Tardy Reflections on the Election

A great many things might have changed the results in November. Hurricane Sandy might have headed into the Atlantic instead of the Atlantic states. Or moods might have shifted, so that memes like “the war against women” might have flopped rather than flown.

Still, there’s no explaining away what happened, and the re-election of Barack Obama, a pure representative of the media-bureaucratic complex and the intolerant social leftism it stands for, must show something. He may have won because the Republicans failed to come up with an appealing candidate and message, and not because the majority was smitten with his social views, but that failure must show something as well.

Many people have the sense that the election revealed a basic change in American life. What it shows is the extent to which advanced liberalism has become our established faith. It’s the one our most influential authorities accept and rely on, and they feel called upon to import its principles into all aspects of life. That’s why abortion is the law of the land and voters aren’t allowed to say otherwise. The election returns showed that they have grown used to that situation, and no longer find it seriously objectionable.

If that’s what the election showed, then it had to do with fundamental tendencies. On that point, it revealed that the Republicans believe in nothing, while the Democrats believe in Nothing.

To believe in nothing is to have no beliefs except success. Individual Republicans may be decent public-spirited people, and they are likely to believe on some level in other things, the role of marriage as a distinct fundamental institution, for example. The point though is that for the national party such issues aren’t taken seriously. They function as campaign slogans for particular audiences. What’s taken seriously is American power abroad, economic success at home, and victory for Republicans. That’s what the party, as a party, believes in.

Power and success are not bad things. Power is the ability to achieve goals, and success is actually bringing them about. Both are good as a general rule, and politicians should favor them, but they’re not enough for a political outlook that makes sense. Something more is needed to tell us what to aim for and what to do with it when achieved. The Republicans have nothing that serves that purpose.

The Democrats do: they have Nothing. To believe in Nothing in the present-day manner is to turn the denial of goods that transcend will and desire into a philosophy of life, and even into what amounts to a religion. At bottom there’s no good or bad, that nihilistic view tells us—there is just people doing stuff they feel like doing and trying to get stuff they want. That’s what life is about, so the point of law and morality is to help people do and get those things, as much and as equally as possible.

It is that view, the religion of Nothing, that is now established among us. All views to the contrary are considered hateful and divisive (that is, blasphemous and heretical), so if you have doubts you have to keep quiet about big issues, like what makes life good, and confine your comments to subordinate matters, like success considered purely as such.

The authority of that view entitles judges to rewrite the laws, and requires every Democratic politician to assert the supremacy of Will and Technology (a.k.a. Choice and Change) over natural law and human life. The latter principles tell us that some things have value whether we like it or not, and such principles have to be kept out of public life. They’re at odds with the Supreme Court’s insistence in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that concepts “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” must be strictly individual and self-defined.

As in the case of the Republicans, individual Democrats have their own beliefs, which are whatever they may be, and their private lives are normally better than their public commitments. There are sincere Christians and devoted family members in both parties. Nonetheless, there is a difference: by and large, the statements and actions of leading Democrats show that they genuinely believe in their cause. They have a public religion, they’re forthright about what it is, they’ll take risks and make sacrifices to advance it (as Obamacare shows), and they don’t like, don’t respect, don’t understand, and won’t compromise with those who reject it. Resistance is bigotry, in their view, so it has no legitimate place in public life.

Leading Democrats are of course not alone in their faith commitments and their aversion to those who reject them. An established religion has to be accepted by social leaders generally, and the religion of Nothing is actively promoted by the academics and media figures who define what is considered rational and respectable among us. They have good reason to favor it, since it denies the authority of principles higher than the value-free technical expertise and manipulative skill such people stand for. It says that they are truly our intellectual leaders—the clergy and preachers of our New Jerusalem—and there is no one who could outrank them even in principle.

The bureaucrats and businessmen who form the operational branch of our governing class go along with the religion of Nothing as well. They lack the imagination to conceive an alternative, and the religion helps get rid of family, cultural, and religious considerations that complicate economic and organizational decisions. Selling products and dealing with human resources become easier if family and community ties are suppressed so we all become interchangeable consumers and careerists.

Social conservatism still has a following, but it’s weak because it’s almost purely populist. Nobody who runs things at the upper levels has much sympathy for family, community, cultural, or religious institutions or the habits, attitudes, and beliefs that support them. Why should the higher-ups favor authorities and ways of doing things that compete with them and the institutions they control? The Republicans might give traditional values lip service, but they don’t make much of a case for them and drop their support long before push comes to shove. The result is that social conservatism is reactive, it can’t make its case, and it can’t defend itself against propaganda and the deconstruction of the American people through the disintegration of family and cultural ties.

