Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
They Said It:
[Every socialist] has a plan designed to make mankind happy, and they all have the air of saying that if we oppose them, it is because we fear either for our property or for other social advantages. No; we oppose them because we consider their ideas to be false, because we believe their proposals to be as naive as they are disastrous. If we could be shown that happiness could be brought forever down to earth by an artificial social organization, or by decreeing fraternity, there are some among us, even though we are economists, who would gladly sign that decree with the last drop of their blood.
We too, believe us, are filled with fervent emotion when we hear the word fraternity, handed down eighteen centuries ago from the top of the holy mountain and inscribed forever on our republican flag. We too desire to see individuals, families, nations associate with one another, aid one another, relieve one another in the painful journey of mortal life. We too feel our hearts stir and our tears welling up at the recital of noble deeds, whether they add luster to the lives of simple citizens, join different classes together in close union, or accelerate the onward movement of nations chosen by destiny to occupy the advanced outpost of progress and civilization.
But we have not been shown that fraternity can be imposed. If, indeed, wherever it appears, it excites our sympathy so keenly, that is because it acts outside of all legal constraint. Either fraternity is spontaneous, or it does not exist.
Frédéric Bastiat, “Justice and Fraternity,” Journal des Economistes, 1848.
KILLING US WITH KINDNESS.
We’re not sure if you heard, but you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. Don’t blame us, though. We don’t know what we’re talking about either. We think that President Obama is an ideologue, a Leftist to the core, the most polarizing ideological president in more than three decades. But we’re wrong about that. And so are you.
Last week, you see, the President told a small group of millionaires at a fundraiser in Seattle that he doesn’t understand the hubbub about his policies. They’re good policies, simply designed and intended to achieve basic, modest goals. The real ideologues, he said, are those who oppose his pragmatic policy prescriptions. While describing himself as “not a particularly ideological person,” he laid the blame for . . . well . . . everything at the feet of his opponents. “The biggest barrier and impediment we have right now,” the President declared, “is the Congress, and in particular the House of Representatives, that is not focused on getting the job done for the American people and is a lot more focused on trying to position themselves for the next election.”
For the time being, we’ll set aside the irony of a president whining about his opponents positioning themselves “for the next election” while speaking to donors at a campaign fundraiser. We’ll also set aside the proper role of an opposition party or, in constitutional terms, the legislative branch of government with respect to providing a “check” on the president’s ambitions. What interests us most here is Obama’s claim to be “not particularly ideological.” That is a fascinating, if telling claim from this president, and one that explains so much about the current state of our politics, especially the level of rancor and incivility that is both omnipresent and potentially debilitating.
Reactions to the President’s quip have varied. Most, though, have focused on his arrogance, his supreme sense of self, and the attendant belief that, because he is so smart, his opinions very closely mirror facts. In the “Insiders” blog for the Washington Post, Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican political operative, explained Obama’s thinking as follows:
The president’s belief that little of what he does is ideologically driven suggests he is living with a pampered, unchallenged mind. He has been told he is so smart for so long that he sees only clarity in his actions and unchallengeable reason in his conclusions. The president’s belief in his own intellect makes him think that whatever he does is simply the only thing a thinking person would do. Nothing ideological about that. And as president, he is constantly flattered, and his confidence that his analysis and conclusions are superior to others is readily reinforced. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett tells us that Obama has been “bored to death his whole life.” Perhaps she is onto something. I guess there is something ho-hum and tiresome about being right all the time.
It appears that President Obama believes that dissenting views are irrational or the result of clouded, lesser thinking.
This is, we’ll concede, not an unreasonable explanation. Obama is indeed arrogant and self-absorbed. And he does indeed think that he has this silly, pedestrian game of politics all figured out. As he famously told his campaign’s political director: “I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Still, we think that the “Obama always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room” bit is wrong, or at least not wholly right. There is something else going on here, a phenomenon that transcends Barack Obama the individual and explains our politics in much broader and more wide-ranging terms.
