When the term "ideology" (or "ideologues" or "ideological") appears in the media, the reference typically has two characteristics: it is critical or derisive; and it is applied to the "conservative right" rather than to the "liberal left." On the basis of casual empiricism -- simply, counting the recent references I've seen -- I estimate the odds are five to one that these characteristics will be associated with the reference!

Three recent examples, among many possible ones, illustrate the point:

* From The New York Times: "The Reaganites' ideological obsession with Cuba and Nicaragua has blinded the administration."

* From the Los Angeles Times: "The president and the ideologues who surround him seem blind to these complexities."

* From The New Yorker magazine: "(Reagan) is less leashed, less careful about what he says, more combative, more ideological."

Why -- among the range of controversial issues to which the "ideological" label is frequently applied -- is the application so heavily concentrated on one side? Why, for example, are intensified efforts to dislodge the Sandinistas and to thwart Cuba considered "ideological," while rejection of these efforts is not?

Why, to take another issue, is strong advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative often termed "ideological," while opposition to it is not?

Why is it "ideological" to call the Soviet Union "an evil empire," but not "ideological" to consider it simply a troublesome, troubled and perhaps paranoid state?

Why is it "ideological" to favor defense spending over spending on domestic programs, while the reverse preference is not?

Why is "pro-life" ideological, but "pro- choice" is not?

To personalize the point, why is it generally accepted that many of the positions espoused by President Reagan are "ideological," while those favored by Ted Kennedy or Tip O'Neill are not? Why is the National Review's William Buckley "ideological," but The New York Times' Anthony Lewis not? Why the Defense Department's Richard Perle, but not the State Department's Richard Burt? Why is Pat Buchanan typically cast as an "ideologue," while Stu Eizenstat never was? And why is The Wall Street Journal considered "ideological," but not The Washington Post?

Why, to generalize the point, is the derisive, put-down label applied to one side so frequently, but to the other side so rarely?

The simple answer is that the media that employ the label are themselves antagonistic to the positions they apply it to and sympathetic to the ones they refrain from applying it to. No doubt there is much truth in this, but it's not the whole explanation.

The rest of the explanation lies in the widely accepted assumption that positions termed "ideological" actually are more rigid, less willing to compromise, less receptive to evidence that contradicts them, and hence more justifiably subject to criticism and derision than the contrasting, "non-ideological" positions. In fact, this assumption is unwarranted, not because the factual basis for the so-called "ideological" positions is strong, but because the factual basis for the opposing "liberal left" positions is equally weak.

Consider the issue of trying to cut the federal budget deficit by reducing domestic spending rather than reducing the growth of defense spending. The case for protecting defense spending while concentrating cuts on domestic programs rests on several key premises: the vulnerability of U.S. land-based missile forces to a Soviet first strike, and the relative invulnerability of Soviet land-based missile forces to the same threat from the United States; the deficiencies of U.S. and NATO conventional capabilities relative to those of the Warsaw Pact; the need to replace a geriatric strategic bomber force with one that is more modern and more capable; and, most important, the assertion that, unlike domestic programs, the federal government provides the only means to meet these defense needs.

None of these premises is without merit, although all of them are arguable, except the final one. There is no one else to do the defense job besides the federal government.

On the other hand, the contrary view about cutting defense spending as much or more than domestic spending rests on a different and opposed set of key premises: namely, the Soviets are and will remain fully deterred by existing sea-based missile forces; NATO's conventional capabilities are, even if less than desirable, quite adequate compared with those of the Warsaw Pact, partly because the non-Soviet forces in the pact are too unreliable for the Soviets to be confident of using them; the B-52 bomber force is old, but it can "hang on" until the "Stealth" replacement arrives; and, finally, while it's true that the federal government is the only means of providing for defense, waste should not be protected by this lame excuse, and various domestic programs (for example, Social Security benefits, student loans, even Amtrak) are important and won't get done unless the federal government does them.

The point of this attempt at constructing a fair balance is simply that the second set of arguments is no less arguable nor more convincing than the first. In both cases, corroborative as well as conflicting evidence must be marshalled, compared, evaluated and, in the final analysis, subjected to fallible human judgment to arrive at a personal or a policy conclusion. But, most assuredly, the pro-defense view is no more "ideological" than its opposition.

The same sort of balance sheet, with the same conclusion, can be arrived at for all the other issues mentioned earlier.

When someone impugns the views of another as being "ideological," it's usually a safe bet that the comment applies at least as much to the source as to the object.