Monday, January 2, 2012

Should Liberals Try to Win Elections by being Less Rational?

In his book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, the political psychologist and Democratic strategist Drew Weston argues that in the US, Republicans are much more successful presidential campaigners than Democrats because Republicans understand that voters are typically irrational when they evaluate issues they care about. Democrats, however, labour under the eighteenth century presumption that the mind is “dispassionate,” that the voter “makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions.” Unfortunately for Democrats, this theory of the dispassionate mind “bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose” (ix). According to Westen, Clinton is the main exception, since he understood the importance of connecting with voters’ feelings. Westen’s book was published before Obama’s election, but Obama’s optimistic and inspiring assurance that “Yes, we can change” might count as another exception. Democrats like Dukakis, Gore, and John Kerry, though, lost mainly because they presupposed an erroneous, rationalistic theory of the mind.

As Westen puts it,
Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.
Democrats do so, he says, “because of an irrational emotional commitment to rationality--one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail (15).

According to Westen, Democrats need to come to grips with the fact that
We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger, or contempt. We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance. We do not find policies worth debating if they don’t touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families, or things we hold dear. From the standpoint of research in neuroscience, the more purely ‘rational’ an appeal, the less it is likely to activate the emotion circuits that regulate voting behavior. (16)
“The paradox of American politics,” says Westen, “is that when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the party that views itself as the one with the heart (for the middle class, the poor, and the disenfranchised) continues to appeal exclusively to the mind” (44). Westen recommends that in political campaigns liberals wear their heart on their sleeve, since right-wing extremists have captured the conservative party and don’t represent the majority of Americans. 

The Irrelevance of Westen’s Political Strategy

Westen’s assessment is consistent with my views on Liberalism and Conservatism, but I don’t think he goes far enough. In the first place, his goal is just the partisan one of helping Democrats win elections, not to ensure that the party with the best principles and policies wins. Thus, he recommends that Democrats adopt the Republican strategy of selling their message by appealing to voters’ feelings, of favouring truthiness over truth, to use the comedian Stephen Colbert’s distinction. Of course, Democrats want to win elections and they might run more successfully by following Westen’s advice, but the deeper question is whether such an anachronistic party that needs that advice in the first place ought to win elections in the postmodern world. What’s the point of electing an unprincipled, hyper-rational party when no sooner than its candidate is elected will his or her technocratic governing style automatically bend to serve the oligarchic power structure which most benefits those who can achieve their political objectives by relying just on their lobbyists, campaign contributions, and implicit private sector job offers for cooperative politicians? Even were there no such bribery or economic blackmail, a Democratic president who doesn’t understand how irrational voters are about their cherished issues, precisely because that president has no such strong philosophical feelings of his or her own, is bound to cower when faced in office with the great unelected powers.

As progressives lament, this is what happened under both Clinton and Obama. Clinton, who is Westen’s hero, in effect, for the depth of Clinton’s cynicism about our tendency not to rise above the animalistic parts of our brain, may be responsible for “eight years of peace and prosperity,” to borrow his supporters’ meme, but both the peace and the economic prosperity were illusory: the peace was the result of al Qaeda’s preparation for its main attack on the US, which came just after Clinton left office, and the economic gains were due to a self-destructive ballooning of Americans’ debt and to tech and real estate bubbles that again burst soon after Clinton left. Clinton is infamous among liberals for his “triangulation,” which is to say his governing as a centrist Republican. For example, he deferred to Greenspan’s and to Paul Rubin’s policies of “free trade” and deregulation, which led to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which in turn created banks that are too big to fail and that therefore hold the global economy hostage.

As for Obama, as soon as he won his election by campaigning as a passionate progressive, he too governed as a pragmatic, triangulating centrist Republican, continuing or exacerbating all of Bush’s foreign policies, as Glenn Greenwald’s blog demonstrates, and bowing to economic pressures on domestic affairs, such as in the cases of his health care bill which doesn’t offer an alternative to the badly-flawed American system that’s run by pharmaceutical companies and private health care insurers, and his unconditional bailout of Wall Street. As Greenwald speculates, Obama’s betrayal of his progressive base and of the independents that handed him his mandate may explain the clownish status of the current Republican field of presidential candidates, since the Republicans are able to demonize Obama only by moving so far to the right that they lose all touch with reality.

