At this late date, after the three debates, the nature of this campaign is set, and the meaning of this election has come into focus for me. The meaning is: independence vs. dependence. The Bush policies favor America retaining its sovereignty–cooperating with allies as and when they are willing–and America on the offensive. The Kerry program favors America surrendering that independence to curry favor with the bribed French and the America-hating despots at the U.N.
At a time when we are at war, after we have experienced an attack worse than Pearl Harbor, the main issue in this election has to be the war. And, appropriately, Bush has made it the main issue–both at the Republican convention and since.
The Bush doctrine, for all its timid, bumbling, and altruism-laced implementation, intends America to act, to use its military might offensively, even when half the world protests against it. Kerry’s “instincts” are to negotiate, conciliate, and retreat.
It has been clear from the beginning of this overly long campaign that Kerry’s fixation on “working with allies” does not represent a concern with any practical benefit to be attained but is an expression of his anti-American, anti-war views–views essentially unchanged from his anti-Vietnam War days. Contrary to some of his more recent statements, Kerry does not think that Iraq in particular was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”: he thinks any military self-assertion by America is wrong.
Whether or not Kerry is personally a second-hander desperate for the approval of his European-cum-Harvard authority-figures does not much matter. The issue is deeper than his personal psychology. The issue is America’s moral right to take independent action in defending American lives.
The Europeans scolds are only the external symbol of Kerry’s internal premise: America is a morally stained nation, with much to apologize for in general, and it should therefore be humble, not self-assertive, in world affairs; we should approach Europe and the U.N. with hat in hand, with head held low, and humbly ask for their approval. Actually, not just for their approval but for their forgiveness–forgiveness for what we are, for being America.
This worldview is clear from not only from his many statements (usually later retracted or “clarified”) during this campaign, but from his unapologized-for, unretracted anti-Vietnam-War activities and his virtually unbroken 20-year record of anti-defense votes in the Senate. It is also inherent in the leftist, altruist-statist philosophy that has earned him the rating of the most “liberal” senator.
On a symbolic or sense-of-life level, Bush evokes the cowboy. The cowboy ethos is something that anti-Americans hate and fear. As Andrew Bernstein stated in his op-ed on the subject, “What we honor about the cowboy of the Old West is his willingness to stand up to evil and to do it alone, if necessary. The cowboy is a symbol of the crucial virtues of courage and independence.”
In this regard, consider the symbolic significance of a seemingly trivial line Bush used in his acceptance speech: “Some people say I swagger, but in Texas we call it walking.” This was a wry way of saying, “I’m not going to apologize for the firm, decisive attitude that people call my ‘arrogance’ but which is something natural to me, and I’m proud of it.”
That’s the overview. But what makes the choice in this election agonizingly difficult is that there are so many contradictions and dangers in Bush’s approach and his record. I do not at all mean to minimize the arguments for voting against Bush, and several times in the last few months I have leaned toward voting for Kerry. Let me now tell you why I still favor Bush despite the very worrying negatives he presents.
The main negative, is of course, Bush’s religiosity. The growth of religion in America is alarming. And it can only get worse, whether or not Bush is re-elected. It is some consolation that Bush has not made his campaign center on religion: that means that a Bush re-election cannot be taken as a mandate for tearing down the church-state barrier.
But religion is growing in influence and will continue to grow because of its monopoly on morality. People need moral guidance, and if they can’t find that guidance in any rational, secular philosophy, most of them will seek it from where it is being offered: religion.
Not only can one not find a rational, non-religious code of ethics in today’s intellectual world, our intellectuals have long been proclaiming that a rational morality is impossible in principle. Back in 1964, the then chairman of the UCLA philosophy department summarized the party line in philosophy: “There are no ethical truths. . . . You are mistaken to think that anyone ever had any answers. There are no answers.”
The entire “post-modern” and “deconstructionist” movements in philosophy are premised on the impossibility of objective values and objective truth. One of America’s most prestigious philosophers, Richard Rorty, wrote: “Nothing grounds our practices, nothing legitimizes them, nothing shows them to be in touch with the way things are.”
Religion will always win, in the long run, when people are forced to choose between religious answers and no answers, between mysticism and skepticism. These are, of course, false alternatives. The real alternative to both mysticism and skepticism is the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Objectivism defends reason, objectivity, and a morality of rational self-interest, with man’s life as its standard of value. But Objectivism is as yet only a faint, flickering candle on the edge of our cultural darkness.
What, then, is the significance for the growing strength of religion in the choice between Bush and Kerry?
First, I don’t think that the election of Kerry would slow the growth of religion. The religious right could well grow stronger, not weaker, under a Kerry presidency, because a Kerry administration would demonstrate even more clearly the intellectual bankruptcy and destructiveness of the skeptics and nihilists.
Second, I don’t think electing Bush will mean a dramatic acceleration of the erosion of the wall between church and state. Don’t get me wrong–things will get worse in this regard, but not dramatically so. Remember, the question here is not the election but the re-election of Bush. We have already seen almost four years of a Bush administration. In regard to religion, these four years have not been a pretty sight, but they have not been an apocalypse either. Since this election is not a referendum on religion, I expect the next four years to show the same rate of degradation of our right to freedom from religion.
Nor is it the case that the left offers any alternative to the threats to the mind offered by the religious right. Censorship? We already have the shocking McCain-Feingold abridgement of the right of free speech–and in regard to political elections, no less. The left is no longer composed of liberals and no longer even supports free speech. The left has slid further than the right down the abyss into shackles on the mind, with “hate crimes,” government-controlled pseudo-science (“global warming” and all of environmentalism), and general “political correctness.”
Further, bear in mind that the left remains firmly in control of the universities, the educational system, and, to a lesser extent, the mainstream media. The growth of religiosity, frightening as it is, is a grass-roots phenomenon. The citadels of the intellectual leadership remain, unbreached, in the hands of the skeptic-nihilists. In the intermediate term, we have more to fear from the Rorty’s than from the Jerry Falwells.
On a world-historical scale, measured in half-centuries, the power of the skeptic-nihilists is indeed spent. But in the intermediate term, they have the power to do much more damage to this country than does the religious right.
I agree with Robert Tracinski’s point:
“The growing influence of the religious right at home is indeed an ominous threat to liberty. But whether or not America retreats in the War on Terrorism will be decided in the next four years. Whether or not America maintains the separation of church and state is an issue that will be fought over a much longer time. It is a threat that is gathering strength, not one that has come to a head.” (“Anti-Bushites for Bush,” The Intellectual Activist, Sept. 2004)
The fact that the left is now philosophically bankrupt and has no further place to go does not mean that they are not a tremendous threat culturally and in terms of our physical safety from terrorist attacks.
Some Objectivists have argued that while Bush cannot succeed at instituting an American theocracy in next four years, he can do the equivalent, in regard to establishing religion, to what FDR did in establishing the welfare state. I don’t think the analogy holds. FDR came to office in the midst of an economic emergency and began straightaway to implement a (disastrously false) economic “remedy.” Bush is running for, I repeat, re-election in the midst of a military emergency. This election is not about religion (especially since Kerry, in the third debate, suggested that he is even more religious than Bush). Bush cannot take even a landslide victory as endorsement of his religious views or a mandate to jettison the First Amendment.
But, by the same token, a Bush defeat would be a message to the world that America has lost the will to fight terrorism offensively by means of ending the states that sponsor terrorism. It would also be a clear message that Americans reject bringing moral concepts to bear on foreign affairs, as in Bush’s important phrase about the “axis of evil.”
Behind Bush looms the ugly specter of the Bible-thumping religious right. But behind Kerry, in the same proportion, looms the at least equally ugly specter of the America-hating, nihilist Angry Left. There really is no “lesser evil” here, and were it just that, I would refuse to vote for either candidate.
But it is not just that. There is also the direct issue of this campaign–issue of the war, and of America’s sovereignty. It’s not that Bush is right about the war; it is that he is significantly less wrong than Kerry.
A final thought for Objectivists who are still undecided. Think back to the election of 2000. Most Objectivists either supported Bush against Gore, or at least were quite relieved that Bush won–and this despite the very apparent negatives that Bush had and still has. If you are glad that Bush defeated Gore, doesn’t it follow that now, in more dangerous times, when we know what Bush has done for four years, you would be at least as glad to see Bush defeat a man much worse than Gore on most issues, including religion?
–This op-ed is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Dr. Binswanger’s excellent email discussion list, HBL.
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