Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Base Secure ... Now Check Its Premises

Nov 7, 2004 2:57 pm

The Base Secure ... Now Check Its Premises

I would have posted these comments in the various threads to which they relate, but I find myself wanting to address issues raised by a number of our faithful contributors.

First, I'd like to address legitimate points made by Sheldon Richman in his"Ugh" post. Sheldon puts his finger on some very important points that we should not forget. It is surely true that"the left-socialist pundits and cultural elite" have serious problems. I suppose that part of my own revulsion toward some of those on the evangelical right is rooted in the fact that the debate has shifted rightward in American politics, and it is only natural that those of us who normally would be identified as"right-wing" simply because of our support for the free market would spend some time critiquing other"right-wingers." This is not unusual; I have always believed that New Leftists of the revisionist historical variety have been among the most trenchant critics of the liberal-welfare state. Sometimes, those on the"inside" of the old left-right political paradigm are in the best position to critique other insiders.

The main problem, however, is that libertarians essentially transcend the conventional left-right dichotomy.

I agree with Sheldon that"the typical Bush voter" is most likely"not a racist, gay-bashing, theocratic fascist." The typical voter supports the war and the other conservative positions for more" common sense" reasons than those provided by evangelical preachers or neoconservative intellectuals. And I'd venture to say that Sheldon is probably correct that many of these pro-Bush voters"probably generally favor smaller government over bigger government," even if Bush has proven that he's fully a part of the"bigger government" contingent. We do not serve our purpose if we demonize the men and women on the street who are just searching to provide themselves and their loved ones with decent and safe lives. I have argued these points explicitly in my"Caught Up in The Rapture" article:

A few caveats are in order. In this discussion, I have not made any broad claim about religion, per se, as a corrupting social force. Nor have I indicted people’s right to worship or voice their religiously inspired political beliefs as they please. We live in a historical moment when people are searching desperately for guidance in the face of terrorism and war. That there are legitimate secular alternatives to religion, which might provide us with spiritually uplifting answers, does not obscure the fact that religion exists. It is not about to wither away anytime soon; it is not about to be wiped out as"the opiate of the masses." It will continue to provide many individuals with the emotional fuel they require to make sense of life’s tragic circumstances.
Moreover, this discussion is not meant to indict any particular religion or sect. That some pietists have endorsed government intervention does not mean that all pietists are"evil." Even in today’s culture, pietists are not the only religious group wreaking havoc with American politics. And there are many other non- (or anti-)religious ideological groups trying to ram their particular social agendas down the throats of the American people; some of these groups are notably secular and left-wing. That’s just the nature of the society in which we live, a society where government’s raison d’etre is not the protection of individual rights, but the dispensation of privilege. That governmental role has had the effect of multiplying the number of groups engaged in internecine competition for political or social benefits, and these groups will be inspired by any number of religious or secular ideological doctrines.
That our focus here has been on the indecent impact of religion on politics, however, does not mean that religious people are incapable of being decent. The lessons of the Old and New Testaments, with their select stories of human redemption and human dignity, have had a measurable positive impact on many good and moral individuals. That supreme atheist, Ayn Rand, once said that religion had long monopolized"the highest moral concepts of our language," such notions as"exaltation,""worship,""reverence," and the"sacred," all of which speak to legitimate, this-worldly human needs. She readily affirmed the importance of certain religious doctrines to the evolution of the ideas of individualism and freedom, and celebrated individuals such as St. Thomas Aquinas for acting as the Aristotelian progenitor to the Renaissance. ...
[However,] [t]he central issue is that more and more Americans are enraptured by a religious sensibility that is becoming increasingly influential on popular culture and on domestic and foreign policy. Religion is being used by the representatives of government and politically constituted groups as a statist tool for the remaking of the modern world. And therein lies the danger.
The Founding Fathers—­most of them deist in their religious orientation­—understood the supreme importance of the separation of church and state, even if they sought the entitlements of rights and revolution on the basis of the"laws of nature and of nature’s God." For those of us who understand the equally important separation of economy and state, it is clear that the erosion of these principles has led to the erosion of the very rights for which the Founders fought.
It will take nothing less than an intellectual and cultural revolution to rediscover­—and implement­—these sacred political principles that stand at the core of the distinctly American imagination.