In order to understand better what Obama’s statement about ideology means and how it fits into the broader political consciousness, we think that it might help to take a look at what he said the day after the fundraiser in Seattle, again in front of a friendly audience, this time in Hollywood, at the DreamWorks animation “campus.” To wit:
I have my critics, obviously, but since were here in Hollywood, I want to think about something that the late, great Chicago film critic, Robert [Roger] Ebert said – and I was fortunate to get to know Roger Ebert and was always inspired by how he handled some really tough stuff. “Kindness,” he wrote, “covers all of my political beliefs.” Kindness covers all of my political beliefs.
And when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy – that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because Malia and Sasha are doing well, that’s not enough – I want your kids to do well also. And I’m willing to help to build good schools so that they get a great education, even if mine are already getting a great education.
Ah, yes. Kindness. Sing it with us now: All you need is love . . . .
And if you disagree with the man, of course, that means that you’re unkind. And you are, of course. We can tell by looking at you!
Now, longtime readers may know where we’re going with this, largely because we’ve gone there before – time and again, in fact. Obama may think he’s unique among politicians. Or he may think he’s particularly empathetic. Or he may believe that he’s found this great new way of expressing the chief virtues of political necessity. But he’s not, and he hasn’t.
What Obama has done here – and mind you, we’re extremely grateful to him for it – is simply to restate the Progressive ethos, which is stated all the time by politicians on his side and was stated perhaps most notably by his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his not-quite-anointed Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton.
Back when Bill was running for re-election in 1996, he sat down for an interview with NBC News’s Tom Brokaw, who asked him about his “character” and whether that would be an issue in the campaign. Clinton responded:
I think that you can demonstrate your character most effectively by what you fight for and for whom you fight. And I believe that the fact that I’ve stood up for the American people for the things like fighting for the family leave law or the assault weapons ban or the Brady bill or the V-chip for parents or trying to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids and a lot of other issues – those things will count for something and they demonstrate character too.
Similarly, when she and Bill were fresh to the White House, Hillary liked to talk about her upbringing, which she thought was unique and special, in that she was taught that she “had an obligation to care for people, to help. It wasn’t something that you did as an afterthought. It was how you lived.” She claimed that she had a “social mission,” and, as we have noted before in these pages, she insisted that she had a “burning desire to make the world around me – kind of going out in concentric circles – better for everybody.”
All of this could, of course, be attributed to ego, as Rogers attributes Obama’s claim of empathetic exceptionalism. But in our estimation, that would be a mistake.
What we have here is the near perfect pairing of Progressive morality with Progressive politics, described nearly perfectly by the combination of Alasdair MacIntyre and Eric Voegelin, respectively.
Let us start, just for arguments sake, with MacIntyre. As we have noted countless times before in these pages, MacIntyre is hardly the only philosopher ever to tackle the question of the post-Enlightenment moral evolution, but his explanation is one of the finest, one of the clearest, and one of the most applicable to contemporary left-ish politics.
MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment mission of destroying the traditional, religiously based moral scheme was immensely successful. But its concomitant mission, to replace traditional morality with a moral scheme based exclusively on reason, was doomed from the start. And the process, in turn, left the entire project of morality shattered.
Without a teleological framework, MacIntyre argued, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic.” And “logic” in this case, is patently subjective.
The ultimate end of all of this, MacIntyre argued, is a civil condition in which the traditional moral order has been subdued, replaced by nothing, or at least nothing of any substance or meaning. And this, in turn, breeds moral chaos. The modern, liberal society, then, is one in which the meanings of such words as right, wrong, moral, immoral, truth, lie, justice and injustice are entirely impulsive and contextual. In such a society, MacIntyre notes, the statement “This is good” comes to mean nothing more than “Hurrah for this!”
