In this essay, I investigate the fragility of post-war liberal institutions and belief structures as bulwarks against the legal conservative onslaught. I locate these failings in liberalism’s “cosmological emptiness.” First published in The Descent of Man Substack newsletter.
We are moving backward in time. And then moving forward. The tide receding to disclose its diverse cabinet of rocks, shells, weeds, and pools, its scurrying characters of all manner. The tide receding and then advancing.
I introduced the Creation Project portion of my Substack newsletter, The Descent of Man, by recalling how an essay I wrote in 2013, called Wolf at the Door, Antonin Scalia and the Death of American Law, launched me on a seven-year journey of discovery that has peeled back and laid bare the bones of the history and character of Western Civilization. This is a bold claim, obviously, but I believe in the coming weeks, in this Tuesday morning edition of The Descent of Man, I can make a persuasive case for my ideas.
Democratic Donut Hole
As I’ve written, we’ll start our journey in the 13th century, with the natural law moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Before we get there, however, I need one more week to position the West, and the United States, in particular, in relation to this long journey we’ll commence next week. The claim I want to make today is that the failings of liberal democracy since the end of the Cold War lie squarely in the donut hole which is the Democratic Party (specifically) and which is liberalism (generally).
This donut hole emerges from what one might call the “cosmological emptiness” of the Democratic Party organization and program, and of its governing principles and ideology. By cosmological emptiness, I am referring to the absence of any animating set of principles and beliefs about human nature, society, and politics which is grounded in the mystery of creation itself. Here is how I summarized this view in an essay called Wussy Democrats.
We hear much talk these days about the “clash of civilizations,” which often means end-times conflict between Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and “godless liberalism” (which used to be “godless communism”), or “nationalists” and “globalists.” In reality, the civilizational clash that appears (to me, at least) to be the most likely axis of conflict in the next century will be the struggle between religion and science to define and hold on to conceptions of humanity in an unprecedented era of technological imperialism and environmental, ecosystem, and nation-state collapse. The battle between religion and science is ultimately a contest between competing and colliding cosmologies, an attunement to non-linear narratives of origins, epistemologies, forces, transitions, and relationships in the universe, and on our planet, that frame and control specific perspectives on politics and power.
Democratic Party elites (and to varying degrees, the liberal and progressive bases of the party) lack a cosmology, of any kind, and therefore act upon a more constrained and less exalted stage of possibility, one specifically geared down to short-term appeasement of interest groups, fractional change, limited audience engagement, and no narrative arc. Suspicious of power, fearful of bias, inhibited in their language, addicted to procedure and politesse, liberal and progressive avatars of the Democratic Party embrace everything, commit to nothing, and routinely, predictably, miss the forest for the trees.
But the forest is ablaze, and in the absence of any anchoring cosmology to establish the meanings, stakes, significance, and path through this conflagration – which are really the only things that justify and legitimate the exercise of power – we relinquish the limited agency we may have to forces more directly inclined to carve irremediably destructive paths into the future.
The Consensus Textbook
In “normal” times, politically in the United States – “normal” being American schoolbook “consensus,” “pluralist,” or “interest group” images of politics that until fairly recently had prevailed in the nation after World War II – the center holds because ultimately it is in the interest of politicians, and political parties, and the organizations and groups and populations they represent, to compromise, take half a loaf, that they may live to fight another day.
The premise of these “liberal” images of politics have been that people are mostly pragmatic, not idealistic, and that bargaining and deal-making can hold the nation together because most people are fundamentally alike, at least in the sense that they speak the same language and can build trust around their understanding of what words mean and how they represent the world, at least that part of it which is up for grabs. These notions are the mother’s milk of our citizen identity, reinforced historically and culturally through our political and civic associations (including media), common law traditions, and Enlightenment values.
The strength (and weakness) of these political habits and beliefs is that they are process-driven, not outcome-driven. We associate Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy, individual freedom, legal equality, and political justice with rule-driven attributes and standards of process fairness, consistency, and coherence. The container matters more than the content. Whether naïve or not, this liberal political culture owes an enormous amount to the historically specific claims of the Enlightenment, in combination with English common law traditions, on the American founders.
