Democracy and the Good Life: Saving Democracy from Ideology

Saving Democracy from ideology

In my past four posts, I argued that democracy (like capitalism) has significant benefits if you’re trying to build an ethical life, but that many of those benefits are squandered due to the exploitation of political marketplaces and the growth of what I’ve called Consumer Packaged Ideology.

In the economic sphere, we are marketed to by lifestyle brands selling us stuff based on some aspirational personal identity. In the democratic marketplace, we are marketed to by purveyors of an intellectually incoherent bundle of beliefs designed to provide a similar aspirational identity. These two kinds of markets work almost identically. Political marketplaces create belief in the same way (and to the same ends) as economic marketplaces create desire.

Modern political ideologies are just lifestyle brands dressed in shabby intellectual finery.

The result has been a massive shift in political landscape away from fighting over indirect rewards and a sharp rise in affective polarization as people increasingly invest their identity in a political ideology. This is bad for people — many who otherwise might find some good alternative set of values to rampant materialism are sold an intellectually debilitating ideology that is probably worse for them than just wanting a lot of stuff. It’s also bad for democracy. My interests are more ethical than political (and in the concluding essay in this series will tackle the impact of the politicization of the self), but it’s worth thinking about the problem packaged ideological marketing presents to democracy.

As I made clear in Part 1 of this series, the solution to CPI is not obviously some other political system. We have few viable alternatives to democracy in the modern world, and while those few alternatives may meet some basic demand for legitimacy, they are remarkably unappealing. That oligarchies and quasi-dictatorships in China and Russia probably do meet basic demands to legitimacy is a sad commentary on what people are willing to accept, not an interesting peak into potentially attractive alternatives to democracy. Only an extraordinarily foolish person could think that government by Strongman or aged clique is a solution to democratic ills.

It’s unclear if CPI rises to the level of an existential threat to democracy, but if it is, it will likely result in an end-state not unlike China or Russia. It’s not that democracy will become worse than oligarchy, it’s that democracy will simply become an oligarchy of the right or left.

We can see this in many states where elections have largely ceased to matter. I can only faintly remember the last time an election in California meant something. With one party rule, everything about democracy becomes a fraud. The potential candidates are selected by the ideological fringe most invested in the ruling brand of CPI. Political office becomes a matter of cronyism. And the opportunities and temptations to corruption skyrocket since there is no opposition to provide challenge or criticism. A flat-out majority of states are now in this situation.

Of course, this has also caused national elections to be fought almost entirely in a handful of states that control the balance of power. This rightly infuriates people in all the states that get ignored (which include many of the most populous). But as precarious as this situation is, what happens if the balance of power actually tips strongly in favor of one side or another? That’s happened before in the past without harmful results. But with the irrational fervor of ideology, a truly dominant party would likely end effective democracy.

The problem is that we are in a kind of doom loop. As consumer-packaged ideology has become the dominant method of capturing political marketplaces, it’s harder and harder to reverse the trend. The only way to get power is to embrace a packaged ideology. And if you embrace CPI, you can’t — in a democratic marketplace — easily get rid of it. As the fallout of Trumpism (and countless other ideological movements across history) makes clear, there is always someone willing to grab at the reins of power by being holier than thou. The Greene’s and Boebert’s of the world manage to make Trump (or at least the original version of Trump) seem almost sane.

Worse, because a heavy majority of voters now pledge allegiance to some packaged ideology, there is a shrinking minority who can see that ideology is the problem. For the believers, the problem isn’t ideology, it’s the other people’s evil belief system. Nor is it possible to argue against these packaged ideologies in any sustained fashion because they lack any intellectual coherence. They are often little more than chaotic systems where tiny differences in initial starting point result in vast tribes fully committed to some totally irrational idea simply because the other side thinks differently.

Covid was a rich proving ground of just how ludicrous the ideological wars have become. The right opposed vaccines in general because…I have no idea. People were, quite literally, willing to die for their stupid package of political identity. The left wanted to shut schools and keep them closed as long as possible — probably because one sliver of the ideological left is made up of teacher’s unions who wanted to reduce risk to their membership. Suddenly tens of millions of CPI -addled parents were willing to sacrifice their children to their ideology.

You may say this is just people being stupid. But notice how they were stupid along rigidly ideological lines that cannot possibly be tied back to any intellectual foundation. It’s hard to have a functioning democracy when people are willing to sacrifice their own lives and their children’s welfare just to spite the other side.

