Ideology and ideologues in the modern presidency.

Author:Langston, Thomas S.

Virtually no one in American politics has ever been proud to be an "ideologue." And when Americans have boasted of ascribing to an "ideology," it has typically been some sort of anti-ideology, such as pragmatism or "Americanism," ways of thinking presumably quite different from "alien" ideologies such as socialism, fascism, or communism. Thus, President Barack Obama (2010) (1) protested against "the notion that [he] would somehow resist doing something that cost half as much but would produce twice as many jobs" by insisting "I wouldn't. I mean, that's my point, is that I'm not an ideologue; I'm not." Likewise almost 80 years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt (1938) defended himself against the charge that he was guided by a set of theoretically derived truths by denying that the New Deal was "attempting to commit the nation to any ism or ideology except democracy, humanity and the civil liberties which form their foundations."

America's presidents are right to wish to ward off ideology, but they protest too much about its absence, for ideological battles have been plainly important in recent presidential politics. Obama may not be an ideologue, but his attempt to transcend ideology, proclaimed in his Inaugural Address, was merely an inducement to a starkly ideological, and highly successful, reaction to the leadership initiatives of his first two years. As a result of the "asymmetric polarization" between the major parties, the Republicans, led by a new generation of assertive House members, has moved closer than ever before toward ideological purity (Kabaservice 2012, 3385-88; Mann and Ornstein 2012, xi, 8-15, 51-58). In his predecessor's presidency, ideological battle was waged within the administration, where the "unrestrained ideological entrepreneurship" (Campbell 2004, 13) of a clique of neoconservatives (neocons) helped propel the nation to a discretionary war in Iraq (Halper and Clarke 2004). Finally, going back to the 1980s, ideological credentials were prized by the Reagan administration in making administrative and judicial appointments (Aberbach et al. 1990; Langston 1992; O'Brien 1988; Weatherford and McDonnell 1990), and the president's own beliefs and behavior inspired debate over the extent to which Ronald Reagan was himself an ideologue (Hantz 1996; Langston 1992; Shimko 1992).

Despite considerable scholarship on ideology and modern American politics, little is known about how such moments of ideological intensity and conflict might relate to one another, about what happens, that is, at the intersection of ideology, ideologues, and the modern presidency. This article seeks to explore this point of intersection. I proceed first with definitions and conceptual clarifications, identifying strengths and weaknesses in conventional usages of the terms "ideology" and "ideologue." A functional analysis comes next, to uncover the numerous ways in which ideology and ideologues might be expected to influence the modern presidency. Ideology, understood as a distortion of ideas and a distinct cognitive style, turns out to have a place in the presidency at the juncture of crisis, the institutional environment of the presidency, presidential personality, and regime characteristics. Because each of these factors is complex and, to a large degree, independent, ideological influence in the presidency is episodic, following no simple pattern, as will become apparent in a selective narrative of ideological influence in the presidency from Roosevelt to Obama. Ideology's quintessential elusiveness, I argue in conclusion, reflects and sheds light on the contingent dynamics of the presidency.

The Use and Abuse of "Ideology" in Political Science

Ideology by one count has been assigned 16 distinct meanings (Eagleton 1991, 1-2). The difficulty in pinning down ideology's meaning reflects a tension present at its origins. The word was coined in the French Revolution by a scholar of the Enlightenment intent on uncovering what today would be termed the neurophysiological basis of beliefs. "Ideology" was, to Destutt de Tracy, a neutral science of ideas. De Tracy's works were sufficiently well known as to attract the attention of, among others, Thomas Jefferson, but not everyone was a fan (Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition 2012). Napoleon Bonaparte adopted the term "ideologists," the name de Tracy and some of his associates chose for themselves, as an epithet for "every species of theory which.., could, he thought, prevail with none save hot-brained boys and crazed enthusiasts" (Scott 1839, 394). From the Age of Napoleon forward, ideology has retained both neutral and critical connotations. In some quarters, however, it would appear the contest has been won.