Clinton and Obama may have been politically successful, in Westen’s narrow pragmatic sense, in that they won the presidency by manipulating the voters’ feelings instead of raising the bar and leveling with voters about the underlying reality in the US, which is, as Chris Hedges says in Death of the Liberal Class, that the US is a stealth oligarchy with merely vestigial liberal institutions that provide dysfunctional checks on its undemocratic centers of power. The recent Democratic presidents may have been politically successful in the narrowest, Machiavellian sense, but their elections didn’t further any progressive or socialist endeavor. While in office as the president, neither Clinton nor Obama framed issues in liberal terms in the way that Reagan pushed the American political debate to the right, even though Clinton and Obama were elected largely because of their rhetorical powers.

The underlying problem, then, is that even a nihilistic or indeed a sociopathic politician with no feelings at all can succeed in narrow pragmatic terms, by arousing voters’ feelings in the politician’s favour during a circus-like, postmodern political campaign. This capacity to succeed in winning elections, by way of cynical pandering and demagoguery, has no bearing on whether liberalism itself presently has any merit. On the contrary, the reason that Democrats, and indeed liberals in general, are beholden to an anachronistic rationalism or scientism is that they have no deeply-felt values of their own and therefore presume that no one else has or ought to have such values. In short, liberals are postmodernists who flatter themselves by thinking that they’re still modern: they’re actually cynical, nihilistic pragmatists who pretend that they possess a rousing liberal metanarrative that can compete with conservative myths. As I say in Scientism, the liberal’s root error is the scientistic one of assuming that scientific methods of acquiring knowledge can be extended to dictate how society ought to be run, that society generally can progress just as well as can the institutions of science--and by the same means, namely by the exercise of dispassionate reason in opposition to traditional, intuitive, or faith-based myths. That scientism leads to the postmodern corruption of liberalism, to moral relativism, political apathy, cultural decadence, and to the technoscientific version of the primitive oligarchic status quo. 

The Liberal’s Pitiful Vestige of Theism

Oh, to be sure, the liberal has strong feelings about social issues such as abortion, gay rights, feminism, fair redistribution of wealth, and avoidance of war. Ask for a justification of those feelings and the liberal will offer religious principles of either the theistic or the scientistic variety. I’ll look at each in turn (and I’ll ignore the religious aspect of scientism, for the sake of simplicity). Liberal theism is a pathetic, retreating echo of authentic theism. Since prehistoric times, real theists have channeled the energy of existential worries into apologies for social dominance hierarchies. Real theism, whether for monotheists, Hindus, or Buddhists, is distinguished by exoteric faith and thus by a narrowness of vision that pits empirical knowledge not simply against faith in a transcendent, supernatural reality, but in a na├»ve replacement of mystical experience with crude, anthropocentric images. The chief flaw of theism isn’t literalism, the idolatrous worship of scripture, or even an authoritarian mindset; rather, the theist’s calamitous weakness is his or her narcissistic projection of parochial human categories onto purportedly ultimate realities. The theist belittles the divine by humanizing it, mocks the awesome miracle of the existence of a cosmos, not just by positing anthropomorphic deities and supernatural events, but by narrow-mindedly clinging to infantile creeds without all due humility. The most appalling shortcomings of theists are ethical and aesthetic in character.

Now, liberal, progressive, and moderate theists are much more influenced by the scientific mindset and so they can’t bring themselves to worship theological metaphors. This means not just that the liberal theist is more familiar with scientific theories, but that she appreciates the source of the scientist’s triumph, which is the humility that causes a scientist to abandon traditions, intuitions, and wishes and to let the evidence speak for itself. The liberal theist accepts the modern scientific worldview and is thus far a rationalist, but she nevertheless clings to a traditional theistic religion rather than adopting the more recent science-centered religion, marked by faith in modern metanarratives of technoscientific progress and in the divinity of capitalistic creativity and of the winners in a wild (free) market. Her rationalism sets her at odds with both esoteric and exoteric theism (mysticism and mainstream religious faith, respectively), but due to nostalgia, childhood indoctrination, social pressure, a lack of imagination, or a cynical ruse for private gain, she adheres to a semblance of traditional theism. In the more aesthetically repellent cases, the liberal theist passively absorbs the dominant religion from her social atmosphere and pays mere lip service to its creed, without her religion having any substantial impact on her behaviour. The more impressive liberals are those who creatively seek a fitting religious interpretation of the postmodern world, turning to New Age speculations. The chief flaw of this form of liberal religion, though, is its pseudoscientific syntheses of perennial religious concepts with current scientific knowledge.