In the context of contemporary liberalism, this means that “morality” is defined specifically as the preferences of those liberals doing the defining. Consider that once upon a time, a man discussing a curly hair on a Coke can was considered a moral outrage, yet only a handful of years later, the case of a much more powerful man striking up a relationship with a subordinate or groping the widow of a friend would be seen as a “private matter” best left out the public realm altogether.
In practice, then, the Enlightenment project to demolish the traditional deity-based moral order has resulted in a society that is incapable of recognizing moral absolutes. Everything is relative. Everything is situational. Moreover, the morality of any given situation is dependent exclusively on the whims and preferences of those with the greatest stake in proffering the definition. All moral judgments become, as MacIntyre put it, “emotive,” which is to say that “that all evaluative judgments and more speciﬁcally all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.”
When Obama said that he thinks that his political philosophy – “all my political beliefs” – can be explained by the notion of “kindness,” he was patently, willingly, and undeniably embracing an “emotive” moral order. Traditional conceptions of right and wrong are irrelevant. All that matters, all that may be defined as “moral” is that which meets HIS definition of “kindness,” which is itself an entirely subjective term.
One is left wondering, for example, whether Obama believes it is kinder to give a man a fish or to teach him to fish. One suspects, based on his policies, that Obama would prefer to give the man a fish. And then to give him another tomorrow. And then another the day after. And so on. Yet a more traditional definition of kindness would dictate that it is far more practical and decent to teach the man to fish, thereby feeding him for a lifetime. If Obama is left to determine the morally acceptable decision – which in an emotive moral scheme he most certainly is – then this latter, more traditional notion would undoubtedly be deemed objectionable. Thus giving the man a fish – as many fish as he needs, as long as he needs – becomes the only moral behavior, regardless of long-term consequence.
This, in turn, brings us to Eric Voegelin, quite likely the most brilliant American political philosopher of the 20th century.
In his classic The New Science of Politics, Voegelin continued a career-long examination of social alienation and the resultant political attachment to that which he termed the “Gnostic” approach. Social alienation – that is, a detachment from social reality and a belief that there is something inherently wrong or evil in men’s social interaction which can be corrected by political action – produces a mindset that accepts and then insists that only the “select” can understand society’s real problems. The cognitive elite, therefore, is also alone in being able to solve those problems. They – the elites, whom Voegelin terms “Gnostics,” and who are the contemporary, ostensibly secular heirs to the Gnostics of antiquity – presume to possess a secret knowledge that will allow them to “fix” that which is wrong with the world.
As we have noted before, the Gnostic approach to politics was most visibly present in Nazism and Communism, but is also highly correlated to contemporary liberalism/progressivism. The contemporary Left sees itself as the master of government, the director of the administrative apparatus that applies the “scientific” rules of management to address society’s problems and thereby to create a better world. Unfortunately, the failure of this better world to emerge does not discredit the liberal/progressive agenda; it merely reinforces the Gnostics’ belief in the righteousness and the necessity of their mission. And this is what Voegelin termed “dream world” thinking, which he explained as follows:
In the Gnostic dream world . . . nonrecognition of reality is the ﬁrst principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane, because of the real effects which they have, will be considered moral in the dream world, because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and effect. The interpretation of moral insanity as morality, and the values of sophia and prudentia as immorality, is a confusion difficult to unravel. And the task is not facilitated by the readiness of the dreamers to stigmatize the attempt at critical clarification as an immoral enterprise. As a matter of fact, practically every great political thinker who recognized the structure of reality . . . has been branded an immoralist by Gnostic intellectuals . . .
The identification of dream and reality as a matter of principle has practical results that may appear strange but can hardly be considered surprising. The critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited; and consequently the rational coordination of means and ends in politics is impossible.