This is not about ideas. It is not about justice or equality or freedom or democracy or capitalism. It is about marketing and lifestyle branding.

As a final cherry on the problem sundae, most of the fixes to our democracy typically floated by concerned theorists are either irrelevant or harmful. Irrelevant because they attack the wrong problem. Harmful because they actually increase the sway of ideology and the problem of ideological schismogenesis.

Consider, for example, the many proposals to limit the amount of money spent on political campaigns: campaign finance laws, public financing, the constant drumbeat of criticism about the influence of money on politics. Yet if we eliminated all campaign spending, what would be left?


The vast majority of political persuasion — and by far the most harmful — is lifestyle branding not campaign advertising. Not only doesn’t ideology need a campaign, election campaigns are often the only place where the shortcomings of an ideology can be exposed (mostly via the shortcomings of their champions — a process which is intellectually vapid yet practically important). It’s preposterous to suggest that a democracy could somehow limit ideological argument or persuasion. Yet without that limitation, capping or eliminating campaign spending is worse than useless. It makes CPI more important not less, and it forces candidates to be beholden to the worst and most rabid constituencies.

As with so many public policy proposals, campaign spending limits are all about fighting the last war. Back when politics was a patronage business, giving money to candidates was a sensible practical investment that fostered a culture of corruption. Today, when politics is run by ideology and almost all the money comes from marketing campaigns aimed at the mass-market, limiting big donors just makes everything worse.

The same can be said for almost every change that has been designed to make our political marketplaces more democratic and efficient. From making it easier to vote to proposition law to seemingly obvious proposals like getting rid of the Electoral College. We’ve made countless changes to create a more direct democracy. Haven’t the proponents of all those changes ever looked around and wondered why everything is getting worse?

The historical trend over the past two centuries has been to a steadily increased reliance on direct democracy, and that trend has sharply accelerated in the past few decades. In the United States, many of the original republican institutions are now reviled as anti-democratic (particularly on the left) and have become much weaker. The more direct a democracy, the less friction. The less friction, the more sway for CPI.

It isn’t that the Electoral College is good, that big donors buying favors is useful, or that there is some inherent virtue in awful ballots and inconvenient election policies. Those things are not good at all and the people who want to change them aren’t stupid or even wholly wrong. But every step we take to eliminate friction in political marketplaces has made packaged ideologies and lifestyle branding more important and more powerful. We’ve solved our annoying rat problem. Now we have a nearly fatal mongoose problem.

At this point, you might be expecting me to trot out a solution.

For good or ill, I don’t pretend to have one. Packaging ideology and selling it as a lifestyle brand has been enormously successful and there is no clear path to changing that by democratic means since the ideologists control the paths to power. Nor is there any clear path to changing it by non-democratic means. Kooks on the far right like to tout Putin and some kooks on the far left still admire China (which is inexplicable) but not only is there nothing desirable in the Russian or Chinese models, there is no plausible path to gaining the power to eliminate ideology except through ideology.

Perhaps a strong economic shock or external threat would force people out of the CPI culture wars and into political pathways more focused on indirect rewards. But it’s dangerous to root for disaster or to expect positive change from catastrophe.

Ultimately, the only good solution to the problem is a cultural rejection of packaged ideologies. This might come naturally. A genuine system of principles and ideas might emerge and gather adherents — stripping off CPI adherents into something more plausible and useful. Or people might simply get tired of fighting over fake bundles of tissue-thin ideas. Having a political identity may fall out of fashion. That would be wonderful.

These things could happen. Cultures change constantly and people tend, over time, to intellectually immunize themselves against marketing much as our bodies do against disease.

But although CPI is endemic throughout the Western world, it remains deadly. Perhaps it will become less virulent as people begin to recognize it for what it is and reckon its costs. Yet things might continue to get worse, and those costs are already heavy to our political institutions. A few decades back, a Donald Trump presidency would have been both unimaginable and impossible. The corruption, stupidity and virulence of both the right and the left have grown exponentially as packaged ideologies have become dominant.

Sadly, things are even worse at the level of the individual. Most of what I write about isn’t political theory, it’s individual decision-making and ethical choice. Perhaps surprisingly, it is in those areas that the greatest harms of ideology as a lifestyle fall. Democracy may be threatened, but lots of actual lives have already been wasted. In Part 6, the last of this series, I’ll tackle the politicization of the self and its devastating consequences for our culture and our ethical life.

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