In US and Western political culture, state ideology is associated with underdeveloped nations and dictatorships which need a set of ideas to mobilise the domestic front or to justify difficult national circumstances. Liberalism and democracy, the reasoning goes, don’t count because they are based on “pluralism”, acceptance of the other and cultural diversity, and because politics is about making compromises; it is a process of consensus-making in which a common culture plays an important part in dispute resolution.
When push comes to shove, a vote is taken, the majority carries the day, and no one has to reach for their guns. The presumption is that the sporting spirit will ultimately prevail and lead the collective polity to the best political, economic and social solutions.
But theory is one thing and reality is another, especially when dealing with the US. Ideology has in fact been a mainstay of US politics since the American Revolution, and differences over it have varied in intensity from one era to another. Initially the US revolutionaries fell into two camps, each with a major document to back them up. Those who championed equality and personal liberties held up the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines these principles.
Others countered with the constitution, which sanctioned slavery as a cornerstone of the country’s economic life. As soon as the nation was established, ideological controversy flared over the French Revolution. On one side the call for freedom, brotherhood and equality was an extension of the American Revolution. The other side saw it as a threat. This led to the Alien and Sedition Acts which penalised advocacy of the principles of the French Revolution on the grounds that they sowed the seeds of strife and division.
The US Civil War (1860-1865) was a manifestation of ideological rift at its most acute. Positions were so hardened there was no room for consensus or compromise. The clash was not just over slavery but over the American union, the rights of the states and their freedom to take decisions contrary to the federal consensus, including the decision to secede.
Developments in the US before and after the civil war may be described as manifestations of the conventional division in democratic societies between progressive, pro-change forces and conservative forces set on preserving the status quo. The latter were instrumental in undermining three post-civil war constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and granted African Americans full equality, including the rights to vote and run for office.
The conservatives struck back with “Jim Crow” laws which were marketed beneath the rubric “separate but equal,” but effectively reimposed slavery in a new guise. In addition to slavery and African American rights, the ideologies also clashed over women’s rights and the rights of other minorities, such as Catholics, Jews and Native Americans.
The Great Depression and World War II ushered in a new foundation for ideological relations in the US. Under Roosevelt, it became possible for the state to intervene in order to uphold minority rights, at least in form. At this point, the division between conservatives and progressives coalesced into the rivalry between two major parties: the Republican Party, which had been progressive under Lincoln at the time of the civil war but later turned conservative in the 20th century, and the Democratic Party which took up the progressives’ torch after the war.
Even so, we can not speak of two pure and distinct ideologies at the time. In reality the two sides shared a base of common beliefs with regard to domestic and foreign policies. That is why there were no problems with the smooth rotation of power between Republicans and Democrats from Roosevelt through George Bush Sr.
In a way, the Clinton presidency marked a turning point in consensus-making process. Until then - with the possible exception of the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency - the bipartisan spirit was high. Then, in the 1990s, the US began to cleave not just along party lines but also along an ideological divide.
One side favoured the US’s brute intervention abroad, the other urged the exercise of soft power. One side advocated state intervention in healthcare, the other wanted to leave it to market forces. The 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon could only deepen the divide. George Bush Jr’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq were a manifestation of a fully fledged neoconservative ideology.
It was founded on a vision of an “American 21st century” and a self-designated mandate to engineer regime change abroad at gunpoint and rebuild countries on the American democratic model. Many Democrats rallied behind Bush’s decision to go to war. It was a curious departure from their own party’s ideology in accordance with which they should have opposed the wars that would cost their country so dearly.
When the reality of the losses hit home, the Democrats must have realised the consequences of their complicity. Perhaps this is why, under Obama, they decided to change the world using “softer” means inspired by the changes that had swept Eastern Europe. Accordingly, they championed the anarchic movement that become known as the Arab Spring.
This also shows that the progressives and conservatives were not all that far apart. But it would not be long before another phenomenon widened the rift between them.
Trump epitomised the emergence of a new brand of opposition, not just to the democrats but also to conventional conservatives (Ronald Reagan, Bush Sr, etc.), neoconservatives (Bush Jr) and the entire US establishment (across the progressive-conservative spectrum).
The business magnate represented white Americans opposed to US involvement abroad, opposed to government intervention in their personal lives, opposed to large influxes of immigrants and the changes this would cause in the US’s demographic composition. Biden now appears to be trying to lead the US back to its bipartisan heyday. He belongs to the ideological school that backed the moves to impeach Nixon and ushered Reagan into the White House. I speak of the pragmatist school that had prevailed after World War II.
The problem facing this fourth ideology in contemporary US history is the pull from the far right, not just within the Republican Party but within the Trumpist camp, itself, which has already set its sights on the 2024 presidential elections and is, therefore, baring its teeth against Biden’s “socialist” tendencies.
It also faces the pull from the left, from the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Camp, and from the African American and Latin American base that wants to fling open the doors to immigration in order to change the US demographic composition once and for all. In short, Biden is caught between a rock and a hard place, putting his new pragmatism to a tough test.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly