Last week, I listened to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast question on the election results. Given my strong disagreements with his October statement on the election, I wasn’t too surprised to find that I disagreed with much that he said. However, I didn’t expect to disagree with almost his whole analysis.
Here, I want to focus on two points: (1) the reasons why people voted for Obama over Romney and (2) the “catastrophe” of these election results. However, before reading my comments below, please listen to Dr. Peikoff’s statement for yourself. It’s less than five minutes long.
First: The Voters
Peikoff claims that the election shows that some American sense of life is left, but less than he thought earlier. He claims that Obama effectively bought off the country, and that something like 47% or 50% of people are only concerned with handouts from the federal government. He claims that immigrants are coming to America en masse for the sake of the welfare state, lacking any American sense of life.
Such claims cannot be substantiated. The election concerned a wide range of topics, and people voted for one candidate over the other for a wide range of reasons. Yes, some Obama voters wanted their government handouts, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Similarly, some Romney voters wanted to impose a social conservative agenda, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Also, we should remember that most people just barely care about politics. As a result, they’re remarkably ignorant about even the basics of political events and elections.
As I explained in this blog post, this election was not any kind of referendum on fundamental values that could magically reveal America’s sense of life. Contrary to the claims of some Objectivist intellectuals of late, a culture’s sense of life is complex, multi-faceted, and far deeper than politics. It cannot be fairly judged by yet another election between two statist candidates of slightly different flavors. Judging America’s sense of life on the basis of this presidential election is about as reliable and fair as judging a person’s sense of life based on which of the two abysmal movies he chooses to see at his small-town duplex. (For a lengthy discussion of cultural sense of life, see Ayn Rand’s comments in “Don’t Let it Go” in Philosophy: Who Needs It.)
Much of the problem, of course is that Romney didn’t just run an “empty campaign,” as Peikoff claims. Romney wanted to initiate a trade war with China, crack down on illegal immigration, massively increase military spending (presumably for even more pointless and debasing wars abroad), force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, socialize medicine at the state level, and deny gays the right to marry and adopt children. Such positions are not “empty.” They are deeply wrong — and they clash with better elements of American culture, including its respect for individuals and their rights.
I do not blame ordinary voters for refusing to vote for Romney due to these abysmal positions of his. Even many Obama voters determined to preserve entitlements and subsidies were not motivated by personal greed for handouts, as Peikoff claims, but rather by a confused stew of semi-altruistic ideals. That’s bad, but it’s not the same as being bought off.
Undoubtedly, Obama will be worse than Romney would have been on many issues. Undoubtedly, Obama’s spending is dangerously out-of-control, and ObamaCare will be entrenched over the next four years. I fear another financial crisis. Yet the fact is that Romney didn’t even campaign for economic liberty. Instead, he consistently me-too’ed Obama on taxes and regulations, he supported state-level ObamaCare, and he planned to continue to spend like a drunken sailor. The result was that the two candidates didn’t look terribly different to voters, even on economics.
Second: The Catastrophe
Peikoff describes the election as a “catastrophe,” “the worst political event ever to ever occur in the history of this continent,” and even “worse than the Civil War.”
Let’s get some perspective. The secession of the southern states threatened the very existence of America, including the union of the northern states. The secession of the southern states, unless crushed, would have set a very dangerous precedent in which secession would become the solution to any political dispute. As James McPherson describes in his stellar history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, the secession of the southern states inspired northern states and cities to contemplate their own secession from the union. (Bye-bye, New York City!) The result of that would have been very bloody anarchy. Lincoln knew that, and that’s why preserving the union was his primary objective.
However, preserving the union was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The Confederacy might have won the war, particularly given the skill of Lee in comparison to the string of abysmal Union generals before Grant and Sherman emerged in the west. An independent Confederacy would not have been content to remain in its own territory: its longstanding agenda was to create an “empire of slavery.”
Also, the Civil War killed over over 600,000 Americans. Proportionately, that would equal about six million people today. That was truly catastrophic.
The secession and Civil War constituted a grave existential threat to the United States. To say, as Peikoff does, that it was known that “freedom and normalcy” would return at the end of the war is false. Americans didn’t know who would win the war. They didn’t know what kind of government or nation they would have after the war. And they didn’t know what freedoms would or would not be respected and upheld by the government after the war. Such is only known to us now, when the historical perspective smooths away the painfully rough edges and unknowns of the past.
Another four years of President Barack Obama will be damaging, undoubtedly. (Four years of Romney would have been damaging too, just in somewhat different ways.) Yet that cannot be fairly compared with the Civil War: they’re not even remotely in the same category.
In addition to the comparison to the Civil War, Peikoff said that Obama’s re-election means that “it’s going to be four years of a government single-mindedly out to destroy America at home and weaken it abroad.” Such a dire prediction is not supported by Obama’s record or by his plans. With the House controlled by the GOP, Obama will not even have the latitude that he did in his first two years in the White House, let alone any “single-minded” government at his disposal. Moreover, when is government ever “single-minded”?
