A vote for moral technology: Updating Reinhold Niebuhr to the age of Donald Trump

The great theologian's understanding of irony and hubris can help us figure out what happened, and where we go next

Published July 16, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Reinhold Niebuhr   (Getty/Olivier Douliery/Wikimedia)
Donald Trump; Reinhold Niebuhr (Getty/Olivier Douliery/Wikimedia)

It’s the incongruities that perplex and provoke so many of us. The ideal versus the real. It’s hard to look at the imposing U.S. Capitol, all that strong, gleaming marble, and realize at the same time how the nation’s elected representatives have failed at their primary job: improving the lives of those who elected them. We have learned that “those who elected them” doesn’t even mean what the Constitution intended. Disgusting negative ads elected them. Money elected them. A minority of the eligible population voted – inertia reelected them. Politicians are professional fundraisers who principally target “swing voters.” This is who we are now.

Our idealized democracy is obviously not even close to a perfect system for obtaining the wisest deliberator as president. The inordinately long, obscenely costly campaign process, imitating nothing so much as a repetitive TV miniseries, is, effectively, a register of party loyalty, not a measure of the viability of one or another policy direction. With all the talent that exists in the United States – the scientists, engineers, artists, givers, problem-solvers – look what we have now: an inarticulate man of limited imagination, who worships himself and appears to care about nothing and no one else, and least of all the truth. He convinced 63 million people to vote for him.

We – the millions of us who voted a different way – feel corrupted by his undeserved presence in our lives, his repetitive bad behavior, his pettiness, his petulance, his arrogance. Our values have been betrayed, and we are all somehow, in some way, complicit. We didn’t do enough to help voters see through him. We allowed democracy to become a business in the hands of public relations firms, pollsters, financiers and advertisers. And tweets. Sad!   

Just as Gerald R. Ford announced his presidency with the comforting words, “Our long national nightmare is over,” when he put Nixon and Watergate behind, Americans of both parties will, let us hope, realize a sensible solution to our Trumpian nightmare. This short essay seeks to give some context to our historic moment, and to suggest how to put behind us the conditions that allowed a boorish bungler with demagogic skills to subvert democracy and advance plutocracy.

To begin, every present feels unique, until we take the time to rediscover our historical literature. In 1952, the vigorous mind of a renowned theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, produced a book titled "The Irony of American History." The irony Niebuhr saw lay in the contrast between the hopeful language of the nation’s founders and the political reality of his America. What were its moral responsibilities in the world? he posed. What did it owe itself? And where could it find political wisdom to chart a better future?

His concerns are our pronounced concerns, too. Hubris tops Niebuhr's list. When you endow any elite – a moneyed elite, a Russian Communist Party – with preponderant power, it comes to possess a “fanatic certainty” about the direction history ought to take. It is impatient in its directedness. Drawing contrasts between the 18th and 20th centuries, Niebuhr invoked the generally optimistic French Enlightenment philosophe, the Marquis de Condorcet, who was a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s. Condorcet was convinced that the future held “the destruction of inequality between nations, the progress of equality among the common people, and the growth of man toward perfection.” In a world of monarchs, America seemed virtuous when it stood opposed to a monarch’s willfulness and spoke of popular will instead. Humanity would improve the circumstances of all once a people applied its collective intelligence to the moral challenge of creating a cooperative society.

The future of the American Revolution bore with it Condorcet’s hopes and dreams of government that served the interests of all citizens and not only those with inherited wealth and privilege. So far, so good. Armed with those enlightened hopes and dreams, Niebuhr contended, the American people developed a “Messianic consciousness” about themselves. The founding generation conceived of the United States as “the darling of divine Providence,” he said, and the concept took hold. As the 20th century began, the original vision still allowed the political class to exclaim that Americans’ godly cause would make them “the master organizers of the world, to establish systems where chaos reigns.” Cold War America similarly believed that God blessed America, because the stark alternative to “us” was Soviet communism.

Niebuhr critiqued all dialectical views of history. He gently, sensibly protested: “The American Messianic dream is vague about the political or other power which would be required to subject all recalcitrant wills to the one will which is informed by the true vision.” He perceived that monopolies of power, whether in the hands of Red commissars or Red, White and Blue elected leaders, was potentially dangerous. “The virulence of communism” lay in its “investment of a class and a party with a monopoly of power.” But neither was the American way immune to a monopolistic moral calculus.  

So, let us compare the political landscape Niebuhr wrote about in 1952 to that which we face in 2017. The theologian concluded his argument on an upbeat note, believing that the American nation had “learned the lesson of history tolerably well. ... Though not without vainglorious delusions in regard to our power, we are saved by a certain grace inherent in common sense.” A certain grace. Still, he warned, we had to rid ourselves of the “pretentious elements in our original dream,” and apply the stern understanding of prudent government that the founders bequeathed along with its messianic conceit. On preventing abuse of power, his go-to founder was James Madison. “With the realists of every age,” Madison understood “how intimately man’s reason is related to his interests.” Government had to temper the very human tendency to abuse power. “The most common and durable source of faction,” Niebuhr quoted Madison, “has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”  

Madison was no Marxist, of course, which served Niebuhr’s purpose. He gloried that the two political parties in 1952 still contained sufficient diversity of interests as to be prevented “from being unambiguous ideological instruments.” Niebuhr referred to America’s progress in establishing a “welfare state” as an agreed-upon thing – and at that time, it was – because most Republicans felt that social welfare, social security and a regulated health system did nothing to deter capitalist expansion. “The development of American democracy toward a welfare state has proceeded so rapidly because the ideological struggle was not unnecessarily sharpened,” Niebuhr wrote. The free market was not one of the nation’s holy, self-evident truths. “We have, in short, achieved such justice as we possess in the only way justice can be achieved in a technical society: we have equilibrated power … to redress disproportions and disbalances in economic society.”  

Niebuhr looked about him. If there was “social peace” in America, he adjudged, it was only owing to a comparatively “fluid class structure,” whereby “the privileged classes” resigned themselves to being “less intransigent in their resistance to the rising classes.” In 1952, the wealthy paid their fair share in taxes, the incoming Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower regarded labor unions as a necessary balance and a positive good, and the G.I. Bill remained a proven means of developing a stronger middle class.  

Today, on Capitol Hill, with the empowered lobbyist, we see nothing but intransigence on the part of big business, and weak excuses for taking from the poor to give to the rich. And yet, like Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian who perceived his God as an ironic one that “laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations,” we do not believe that reason has been entirely extinguished in American political society. Town hall meetings bring out the real victims of Republican policies. The “silent majority” will meet its match in this “affected majority,” who increasingly demand a certain humility as well as responsiveness from their dissimulating congressmen. Like Niebuhr in 1952, they recognize that ideological rigidity is counterproductive. The forward-thinking who look beyond the empty and ignorant promises of the current president, and the empty and inactive poses of their Republican representatives, see that the mythical market cannot solve our problems without help from somewhere else.  

Beyond the ballot box itself, then, where does hope lie?                            

As long as the practical-minded, improvement-oriented moral philosophy underlying the founders’ vision directs the liberal imagination (the same that Niebuhr refused to dismiss), an obvious scenario presents itself: computer technology. We are shopping and banking and filing taxes online; the military is operating drones in Afghanistan from a post in Florida. Robots build self-parking automobiles, and something so recently unimaginable as driverless cars are already present in our world. Biometrics and bionic organs will extend lives. IBM’s Watson connects to a health care database that conducts and monitors the results of genetic testing and delivers “precision medicine” to patients with speed and accuracy. It will only get better. Medical science can’t be stopped. We aren’t going backward to a coal-driven mining economy.

The sole uncertainty is political. Will only the super-rich enjoy the benefits of 21st-century technology? Will Republicans continue to be the party that denies life-saving medicine to the majority? Will the voters be so anesthetized that they allow it? Or will the emerging techno-curious majority oblige government to make universal health care the only possible solution, and for all social classes to participate in the self-evident advantages? People used to complain about being “a number”; eventually, your DNA will be part of a national database. The medical benefits will outweigh the privacy-sacrificing costs.  

