Nov 13 2013

Why Ideology is Bad for Politics


Reform Party of California Commentary

A key criticism the Reform Party of California (RPCA) has repeatedly leveled at the two-party system is its heavy reliance on rigid ideology as a guide to inform and evaluate competing policy choices.[1] That flaw is a key driver of fantasy, failure and waste in governance. The RPCA is not alone in seeing ideology as a major bad actor in politics.

The magazine Scientific American published a commentary on ideology in its October 2013 issue.[2] The piece was written by Dr. Michael Shermer, a hard core libertarian who argues that when reality or science does not support belief or ideology, then the ideology needs to give way. Dr. Shermer described simple but powerful examples of how ideology distorts reality.

One example was Dr. Shermer’s slow realization that in the gun control debate he saw himself engaging in “the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions.” He further explained that “We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in.”

Another example Dr. Shermer described related to global warming. The RPCA has used the same topic to illustrate the same corrupting influence of ideology on reality that Shermer sees.[3] There, Mr. Shermer was attending the libertarian 2013 FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas, NV. At the meeting Dr. Sherment made the unremarkable observation that “between 90 and 98 percent of climate scientists accept anthropogenic (man-made) global warming.” At that point “someone shouted, “LIAR!” and stormed out of the room.” The effect of the collision between ideology and unspun reality could not be clearer.


The reasonable conclusion is simple: Ideology is bad for smart, efficient politics. As Dr. Shermer put it in his commentary: “. . . not all libertarians deny science, but all of us are subject to the psychological forces at play when it comes to choosing between facts and beliefs when they do not mesh. In the long run, it is better to understand the way the world really is rather than how we would like it to be.” Those comments reflect exactly the point about ideology that the RPCA has been making over and over.[4] Ideology is powerful and usually acts subconsciously to distort reality. Recognizing that fact (not opinion) is very difficult and once recognized, it usually leads to uncomfortable conclusions about one’s own beliefs. Being a realist isn’t for the faint of heart. The RPCA cannot offer comfort on that point.

The RPCA is not alone in seeing the downside of ideology in politics. If you want your ideology stick with it and you will get it along with the waste and inefficiency it typically generates. If you want something better, the RPCA offers centrism grounded in non-ideological pragmatism. Take your pick.


1. Links: http://reformpartyca.org/reform-party-of-claifornia-essays-6/.

2. Scientific American, Oct. 2013, page 95; online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-we-should-choose-science-over-beliefs.

3. Link: http://reformpartyca.org/reform-party-of-claifornia-essays-6/.

4. It is not the case that science has all the answers to everything. It doesn’t. For example, science cannot prove the big bang theory. However, religion cannot prove Creationism. Nonetheless, there is solid scientific evidence that accords with the big bang. For Creationism there is religious faith, which is perfectly fine for personal religious belief. But when it comes to governing, which intellectual framework do you want to rely on: politics grounded in scientific evidence and unspun reality or politics grounded in ideology (faith)?