Obama is not a defender of individual rights by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, as I explained in my own post-election podcast, his views are significantly better than the Republicans on some important issues. Hence, Obama’s second term offers hope for strengthening abortion rights, reforming our insane immigration laws, and repealing of the Defense of Marriage Act. Those would be positive developments not possible under Republicans.
Peikoff also indicated that totalitarian dictatorship was now perilously close, although “even after four years [of Obama], it is too early to achieve complete totalitarianism.”
Undoubtedly, America has its share of political problems. Many of those problems are quite serious, and most are unlikely to improve under Obama. Still, I simply cannot take secular apocalypticism seriously: the full context of facts paints a very different and far more hopeful picture of our future. Moreover, as I explained in this post, accurate political prediction are nearly impossible even for those immersed in the political news, and Peikoff’s 2004 prediction about the effects of a second Bush’s term is grounds for doubting his current prediction about the effects of a second Obama term.
In my view, the roots of American culture run deep — deeper than Peikoff and many other Objectivist intellectuals seem to think. On the whole, America respects the rule of law, free speech, and political dissent. It lauds achievement, technology, and hard work. It values honesty, integrity, and justice. These core values were not undone by this election, nor revealed to be illusory. They cannot and will not be undone by four more years of Obama in the White House.
America will survive Barack Obama — just as America survived George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and so on. America will survive Barack Obama — just as America would have survived Mitt Romney.
The Way Forward
Unfortunately, many Objectivists have been griping of late about how the election revealed the supposedly dismal state of the American culture. That’s unwarranted and unproductive in my view. You don’t win hard-working, responsible people over to your side by painting them as America-hating welfare queens.
American culture is far from perfect, but it’s improved tremendously in recent decades in many ways, as Dr. Eric Daniels explained in this interview on Progress in American History. Still, I recognize that free market ideas have taken a beating of late. The cause was not Obama: Obama just cashed in on the utter failure of the pragmatism and “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush and his fellow Republicans. Honestly, I’m slightly relieved that Mitt won’t be able to inflict further damage of that kind on America, as he surely would have done.
At this point, instead of bemoaning the abysmal state of American culture, advocates of free markets need to start asking themselves: “Why aren’t these ideas resonating with more Americans?” That’s a critical question to ask because many, many Americans are intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking, fair-minded, benevolent, and reasonable people, yet they don’t understand or support free markets.
I will not blame Americans for that disconnect. I want to strengthen and leverage the genuine values and virtues commonly found in Americans, whatever their political views at present. It’s my job as an intellectual to figure out how to do that well, not bemoan the supposed death of America.
Personally, my focus with Philosophy in Action Radio is finding effective ways to persuade people to embrace the principles required to live happy, healthy, and joyful lives. I want to strengthen people’s understanding and practice of justice, independence, responsibility, rationality, and other virtues in their relationships, careers, and parenting. Based on the growth of my audience (here too), I’m doing something right.
Basically, my goal is to foster people’s rationality and value-seeking — and thereby create a more rational, value-oriented culture. I don’t often gripe about the current state of politics. When I discuss politics, I much prefer to discuss the contours of a free society. I’d rather offer a positive vision of what the future can and ought to be, rather than bemoan the problems of the present.
Over the past few months, I’ve realized that promoting a free society requires more than just the usual “moral arguments for capitalism” typically offered by Objectivist intellectuals. For most people, such arguments are too far removed from their daily lives and values to even capture their attention, let alone resonate with them. That’s part of why the surge in interest in Ayn Rand hasn’t amounted to much cultural or political change, including in this election.
In my view, lasting advances in freedom require that people connect political liberty with their own deeply-held and actively-practiced positive values. First and foremost, people need to personally experience the benefits of pursuing their values on the basis of rational principles. Before they can understand and embrace rights as a principle, they need to live by reality, reason, and egoism as dominant themes in their lives. In essence, political activism can be worthwhile, but it cannot create cultural change by itself. Ultimately, I think, political change depends on cultural change, and cultural change depends on personal change.
Over the course of decades on the air, religious conservative advice talk show host Dr. Laura gradually drew that connection between practical ethics and politics for the religious right, and we’re reaping her bitter fruit today. We need to use that same method to create a culture that preaches and practices reason, egoism, and ultimately, rights.
I’m not belittling political activism. It matters, and if that’s what you want to do, that’s wonderful. My point is that lasting political change requires strengthening the basic philosophic values of the culture, at a deeper level than most Objectivists suppose.
America has time to do that, in my view. So as I work on it via Philosophy in Action Radio, I’m busy enjoying all that America has to offer, culturally and economically, thanks to the fact that we are still a fundamentally free society. That’s what I was most grateful for during this delightful Thanksgiving holiday.
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