All that’s the bad news. The good news for Catholics who want to take part in public life is that the present situation creates an obvious public role for the Church as defender of ordinary people and the understandings and arrangements, now under attack, that enable them to carry on dignified, rewarding, and productive lives independently of government and business. That’s what the Catholic conceptions of subsidiarity and social justice are all about. Catholic social justice doesn’t mean that there’s a big bureaucracy that takes care of everybody. It means a setting in which families have what they need to function as families, the Church has what it needs to act as the Church, and so on for individuals, local communities, and all the institutions and associations that make up society. It’s the opposite of the tendency, now considered progressive, to abolish as irrational and unjust the role and authority of all institutions other than state and market.

We’re often told that the Church is in trouble because her position on family and related issues is out of touch with modern ways of doing things. The truth of the matter is that modern ways of doing things are in trouble because they’re out of touch with human nature on those issues. For proof, look at what’s happened to rank-and-file Americans since the supposed liberations of the Sixties.  What the election shows most basically is that neither party has any idea how to lead the country out of its self-destructive course. Far from showing the growing irrelevance of Catholic teachings to American life, it demonstrated their urgent and growing necessity.

This essay first appeared January 09, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    It was Hume who famously wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3)

    Hume believed that the role of reason is only to find out which means helps achieve a given goal. Reason (or the intellect) plays no part in determining the goals. Our goals are set exclusively by what Hume calls the passions and what we call desires. Desires cannot be evaluated as true or false or as reasonable or unreasonable – they are “original existences” in our mind and arise from unknown natural causes.

    To refute Hume, we have to be able to show why, for example, a dishonest man is a bad man, or a dishonest action is a bad one. For that, our culture requires an agreed concept of “human flourishing,” which, manifestly, we do not have. It is the questions he raises, rather than his answers (which are usually wrong) that make Hume a profound and great philosopher

    • Ford Oxaal

      Hume will get his comeuppance :). His status will then diminish to that of crank.

  • Alecto

    Let’s not lose focus on the action, which is in the states, not the federal government! The Republicans in the Virginia legislature have been “instructed” not to take on any “controversial” social issues. Apparently the finer distinctions between winning and losing are lost on them. There was no mandate, no landslide, no message from the last election. However, they are intent on surrendering without a fight. What a contrast to the actions of Virginia’s own, George Washington, a man of such courage and character that he continued to fight in the face of overwhelming odds because the cause was just. How much more righteous is our cause? What could be more righteous than an end to abortion in our lifetime? We must, must continue to fight even in the face of these daunting odds.

    Virginia House Republicans have tabled HB 1316, which would ban sex selection abortions. In addition, three other bills, HB 1314, 1315, and 1317, which would stop the assault on believers/employers by this Administration’s HHS mandates are stuck in committee where the leadership is hoping they will die. I urge anyone out there in Crisis land who is a citizen of the Commonwealth to please, please reach out to your Delegate to support these Bills. Today. Right now. Time is of the essence. We can post all day long, and God knows how much I enjoy that, but there is a time to act, and that day is today.

    This isn’t the result of the party of Nothing, it’s the result of the party of the more aptly named: Coward. You know? The ones who stand up on the stage and pontificate about life, family, God, then when the opportunity comes to accomplish something, back down?

    • pja

      Thanks alecto – I just wrote to my delegate regarding the house bills. Since my delegate is a long serving, very liberal Democrat I doubt he will consider my request to support these bills, but at least he will know someone in his district cares. Please continue to keep us Crisis readers informed, especially those of us here in the Commonwealth.

  • Embattled Conservative in NE

    Your definition of “Catholic Social Justice” is at significant odds with what the popular conception and application of what is today commonly known as “Social Justice” which is based on class warfare, envy, sloth and the transfer of income and wealth from the productive to the nonproductive determined and administered by the government and its allies.

    Unfortunately, your definition is understood only in the minds and acts of a generally unheard and unheeded (minority) clergy and a relatively few believers. The vast majority understand Social Justice in the second definition and as preached by the current president, ‘progressives’, planned parenthood, OWS and associates, etc.

    Good luck with that.

  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    You want to know why the Republicans and so called conservatives lost the elections in November? Here is why:
    1. Obama IS a socialist. Romney IS a fascist. Stop engaging in mental masturbation and trying to convince yourself that either one is better than the other. Every single person that supported either one deserves what is about to happen to them in the coming years. The sad thing is that those of us who refused to buy into your false two-party/left-right paradigm and can actually think for ourselves are going to suffer along with you. But this is probably what it will take for a truly strong and actual third party to emerge in this country. By the way, George Washington said this would happen, BUT YOU ALL DID NOT LISTEN. Now you deserve what you are going to get.

