Why the Democrats failed again: On the cosmological emptiness of liberalism

Right-wingers have a theory of human nature and the universe. Without such a narrative, liberals will keep losing

Published December 13, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The post-election hangover that has accompanied the Democrats' failure to reclaim the Senate and the prospect of four more years of partisan gridlock and culture warfare largely results from the sense that Democrats have, in the cosmic drama of our time, once again played the fool. The failure was not in the Senate outcomes themselves. It was in the catastrophic misapprehension of human nature which led, as in 2016, to delusional magical thinking and overconfidence concerning the rationality and coherence of voter behavior (evidenced by trust, once again, in "the polls"), a pathetic and persistent blindness to the political and cultural dynamics that energize political psychology and drive election outcomes.

Indeed, the failings of liberal democracy since the end of the Cold War lie squarely in the donut hole of the Democratic Party in particular and liberalism in general. This donut hole emerges from what one might call the "cosmological emptiness" of the Democratic Party's organization and program, and of its governing principles and ideology. 

What do I mean by this somewhat grandiose term? By cosmological emptiness, I am referring to the absence of any animating set of principles and beliefs about human nature, history, society and politics which is grounded in the mystery of creation itself. Say what one will about the take-no-prisoners, animal energy of the Trump insurgency, with its play to the darkest impulses of its religious and rural bases. Christian conservatives within the Republican Party take that mystery seriously, and have articulated and organized a coherent strategy that fully exploits its subdural power.

We have heard much talk in recent decades about the "clash of civilizations," which often means end-times conflict between Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and "godless liberalism" (which used to be "godless communism"), or between "nationalists" and "globalists," or between "the West" and "the Rest." In reality, the civilizational clash that promises to be the most likely axis of conflict in the next century will be the struggle between the creator-centered faiths and creation-centered science (using both terms broadly) — a struggle to define and hold onto conceptions of humanity in an unprecedented era of technological imperialism and environmental, ecosystem, and nation-state collapse. The battle between religion and science is ultimately a contest between competing and colliding cosmologies, an attunement to non-linear narratives of origins, epistemologies, forces, transitions and relationships in the universe, and on our planet, that frame and control specific perspectives on politics and power.

Democrats keep missing the target because party elites — and, to varying degrees, the liberal and progressive bases of the party — lack a cosmology of any kind, and therefore act upon a more constrained and less exalted stage of possibility, one that is specifically geared to short-term appeasement of interest groups, fractional change and limited audience engagement, and which lacks any clear narrative arc. Suspicious of power, fearful of bias, inhibited in their language, addicted to procedure and politesse, liberal and progressive avatars of the Democratic Party embrace everything, commit to nothing and routinely, predictably, miss the forest for the trees. But the forest is ablaze (literally) and in the absence of any anchoring cosmology to establish the meanings, stakes, significance and path through this conflagration — which are really the only things that justify and legitimate the exercise of power — we relinquish the limited agency we may have to forces that are more directly inclined to carve irremediably destructive paths into the future.

*  *  *

In times of "normal" politics in the United States — taking "normal" to mean the American-schoolbook "consensus," "pluralist" or "interest group" images of politics that prevailed for several decades after World War II — the center holds because ultimately it is in the interest of politicians and their parties, along with the organizations and groups and populations they represent, to compromise and take half a loaf in order to live to fight another day.

The premise of these "liberal" images of politics has been that people are mostly pragmatic rather than idealistic, and that bargaining and deal-making can hold the nation together because most people are fundamentally alike, at least in the sense that they are all rational agents who speak the same language and can build trust around their understanding of what words mean and how they represent the world. These agent-based notions are the mother's milk of our citizen identity, reinforced historically and culturally through our political and civic associations (including the media), our common law traditions, and our supposedly shared Enlightenment values.

The strength (and weakness) of these political habits and beliefs is that they are process-driven, not outcome-driven. We associate Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy, individual freedom, legal equality and political justice with rule-driven attributes and standards of process fairness, consistency and coherence. The container matters more than the content. This liberal political culture owes an enormous amount to the historically specific claims of the Enlightenment, in combination with English common law traditions, on the American founders.

Indeed, when one reads "The Federalist," despite the significant and meaningful differences in the political visions of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and between the Federalists and the Antifederalists, all parties communicate a deeply rooted commitment to the shared identity of humans bound together and lifted up by a capacity to reason, employ logic, deduce consequences, gather evidence and share knowledge. Baseline commitments to process (and progress) within our political culture depend on the Enlightenment assumption of epistemic coherence, meaning the shared notion that knowledge about the world objectively exists, and that we can discover and share this knowledge with each other.

The problem is that when we experience abnormal or disjunctive political moments — such as, most recently, 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or Wall Street run amok or global pandemic or racial fracturing — we discover that the process coefficient breaks down and epistemic incoherence ensues. We become strangers to each other. Irruptions from below disclose a chaotic, Bosch-like underworld that disputes almost every dimension of the reality our political institutions take for granted and require – that our votes matter, that our efforts matter, that science matters, that government helps us more than it harms us, that media seeks and tells the truth.

In those moments, unfairly disproportionate or unexpectedly unequal social outcomes shred the process container, and in the chaos that ensues we experience not simply the frailty of our political institutions, but the extent to which the rational Enlightenment vision on which they depend remains inaccessible and alien and threatening and illegitimate to vast layers and segments of the American population. At that moment, we no longer recognize ourselves.

*  *  *

Shortly after the 2016 election, when liberals such as Nicholas Kristof wasted way too much ink writing that we need to give Donald Trump a chance, what they were really communicating was that we needed to give America a chance. They were insisting that we should continue to trust in the strength of our democratic institutions and the vitality of our spirit as a nation. We must trust our belief that we are the exceptional nation.

This belief in American exceptionalism extends beyond the actual arrival of European settlers to the American strand. (Consider the idea of "utopia," for instance, in the westward-gazing imaginings of Thomas More, early in the 16th century.) But in the past century, particularly following World War II, this idea assumed more specific (if divergent) meanings. In "The Liberal Tradition in America," published some 65 years ago, Harvard professor Louis Hartz argued that the United States is exceptional because it is the product of unique and favorable historical and geographic circumstances that have insulated and sheltered its populations from the tectonic forces of class and creed that shaped the European experience.

"The Liberal Tradition in America" remained the canonical statement on American exceptionalism until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan (along with speechwriters such as Peggy Noonan) subtly reframed the argument, mostly by repurposing the Puritan vision of the "City on a Hill." According to Reagan, America is an exceptional nation because our (Western, Judeo-Christian) circumstances, beliefs, traditions and institutions make us better than other nations that lack such a privileged foundation and divinely authored spirit.

Particularly since 9/11, conservative advocacy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have evangelized this somewhat more mystical (and certainly more smug) understanding of American exceptionalism. They have also infused it with a dark, brooding, menacing, paranoid and toxic energy — the energy that powered Donald Trump to the presidency.

*  *  *

Bottom line, American exceptionalism is a creedal statement that it cannot happen here. That "it" might include: War. Genocide. State failure. Economic collapse. Civil strife. Boorish descent to the Hobbesian state of nature. Except it has happened here. The prophets of American exceptionalism never had it right. Louis Hartz carefully elided the nation's traumatic experiences with racial conquest and civil war in order to sustain his consensus vision (for contemporary perspectives, see this New York Review of Books article). Ronald Reagan entirely ignored the deepest and most enduring meaning of John Winthrop's lovely and profound City on a Hill sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity":

If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Well, we have dealt falsely in our beliefs, with ourselves if not necessarily with our God. and liberal democracy has paid the price. Louis Hartz plumbed (and then released) his own personal demons to write "The Liberal Tradition in America. (Reagan was simply not terribly bright.) But the scorched-earth politics that have consumed our nation since the end of the Cold War have unleashed very smart, well-organized, technologically savvy and preposterously well-funded tribal movements in this country that have outmaneuvered ordinary, well-meaning liberals at nearly every turn, particularly in the past 15 years.

Demographic shifts aside, the coalescence of these groups around a newly transfigured commitment to "Western civilization" in 2016 (that which had originally "made America great") represented a pure will to power, difficult to define, pin down, understand and address because its raison d'etre has nothing to do with the conceptions of interest, logic and reason that continue to blinker the Democratic Party. Not just in 2016, but since 2001 (and, truly, since the early 1970s), the Democratic Party has been fighting the wrong war. Trump remains a freak of nature, but those who have attached themselves to him — the Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers of the world — are cynical, instrumental and ruthless. They are cunning, not wise, arrogant, not humble. Their currency is fear. And they have no respect or affinity for the truth.

