Ideological branding: Is Obama a centrist pragmatist or a communist?
The new categorical imperative
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican rhetoric on Obama’s supposed radicalism is overheated and off-base. He concludes:
This president is a mainstream, pragmatic moderate, operating in the center of American politics; center-left, perhaps, but not left of center.
This debate reveals that ideological description is policy prescription. How we describe, explicate, and categorize someone’s political theory or ideology, conceived holistically–say, either as American centrist or communist–affects how we understand an individual policy forwarded by that person.
If Obama’s whole project is categorized justifiaby as radical socialist, then most Americans will have good reason to scrutinize and be especially skeptical of any particular policy he proposes. Even if they support that given policy, they have to be wary of death by a thousand cuts, and worry that it might represent one step toward a path-dependency leading to a undesirable destination, or one innocuous piece of a larger malevolent project. Require people to purchase insurance now, central planning of the whole economy later.
If he’s branded as a pragmatic left-centrist, people will grant him more trust and give him the benefit of a reasonable doubt. Require people to purchase insurance now, require people to purchase insurance now; there is no worry of path-dependency in the wrong direction, or lurking shadowy projects. Obama has worked tirelessly to make this image stick; whether or not he’s been successful, Orstein argues pretty convincingly that it’s not just spin.
This form of holistic ideological branding and categorizing is a big part of public philosophy as practiced by political communicators. It uses our pre-existing notions about who we are and which general ideological groupings we support to generate action for or against a specific policy, set of policies, or politician. People do not have the time or desire to become experts on every policy question; their support or opposition is often a matter of general ideological allegiance. If policy A or politician B is associated with an ideology that I oppose in the abstract, I will instinctively be skeptical. Relying on such instincts is reasonable, given that we cannot consider every philosophical and policy principle de novo–working our way up from first principles like “I exist,” “Pain feels bad,” and “I can make free choices”–anytime something is proposed.
However, as Orsetin points out, it’s not all relative when it comes to categorizing a political ideology. Ideological groupings endorse specific conceptual content; whether one ought to be associated with one or another is a testable proposition. The spin of ideological branding can only go so far. And it can’t sustain itself forever. There is, at the bottom, the truth of the matter. But, of course, it needn’t hold forever, not in a our election and news cycle. A year or two is long enough to make or break political careers and change major policies.