On this last point, I'll cite Ayn Rand again. Rand was well aware of the fact that many people tacitly accepted certain ideas without really grasping the premises of those ideas. Her whole ethical system can be understood as a means of shifting what Michael Polanyi once called"the tacit coefficient of meaning," that is, making explicit that which is merely implicit in people's economic, political, social, or cultural ideas and/or practices. In the end, she argued that it is only by" checking one's premises" that one could begin to articulate a radical alternative."Ideas cannot be fought except by means of better ideas," she wrote."The battle consists not of opposing, but of exposing; not of denouncing, but of disproving; not of evading, but of boldly proclaiming a full, consistent and radical alternative."

My opposition to religious fundamentalism is no less forceful than my opposition to the secular leftists who endorse their own brands of worship. But I do stand by my view that the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in this country played a crucial role in the re-election of George W. Bush, and it is Bush's pietistic ideology, as I have argued, that is particularly troublesome insofar as he is inspired by it to mount the kinds of domestic and foreign policy initiatives that I reject.

Irfan Khawaja remarks, however, that my position that the evangelical vote was necessary to the achievement of Bush's re-election means that if we remove the evangelical vote, Bush would not have been re-elected. (For fans of internal relations, I guess we can say that this implies that the evangelical vote was internal to Bush's victory such that the removal of it would have fundamentally altered the outcome.) I'd tend to agree with that proposition if it were possible to view the situation with the proviso,"other factors being equal." Unfortunately, I do not believe it is a legitimate conclusion in a multi-causal model of voter behavior. For example, I will admit that if it were possible to separate attitudes from within a fundamentalist voter's mind, some of these voters would have still supported Bush on the question of national security quite apart from their religious convictions. But as John Arthur Shaffer suggests in his comments on Arthur Silber's post,"Don't Blame the Victim," it is not that easy to separate out specific positions from the fundamentalist, who, like any other person committed to a set of integrated ideological beliefs, sees those positions as an expression of an essential core.

Yes, people do vote for candidates for a variety of reasons, and I don't think we bolster our case by ignoring those reasons. But we also cannot ignore the core beliefs of a certain sector of the electorate that voted in overwhelming numbers for a specific candidate. It's all about checking the premises of those core beliefs, not singling out the believers as"evil," because those beliefs reflect the stated beliefs of the very man whom the believers supported en masse.

While we're pointing fingers at the liberal-left for denigrating these believers, let's put all of this in perspective. There is irony here in that the left-liberal critics ultimately agree with Karl Rove and the President's key strategists, from whom we heard the constant mantra throughout this election season:"First, secure the base." Rove dreamed of solidifying and extending that base. To a very large extent, those dreams were realized. Recognizing the brilliance of that strategy is a backhanded compliment, if you will, to Karl Rove, coming from those who decry its outcome.

And given the comments of Barry Rosenthal and Tex here, I think a persuasive case can be made that, indeed, the Rove strategy was critical to the particular success in Ohio, a state without whose electoral votes, Bush would have lost. The anti-gay marriage and anti-gay civil union amendment won in that state by a 62% to 38% vote, with a 1.2 million vote differential, as Barry reports. Bush won the state by 136,000+ votes. Exit polls reported that close to 70% of supporters of the Ohio ban voted for Bush. If that ban were not on the ballot, not firing up a certain group of evangelical voters who voted also for Bush, Kerry may have eked out a narrow victory in Ohio. Republican strategists understood this, as Tex suggests, which is why the Bush campaign encouraged the Ohio ban initiative, running advertisements on radio, by phone, and in mass mailings.

