It hasn't been as far back as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it sure seems that long since we've had a great debate about ideas. Today's politicians seem too caught up in hanging on to power (Republicans) or getting it back (Democrats) to care much about which ideas are better than others.
There was a time when people actually debated such things, but in a day of focus groups, polling, fund-raisers, blogs, talk radio and hyperventilating cable TV hosts, ideas and ideology seem in short supply.
I like the first and second definitions of ideology in my dictionary: "(1) visionary theorizing; (2) a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life and culture."
Among the definitions for "idea" is this: "a plan for action."
Isn't this what's missing from much of contemporary politics: visionary theorizing, a body of concepts, and most especially a plan for action that benefits the most people?
Perhaps this reflects a culture that is so fixated on self that it has no regard for much else. Are politicians merely a reflection of this narcissism, or are they contributing to it by their failure to lead? What Democrat has had an interesting idea in recent years? Democrats mostly oppose whatever Republicans are doing and see no merit in any of their ideas. Republicans, who once had ideas, (the Reagan Revolution; the Contract with America) behave like the Democratic majority they replaced. The ideas that put Republicans in power seem to have evaporated. Instead of advancing those ideas, too many Republicans pander to various constituencies, hoping their soon-to-be former supporters will overlook their prostitution.
If a party mostly focuses on winning the next election, rather than giving voters a reason to vote for its candidates, the likelihood of success is greatly diminished. Electoral victory, like happiness, is usually a byproduct of something more substantive. If winning the next election becomes the only goal and if one's sole platform is "elect us, because we're not as bad as members of the other party," voters will be turned off and either switch sides or stay home.
Some believe Republicans should lose this fall to show the party bosses that its conservative wing cannot be taken for granted. This is Richard Viguerie's argument in an essay in Sunday's Washington Post. About the prospect that "millions of conservatives" might stay home this November, Viguerie, a veteran of the 1980s "New Right," writes: "And maybe they should. Conservatives are beginning to realize that nothing will change until there's a change in the GOP leadership. If congressional Republicans win this fall, they will see themselves as vindicated, and nothing will get better."
Democrats suffer from a similar affliction. Ultra-left groups like MoveOn.org claim Sen. Hillary Clinton isn't liberal enough, as she cloaks her liberalism with moderate talk for a possible run for president in 2008. The Democratic agenda in Congress is nonexistent. It merely repeats the familiar lines about class and race. Democrats lack new ideas that would benefit the most Americans and move the country forward. The Democratic "policy" in Iraq is to get out. The Democratic economic policy is higher taxes, more spending and bigger government. Republicans aren't much better. Their policy is lower taxes, more spending and bigger government. That's an echo, not a choice.
The death of ideology reflects public apathy and cynicism about politics, which is partially the fault of politicians who increasingly lack convictions that cannot be swayed by a focus group. Alternative media allow people to tune in or read only those things that ratify their points of view. This self-imposed ideological segregation prevents minds from being stretched by the presentation of ideas different from one's own.
In the description of a course he taught in the fall of 2004 at The University of Washington, Dr. Steven W. Collins wrote, "Ideologies link political ideas to organized political action, helping individuals orient themselves within their social, economic and political circumstances."
What happens when ideologies and ideas evaporate is that the public becomes politically disoriented. With too many Republicans acting like Democrats and both parties seeming to want power for its own sake, the public has understandably become not only politically disoriented, but disgusted.