Indeed, when one reads The Federalist, despite the significant and meaningful differences in the political visions of Madison and Hamilton, and between the Federalists and the Antifederalists, all parties communicate a deeply rooted commitment to the shared identity of humans bound together and lifted up by a capacity to reason, employ logic, deduce consequences, gather evidence, and share knowledge. Baseline commitments to process (and progress) within our political culture depend on the Enlightenment assumption of epistemic coherence, that knowledge about the world objectively exists, and that we can discover and share this knowledge with each other.
The problem is that when we experience abnormal or disjunctive political moments – such as, most recently, 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or Wall Street run amok or global pandemic – we discover the process coefficient breaks down and epistemic incoherence ensues. We become strangers to each other. Irruptions from below disclose a chaotic, Bosch-like underworld that disputes almost every dimension of the reality our political institutions take for granted and require – that our votes matter, that our efforts matter, that science matters, that government helps us more than it harms us, that media seeks and tells the truth.
In those moments, unfairly disproportionate or unexpectedly unequal social outcomes shred the process container, and in the chaos that ensues we experience not simply the frailty of our political institutions, but the extent to which the rational Enlightenment vision on which they depend remains inaccessible and alien and threatening and illegitimate to vast layers and segments of the American population. At that moment, we no longer recognize ourselves.
Shortly after the 2016 election, when liberals such as Nicholas Kristof wasted way too much ink writing that we need to give Donald Trump a chance, what they were really communicating that we need to give America a chance. They were saying that we should continue to trust in the strength of our democratic institutions and the vitality of our spirit as a nation. We must trust our belief that we are the exceptional nation.
This belief in American exceptionalism extends beyond the actual arrival of European settlers to the American strand, of course (consider the idea of “utopia,” for instance, in the westward-gazing imaginings of Thomas More, early in the 16th century). But in the past century, particularly following World War II, this idea assumed more specific (if divergent) meanings. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published some 65 years ago, Harvard professor Louis Hartz argued that the United States is exceptional because it is the product of unique and favorable historical and geographic circumstances that have insulated and sheltered its populations from the tectonic forces of class and creed that shaped the European experience.
The Liberal Tradition in American remained the canonical statement on American exceptionalism until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan (along with speechwriters such as Peggy Noonan) subtly reframed the argument, mostly by repurposing the Puritan vision of the City on a Hill. According to Reagan, America is an exceptional nation because our (Western, Judeo-Christian) circumstances, beliefs, traditions, and institutions make us better than other nations lacking this privileged foundation and divinely authored spirit.
Particularly since 9/11, conservative advocacy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have evangelized this somewhat more mystical (and certainly more smug) understanding of American exceptionalism. Infusing it, however, with a dark, brooding, menacing, paranoid, and toxic energy – the energy that powered Donald Trump to the presidency.
Living a Lie
Bottom line, American exceptionalism is a creedal statement that IT cannot happen here. War. Genocide. State failure. Economic collapse. Civil strife. Boorish descent to the Hobbesian state of nature. Except IT has happened here. The American exceptionalism prophets never had it right. Louis Hartz carefully elided the nation’s traumatic experiences with racial conquest and civil war in order to sustain his consensus vision (for contemporary perspectives, see this N.Y. Review of Books article). Ronald Reagan entirely ignored the deepest and most enduring meaning of John Winthrop’s lovely and profound City on a Hill sermon, A Model of Christian Charity:
If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Well, we have dealt falsely in our beliefs, with ourselves if not necessarily with our God. and liberal democracy has paid the price. Louis Hartz plumbed (and then released) his own personal demons to write The Liberal Tradition in America (Reagan was simply not terribly bright). But the scorched earth politics that have consumed our nation since the end of the Cold War have unleashed very smart, well-organized, technologically savvy, and preposterously well-funded tribal movements in this country that have outmaneuvered ordinary, well-meaning liberals at nearly every turn, particularly in the past 15 years.