Either way, the liberal’s theism is only skin deep, since rationalism undermines the credibility of both traditional religions and of more recent pseudoscientific ones, and also prevents mystical experience (although not the psychedelic, drug-induced version of this experience). To see how this phony theism plays out for the liberal, see, for example, Westen’s argument that the liberal is astonishingly well-positioned to demolish so-called conservative “Christian” morality on the ground that this morality is obviously anti-Christian. This is so, says Westen, despite the fact that in the US, conservatives have successfully identified any worldview other than what Westen calls the extremist, fundamentalist Christian one as unpatriotic, immoral, and otherwise intolerable. After all, Westen points out, the conservative Christian’s social Darwinian trust in market forces, idolizing of plutocrats and soldiers, and lack of compassion for persons--the campaign against the abortion of first trimester embryos notwithstanding--are woefully at odds with the Bible. Says Westen, “You wouldn’t know from the language of the religious right that Jesus was preoccupied with poverty, not sex,” and he goes on to point out similarly glaring conflicts between the New Testament and the Republican’s views on school prayer, war, and taxes (381).

But the liberal’s Bible-based denunciation of fundamentalist Christianity is futile. Of course there’s nothing Jesus-centered about authoritarian, fundamentalist Christianity, and if Jesus walked the Earth today he’d remind those imposters that he never knew them, and then he’d blast the earth from under their feet and roast them in hell unto the end of time. Being a friend of scientific rationality, however, the liberal or moderate Christian knows that there’s no realistic potential for such justice; that the Bible was written by ignorant, often plagiarizing and patriarchal or victimized males whose metaphors have literary and historical significance, but not much spiritual weight in the postmodern context; that all anthropomorphic images of God are misleading; that no teaching from a religious institution should be dogmatically accepted; that none of Jesus’ miracles happened as reported; that Christian theology isn’t about metaphysical reality so much as psychological transformation and thus that Jesus may not have existed even as an historical person, let alone as a human incarnation of the universe’s creator.

The contradictions between the Bible and Republican orthodoxy mean little in light of the essence of pure theism as a tool for social control. No sooner than the liberal refers to the contradictions, the conservative Christian freely speaks of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church’s development or of God’s hand in inspiring new interpretations of Christian revelation for the present worldly circumstances, or any other ad hoc nonsense to harmonize the theological and political dimensions of the grotesque edifice of conservatism. Theism in its own right is, and has always been, mainly a fantasy for the authoritarian personality that worships power. Thus, by blurring the line between religion and state for the sake of creating a theocracy, the conservative Jew, Christian, or Muslim demonstrates that he’s the more authentic theist compared to the liberal or moderate, regardless of the incoherence of the conservative’s worldview.

Only a rationalist with scientistic leanings like a liberal would assume that the question of the literal truth of fundamentalist theology is crucial to that theology’s effectiveness as a means of social control. To be sure, the fundamentalist will climb onto the rooftop to declare the ultimate truth of some handful of religious ravings, but a conservative’s religious faith is sustained not so much by trust in the intellectual strength of any doctrine, but by animalistic pride in being friends with the block’s biggest bully, whose power must be obvious to its victims as well as to its possessors. Thus, the Christian conservative takes comfort not in what the Bible actually says, what happened two thousand years ago in Palestine, or in the pseudoscientific hypothesis that God helped along the biological evolution of species; instead, this conservative trusts primarily in American economic and military hegemony, to which Christian symbols are attached for the purpose of taunting outsiders and victims of that power. Fundamentalist Judaism is sustained by Israeli military might, which extends that of the US, which in turn is aligned with Judeo-Christian theism. Finally, Muslim fundamentalists are sustained by the memory of when Muslims dominated during the Middle Ages and by the recent manifestation of their power in the 911 attack on the US, the success of which they incessantly attribute to their god.

