Dichotomous Thinking in Political Ideology

After reading the first third of Raymond Guess’ Philosophy and Real Politics, I have begun to investigate and analyse my own political sympathies, dispositions and ideologies. It has made me wonder about not only my own ideologies, but that of others as well. I have come to believe that most of us have a dichotomous sense of our own political views. On one hand, we have our ideals; our abstract notions of what politics and the political system OUGHT to be, and on the other hand, we have our own “realist” beliefs that are more relevant to how things actually are.

Guess lays out three kinds of questions that are, in his view, essential to contemplate when thinking about politics. The first one is dubbed the “Lenin question”, which, once expanded a bit by Guess, states “Who does what to whom for whose benefit”. The second question, referred to as the “Nietzsche question” asks “What is the thing to do here and now?” and this is markedly different than abstracting away from reality and asking what’s the best course of action based on lofty values or universal notions of ‘the good’ or’ the right’. The third question, called the “Max Weber question”, discusses legitimacy. What I am concerned with here is the second question, and I want to flesh out my notion of dichotomous thinking using it as my reference point.

I will admit up front that I may be making the mistake of generalizing about how people think based on how I think, however, upon deliberation I think it is fair to say that many people, at least, display the sort of dichotomous thinking I am talking about when it comes to politics. I, for example, have a few different general political ideals ranging from more or less “realist” to more or less “idealist”. In the realist camp, I would say I am a rational secular progressive. In the idealist camp, I am somewhere between a decentralized democratic socialists and an anarcho-syndicalist. (It is pertinent that I elaborate here. Secular progressivism is realist in this sense because its indicative of my orientation in time, space, socio-politico environment, etc. It is not meant to delineate an over-arching theory of how things ought to be or a set of ethical values.) The former position is held in relation to what actually is the case, namely that we live in a capitalist quasi-republic with political actors who act based on expediency and in the interests of socio-political power as opposed to consistent moral or highly philosophical ideals. Given my situation in a capitalist quasi-republic, I think the state serves as an essential opponent of big, concentrated wealth. It does not always serve that purpose, and is often times manipulated and hijacked by the very concentrated wealth they are supposed to act as a buffer against, but I view the state being abolished while our current system of capitalism stays in place as being an unsavory dystopia. This view clashes strongly with my ideal positions of decentralization of political power and my sympathies with anarchism. But how can someone hold such contradictory positions?

I think because anyone who subscribes exclusively to such abstract, idealist positions cannot, and perhaps should not, be taken seriously as someone who is offering a real solution or strategy pertaining to real issues. The critiques of the status quo that stem from their ideal position may be relevant, but their position is just not in line with reality, and therefore adds little practical significance to what is actually happening in our socio-political environment. However, many people who hold such positions realize this, if only subconsciously, and thus temper their idealism with another, often times largely separate, set of political ideas and desires that they can advocate for given the reality of their political environment. So, when it comes to me personally, I hold the position that the State, ideally, should be diminished, but when it comes to health care in our current system, I can be found advocating for a single-payer system as a thing to be done “here and now”, as Guess says, based on the realities of a myriad of interests and the preference for a State run health care system as opposed to a for-profit run system, which are the only realistic positions given my social, political, and economic environment at this historical point in time. In this sense I can claim, confidently, that I am a realist. Better yet, maybe I am a realist with idealism simmering on the back-burners of my philosophical disposition!

At any rate, I think Raymond Guess, thus far, has laid out a convincing case for understanding and analyzing politics based on the realist approach. However, I think it is often overlooked that people can be practical realists while still holding on to some more “liberalized” idealist positions. The deciding factor of one’s political make-up, however, is how successful they are in separating the two positions distinctively within their mind and applying them correctly.


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