What this means, then, is that ends are largely irrelevant in contemporary liberalism. All that matters is the means. If those means fail to produce the intended result, they will not, indeed CANNOT be blamed. Instead someone or something else will be blamed, or, more likely, the failure will never be acknowledged, much less explained, and may well be treated as a success. Moreover, to challenge that success, to suggest that the means were never even remotely compatible with the intended ends, is to run the risk of being labeled immoral – evil, racist, sexist, “unkind.”
One of the best examples of Voegelin’s Gnostic thinking at work in contemporary liberalism is the much-lauded and highly respected Head Start program.
Head Start was originally part of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, which is to say that it has been around in some form or another for nearly half a century. Since its inception, the program has cost taxpayers roughly 1/5th of a trillion dollars. The budget for the last fiscal year was roughly $8 billion. The results of the program have been mixed at best. Whereas the Left touts early childhood education as the critical component both to decreasing poverty and to increasing educational achievement, the results of Head Start with respect to both measures is dubious. What little educational value is gained by Head Start students usually disappears by 3rd grade. More to the point, we suppose, that “value” is measured on a sort of sliding scale, meaning that any achievement is measured against contemporaries (the “control” group) who did not enroll in Head Start, but who are educated in the same public school system, the overall achievement metrics of which continue to plummet year after year.
Instead of scrapping the program, though, and focusing on real educational reforms that might help ALL students in ALL public schools, the Left insists that Head Start and similar programs are invaluable. They insist that the return on investment, i.e. the value gained in educational achievement, would be greater if only the investment itself were greater. Therefore MORE money should be spent on the program, more programs should provide similar opportunities, and, indeed, the program should be expanded, making Early Head Start the norm rather than the exception. The Obama administration touts Head Start as a critical federal program. The newly elected leftist mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, ran on a platform promising a significant expansion of city-funded early education programs. Everywhere, the Left insists that the program must be saved.
Saved from what, you ask? Well . . . from mean, nasty, racist Republicans. Head Start was among the programs targeted for cuts in the budget sequester that went into effect last spring. Its budget was “slashed” by less than 6%. Nevertheless, the Left howled at the crimes committed against America’s poor children. In the real world, of course, a 5% cut in a largely ineffective program would be seen as reasonable budget management. In the dream world, however, it was not merely wrong, but evil, a violation of the social contract and a sin against humanity. In an op-ed piece for U.S. News, Anson Kaye, a Democratic operative, made the case in positively biblical terms:
I’ve come to think of the sequester in the following (admittedly gruesome) way: it’s something like a snake eating a hamster. If it gobbles up fluffy all in one bite, you can see that hump moving all the way down the line as snake digests his delectable treat. Hard to miss. But if snake eats fluffy one little bite at a time, the hamster’s still dead, and nobody notices. Unless someone calls the snake out.
Republicans are snakes. Poor people are hamsters. Snakes east hamsters, just as Republicans kill poor people. Subtle, no?
If you take all of this and then take a fresh look at Obama and at his recent comments describing his personal understanding of his own political views, then it’s easy to see how he came to the conclusion that he is not particularly ideological.
He professes to be a Christian, and we have no reason whatsoever to doubt that he does, in fact, believe in Jesus Christ as his savior and does indeed follow the precepts of a Christian faith. But that does not mean that he, in any way, embraces a pre-Enlightenment Christian morality. More accurately, his faith can almost certainly be cast as post-Enlightenment, which is to say that it is a part of the chaos that resulted from the intellectual destruction of the traditional moral order.
Obama gave the game away in his speech at DreamWorks the day after his “not ideological” claim, when he professed to embrace a politics of “kindness.” Like Bill and Hillary Clinton before him, here Obama was merely giving voice to the contemporary leftist moral ethos, which posits that the greatest good one can do is to empathize with his fellow man. To feel another’s pain, is to know what is right; and to act immediately to alleviate that pain is to do what is right.
