At the time of this writing, it has been five weeks since the 2014 midterm election results came in, revealing that Republicans had not only taken the Senate but also increased their hold on the House of Representatives and thoroughly rebuked both the leadership of President Barack Obama and the legislative stalemate engendered largely by Senate Majority Leader (soon to be Minority Leader) Harry Reid. As of Friday, the last runoff election for the US Senate was concluded with Republican Bill Cassidy defeating incumbent Mary Landrieu in Louisiana by a striking twelve points. It was a final coup de grace in the GOP’s victory not only over their Democratic opponents but perhaps especially over the remaining years of Barack Obama’s tenure as president.
Since election night, left-of-center media outlets have sought every possible explanation for the outcome: the stifling effect of voter ID laws (despite the solid turnout of female voters allegedly undermined by the laws), the inability of voters to get to the polls due to their jobs (despite there being no circumstantial difference between this and previous election years), adverse weather conditions, and Democrats’ favorite standby: Republicans’ alleged racism (despite Republican politicians needing more than their usual party base to succeed in key battleground states). They have entertained every possible explanation, that is, except one: a majority of Americans in 2014 trust Republican leadership over Democratic.
The difficulty for leftists of accepting or even considering this possibility speaks to something deeper than the machinations of strategists and communications specialists trying to whitewash a party catastrophe. It is a response rooted in the fundamental philosophy of the modern American left, and it reveals an interesting link between how they lose and how they lead.
All men hold philosophies, whether consciously or subconsciously. Beliefs about the nature of existence, how to acquire knowledge, as well as right and wrong underlie man’s thoughts whether he is aware of them or not. Philosophy begins at the level of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality itself. Is existence constant or undependable? Is the universe benevolent, malevolent, or neutral? Can the senses be relied upon? Does something exist external to and independent of one’s mind or does the mind create reality through its workings? No other assertions about the world can be made without relying implicitly on what are for most individuals deeply buried or subconscious assumptions in metaphysics.
One of the key questions in metaphysics and the point at which it culminates is that of the primacy of consciousness or existence. The primacy of existence metaphysics asserts the seemingly simple but, in philosophy, largely rejected idea that existence exists. It holds the universe to be something external to and distinct from man’s mind and man’s mind to be an observer and interpreter of reality but not its creator. The primacy of consciousness metaphysics, by contrast, understands man’s mind as playing the role of a creator, constructing existence according to its own desires and understandings. Existence, in this view, is formless and molded by the frameworks and concepts that man ‘imposes’ upon it.
This question of whether existence is separate from consciousness and independent of its workings or amorphous and subject to imposable beliefs appears lofty and esoteric, but the answer one gives to it is ultimately straightforward. It is either one or the other; you must choose, and even if you refuse to do so consciously your implicit acceptance of one or the other belief will affect your way of thinking and your vision of the world. It has a consequential effect on answers in all subsequent branches of philosophy. The greatest philosophers in history have parried over it: Plato, Kant, and Hegel on one side; Aristotle, Rand, and Aquinas on the other. Only Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism have ever firmly and consistently upheld the primacy of existence in all respects, however. Most others—even Aristotle—were imperfect in their support of it. As Rand was a twentieth-century philosopher, this means that throughout the vast majority of human history, the primacy of consciousness has underwritten the philosophies that have guided civilization.
Building from that premise, as one proceeds from questions of metaphysics into epistemology, the primacy of consciousness leads naturally to two fundamental frameworks: intrinsicism and subjectivism. Intrinsicism, to put it very simply, teaches that man’s knowledge of the outside world is acquired by faith or intuition, as in the tradition of Plato, who suggested that man understands the world around him when he forms some ultra-sensory recognition of things. Man’s senses, so this philosophy teaches, can deceive him. Far from making knowledge possible, they stand in the way of true understanding by clouding his thinking with the false appearances of this world. Truth, this school teaches, is inherent in things and cannot be ascertained through reason but only accepted through faith and the leadership of those enlightened few who can see beyond the deceptive nature of reality.
