Why ideology matters

By Andreas Sowa | 6 November 2012

To quote this document: Andreas Sowa, “Why ideology matters”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 6 November 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1574, displayed on 30 January 2023


Why should we care about the US presidential election? Yes, there are differences between Obama and Romney. And yes, these differences are all but negligible. But do these differences, these contrasts in the policies they propose, really relate to us?


Does it make a difference for us who ends up in the White House?

After all, issues such as ‘Obamacare’, US abortion laws or energy policy, while hotly contested, are national, American issues. In the realm of foreign policy Mr. Romney does not even try to distinguish himself from the President, making it unlikely that we would see any major changes with respect to America’s role in the world, should the Republican candidate win on November 6th. A President Romney, though his strong rhetoric might sometimes suggest otherwise, would not be eager to bomb Iran or start another war in the Middle East.

The direct influence on us would thus arguably not be substantial. So why bother following the clown circus prior to Election Day on the other side of the Atlantic? Entertainment would be one reason. After all, no country in Europe manages to pull off such a show in choosing their leaders. But are we following the American election because we are concerned with its outcome? Why should we, if the real impact on ‘our lives’ here in Europe will in any case be minimal?

Because following the rationale set out above would be naïve. Not because American health care or energy policies will in the end have some effect on our economies; they might, but determining which economic impact would be caused by which policy is something even ‘experts’ have trouble doing at the moment. The clearly recognizable impact will be one in terms of ideology.

Ideological differences

What do I mean by ideology? Even though many Republicans would like to think differently, there is no socialist running in this election. President Obama, just like Mr. Romney, is committed to the market-economy. But even capitalism allows for stark ideological differences.

You can advocate a form of market-economy that includes the state; that gives room for regulation and incorporates the belief that while capitalism leads to efficient economic outcomes, it has to be tamed in order to protect all those vulnerable in society against its ugly excesses. ‘The market’ is not to determine every aspect of public life.

Or you can argue in favour of a retreat of the state from public life. Such a vision is often described as that of a ‘night-watchman state’; government is supposed to ‘get off people’s backs’, leaving everything apart from the provision of basic infrastructure and security to the private sector. Put in practical terms: you can try to implement universal health insurance, or you can deem ‘Europe’ to be the birthplace of inefficiency and pledge never to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Two very distinct views of government and society

That, in a nutshell, represents the ideological choice American voters face this year; a choice between an active role for government and, a government that withdraws from society. On the one side the belief that government can organize society for the better; on the other side the alluring promise that once the burdensome chains of public regulation are loosened, the ‘market’ will create growth, jobs and opportunities for everyone.

Does this sound familiar? It does, because we have heard it all before. Ronald Reagan came to office with similar promises and in the UK Margaret Thatcher enacted policies based on this philosophy. The performance of their economic approaches (clearly influenced by the rise of Monetarism) is hotly debated until today. What cannot be debated however, is the dramatic rise in inequality produced by their policies. Thus, while the economic performance of these times might have been mixed bag, the damage done to the cohesion of society was enormous.

Some people believe an economy has to operate as ‘efficiently’ as possible, and thus argue for tax cut after tax cut and the retreat of the state. Others hold that the value of an individual is more than his or her worth to the labour market and that everyone should thus enjoy a decent level of protection guaranteed by all. Today, Europeans by and large subscribe to the latter view. They do even more so after the impact of the financial crisis and the preceding lack of regulation have become evident.

That’s why the election matters for us in Europe

Thus America’s choice is highly relevant for us. The US still exerts great cultural and political influence worldwide; it is, whether we want it or not, a point of reference for us, a nation producing idols and smartphones with great influence on our lives.

That’s why it matters. Even though Romney himself might not be a deeply committed ideologue, but simply a pragmatist, he is endorsing policies that surmount to a view of society radically different from what we hold to be decent and appropriate. If America makes a full-fledged turn towards the view that as long as everyone cares for himself, everyone is cared for, we have to fear that this will sooner or later have an impact on us and our societies in Europe.

Does this article dramatically simplify matters? Yes it does. But simplicity is not always the adversary of truth.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

On the internet

  • New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman regularly writes on the need for an active state
  • Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has a critical view of Obama (and the state)


Photo source: Senator Obama in Berlin, 2008 (Matt Ortega, Creative Commons License).