's scientific. And I associate this with Stalinism. I don't think libertarianism did itself favors as a cultural political tradition when it said, well, we've got a science of economics, neoclassical economics. Economics gives us this. And so this is the only rational way to order a society. And where the utility comes out, I'll sometimes make this point when I teach this is, for instance, if you tell the typical sort of free market libertarian, hey, are you happy about homeless people? I mean, if you get Iran, she'd be like, fine, they deserve it, step on their necks or whatever. But most libertarians will say, no, I'm not happy about homeless people. Just, you know, if we try to reach out through sort of collective action or the community to help that homeless person, the overall cost, so they give you a utilitarian argument to the community will be worse, and they'll give you some argument about, in the long run, all boats will rise, less people will be poor. But the logic of that argument is the same as pushing the well being of that homeless person under the trolley car for the cost benefit analysis, in my opinion. So there's a sort of bid there saying that although we have multiple ways of building a society, there's only one scientific, rational way and hiding the ethical claims. And also, I think there's a tendency in free market libertarianism toward human sacrifice, or at least throwing some people under the bus in a way that they don't really have autonomy. That is in tension with mainstream libertarianism’s insistence on autonomy as its goal.

And there, I think a lot of opponents of libertarianism, both inside the liberal tradition, like progressives, but also socialists, will point at libertarianism and say, see, look in material terms, in what way does this person have autonomy?

They're addicted to drugs. They don't have the education or whatever to regain well being. So there's a lot there. And I couldn't possibly be fair to it. But that is one place where I kind of push on, and I push on all the ideological traditions, but where I try to say, hey, libertarians would be better off owning their tradition as a cultural, ethical one than saying, science just says, we have to have homeless people for now, or whatever it cashes out to.


I want to highlight something that you said in there for listeners, because I think this is a really important point when thinking about political conversations, political dialogue, is that hiding of ethical commitments. So I'll give an example.

You'll often see a kind of argument made that a progressive will point to something in the market that looks unjust, say these people aren't delivering pizzas into this inner city neighborhood, or members of certain groups get more attention paid to them by store security than others.

And the libertarian will say, well, we can tell an economic story of why that is. And so the economic story is, members of that group are, we know the statistics say, are more likely to shoplift. So teenage boys are more likely to shoplift than the 75 year old woman in the store. And so it simply is rational if we're allocating our resources to follow them around, or the likelihood that you're going to get mugged delivering a pizza in this neighborhood is higher. And so you're responding to incentives and then incentives. Once you've kind of pointed to, oh, progressive, you've missed the underlying incentives. Now that you recognize them, you'll see that this behavior is not unjust.

And I think there certainly is value in pointing out that people respond to incentives, and there may be incentives that you're not seeing. And so surfacing those is there's nothing wrong with doing that, and it can provide us with valuable insights on situations. But at the same time, it seems to be hiding ethical commitments in the sense of saying it's like pushing the question back a step. So you could say, like, okay, I've, now that's why the teenage boys are being followed around, because they're more likely to shoplift.

And therefore, done, we've answered it. But the progressive can come back and say, okay, but I get that. But what I'm saying is that there are other moral considerations that I think are important. 

And so harassing people just because they're members of a certain group that's statistically more likely to shoplift, even if it reduces shoplifting overall, is not something. It's not okay to discriminate against people because of statistics, or it's not okay to deny people access to services just because you've run a cost benefit analysis. And maybe they're wrong about how much those other moral considerations should matter, but it very much feels like in a lot of these conversations, you've kind of picked a particular moral consideration that you think trumps everything else. And then once you can point to its presence, the conversation's over versus the conversation really being about what considerations, what perspectives matter.


Yeah, and I think that's a great point. And I think two things about that. One is just in the thick of sort of the inner nuances of libertarian ideology. I think there's a risk or danger of mistaking a map for the world whenever we just say, okay, we are these kind of ethical beasts. We're homo economicus. Do we just respond to material incentives or incentives that we rank according to preference, schedule, or something like this? Because my question always then is, are we saying we're just like this, or are we saying we should become more like this because there is a sort of looping effect where the more we say we are like this, the more we become like this. And since ideologies are cultural, we can always try to become less like that or take on another vision of, of agency. And so that's one thing I would say about it. The other thing I would say at a larger level is I do think that one of the reasons Americans right now are so bad at debating ideology is that we're not multilingual in other people's ideology. So we show up and keep speaking the language of our ideology, which is fine. Those are our commitments. But what is not fine is we don't see what the other person's language is. And I say in the book that we need to become multilingual. So even what you were doing there, I think, is a much more constructive way.

You can lose your bearings when you do it because you're trying so hard to get the one person's story right and how they're narrating it versus how you're narrating it. But when you don't do that, you really are in the position of the Borges short story, where you're just unraveling your map over everybody else and you're not actually hearing what they say. And the problem with that is it'd be a little bit like showing up in a foreign country and just speaking English and expecting people to speak English back to you. Or if someone showed up to you and did that to you, you know, they just spoke, I don't know, Mandarin or something. And we do that with ideologies. We're so culturally near each other, but we're so ideologically far right now that we've lost an ethnographic sense for the other’s language. And I think a much more constructive way to debate ideology, or religion, for that matter, is to point to pressure points internal to someone's ideology and even someone listening. I might say, hey, that Jason Blakely doesn't really get libertarian ideology. That would be a fair way to come back at me on my own terms.

I think constructive ideological debate, you have to get the person's self understanding correct. And the vast majority of ideological debate in the United States right now involves me telling you what you think from my own perspective. So you're woke, and I already know what that is, or you're reactionary or conservative, and I already know what that is. And there's no effort to sort of do what philosophers call immanent critique or show what could be tensions inside, what could be ways of discussing or getting at pressure points inside the map itself.


I've come to sometimes refer to this as the “Quillette Effect” among classical liberal or libertarian circles, which is people who think they understand what, say, critical theory or critical race theory or postmodernism is, but their understanding has come entirely through reading articles about it at Quillette or listening to Jordan Peterson talk about it and how frustrating that is. Not because if you went direct to the source on these ideas, you would be persuaded of them, or you'd come away thinking they were more correct than your initial assessment, but that your assessment of them is incorrect is largely based on not understanding them and so, but thinking because the people who are articulating this perspective on them are within my political tribe. And I'm a smart guy, and my smartness led me to think this ideology is correct, then they must be smart too. And people who came to alternative views must therefore not be as smart as the people in my tribe. So what's the point of reading the people who aren't as smart as me when I could be reading the people who are and are kind of confirming my own set of preferences?


I'm glad you said that. If I can get in for a second, because I don't say it in the book, but I think a huge problem is the whole silo effect. People talk about so much. But this concept of ideology is really helpful for the silo effect, because part of the reason we're siloed is what you were just describing. Everything around us reproduces the map back at us as common sense. So, for instance, the progressive lawn sign, which has rightly received so much grief in the last five years about in this house we believe in science.

It's a similar issue, right? It's like, well, anyone who thinks clearly, rationally, commonsensically, becomes a progressive liberal. And that to me, is the height of being lost in an ideology, because it would be like assuming everyone spontaneously, eventually speaks Mandarin or English, right? And what we have are cultural traditions. Here you have to learn to get the hang of. And so, yeah, it's a kind of provincialism. If you only listen to voices within your own cultural tradition, explain to those voices outside, then you really won't get the best versions of them. And part of what I try to do in each chapter is give the most sophisticated version, usually through some major founding theorist or philosopher, within that tradition that is recognized within that tradition as having an authoritative articulation. But yes, I think one of the reasons we are so lost is we each time the other ideologically becomes less rational, less good, because it gets so glaringly obvious that in this house we believe in science, or that wokeism is a crazy conspiracy to do XYZ.

And everything in our cultural world, in our world making ideological community, reflects back at us that our map is just geography. Out there, it's just the territory. And it's obvious it's like a mountain. Anyone can see it. Who has eyes to see it. And that's precisely not what ideology is. Ideology is not a mountain. Everyone can see with their eyes. It's something you learn, like a language.


Are there limits to that, though? So yes, it makes sense to, if you're going to be super critical of Marxists, it makes sense to put the effort into reading about Marxism. Or if you're going to reject libertarianism, you should probably first read what libertarians actually say as opposed to how libertarianism is presented at slate or salon and so on.