    2. For all you republicrats, neo-cons, and deriders of true Constitutional Government, maybe next time you won’t lie, cheat, and steal throughout the entire primary. Maybe next time you won’t break your own rules and will actually allow those who met your own qualifications to speak, to actually speak at the convention. Maybe next time you won’t try and force duly elected delegates to sign “loyalty oaths” as if this were some kind of a damn
    communist/totalitarian society. Maybe next time you won’t allow the chairman of the convention to read scripted teleprompter vote results BEFORE THE VOTES ARE EVEN TAKEN! And for those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, being ignorant about these facts means you have no business even commenting because your opinions are based on ignorance and ineptitude.

    3. Maybe next time you won’t claim to be pro-life but support a neo-con agenda of world governance which is attained thru the bombings of foreign countries that have committed absolutely no acts of aggression against the United States of America.

    4. Next time you republicrats, neo-cons, and deriders of true Constitutional Government had better open your arms wide to us Constitutionalists, us Ron Paul supporters. Because if you don’t, then in 2016 we will give you a Biden or Clinton white house. And if you don’t open your arms wide to us is 2020 then we will give you an encore Biden or Clinton White House. So forth and so on. Turn to Constitutional Government. Turn away from your fascist neo-con agendas, or face an entire generation Obama, Biden, and Clinton.

    5. Check and mate.

  • hombre111

    Whine, whine.

  • Phil

    So a policy guaranteeing healthcare for all Americans is evidence of a nihilist ideology that doesn’t care about morality or humanity?

    • It’s not evidence either way. Families give their children healthcare, and farmers do the same for their livestock. So it could show a variety of things.

    • Alecto

      [insert buzzer sound here]. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. No law can ever guarantee an outcome. What the Marxists accomplished was to trample our constitutional rights in order to guarantee healthcare coverage, not actual care. The fact is, they are not moral, or humane when the legislation itself proposes radical abortion policy as “healthcare”.

  • crakpot

    The link you provide does not describe social justice as a “setting” in which people “have” what they “need.” That sounds dangerously close to the Marxist bureaucracy you bemoan. Social justice is the freedom, not power, to pursue, not be handed, all that is due, not only what you need.

    What is due? I take my instruction on the distribution of resources from the Parable of the Talents. To each, by God’s plan, according to his greater or lesser abilities. That means unequally, no matter how “unjust” it may sound. We are to develop those resources – to create – in the service of God. Part of that service is individual charity, not forced redistribution by the collective – Jesus admonished the rich man to serve the poor, but he did not have the Apostles hold him down while he rifled through his pockets. Those who are able but do not try should lose it all.

    That distribution of resources and their development is exactly what naturally happens in a truly free market, with a government that does nothing but help protect a few of our God given rights. Jefferson had it right.

    • “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.”

      Evidently, the idea is that something (“the conditions,” “a setting”) is provided by the social order so that X, Y, and Z can get what they should get. I would describe the process of getting what they should get as part of what’s involved in functioning as a family etc. So I’m not sure whether your objection is to my language or the Catechism.

      • crakpot

        The Catechism seems clear. A just society “providing the conditions that allow” means we safeguard our freedom to do as we ought. I may be quibbling, but words are easily twisted. Marx managed to twist “to each, from God, according to his abilities” into “from each, to government, according to his abilities…”

  • Lee

    “All views to the contrary are considered hateful and divisive (that is, blasphemous and heretical), so if you have doubts you have to keep quiet about big issues, like what makes life good, and confine your comments to subordinate matters, like success considered purely as such.”

    This is such total nonsense! The Democrats offered plenty. The Republicans offered hatred and ugliness. They upset, blamed, ridiculed, and ultimately alienated virtually everyone. Start loving your fellowmen instead of being antisocial and dumping on everyone, and perhaps you conservatives will start winning people over again. Nobody expects you “to keep quiet” — it’s just that we’re tired of listening to all the moaning and groaning.

  • Robert

    I did not see Romney as a particularly good and classical conservative candidate. He seemed to be pretty much strictly an adherent to the business philosophy and his entire candidacy was about money and tax issues with no mention whatsoever of conservative principles or social decay and decline. The media has become omnipotent in society and directs peoples thoughts and actions. I see little hope for American society and see the only future in more traditional societies in other nations.