Nothing I say here contradicts points made by Irfan and others that many voters, quite apart from that fundamentalist bloc, voted for Bush because they saw in him a steady, self-confident leader in the war on terrorism. That, coupled with a very effective campaign which targeted Kerry's lack of credibility, clarity, and consistency, made for a winning formula. Rove said as much this morning on"Meet the Press." It takes a lot more than a fundamentalist base to deliver Bush the Presidency with a higher percentage of the vote than any Democratic candidate since LBJ's 1964 landslide, as Rove suggested.

But the mantra is still valid:"First secure the base." Rove did. Bush won.

Finally, I agree with Irfan on many of the points he makes about Ronald Reagan, and I agree that Reagan said a lot of awful and outrageous things during his presidency. More importantly, his practical legacy did not match his rhetorical one. Still, my admiration for Reagan remains focused on Reagan at his libertarian rhetorical best, as I express here and here. I just don't find the same libertarian rhetorical streak in George W. Bush. And perhaps, in the long run, that is best. I wouldn't want Bush to be mistakenly identified as a libertarian. Mistaking Reagan for a libertarian had its costs, after all.

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More Comments:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/8/2004

BTW, on this topic of Catholics and Protestants: take a look at this article by Carolyn Curiel, "How Hispanics Voted Republican," which provides further evidence of GOP inroads in both religous communities.

John Arthur Shaffer - 11/8/2004

On Iraq, I agree the neocons had plans to invade Iraq, but I don't think Bush would have done it without 9/11.

On Afghanistan, Bush increased aid to the Taliban for cracking down on poppy production - hardly a precursor to an invasion.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/8/2004

One would think that the traditional antipathy (that Roderick speaks of as well) might have carried over in Ohio. Except the raw data is actually slightly better than the national average. According to the Washington Times, Bush took the Catholic vote 55 to 45, and some Republican strategists believe that it was the wooing of Catholics on matters of the socially conservative agenda that made all the difference in that state. Interestingly, Al Gore actually carried the Catholic vote in the 2000 election, and Kerry, who is Catholic, failed to.

Roderick T. Long - 11/8/2004

> Clearly Bush had no intention
> to "liberate" Afghanistan (or
> even Iraq) until after 9/11.

The testimony of White House insiders seems to suggest otherwise -- i.e. that Bush and his gang were eager to find any excuse to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq, had plans already drawn up, and jumped at the chance ofered by 9/11.

Roderick T. Long - 11/8/2004

As a resident of the Bible Belt, I can testify that right-wing Protestants do not regard Catholics as "real" Christians (though they do grudgingly prefer them to Muslims, Wiccans, and atheists). Moreover, I suspect that evangelicals tolerated Mel Gibson because they saw (correctly) that Gibson was in rebellion, in various ways, against his own church, and they inferred (wrongly) that this made him more "Protestant."

John Arthur Shaffer - 11/7/2004

It seems to me Reagan, while using some religious language, had a universal appeal to freedom and liberty in a humanistic sense. He wasn't a regular church goer and never used his personal religious beliefs for political gain.

Bush believes freedom is a gift from God. Thus, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq received their "freedom" because of what 19 fanatics did with box cutters and hijacked aircraft. Clearly Bush had no intention to "liberate" Afghanistan (or even Iraq) until after 9/11.

It reminds one of a lyric by Robyn Hitchcock - "Do you really serve the devil, if it's all god's plan?"

Reagan used military strength to bring down the Soviet Union, but one had a sense he was scared to death of these weapons. He nearly made a big blunder when he offered Gorbachev a 50% cut in US nukes.

I don't sense the same restraint within Bush. He seems to be someone who lacks any sense of self awareness or humility. After all, if you're doing god's will then there can't be any second guessing.

tex mac - 11/7/2004

Here's Virginia Postrel in the NYTimes, writing about the polarization of the American electorate. She doesn't connect the dots to Rovian tactics, but we can:

First, there are actually two important voting decisions - not just whom to pick but whether to vote at all. Candidates need to get their voters excited enough to come to the polls (or possibly to give money). Extreme positions can do that.
Like anti-gay ballot initiatives....
But positions that energize your base may also encourage the opposition to come out against you. That's where the second part of the model comes in. Candidates need a way to target their messages so their supporters are more likely to respond than their opponents.