So much for the liberal’s criticism of conservative religion. What about the religious basis of liberal values? According to Westen, this basis is essentially just the Golden Rule.
Its key virtues are compassion and tolerance, and it reflects the clear and simple moral dictum that we should treat others as we would want to be treated, whether or not they share our religious beliefs, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or other characteristics, and even if we personally find some of their attitudes distasteful....Although firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and ultimately derived from the teachings of that tradition with its foundation in the Bible, this is a nondenominational view of public morality that can be held equally by Christians, Jews, Muslims, ‘secular humanists,’ agnostics, and atheists. (408)
There are a number of questionable assumptions in this quotation, but the one I want to focus on is that we’re morally obligated to be compassionate and tolerant. As Westen says, theists and nontheists alike can uphold the Golden Rule, but this universality should give us pause. The reason for the universality is hinted at by Westen’s reference to the virtues of compassion and tolerance. When we look more closely at the Golden Rule, that we should treat others as we’d treat ourselves were we in their position, what we find, of course, is just an appeal to empathy. Once you empathize with others, you’ll find yourself agreeing with the liberal’s policies on social issues, such as on redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and on a preference for negotiation and for trials rather than for a so-called war on terror. Most humans have an innate ability to theorize about other people’s thoughts and feelings, because we’re social animals, and once we begin dwelling on what’s likely happening in someone else’s mind, it’s not much of a leap to start imagining what it would be like to be that other person. You might have preferred to be someone who’s better off than you, leading you to feel admiration or jealousy, and you might be repulsed by the thought of being someone worse off, leading you to feel pity or contempt for that other person.

The capacities for imagining someone else’s mental states and for feeling certain emotions in response to the other person’s situation are universal, because they’re biologically ingrained in most people. But this doesn’t mean we morally ought to feel certain emotions such as pity rather than contempt. Just because most people are capable of empathizing, doesn’t mean that feelings of compassion and tolerance are virtuous nor that we’re all bound by the Golden Rule. Westen recognizes that the Golden Rule historically had theistic justifications, but once the liberal comes to admire modern science and to digest the naturalistic worldview, she can no longer help herself to that rule in defense of her values. The liberal needs a reason why pity for those who are worse off than us is superior to disgust for their failure or misfortune. Jesus offers a reason: the poor and the miserable will inherit the world when God reigns over it more directly, and those who presently flourish will likely be condemned to hell; moreover, God commands that we help those who suffer. The liberal’s problem is that she doesn’t take the New Testament seriously as a moral handbook, because her science and logic dictate that its authors had no special insight on how we should live. So the liberal can mouth her approval of empathy, but merely calling certain feelings virtuous and invoking the famous Golden Rule don’t amount to a prescription of liberalism. Certainly, no compelling justification of liberal values will emerge from the liberal’s hand-me-down, threadbare theism.

Scientistic Liberalism: Instrumental Reason Masking the Ego

Liberals who appreciate that reason destroys childlike religious faith have attempted to justify their values in more secular terms. The most common justification derives from the social contract theory, as formulated by such political philosophers as Locke or Rawls. According to this theory, liberal values are the results of an objective weighing of the alternatives when pondering the thought experiment of how best to set up a society to escape from the harsh state of nature in which, as Hobbes said, everyone is at war with everyone else. We voluntarily agree to respect each other’s liberties, because the alternative is anarchy in which most people are disadvantaged. This agreement is the social contract, and the key point is that reason rather than religious faith in divine revelation is the basis for the resulting liberal society. We weigh the odds of how we’d fare under different social or antisocial arrangements, and we conclude that the liberal society, in which everyone enjoys certain equal and unalienable rights, provides the best compromise.

This rational defense of liberalism shares its main defect with the theistic defense I just criticized. Once again, a description of a prevalent state of affairs is mistaken for a prescription of what we ought to do. Suppose that most people do reason as the social contractarian says and so come to favour a liberal society over the alternatives. No normative statement follows from that premise--no justification of liberal values and no Golden Rule. True, each person who thinks about the alternatives and concludes that a liberal society is best can cite those reason that convince her, but those reasons may be strong or weak. Were there (1) powerful evidence that liberal values of respect for liberty and compassion for everyone’s inherent dignity are needed to produce the society in which everyone is most advantaged, and were (2) everyone to share an interest in living in such a society, assuming that everyone acts in her own best interest, or to “maximize her utility,” liberal values would be proven rational and all rational people would in fact be liberals. But this doesn’t imply that anyone ought to be a liberal, since the morally or aesthetically best way of life may require irrationality rather than rationality, and those who seek their own advantage may be acting contrary to such an overriding standard.