One definition of an exceptional nation — not so different from Alexis de Tocqueville's original conception — is that it is somehow prelapsarian and has no experience with or true knowledge of evil. Well, if that blessed state were ever ours in the United States, it is no longer. But truly, that blessed state never even was. Those who would like to consider how thinkers and actors in less sheltered times and places addressed the irruption of evil into their world, and the undoing of all they imagined to be enduring, might start (but not end) with the insights of Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt and Reinhold Niebuhr.

We might also remember J.R.R. Tolkien, who found Mordor in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, and wrote "The Lord of the Rings" as an allegory of "power exerted for domination." That work also instructs us in the dialectics of power and the capacity of "small" people, in dark times, to find within themselves hidden caverns of strength, resourcefulness, wisdom and love that evil can subdue but not destroy. This is a strategy, in our dark times, to which hope can attach itself. But as Tolkien's Oxford counterpart, Philip Pullman (no great fan himself of Tolkien), and his rival medieval-mythical fabulist, George R.R. Martin, both take pains to emphasize, Tolkien's own world founders within its own massive donut hole (the elision of sexuality), and the hyperbaric hope that fills its void is usually misplaced, a kind of willful blindness or weakness. Winter is always coming.

*  *. *

One of the most brilliant moments in the TV series "Mad Men" occurs when Don Draper and his family are picnicking by a lake near their house. When they are done eating and return to their car, they leave behind a trail of trash and litter from their lunch. This pre-Earth Day moment discloses so much about the ways in which we manufacture and package virtue (civil and otherwise), but the moment fascinates us because it also captures the essential mystery of our condition as a species – the windblown detritus an image of everything we leave behind, the tailings of our existence, forgotten but not gone.

Several years earlier (in Don Draper time, not ours), in the preface to the revised edition of "The Sea Around Us," Rachel Carson had written about another, far more lethal sort of litter, the barrels of atomic waste the U.S. government had been dropping into the ocean, a new chapter in the story of "man's ability to change and to despoil" earth's natural resources. A representative of the Atomic Energy Commission had conceded to Carson that these atomic waste containers would be unlikely to maintain their integrity for very long and might possibly rupture under pressure at depths of little more than several hundred fathoms. She concluded:

The truth is that disposal has proceeded far more rapidly than our knowledge justifies. To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster, for once radioactive elements have been deposited at sea they are irretrievable. The mistakes that are made now are made for all time.

In this poignant elegy Carson bears witness to both the inestimably marvelous flux and complexity of ocean ecosystems, to their fragility and resilience, and ultimately to the unfathomable mysteries they contain and secure, no matter the degree to which we might irradiate their depths. The starting point, in all of her inquiries, is this mystery of creation born of complexity — the idea, indeed, that mystery, and the awe we experience when confronted with it, is complexity.

A cosmology starts with this mystery and awe, perhaps resolved through a reliance on myth and superstition (as with religion) or through exploration and inquiry (as with science), but in either case never lacking awareness of worlds and meanings beyond our ken.

Liberalism's cosmological emptiness has been the source of liberalism's great failure — a failure of imagination. As Trump's Republicans ratchet up their existential assault on American democracy, liberals and progressives would do well to ask themselves why they have so reliably underestimated and miscalculated this threat, under the grievously mistaken assumption that these attacks happen to other nations but not to us. They would do well to acknowledge the intellectual challenge encoded within this rancorous insurgency: Serious conservatives navigate by the stars of a well-mapped cosmology. What comparably robust and detailed cosmology guides you?

Indeed, we don't need to travel abroad to tear the scales from our eyes. We never did leave Kansas. The Enlightenment, as we mythologize it, never happened at all, never did occur. We have always been fallen. And the question has always only been: What will we do with that knowledge?

By Peter Hammond Schwartz

Peter Hammond Schwartz is a writer based in Seattle. He has a PhD in political philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, and has taught at the University of Maryland and Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared in The Nation, HuffPost, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Review and, most recently, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Ploughshares Fund.

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