When put to use in politically novel ways, technology can improve governance and move us in the direction of less inequality. It only requires a modicum of political intelligence (and, of course, political honesty) for the gerrymandering of congressional districts to be done away with: A computer algorithm takes into account population patterns and natural geography, and voilà! -- we have democratic change that delivers fairness, removing human corruptibility from the equation. We won’t even get into the argument that has roiled Congress and the nation since the 1790s, as to whether a national popular vote or the assignation of electoral votes by congressional district (after the end of gerrymandering), would be preferable to the general-ticket plurality system in place today.

Despite hacking worries, uniform voting methods will at some point have to replace the current, antiquated means that make it possible for Republicans to fantasize voter fraud and enact voter suppression laws. Will it be politics only that lags, when green technologies expand rapidly and profitably? When sensors within roadways will stop traffic jams before they occur? Liberals need to run for office by touting the power of humane technologies.

Be assured that new technology will not be democratically applied in the near term. Innovation inevitably bypasses certain segments of the population. It will benefit some while hurting others – one understandable reason why many Americans resist modernity. The quality of life in less populated areas needs to advance closer to that in urban and suburban areas. It takes will.

One problem with politics right now is that we have lost the ability to talk about “what works” as opposed to what “sounds good.” Part of what elects a Trump is the torture inflicted by politicos on the English language. Along with hate speech and attack ads, the political landscape has been awash in deceptive euphemisms. In 2016, the hapless Bobby Jindal was supported by the appropriately banal Super PAC “Believe Again”; there was Rick Perry’s equally meaningless “Opportunity & Freedom PAC”; and the pro-Trump “Future in America” PAC. Then try out the conundrum that was Mitt Romney’s 2012 PAC, “Restore Our Future.” But along with such emptiness comes the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity": Whose prosperity are they specifically interested in, one wonders?

Innovation and entrepreneurship will continue to mark our century. Why not in political life? Google will be able, before long, to instruct a voter what slate of candidates best reflects his or her interests. Yes, that seems scary. What happens when you eliminate free choice at the same time as you counsel someone against a self-defeating vote? Privacy issues will continue to consume us.

We’re not suggesting it’s inevitable. Trump ran on a rejection of modernity, captured in his infamous banality, “Make America Great Again.” Building his “it’ll be something amazing” border wall was hardly a “Star Trek” solution; he compared his Mexican barrier to the ancient Great Wall of China. Looking backward is a comfortable position for many Trump supporters. Evangelicals want the return of the patriarchal family, where father knows best and where women’s sexual activities are geared for reproduction rather than pleasure. The same people who dispute climate change because it is a “global” concern and not of benefit to America alone are more willing to imagine that voter fraud is rampant than that corporations are exploiting consumers and literally killing workers with deregulation of safety laws and environmental controls, while producing foods that incontrovertibly make people unhealthy. Conservatives are strangely comfortable blaming people for demanding better: whether it’s the working poor, “selfish” women in need of abortions or Michelle Obama telling them how to eat better.  

Not everyone embraces the future. Not everyone sees technological progress as a boon to society. Conservatives are more prone to see technology as something alien, invasive and morally neutral. They work with the old template of regulating vices rather than regulating Wall Street greed. They are afraid that “bad” or undeserving people will vote – whereas in the freedom-loving, gun-restrictive nation of Australia, voting in elections is compulsory.

There’s another way to look at the Trump phenomenon, however. It is not just about the senseless symbolism of building a wall to solve America’s problems. It also reflects the increasing power of our entertainment media. How shocked should we be that a reality TV star was elected president? He’s a byproduct of dramatic changes in Americans’ use of technology, its underside, if you will: He belongs to the age of selfies, Facebook de-friending, sexting and rabid, instantaneous tweets of every cruel, impulsive thought. Innovation in communications has broken down the barriers that traditionally separated professional expertise from virtual (Trump-like, Kardashian-like) celebrity.

Technology is here and omnipresent. Rather than despair in the everyday embarrassment of President Trump, we are casting a vote for the good effects of technology as managed by fair and balanced humans committed only to the laws of science. Harnessed technology will help rescue the political future – but we say this with one crucial caveat. As Niebuhr wrote in "The Irony of American History": “The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capabilities.” The same species that built the gleaming U.S. Capitol created the atomic bomb.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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By Nancy Isenberg

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