The conflicted and often contradictory ways Americans use the word “ideology” reveals the conflicted and often contradictory ways we view ourselves.
The word “ideology” has its origins in the French Revolution and indicated a rationalistic way of governing from a set of ideas. Ideology, then, stood in contrast to the arbitrary rule of aristocrats and kings. It was supposed to be a reasonable alternative to the abuses of the French nobility.
That connotation of rationality didn’t last long, though, and by the time of Napoleon, ideology was already a pejorative, taking on its current trappings of moony-eyed notions with little value in the real world, notions that often lead the overzealous astray.
The US, however, is a product of both sides of the term ideology: our constitution was born from the Age of Reason, but our hard-bitten practicality was born from the harsh realities of colonial life.
Because of these two separate aspects of how America came to be, we both preach a hatred for ideologies and ideologues, but we also can’t live two minutes without them. We constantly formulate and systematize our practices in an attempt to somehow logically justify what we already do.
Our love/hate relationship with ideology has helped create that very American of institutions, the think tank, which tries to resolve these conflicted feelings about ideology by setting up systems based on what some do as the ideals into which the rest of us are expected to fit.