Standing as the sole opposition to intrinsicism throughout most of human history has been subjectivism. Subjectivism answers intrinsicism’s claims by asserting that it is fruitless to seek knowledge in the external world at all. It asserts that knowledge can only be obtained by the human mind independent of reality, and only approximately and imperfectly at that. It agrees with intrinsicism in the belief that direct knowledge of the world is unattainable but extols its adherents to disregard the external world as deceptive and to look inward in search of certain truths in themselves. Those truths may be multiple, contradictory, and different for each individual, it claims, because there is nothing to standardize what individuals may find when they look within. This will likely frustrate many who will ask what conclusions can thus be derived from such an approach and how to relate them to the external world. Subjectivism, however, is quick to dispel considerations of the material world and to accept the existence of apparent contradictions by allowing for multiple truths. There is your truth, so it teaches, and there is my truth, and within each of us there may be even more truths on any given subject. Whatever each person thinks or feels is their reality, and if it contradicts the material world then that is all the more evidence of the unreliability of our relationship with reality.
This epistemology leads, predictably, to some difficult implications. In an attempt to reconcile them, subjectivism has, throughout the history of philosophy, taken two fundamental forms: personal and social. Personal or individual subjectivism teaches that whatever truths an individual finds for himself are valid and that the unending series of contradictions that follows is merely the incurable ailment of human existence. Social subjectivism, however, attempts to overcome this stalemate by appealing to the masses. Truth, it teaches, can be found or at least approximated in the beliefs of society as a whole. The proof, so the social subjectivists believe, is in the poll numbers, and whatever the majority believes becomes the truth.
How, then, is man to act on what he discovers to be true? This is the basis of ethics. Man must assert a belief as to how knowledge of the world is acquired and how to understand his circumstance prior to determining what he should do about it. However, the relationship between the two is closer than is often appreciated. One cannot prescribe normative beliefs and behaviors without certain implicit premises regarding what is true or untrue and how to distinguish them. As a result, ethical systems form as the natural extensions of their epistemological bases.
In this process, intrinsicism and subjectivism, despite thinking themselves polar opposites, often come to work in tandem to reinforce one another. In the case of social subjectivism, for instance, an unrelenting belief in the ability and authority of the collective to determine what is true gives way to a faith in its ability to know what is morally right. Morality thus becomes a question of which idea has the most numerical support. Might is seen as making right, and in political matters, any action taken via a democratic process is seen as just regardless of the consequences because the voice of the majority won out. Following this line of thought, it is easy to see how the collective—the nation, ethnicity, race, class, or merely the generic “society”—comes to be the moral standard. Good comes to be defined as that which is good for society and evil as that which is detrimental to society—not society conceived of as a collection of distinct individuals but rather as something greater than the sum of its parts, a Hegelian Gheist or ‘Spirit’ that exceeds the well-being of its constituent parts and takes on a will and well being of its own that is separate from and inversely proportional to that of its individual members. It requires the surrender of their judgment to its dictates and the sacrifice of their happiness and material success to its preservation. As it does, the link between social subjectivism and intrinsicism becomes ever clearer, and one finds little wonder in the process of how those which were once feudal, theocratic, and monarchical societies in eras past have since become the most enduring bastions of socialism.
The Tragedy of Loss
Much more can be written—and has been written—on the complexities of these philosophical fields and ideas. Ayn Rand’s books and essays, decades later, still offer the best insights, and I will direct the reader to them for further explorations of the subject. The issue at hand is the philosophical roots of leftism and how they explain the left’s inability to contend honestly with their own losses—not just in the 2014 midterm elections but more generally wherever and whenever they occur. Granted: there will be exceptions and variations in leftists’ sense of denial as there are in all cultural and social traits, but their predisposition to seeking any explanation but the obvious one speaks to something deeper that is worth unpacking.
The philosophy of the left today is social subjectivism. From its moral relativism in global affairs to its “narrative”-driven approach to social issues and its ever-increasing belief in democracy unchecked by individual rights, those “progressives” (the term itself, viewed in the context of its ideology, is the epitome of irony) who predominate today’s left-wing media and politics are the intellectual heirs of the New Left’s epistemological disorder and moral nihilism. They are the adherents of a form of collectivism more reprehensible than that of Karl Marx or 19th and early-20th-Century socialists. Collectivists of those eras, despite their moral and intellectual flaws, at least believed that their desired social system would culminate in a superior society capable of greater technological progress and the improvement of man’s life. Since the New Left of the 1960s and 70s and the increasing influence of Rawlsian ideas of “social justice”, an intellectual trend has emerged and now blossomed under the presidency of Barack Obama that treats collectivist ideals as goods in and of themselves, to be pursued even in the face of monumental failure and economic ruin. Succeed or fail, by their morality collectivist policies must be pursued whether they improve man’s well being or prove to be his utter destruction. It is the elevation of a political goal to the status of a religion and the elevation of “society” to the status of a supreme being.
