The Fall of Idealism and the Rise of Pragmatism

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Richi Sunak and Joe Biden shacking hands (Image Credit: Mamul)

Experts tell us that politics is more polarized than ever, with the politics of voters diverging from each other at unprecedented rates. Given this, you might expect politicians in democratic countries to profess their adherence to various ideologies. The opposite is true. In Europe, the German Green Party Die Grünen have broken from ideological convention, campaigning for arms to be sent to support the Ukrainian war effort against Russia. At 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak has pledged “robust pragmatism” concerning Britain’s adversaries and we cannot forget that nearly every government in the world opted for state-sanctioned lockdowns and demand-side economics in response to COVID-19, regardless of previously declared convictions.  Being principled is unfashionable amongst those who aspire to govern; ideologues have been consigned to the fringes of parliamentary politics.  

Contrast this with the politics of years gone. Ideology was once the order of the day. Thatcherism is now a byword for obstinacy but between 1979 and 1990, it was Government policy. Politicians used to be political theorists; philosophy preceded their policies. James Madison and Vladimir Lenin are best known for their time as statesmen, but these periods did not come about before they had committed to their convictions in print, with works like the Federalist Papers and What is To Be Done? 

The shift away from ideological politics is best explained by the increased popularity of materialism and the subsequent rejection of the idea that humans have non-physical components to their essence.  Ideologues have long framed their politics with respect to the soul, and as belief in the transcendent has slipped from the public perception, rigid ideology has slipped away with it.

The Bible continually affirms the importance of the transformation of the soul. In Psalm 51:10, the psalmist writes “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” In the Book of Isaiah, God declares “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) to the sinful Israelites, affirming the notion that a transformation of the human state was necessary for righteousness. The Old Testament idea of transformation is affirmed by Jesus Christ. In His dealing with Nicodemus the Pharisee, recounted in John 3, Jesus Christ describes this transformation as vital for human salvation:

Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

John 3:5

Since then, ideologues born into Christian societies have attempted to imitate the biblical message with ranging calls for the regeneration of human society. The vanguard of the French Revolution relentlessly pursued the regeneration of the country. Believing France to be plagued by tyranny, Robespierre advocated for the infamous Reign of Terror to enact political violence against anti-revolutionary elements within France, justifying it as necessary for the survival of the Republic. Because the “purity of the French revolution’s basis… rallies all vicious men against us”, Robespierre reasoned, “we must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic.” This belief in regeneration was codified when Robespierre established the Cult of the Supreme Being, a form of deism that would promote the revolutionary values of justice, liberty and republicanism. In a June 1794 speech to people gathered at the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre called on French citizens to cleanse their society of its supposed sins: 

Republican Frenchmen, it is up to you to purify the land they have soiled and to recall the justice they have banished.

Maximilien Robespierre’s speech at the Festival of the Supreme Being, Paris, 1794.

In blasphemous imitation of the Christian message, fascist ideologues, too, spoke of their belief that transformation of the soul was necessary to actualize their philosophy. Unlike the French republicans, fascists endeavored to create a class of individuals willing to serve an all-consuming military state in its goal of national rejuvenation. In a 1922 address prior to his March On Rome, Benito Mussolini depicted himself as akin to a blacksmith who worked to bend metal.

My father was a blacksmith who bent the red-hot iron on the anvil. Sometimes as a child I helped my father in his hard, humble job; and now I have the much harsher and harder job of bending the souls.

In fact, Mussolini went on to admit that the goal of all ideologues was to operate as some kind of soulsmith who aimed to bend men into shape. In hubristic grandeur, he highlighted Lenin’s failure to change the nature of man, without realizing, or perhaps accepting, that the same verdict would be true of his own political endeavors:

Lenin is an artist who has worked men, as other artists have worked marble or metals. But men are harder than stone and less malleable than iron. There is no masterpiece. The artist has failed. The task was superior to his capacities.

With rhetoric like this, it becomes apparent why the politicians of this age are not the committed ideologues their forefathers were. Amongst academics, the study of anything other than the physical has been dismissed, with philosophy departments in every region of the globe falling to the sword. Professor Laurence Krauss, formerly of Yale and Arizona State, declared that “science provides the ultimate account of the basis of reality”. Krauss considers observation of the physical universe to be a self-sufficient account of all reality. And amongst lay people? Atheism is more common than ever, with just 27% of Britons professing belief in a deity. If the physical is all that exists, politicians had better get to satisfying physical needs as immediately as they arise. 

This is the root cause of the rise of pragmatism. The political consensus now operates as if they lead insatiable wolves, hunting deer into extinction on the grounds that the pack is hungry. Politics has been transformed. No longer do candidates attempt to resonate with the belief systems of voters. Rather, they simply declare that they and their entourage are the most capable of leading the hunt. The wolves must be fed.

Written by Nathan Omane

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