Demographic shifts aside, the coalescence of these groups around a newly transfigured commitent to “western civilization” in 2016 (that which had originally “made America great”) represented a pure will to power, difficult to define, pin down, understand, and address because its raison d’etre has nothing to do with conceptions of interest, logic, and reason that continue to blinker the Democratic Party. Not just in 2016, but since 2001 (and, truly, since the early 1970s), the Democratic Party has been fighting the wrong war. Trump remains a freak of nature, but those who have attached themselves to him – the Steve Bannon’s and Stephen Miller’s of the world – are cynical, instrumental, and ruthless. They are cunning, not wise. Arrogant, not humble. Their currency is fear. And they have no respect or affinity for the truth.
One definition of an exceptional nation – not so different from Alexis deTocqueville’s original conception is that it is somehow prelapsarian and has no experience with or true knowledge of evil. Well, if that blessed state were ever ours in the United States, it is no longer. But truly, that blessed state never even was. Those who would like ways to consider how thinkers and actors in less sheltered times and places addressed the irruption of evil into their world, and the undoing of all they imagined to be enduring, might start (but not end) with Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt.
We might also remember J.R.R. Tolkien, who found Mordor in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, and wrote The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of “power exerted for domination.” The Lord of the Rings also instructs us in the dialectics of power, and the capacity of “small” people, in dark times, to find within themselves hidden caverns of strength, resourcefulness, wisdom, and love that evil can subdue but not destroy.
This is a strategy, in our dark times, to which hope can attach itself. But as Tolkien’s Oxford counterpart, Philip Pullman (no great fan himself of Tolkien), and his rival medieval-mythical fabulist, George R.R. Martin, both take pains to emphasize, Tolkien’s own world founders within its own massive donut hole (the elision of sexuality), and the hyperbaric hope that fills its void is usually misplaced, a kind of willful blindness or weakness. Winter is always coming.
We don’t need to travel abroad to tear the scales from our eyes, however. We never did leave Kansas. The Enlightenment, as we mythologize it, never did occur. We have always been fallen. The question has always only been, what will we do with that knowledge?
One of the most brilliant moments in the TV series Mad Men occurs when Don Draper and his family are picnicking by a lake near their house. When they are done eating and return to their car, they leave behind a trail of trash and litter from their lunch. This pre-Earth Day moment discloses so much about the ways in which we manufacture and package virtue (civil and otherwise), but the moment fascinates me because it also captures the essential mystery of our condition as a species – the windblown detritus an image of everything we leave behind, the tailings of our existence, forgotten but not gone.
Several years earlier (in Don Draper time, not ours), in the preface to the revised edition of The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson had written about another, far more lethal sort of litter, the barrels of atomic waste the U.S. government had been dropping into the ocean, a new chapter in the story of “man’s ability to change and to despoil” earth’s natural resources.
A representative of the Atomic Energy Commission had conceded to Carson that these atomic waste containers would be unlikely to maintain their integrity for very long, and might possibly rupture under pressure at depths of little more than several hundred fathoms. She concluded:
The truth is that disposal has proceeded far more rapidly than our knowledge justifies. To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster, for once radioactive elements have been deposited at sea they are irretrievable. The mistakes that are made now are made for all time.
In this poignant elegy Carson bears witness to both the inestimably marvelous flux and complexity of ocean ecosystems, to their fragility and resilience, and ultimately to the unfathomable mysteries they contain and secure, not matter the degree to which we might irradiate their depths. The starting point, in all of her inquiries, is this mystery of creation born of complexity – the idea, indeed, that mystery, and the awe we experience when confronted with it, is complexity. A cosmology starts with this mystery and awe, perhaps resolved through a reliance on myth and superstition (as with religion) or through exploration and inquiry (as with science), but in either case never lacking awareness of worlds and meanings beyond our ken. Liberalism’s cosmological emptiness has been liberalism’s failure.
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