“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.

(As Henry Leland says to Mike Thorton in Alpha Protocol: “There are only so many coincidences that can happen before they stop being coincidences.”)

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.

All comments are welcome, and disagreement is encouraged. 

This video has been getting a lot of attention today. Since I’ve been discussing the reasons for the Tea Party a lot lately, I thought I’d address it.

Much is made of the fact that the Tea Party members shown here are apparently unaware of the fact that their taxes are at present slightly lower.

Well, the obvious response must first point out that if anybody at this event did give a reasonable discourse on, for example, Ricardian Equivalence, it wouldn’t make this video, because of its makers’ stated agenda. Secondly, it must be pointed out he interviewed so few people that it’s hard to call it a significant sample. Lastly, most people become flustered when asked to speak on camera, and tend to babble a little. So, the bias of the piece makes it rather difficult to have any faith that we are getting a real representation of the Tea Party.

That isn’t to say that the video is worthless–the search for completely unbiased reporting is in any case, I think, quixotic. The bits that document the rehearsed performances and speeches are pretty effective in showing them to be rather silly. (As are similar things at Left-wing rallies, I’ll bet.) I found Lord Monckton’s little rallying cry about Fox News anchors to be fairly Orwellian.

Overall, I’d say it’s a useful piece of footage to some extent, but by no means should people go judging the Tea Party by it.

    NewsBusters gives their analysis of The Chris Matthews show’s analysis of why that is. NewsBusters probably thinks it’s because Obama is an idiot, and Chris Matthews’ crew… well, they don’t really know why, but they sure like to speculate randomly about it. They generally feel it’s because he’s uncomfortable because of the time constraints.

    Well, each explanation might be correct. But I have an alternate theory: I suspect Obama may be finally starting to figure this charisma thing out. He knows that it’s the best weapon in his–and his party’s–arsenal, and that by using it sparingly it only becomes more effective. Last year, as Helene Cooper rightly says, Obama was basically overexposed. (Of course, she then wanders off onto the idea that the press conference was boring–more on that below.) Not that charisma wears out, of course; but it’s still best to hold your most powerful asset in reserve for when you really need it–which for Obama will be in 2012.

    If I were in his shoes, I’d keep a low profile for a while–let everyone forget about him.

    Now, as for the Matthews gang, what the hell is this: “It was a lot of econ, it was a lot of just in the weeds stuff. It got really boring. I thought.” It’s only boring if you’re a shallow person, with no interest in policy matters. The President’s job is not to entertain you. Part of the reason charisma is such a big factor in Presidential elections is that people forget this fact.

    Also, Chris Matthews, well… I stand by my previous statement regarding Matthews.

    NewsBusters is mad at Sally Quinn for saying:

    “This is the Vatican’s Watergate. The Pope is Nixon. I mean, if you look at the signs, and the way they’re behaving, it’s exactly the same way. They’ve done something terrible. They’ve denied it. They’ve accused their accusers.”

    Apparently, she took a much kinder attitude towards Jeremiah Wright in 2008, and that annoys NewsBusters. I don’t care about that. What’s really interesting is that it seems to me that what the Pope is accused of doing is far more serious than what Richard Nixon did. Covering up a burglary is bad, but covering up child abuse is a horrible crime.

    12: 42 A.M: I’ll update this post as things develop, rather than have tons of posts about the subject.

    9:08 A.M.: Most people are pretty sure the thing will pass. It’s assumed that the Democrats wouldn’t bother to vote on it if they thought it wouldn’t.

    9:17 A.M.: Lots of sites are calling this vote “Historic” or “History Making”, which suggests to me they think it will pass. Bills that don’t pass usually don’t get much mention in the history books.

    9:25 A.M: The chairman of the Democratic caucus says they have the votes. I’ve never heard of this guy; usually when they’re counting the votes, they ask the Whip, James Clyburn. It’s fun to blog about politics when you have no idea how it works.

    11:52 A.M: Going by headlines, the Democrats either have the votes or “hope they have the votes”. There’s not much difference, except for all the difference in the world. But hey, hoping for change was what Obama promised and sure enough, it happened!

    1:41 P.M: According to Huffington Post, it’s practically over.

    1:44 P.M: Or maybe not. Their headline doesn’t seem to match their story.

    4:41 P.M: It looks like it’s pretty close to a done deal that it’ll pass.

    7:58 P.M: For what it’s worth, though, Republicans may have some other plan to stop stuff in the Senate. Or something. I can’t stand to learn any more obscure Parliamentary rules, though.

    10:49 P.M: “Alea iacta est.”

    Generation Zero is a new documentary about the financial crisis. Apparently, it claims that the baby boomers caused the stock market crash in some way that I can’t figure out yet. I haven’t seen it, but it’s stocked with so many mainstream Republican/neo-con types that it makes me suspicious of just how much new information is in it. Based on the trailer, it looks a lot like Zeitgeist for Republicans.

    So argues Joan Williams:

    “Here’s my take on why(Palin made notes on her hand): she knew that they would be visible when she gave the speech. And she knew that she would be made fun of — as so stupid that she needs to write notes on her hand. And that’s one of her most effective tactics — to be made fun of. It’s an integral part of her strategy of standing in for hardworking, Middle Americans, derided by the condescending, know-it-all liberal elites.”

    It’s possible, but I doubt it. I think she just wanted to remember the correct order for the Q&A session. And frankly, nobody needs to be convinced of Palin’s folksy charm anymore–it’s her policy credentials that are perceived as her weakness. This is a needless move if indeed it is a calculated strategy.