What we have here, in this rational defense, is an appeal to instrumental reason and to conditional prescriptions. The hyper-rational liberal observes that most people do act egoistically, in the direct or indirect pursuit of their own gain, and this liberal recommends that if someone has such self-interest in mind, then that person should prefer a compassionate, tolerant society to an opposite one. This is equivalent to saying that a liberal society is the most effective means of satisfying people’s self-interest. Instead of having any moral force, then, this instrumental liberalism reduces to a scientific generalization about a causal relationship between a certain sort of social order and a certain resulting mental state (satisfaction of personal goals). Only were the liberal to defend the tendency to act out of self-interest (that is, egoism, or the attempt to maximize your own welfare) would we have the makings here of a moral defense of liberalism. Instead, we have only a scientistic one, since the secular liberal seldom admits that her sociopolitical philosophy amounts to merely a description with no normative implications; indeed, she’ll typically commit the naturalistic fallacy, especially when arguing against a nonliberal, and conclude, in short, that liberal values are superior to nonliberal ones. With this instrumental liberalism in tow, the liberal is entitled to conclude only that if the nonliberal ultimately values her own welfare, then that person should think like a liberal, assuming that doing so produces the society in which egoists are most likely rewarded. Unfortunately, such a person would already be a liberal.

(A word about a piece of obfuscation that a secular liberal is wont to hide behind at this point. Liberals aren’t committed to egoism, she’ll say; “maximization of utility” and “acting out of self-interest” mean only that a person pursues goals that belong to herself, not that her actions aim towards benefiting herself as the object of her goals. Compare a person who kills herself solely to benefit someone else whom the suicidal person hates, with a person who robs a bank to buy a mansion solely for her own enjoyment. In the first case, we can say that the suicidal person acts out of self-interest in the first, non-egoistic sense, since even though she doesn’t intend for her action to benefit herself at all, she’s the self who possesses the non-egoistic desire to commit suicide for someone else’s benefit. In the second case, we can say that the robber acts out of self-interest in the second, egoistic sense, since not only does she possess the desire which causes her to rob the bank, but her own personal gain is the ultimate objective in her mind. Note that the non-egoistic sense of “self-interest” is utterly tautological and worthless in a defense of liberalism. Just because someone acts out of self-interest in the non-egoistic sense doesn’t mean rationality forces her to prefer a liberal society to the state of nature, since the desire she possesses may be a suicidal, masochistic, sociopathic, or otherwise insane one.

(No, the social contractarian’s argument from instrumental reason assumes the egoistic sense of self-interest, since only the desire for your own preservation could cause you to prefer a society in which you’re entitled to certain protections that aren’t otherwise available. Granted, the secular liberal’s egoism doesn’t require that we each act to benefit solely ourselves, since we’re free to benefit indirectly from our actions. Thus, a secular liberal can help other people as long as doing so at least psychologically benefits the liberal. Were there no such positing of an underlying constant motive to benefit ourselves, the liberal’s notion of “self-interest” would be the useless tautological one.)

Once it’s clear that secular liberalism presupposes a nontrivial kind of egoism, the liberal loses the moral high ground, which is why the liberal shrewdly masks her egoism behind jargon like “maximization of utility.” This secular defense of liberalism is roughly the same as the Invisible Hand defense of an unplanned economy. In each case, the argument is that, rather paradoxically, everyone is better off if they just stop trying to be so moral and put their own selfish concerns first. In the political context, a liberal, democratic society follows by the power of instrumental reason, which causes the egoist to realize that such a society is most likely to benefit her personally in the long run. In the economic context, a free market, in which buyers and sellers get what they deserve and the standard of living is most likely to rise for everyone, follows by the power of cosmic creativity, which produces more and more complex forms from the atomic to the intergalactic scales.

What’s wrong with egoism, given its role in secular liberalism? In the first place, the assumption that rational people are nontrivially self-interested should cloud the calculation of probabilities in the hypothetical assent to the social contract. Whether a liberal society really does satisfy the majority in the long-run is less obvious if we assume that those who reach that conclusion are egoists, since egoism is inherently dangerous. If we replace an omniscient, benevolent God as the master force governing society, with mindless cosmic creativity, we have no guarantee that the expression of our instincts benefits us in the long-term. Even if we assume that our tendency to be disproportionately concerned with our own welfare is an evolutionary adaptation that makes ours a fit species, Mother Nature is frugal and imperfect, and every fit species eventually is extinguished, leaving room for more novel forms of complexity. Our high self-regard may protect our genetic lineage, but in the long-run egoism--combined with our high intelligence--may destroy us. For example, assuming we’re innately self-interested, a demagogue can more easily manipulate a mass of people by pandering to that instinct for self-preservation, say by demonizing foreigners, and what’s beneficial for an elite group of insiders may harm the majority of outsiders. Also, an unplanned economy in which everyone is encouraged to think mainly of his or her own private welfare, may consume and grow without paying sufficient heed to future generations, leading to environmental catastrophe and potentially the extinction of our species, let alone the collapse of particular nations.