The implications of this ethos are manifold. For starters, this belief in the intrinsic moral supremacy of one’s personal conception of kindness leads to all sorts of situational and conditional moral judgments, which, in turn, breeds confusion, favoritism, and the appearance of patent hypocrisy. Morality, in Obama’s view, is dependent on his personal beliefs about the “kindness” involved in any given act. What you think is kind or what we think is kind may or may not be kind in Obama’s estimation, since there is no objective standard by which to judge, and since only his personal feelings matter. This creates an undeniable capriciousness in his politics and in leftist politics more generally. What is right for one may be wrong for another, simply because to him (or to the Left) it “feels” wrong; and his feelings are the sole determinate of the legitimacy of an action.
This leads in turn to the embrace of objectively destructive policy prescriptions. If Obama believes that an act is kind and that the commission of that act is therefore moral, then the long-term result of the act is irrelevant. As with giving a man a fish or spending billions of dollars on Head Start, the outcome of any government action is immaterial. It is the act itself that matters and the intention by which it was motivated. Or as Bill Clinton put it, “you can demonstrate you character most effectively by what you fight for and for whom you fight.” The fight is what matters. The scorecard does not.
Additionally, the embrace of such a whimsical and yet strident morality based solely on contemporaneous intent and immune to long-term effects leads to a closed and insular duality in moral assessments. What the moral arbiter – that is, Obama or the Left in general – sees as moral is opposed only those who are immoral or evil, if you prefer. If Obama declares a policy good, which is to say moral, then to oppose it is inexorably to embrace the bad, the immoral, the “evil.”
Consider, for example, the question of long-term unemployment benefits. Empirical study after empirical study demonstrates rather conclusively that extended unemployment benefits tend to reduce the incentive to find work. Likewise, human nature tells us that getting something for nothing is better than getting something for something and that a segment of the population will prefer to take that trade, as long as it is available. And yet anyone who would, heaven forbid, oppose the continual extension of unemployment benefits, is seen as cruel, nasty, inhumane, evil. The same goes for food stamps, or rent control, or any of countless other leftist policies. The end result in each case is deleterious; it is damaging to the fabric of society and to those whom the Left purports to want to help. But still the policies persist because to oppose them is to be seen as “unkind,” which, in turn, is evil.
Barack Obama is able to tell his supporters that he is “not particularly ideological” and is able to do so with a straight face because he actually believes it. He does not think he is ideological. He does not think his supporters are ideological. He believes them and himself to be merely pragmatic, reasonable, and kind. How could kindness possibly be construed as political or ideological? It is not. It is an unambiguous human virtue. And therefore to embrace it is to embrace humanity. And to reject it, is to reject humanity, to reject the “better angels” of human nature and to pursue evil in the name of political ideology. Obama is not ideological. But his opponents most certainly are. And that makes them wicked.
Do you want to know why American politics is so polarized right now, and why Americans seem so angry with one another? We’d love to be able to tell you the entire story. Unfortunately, we can’t, though we can explain a good part of it.
The Left insists that all of this acrimony began during the Clinton administration, when Republicans were obsessed with Bill, with Hillary, with their ethics, with their marriage, and with ruining his presidency. We disagree, naturally – and not just because we spent a good chunk of the 1990s discussing Bill, Hillary, their ethics and their marriage. No, we think that the real trouble started during the Vietnam War, when the Left fully embraced its postmodern, post-Enlightenment morality. And it escalated, forever and irreversibly, when President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. That nomination, you may recall, drew the following response from Senator Ted Kennedy:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
One might say that this is the equivalent of being called ugly by a toad, but in truth, it is far worse. In this one rant, Robert Bork, by all measures a man of impeccable character, was denounced and forever scarred as immoral by a lecher who was kicked out of Harvard for cheating, who left a woman to drown in the Chappaquiddick tidal channel, and who spent most of the 1970s drunk and sexually harassing any woman within 100 yards of him. More to the point, this denunciation was based on nothing other than differences in political views. Kennedy, after all, believed that he was right and moral in his politics. And Bork, therefore, was not just wrong, but evil. And so it began . . . .
