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.