In the second place, aside from the damage egoism does to the liberal’s empirical case, there are ethical and aesthetic objections to egoism. The main alternative to egoism is the mystic’s lack of self-regard, due to a realization that the personal self is illusory and to an identification with the unity of natural processes. I won’t attempt to show here which is the ethically or aesthetically superior way of life, the egoistic, materialistic, liberal protection of liberty and pursuit of happiness or the ascetic, Gnostic, mystical detachment from such concerns due to a vision of their absurdity. Instead, I’ll just point to what I say in Happiness and Curse of Reason, that flight from the knowledge of our grim existential situation, as animals that fall short of the idealistic projections of ourselves in our religious myths, is unseemly. The curse of reason is the knowledge that makes the intellectually curious person unhappy. To honour that knowledge of what we are as beasts lost in the wilderness of natural forces, we need to renounce any carefree lifestyle that depends on delusions. That conscientious renouncing may entail self-loathing rather than self-interest: far from deferring to our natural instincts that cause us to privilege our own welfare, we may find that a willful revolt against those instincts is more tasteful and even awe-inspiring. At any rate, egoistic secular liberalism is at odds with the mystic's condemning of the illusory fragmentation of the cosmos that produces unique levels of alienation and suffering for intelligent animals.

Conclusion

Drew Westen’s suspicion may be correct, that Democrats hamper their own political chances by clinging to modernist and scientistic fantasies of rationalism in our postmodern context in which the myth of human greatness, due to our rationality, has lost its power to enchant, thanks to the wars of the last century and to the scientific discovery of our natural limitations. Republicans are better at running political campaigns because they have much less shame than Democrats: they’re beholden to much more absurd traditional theistic fantasies that rationalize the colossally unfair, oligarchic social arrangement. As such, Republicans have less compunction about exploiting people’s psychological weaknesses, such as the emotional and instinctive foundations of our brains. Conservatives are the true theists, mesmerized by power inequalities; their enterprise is to approximate the ideal inequality between Creator and Creation, maintaining for us the dominance hierarchies that evolve as the most stable social orders in myriad species, including ours. With all of that on their side, Republicans and conservatives in general ought to be highly effective campaigners, that is, hypocrites, demagogues, predators, or parasites.

Liberals are progressive to the extent that they resist those forces of gravity and try to establish a new world order. Their tragic flaw is their scientism, which is their faith in reason as our salvation: reason works in science, not in society at large, since reason has no normative force. So the liberal is left unarmed, now that postmodern disenchantment with reason has set in, but condemned with the Herculean task of unseating the mighty conservative from his natural throne. The only way left to beat the conservatives is to join them, and so a Democrat, for example, must govern like a centrist Republican, fleeing from the opportunity to sell liberal values which are, after all, so fragile now that their support from Enlightenment myths has been lost. In the first place, though, a Democrat must campaign like a Republican, as Westen says, appealing to emotions rather than just to logic or evidence. Were a liberal to succeed with such a campaign strategy, the result would be no defense of liberal values, since such a politician could be expected to triangulate for Machiavellian advantage, having acquired a taste for the cynicism needed to win political power in a competition with inhumane conservatives. And were a Democrat to lose with that strategy, the culprit would surely be the greater difficulty of becoming excited about relatively recent liberal values that are no longer motivated by charming theistic or scientistic myths.

2 comments:

  1. I always enjoy getting seduced from a topical discussion into the vagaries of philosophical contradiction which pains me to try and comprehend yet I can't tear away from lest I feel I've given up trying to understand it.

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    1. Yeah, the section on instrumental reason is a bit technical. The point is that one of the main secular defenses of liberal values presupposes ethical egoism, the view that we ought to be selfish. But since this egoism is highly controversial, the secular liberal covers it up with jargon like "maximization of utility."

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