Obviously, this emotive, dualistic, Gnostic worldview persists on the Left still today and colors everything it does and everything that happens in politics. Over the holiday weekend, for example, Paul Begala, a onetime Clinton political hack who is now a multimillionaire thanks to the good people at CNN, took a nasty swipe at Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Republicans, you see, want to cut food stamp spending, which is to say that they want to reduce some of the massive hikes in food stamp spending that have been the rule over the last five years. The only possible motivation for such an act, Begala insists, is that Republicans WANT to take “food out of the mouths of the hungriest Americans.” As for Boehner, Begala writes, “The average SNAP household has a gross income of just $744 per month. I’ll bet House Speaker John Boehner spends more than that each month just on cigs and merlot.” That bit is not just nasty and irrelevant, it’s misleading as well. “Average” food stamp recipients will not be affected by any cuts, only those at the high end of the income curve. Still, in Begala’s mind, the point had to be made. John Boehner is rich and evil, and anything he does must be seen in that context.
Consider as well, the following, which was also published over the holiday weekend and was written by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Colbert King. King insists that Obamacare is not just a political issue, but is something more, something far more substantial:
The issue couldn’t be put more simply.
Forty-nine million Americans do not have health insurance. For many of them, the ability to deal with their illnesses and injuries depends on their ability to pay. Lacking the money, some of them just go without the care they need. Better to put food on the table for the kids than to check out that awful pain in the gut. Can’t afford to do both.
Which helps explain why the Affordable Care Act is viewed more kindly by the congregation at First Baptist Church, located a few miles from the shadow of the Capitol, than by those within the governmental structure.
First Baptist celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, having been founded in Southwest Washington by freed slaves in 1863 .
The church’s broad ministry includes parts of the city where good health care is an unaffordable luxury.
The Rev. Frank D. Tucker, who has been First Baptist’s pastor for nearly 38 years, used Sunday morning’s service to address Obamacare in terms its critics do not . . . .
Tucker noted the decades of unsuccessful efforts by several presidents to extend medical care to all Americans, including those living in dire circumstances beyond their control . . . .
Gaining access to no-cost preventive services to stay healthy, which Obamacare provides, is not a sign of indifference. Neither is giving senior citizens discounts on their prescription drugs, or allowing young adults to get health insurance on their parents’ plan, or ending insurance company abuses. Those steps represent the caring actions of government . . . .
And that’s why, when the bloviators take to the airways, preachers like the Rev. Tucker, Bishop DeVeaux and Pope Francis take to the pulpit.
They know that indifference to the needs of others is, indeed, immoral.
Never mind that the issues involved in Obamacare are nowhere near as simplistic as King claims. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the “49 million uninsured” will still be uninsured, even after Obamacare is fully implemented. Never mind that those “living in dire circumstances” are already eligible for government health insurance through Medicaid. Never mind that the strain that Obamacare will put on the medical system will undoubtedly affect the poor most directly, making access to quality health care (as opposed to health insurance) LESS likely for those in First Baptist’s congregation, NOT more likely. And never mind that reasonable people should be able to disagree about matters of policy and about how to best achieve the end of better health care without being called “immoral.”
None of that matters, you see. Because to oppose Obamacare is to oppose being “kind” and attentive to the needs of the poor. And that is “immoral.” The question really couldn’t be put any more simply, at least as far as the emotive, Manichaean, Gnostic Colbert King is concerned. You’re either with us or against us. And if you’re against us, heaven help you.
We suspect that Colbert King doesn’t think he’s particularly ideological either. Just like President Obama, he’s merely practical, caring, kind. That’s the problem, of course. But don’t tell him that. And whatever you do, don’t tell Barack Obama that. Kindness, after all is the preeminent political virtue of our time. And if you doubt it, you might as well start packing your coolest summer clothes. It’s going to be mighty warm where you’re headed.