That's where social groups like churches and unions come in. These groups provide friendly forums for candidates' direct or indirect messages. While outsiders may know something about a candidate's more extreme positions, group members know more - because the messages are aimed specifically at them.
Like 2.5 million church bulletin inserts, home visits, 3 million targeted phone calls, etc....

Mark Brady - 11/7/2004

Mark: To what extent do you think it helped Bush that the Bible Belt is Protestant and that Kerry is a Catholic?

Chris: I don't think it matters much anymore.

Mark: But could Bible Belt antipathy towards Catholics have made the difference in Ohio where the margin of Bush's victory was slim? Greater cooperation and commonality between Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant churches may have reduced but by no means eliminated traditional hostility towards Catholics.

Sheldon Richman - 11/7/2004

I'd say we'd better get to work making our case against this constitutional travesty.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/7/2004

"I don't think it mattered much anymore."

... matters, not "mattered" :)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/7/2004

Thanks, Tex. I didn't see Rove on Fox News, only on "Meet the Press." After watching Rove on "Meet the Press," and then taking in some of "This Week," I switched to the New York Marathon. A bit more entertaining. :)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/7/2004

Mark asks: 1. To what extent do you think it helped Bush that the Bible Belt is Protestant and that Kerry is a Catholic?

I don't think it mattered much anymore. Catholic bishops didn't even want to give the host to Kerry, and he wasn't even invited to the Al Smith dinner this year because of his stance on abortion (they also disinvited Bush Jr. because they didn't want to seem unfair during an Election year). One of the most interesting cultural trends to emerge over the past few years has been greater cooperation between Protestant and Catholic organizations in their common opposition to things like abortion and gay rights. It's the same dynamic that we saw, for example, in the response to Mel Gibson's film "Passion of the Christ." Gibson's film was praised by Catholics and Evangelical Protestants alike, and their church organizations worked very hard, and harmoniously, to fill the theaters with the faithful.

And the commonality carried over into the election as well. I've seen a number of articles on this. The Miami Herald, for example, reports that evangelicals went 78-21 for Bush. Catholics gave him 54% of their vote (and Hispanic Catholics gave him 58% of their vote). As I mentioned in my article, "Caught Up in The Rapture," the emerging alliance between traditionally opposed evangelicals and conservative Catholics might very well reshape American politics and culture.

Mark also asks of my statement: "It will take nothing less than an intellectual and cultural revolution to rediscover­ and implement­ these sacred political principles that stand at the core of the distinctly American imagination." I've long been skeptical of the claims of American exceptionalism. Is it not more an _Enlightenment_ imagination?

Mea culpa. But I think that when I refer, somewhat poetically, to an American imagination, I mean "America" not as a national identity, but as an idea, one profoundly informed by the Enlightenment, for sure.

tex mac - 11/7/2004

Reuters reports:

President Bush will renew a quest in his second term for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as essential to a "hopeful and decent" society, his top political aide said on Sunday.

Bush's call for a constitutional ban on gay marriages failed last year in Congress, but his position was seen as a key factor motivating Christian conservatives concerned about "moral values" to turn out in large numbers and help supply Bush with a winning margin in last week's election.

"If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for the ideal, and the ideal is that marriage ought to be, and should be, a union of a man and a woman," Bush political aide Karl Rove told "Fox News Sunday."

Rove said Bush would "absolutely" push the Republican-controlled Congress for a constitutional amendment, which he said was needed to avert the aims of "activist judges" who would permit gay marriages.

Renewing his push for an amendment -- despite its slim chances of success -- would be a way for Bush to reward his conservative base.

Mark Brady - 11/7/2004

1. To what extent do you think it helped Bush that the Bible Belt is Protestant and that Kerry is a Catholic?

2. You write: "It will take nothing less than an intellectual and cultural revolution to rediscover­—and implement­—these sacred political principles that stand at the core of the distinctly American imagination." I've long been skeptical of the claims of American exceptionalism. Is it not more an _Enlightenment_ imagination?