In an analysis of the use of the term "ideology" and its variants in the American Political Science Review, Kathleen Knight found that 40% of all articles in the journal from the 1960s into the twenty-first century used the term ideology or one of its variants. Because of a convergence of methodological trends and substantive interests, a sizable and growing majority of these articles used the concept in a single way: as a spatial measurement, typically arraying beliefs along a continuum from Left to Right or Liberal to Conservative (Knight 2006). Similarly, Frances Lee found that a neutral spatial conceptualization of ideology has become ubiquitous in contemporary congressional studies (2009). Among those writing from within this mainstream tradition, even the term "ideologue," which in common English is almost never used except as Napoleon used "ideologist," is cleansed of pejorative content. As Knight notes, this has been true since at least the classic voting studies of the 1960s in which the term was applied to individuals with a particularly sophisticated and coherent set of beliefs (Converse 1964, 623).

In other areas of political science where ideology is likewise a dominant concern, however, the neutral conception still shares space with a more critical, pejorative conceptualization. In the study of American foreign policy, notably, ideology is a major analytical lens and organizing principle but is not used in a strictly neutral sense. Instead, in a considerable body of literature, "ideologues" or "crusaders" are contrasted with "opportunists" or "pragmatists" (Hermann et al. 2001, 86; Stoessinger 1979). Presidential studies similarly embrace both the neutral and critical perspectives on ideology. Often, the term appears as a simple pejorative label, typically with a negative connotation underlined in an accompanying adjective. For example, in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Douglas Kellner observed in 2007 that President George W. Bush's espousal of compassionate conservative themes softened the perception that he was a "hard-right ideologue" (623). While in a 2005 article in Perspectives on Politics, Stephen Skowronek noted of the same president that while there was "certainly something of the ideologue" about him, the mere "label missed as much as it clarifies" (280).

Among those who apply the term ideology to presidential studies more self-critically, a substantial literature overlaps with that on American foreign policy and uses "ideology" to refer to the "belief systems" of elites, including presidents. Alexander George follows the neutral perspective in defining ideology as simply "a set of fundamental beliefs, a belief system that explains and justifies a preferred political order for society; either one that already exists or one that is proposed" (1987, 1). Other scholars interested in presidential personality define ideology more critically as a particular type of belief system, thus following the influential lead of Sartori, who understood ideology as a "closed cognitive structure" with inflexible "fixed elements" (1969, 400-05). Both the neutral and critical psychological perspectives on ideology have been applied, for instance, to the analysis of Reagan (see, respectively, Shimko 1992 and Hantz 1996). And in a separate body of literature, scholars have attempted to model the president's ideological position quantitatively. Methodological challenges make this task difficult (see Treier 2010).

It would appear, then, to be premature at best to declare any but the individual-level, neutral conceptualization of ideology passe. That it might be not only premature, but simply inaccurate, to adopt the neutral perspective as the more appropriately scientific is suggested moreover by recent critical work on that literature. Lee, in an extensive study of principles and partisanship in the senate, writes positively of early political science on the beliefs of legislators, work conducted with reference to "party principles ... hammered out through group deliberation, interest aggregation, and coalition building" rather than to "ideological preferences" conceived as existing at the level of the individual member. She concludes that "it is not clear that early scholarship was inferior to contemporary work in this respect" (2009, 191). Similarly, Richard Bensel has explored the way in which beliefs of legislators of the sort commonly deemed ideological are "exhibited, shared and mutually understood" not as preexisting ideational attributes of individuals, but as the cultural products of interaction among "members of a self-identified group" (2010, 23). Bensel (2010) shows how the commitments of ideologically defined groups in American politics, in fact, drift over time. This process of ideological drift and the plain fact that ideologies, though they may be measurable at the individual level, are shared phenomena, suggest that "policy commitments to ideological principles do not determine the composition of these groups.... (Rather) groups determine, through their cohesive behavior, ideological principles (such as they are)" (43).

Lee's and Bensel's insights are buttressed, moreover, by the work of "self-perception" theorists in political...

To continue reading