On Friday, columnist David Brooks informed readers that Barack Obama’s picks “are not ideological.” The incoming president’s key economic advisers “are moderate and thoughtful Democrats,” while Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy views “are hardheaded and pragmatic.”
On Saturday, the New York Times front page reported that the president-elect’s choices for secretaries of State and Treasury “suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.”
On Monday, hours before Obama’s formal announcement of his economic team, USA Today explained that he is forming a Cabinet with “records that display more pragmatism than ideology.”
The ideology of no ideology is nifty. No matter how tilted in favor of powerful interests, it can be a deft way to keep touting policy agendas as common-sense pragmatism — virtuous enough to draw opposition only from ideologues.
Meanwhile, the end of ideology among policymakers is about as imminent as the end of history.
But — in sync with the ideology of no ideology — deference to corporate power isn’t ideological. And belief in the U.S. government’s prerogative to use military force anywhere in the world is a matter of credibility, not ideology.
Ideological assumptions gain power as they seem to disappear into the prevailing political scenery. So, for instance, reliably non-ideological ideological journalists sit at the studio table every Friday night on the PBS “Washington Week” program, which is currently funded by similarly non-ideological outfits including Boeing, the National Mining Association and Constellation Energy (“the nation’s largest supplier of competitive electricity to large commercial and industrial customers,” with revenues of $21 billion last year).
Along the way, the ideology of no ideology can corral even normally incisive commentators. So, over the weekend, as news broke about the nominations of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers to top economic posts, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote an article praising “the members of Obama’s new economic team.” Reich declared: “All are pragmatists. Some media have dubbed them ‘centrists’ or ‘center-right,’ but in truth they’re remarkably free of ideological preconception. … They are not visionaries but we don’t need visionaries when the economic perils are clear and immediate. We need competence. Obama could not appoint a more competent group.”
Competence can be very good. But “free of ideological preconception”? I want to meet these guys. If they really don’t have any ideological preconceptions, they belong in the book of Guinness World Records.
As for competence, it seems that claims of non-ideology often go hand-in-hand with overblown claims of economic mastery. “Geithner and Summers are credited with expertise in crisis management,” economist Mark Weisbrot pointed out on Monday, “but we better hope they don’t manage the current crisis like they did in East Asia, Russia, Argentina or any of the other countries that Treasury was involved in during the 1990s with their help. They helped bring on the East Asian crisis in 1997 by pressuring the governments in the region to de-regulate international financial flows, which was the main cause of the crisis. Then they insisted that all bailout money go through the IMF, and delayed aid until most of the damage was done. Then they attached damaging conditions” to the aid.
After all is said and done, the ideology of no ideology is just like any other ideology that’s apt to be much better at promoting itself than living up to its pretenses. No amount of flowery rhetoric or claims of transcendent non-ideology should deter tough scrutiny. And Judge Judy’s injunction should apply to the ideology of no ideology as much as to any ideology that owns up to being one: “Don’t pee on me and tell me it’s raining.”