“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’…”–John 18:38
Most people probably believe that of the two major political parties in the United States, it is the Democrats who are more prone to relativism. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that there are more intellectuals, who are always given over to questioning traditions, in the Democratic party. The second is that many years of conservative propaganda has told everyone so.
Most of this is the work of the religious Right, though the Atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand also rejects the idea of anything other than absolute Truth, and it is certainly more widely heard in “conservative”,or–if we must use the term–“right-wing” circles. And there is some truth to all this; after all, does not the word “Conservative” itself suggest a certain intellectual and philosophical rigidity?
But, of late, there have been signs of a creeping relativism among conservatives. For example, this column from paleo-conservative writer Patrick J. Buchanan. An excerpt:
““Naked reason,” pure rationalism… ignores that vast realm of sentiments, such as patriotism and love, that reside in the terrain between thought and feeling.”
Buchanan, admittedly, is far from one of the major players in the Republican party, having been effectively ostracized years ago. But there is altogether something very “post-modern”, as Andrew Sullivan often says, about the behavior of the conservatives of late. Recall the odd incident early this year when Rudy Giuliani and other prominent conservatives appeared to have forgotten about the 9/11 attacks.
Of course, one could easily explain away such things by pointing out that it is merely the inevitable result of competing–nearly warring–political parties. A strategy, nothing more. Indeed, I suspect a credible case could be made that changes in the media and the education system have produced a general increase in the relativistic outlook, and we only notice it with conservatives because they are, historically, less susceptible to it.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that strategically speaking, the Republicans are moving more and more towards a relativistic approach to reporting and analyzing every issue. Much of their criticism of Obama is based on how he makes them feel, or the image he projects.
Perhaps Lee Atwater had some part in it. (On some sites, I have seen the phrase “Perception is reality” attributed to Atwater. I doubt he originated it, but it does encapsulate his worldview.) Still, from at least Edward Bernays onward, propagandists, strategists and ad men, or whatever name, must have at least a touch of relativism to carry out their duty.
Now, I cannot stress enough that it is mostly the conservative intellectuals and strategists who seem to think this way. All the examples I gave, with the partial exception of Giuliani, were very much the behind-the-scenes tactician sort, not the leaders, and not the rank and file. I don’t think we will ever see Sarah Palin, for example, engaging in anything other than black-and-white moral reasoning. (“We win, they lose…”)
That’s part of what’s so odd about it, in fact. On the one hand we have the traditional non-relativist view of the world characterized by most of the Republican politicians, but pull away the curtain and we find men like Karl Rove–heir to Atwater–and other such strategists. Buchanan, let us not forget, was a strategist for Richard M. Nixon. (Nixon, by the way, was interested in the works of Nietzsche.) Even Dick Cheney, in his role as an adviser to Gerald Ford, famously said: “Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”
It is pointless to counter by saying that the same is true of Democrats. Of course it is. Carville, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and the rest are all doubtless cut from the same cloth. But the Democrats as a whole are already supposed to be the party of relativists, to hear the Republicans tell it, and they’re kind of correct. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that Democrats in general will tend to attack Republicans for being too absolutist. Whereas, the Republicans pride themselves on seeing through the moral haziness in which the liberal intellectuals lose themselves by understanding the absolute, God-given differences between True and False, Right and Wrong.
Let me, as Obama would say, be clear: the majority of the Republican party believes in a rigid, absolutist, traditional Christian morality–or wants to, anyway. But many of their strategists are willing to do almost anything to achieve victory, and are more than happy to bend the truth in order to get what they want. And they are fairly open about it.
In short, their strategists appear to be using moral and factual relativism in order to justify the rank-and-file and their leaders behaving like moral and factual absolutists.