The late, great historian Bernard Bailyn may have been, as his New York Times obituary says, “not very political,” but I think he must have inadvertently done much political mischief with the title of his most famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Though I fully accept that, as a historian, I am not fit to touch the hem of this great man’s garment, I humbly submit that the word “ideological” is an anachronistic misnomer in the context of the American revolution. This error is particularly regrettable, as the late professor is also described in his Times obit as “a frequent critic of overspecialization, abstraction and politicized ‘presentism’—that is, interpreting past events in terms of modern thinking and values.” As I see it, “ideological,” as applied to anything in the eighteenth century, is sheer presentism.
“Ideology”—in the sense of an elaborately devised system of social and political organization, designed by intellectuals to be imposed on more organic social and political arrangements—had not been invented yet at the time of the American Revolution. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest occurrence of the word was in 1796, the year of John Adams’s election as our second president, when it meant “that branch of philosophy or psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas.” It wasn’t until after another century had passed that it was first recorded in print as a “systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct.” These were areas of life which the first post-colonial generation in America would have largely put under the heading of morality or religion.
Does this matter? I think it does. For if we fail to distinguish between ideology as we understand it and the type of political philosophy with which the leaders of the American Revolution were familiar, we will advance the Left’s disingenuous contention that the Right has an opposing “ideology” of its own (first labeled “capitalism,” now “imperialism,” “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” or any other such pejorative according to the Left’s needs). Once that contrast has been established, all that remains for the new ideologues’ propaganda is to prove that their ideology is superior to that of the opposition—not because there is, or ever can be, any concrete proof, but because it (theoretically, of course) promises more.
For the Left’s ideology promises utopia, and how do any of the right-wing’s purported ideologies compete with that? The Left knows that those on the Right who take the bait and argue on solely theoretical grounds—“ideological” grounds, as they would prefer to put it—and proclaim the comparative virtues of “capitalism” can never out-promise them, though far too many of my fellow conservatives have tried. But so long as they can keep the debate on this purely theoretical level, as a clash of rival ideologies, each side promising to be a better system for the production of human happiness and well-being, the revolutionary Left will always have the better of the argument. And it will help them immeasurably to keep the debate on that level, if they can continue to pretend that the revolutionaries of two and a half centuries ago were thinking ideologically too.
They weren’t. In fact, the original American revolution could be said to have been anti-ideological, since at its heart was the belief that individuals should be free to engage in their own “pursuit of happiness” without having some state-sponsored version of happiness thrust upon them willy nilly. “Capitalism,” like “ideology,” was a word unknown to the Founders, who had no grand economic theory on which they designed the American Republic, operating instead on the mostly mercantilist—but unsystematic—economic assumptions of their day. What the ideologues of the following century labeled “capitalism” (in order to contrast it unfavorably with socialism), was never anything more than the Founding Fathers’ word for economic reality, or realism if you prefer.
This reality is something that continues to exist in all human societies, regardless of their ideological pretensions, in spite of all opposing ideologies’ attempts to stamp it out. They may call it the black market, but it is, and always will be, nothing more or less than economic reality driven underground by law or custom, on top of which some ideological superstructure may or may not have been constructed to justify such a suppression of normal human life. In practical reality—or life as ordinary, non-ideological people know it—no theory has ever been more thoroughly discredited than socialism. But that seems never to have interfered with the ideology’s many and continuing theoretical triumphs over the Washington Generals of ideologies, “capitalism.”
“Ideology,” as Anthony Esolen has recently written, “makes you stupid.” And it is this stupidity that has spawned a whole new breed of ideological straw men—systemic racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, orientalism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.—for the virtue-signaling progressive to pretend to wipe the floor with. A few, at least, of these newly minted fake ideologies did once exist in the real world in some form, before they were converted into mythical ones (like “systemic racism”), but the great virtue from the Left’s point of view of making real enemies into mythical ones is that, however often the latter have been rhetorically defeated, they will always be there for you to “vanquish” them again when need be. All such ideological triumphs exist only on a fantastical level and should not be confused with the real, tangible achievements of the American Revolution, any more than that revolution should be confused with the fantasy one now being enacted by the ideologues on our streets today.