The government is trying to solve the problem of toxic assets that have infected America's biggest banks. But apparently it hasn't disinfected its own toxic asset -- political ideology. It was ideology that made House Republicans vote against the first bailout in September, a bailout proposed by their own party. Ever since, the same ideological stubbornness has led to constant obstruction of any Democratic-endorsed plan to end the economic meltdown. Since time is of the essence, it's a race between history and ideology at this point. Hanging over us is the memory of the Great Depression, when Republican obstruction was a constant, year after year, no matter how dire the economy became.
What is ideology, and why does it have such a tight grip on the mind?
In its simplest form, ideology is group think. Neocons on the right think alike, as do liberals on the left. Each has an ideology. The problem is that group think can become so rigid that it forbids actual thinking, which needs to be open and flexible. We hear euphemisms like "philosophy," "tradition," and "mind set" that cloud the problem and make it hard for people to admit that they are victims of rigid ideology. Many Republicans feel that they are opposing every rescue plan that involves government spending because it isn't part of their philosophy to be big spenders. This flies in the face of reality, however. Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt, and the past eight years under George Bush repeated the feat through runaway spending led by House Republicans.
The key point is that a philosophy opens your eyes to reality, while an ideology blinds you to reality. When ideology gains power, it forces blindness on others. North Koreans are starving but must still worship their benefactor, the "dear leader," or else. (This recalls the Soviet Union seventy years ago, when starving Russians lived in "a workers' paradise" and the mass murderer Stalin was benign "Uncle Joe.") It becomes habitual for ideologues to turn suffering into a false rosy picture. Thus Iraq was touted by neocons as a fledgling democracy when in reality it was a killing ground for hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
Ideology freezes the mind. It substitutes a dogma for rational thought, and the dogma cannot be shaken. At this moment, free-market ideologues are unshakably wedded to permanent tax cuts that would beggar future government programs. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party, absurdly declared that government has never created a single job. To an outsider, these are irrational lapses of the mind, but they are symptoms of a fixed ideology. If your dogma tells you that government is bad while creating jobs is good, then like a mathematical formula, government never creates jobs. How can bad create good?
The toxic asset of ideology, when masked by power, can force dissenters to keep quiet. But by extending a hand to the right wing, President Obama is doing more than promoting bipartisanship. He's running a reality check. So far, the Republicans have stuck to their ideology in the face of dire need in the country. They are turning the free market into a morality-free market. The suffering of ordinary citizens demands as a duty that government relieve that suffering. The moral choice couldn't be clearer. But the embattled Republican minority feels that its only chance for survival is to wish failure on the stimulus, the rescue, the bailout, and Obama's administration in general. There is another alternative, however. The right wing could actually help in restoring hope and prosperity to the shattered economy. To do that would mean abandoning, or at least altering, their ideology. Blindness isn't the only way to live, but it is if you refuse to open your eyes.