But does that mean that I also say, have an obligation to really understand the ideological perspective, in this empathetic or understanding way, of someone like Libs of TikTok or a Nazi? Or can I say I don't really need to understand their full worldview. I just need to know that Nazism is evil and the Nazis want me dead, or Libs of TikTok wants people like me excluded entirely from the public sphere.

I can see people responding that it almost diminishes the damage these people do by saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Step back and try to understand them.”


Yes, and therein lies the ghost of Carl Schmitt. Again, all you can do is oppose your enemies. But I think that I should say, and I say this in the book, that I think that a cultural approach to ideology gives us the equivalent to what in theology used to be called negative theology, where theologians would just say, what God is not. God's not material, God's not finite, God's not temporal.

A cultural precious ideology can tell us what ideologies are not. They're not just common sense, they're not just science. They're not just being practical. They are a cultural tradition that we can inhabit, practice, ritualize, become better, worse at modify, et cetera.

That having been said, I think that some ideological traditions are really damaged by this critique. White nationalism is one that I discuss in the book. I think most white supremacy is resting on a false naturalization of race as a type. So I discuss that in the book for readers who are interested in that. However, even when confronting the nazi or racist, even then, if we know these people, if they're our neighbors, if they're part of our society, God forbid, they're part of our family, how are we going to get them out of the thrall with the stickiness that you were talking about earlier? I think the only way is by working through what they find magnetic in it, to try to start to peel back at it through immanent critique and through offering a better story. So you have to give people something to transition into. Are there times in a society where maybe just war is the only thing that's left to someone? Yes. Is that the permanent condition of society? No, that sounds semi fascist to me. That sounds like Carl Schmitt. I'm a humanist. That's my most fundamental commitment, my own political commitments and so on.

But in the philosophy of the human sciences, I'm a humanist. And so the narrative I give is not a neutral narrative. It's a narrative that's outside of all the ideologies. I called it existential earlier. It involves the inside, anthropologically, that we're all in the same bind. What's the bind? All of us humans right now are living in an ideological age where we can't evade these maps and we're stuck with the meaning-making projects of them and their positivity and their negativity. And my hope is that much like humanists going back to Erasmus or Thomas more could look at the religious traditions and say, I hope that the more humanistic strands of those cultural traditions predominate. I have the same hope as a humanist. When I look at ideological traditions, I do say this in the book. I would prefer the socialism of book chin than that of Stalin. I prefer the conservatism of Oakeshott to Burke. So I prefer the humanistic strains in the different ideological traditions.

And I don't know that white supremacy or Nazism even survives. It's unclear to me. I have to stay open to it, because my philosophical conception of cultural traditions requires a certain provisionalism. But I have not seen a version of white supremacy that survives this kind of criticism of scientism. Because all the major forms of white supremacy today rest so much on claims about reductive genetics and that sort of a thing in a racial cast and a pathos. By the way, if I can get one jab into white supremacy, the pathos of white supremacies. If you really had two species of animal, one which was completely superior to the inferior one, you wouldn't have to sweat so much about it. No one's worried about the horse uprising or the, you know, dog uprising. I mean, it's like in Hamlet, the lady doth protest too much. I mean, the white nationalist doth protest too much. If you're so damn unequal, why do you have to fight so damn hard to make sure you stay unequal?

To me, it's like a dead giveaway that something has gone amiss there. It's not just obviously natural that we're living a species that naturally asserts racial caste, you know.


For listeners setting out after listening this into continuing their ideological lives of engagement in the political and cultural sphere, besides reading your book, which I again highly recommend, I'll also note it is quite short. So it is not an extraordinary commitment. What should they take from this?

And in part, if the answer is to try to really understand both your own commitments and those of others, you cover a lot of ideologies in the book. You talk about older ones that are still around. You talk about new and emerging ones, and then, as you said at the beginning, they hybridize, which means that new forms of old ones are forming, new ones are emerging, and so on. And so understanding all of that seems awfully challenging. That's quite a commitment. It's one thing if you're an academic whose job is to understand these, and so you get paid to read books about it, or it's like your overwhelming hobby is to understand ideologies, then great, have at it. But for people who don't have either that time or that inclination, what's the takeaway from all of this? If we want to stop being lost in all this and we want to make things better?

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