What, then, does it mean when society—or at least a majority of the voting portion of it—goes against the left? What does that mean in the context of their philosophy and how does it shape their responses? If, according to their social subjectivist epistemology and ethics, society is the arbiter of truth and moral righteousness, and the majority turns against them, a deep and reverberant moral panic ensues. By the premises of their guiding philosophy—implicitly or explicitly held—they have, in fact, lost their claim to morality. They feel not simply a loss of political power but a loss of innocence, not simply a loss of support but a loss of truth itself. Having based their beliefs not on an objective, reality-oriented epistemological framework but on the shifting sands of poll numbers and some vaguely conceived social consciousness, they are struck by a crippling fear when, having lost the element of “might” they are unable to retain a sense of “right.” Even more than this, their social subjectivist moral and epistemological foundations having been based on a primacy of consciousness metaphysics, they sense—not explicitly but subconsciously—a break from existence. If existence is amorphous and subject to the will of society, if “narratives” trump facts objectively understood, and if reality itself is the plaything of consciousness, then upon being rejected by society, having their narratives voted down, and failing to woo the social consciousness they have, according to their philosophy, been rejected by existence. They are metaphysically adrift, scorned by an infinitely variable and capricious reality, and animated by a deep and abiding helplessness that their psychologies will not allow them to accept.
The result is the perpetual, desperate, and improbable grasping at straws that ensues as they look to any and every possible circumstantial explanation for their loss, none of which even remotely allow for the possibility of popular will having gone against them. When Republicans lost the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, theories abounded: popular disapproval of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anger over the financial crisis and ensuing bailouts, and the charismatic candidacy of Barack Obama as opposed to the unexciting middling of John McCain. All explanations, however, focused on the way that these factors guided popular opinion and support for Democrats. Aside from the justifiable scrutiny of ACORN’s election-day activities that year, there was little suggestion that the Democrats’ victory was not achieved by securing the uncoerced support of the American people. Republicans disagreed with Americans’ choice but they scarcely denied that it had, in fact, been their choice. Their philosophy, while not perfect, permits this honest appraisal of the facts. The American left’s philosophy does not.
Even in victory, the American left is unsatisfied and grasps desperately for submission to its will. As results came in on election night 2012 and commentators discussed the victory through the ensuing days and weeks, there was immediately, as if passed down from Democratic strategists and the White House to talking-head commentators on cable news, the claim to a “mandate.” By the logic of this “mandate”—which, in fact, does not exist in American politics—it was said that Republicans would be required to give up their opposition to the president’s policies and succumb to his agenda. All that the claim lacked was a fiery-eyed “Or else!” Despite neither the House nor the Senate having changed hands and the president achieving a comfortable but not overwhelming victory, the left insisted that the claim to a simple majority entitled them to an unlimited and unchecked power over the American people. This is not the logic of confident victors capable of self-assuredly holding and exercising power but the machination of an eager con man insisting that you sign a contract without reading it. It is the frenzied claim of entitlement to power over men not because of but despite their professed will. It is the hunger for control by those for whom moral goodness is measured by the percentage of the government that they hold. It is the logic of social subjectivism.
A Peculiar Weakness
There is one consequential quality of the left’s social subjectivism that is necessary to understand, and it offers some hope to those who seek to oppose it. That is the peculiar weakness of social subjectivist thought and, by extension, of leftist politics. Leftists fall victim to this moral and existential fear upon losing because their philosophical premises lead them to it by necessity. When it succeeds, it proves a philosophical cancer that can lead to the political and psychological detriment of a country. When it fails, it consumes its own. A philosophical system that relies upon the will and collective belief of the majority to succeed cannot abide a prolonged subjugation to minority status. In the face of a firm moral opposition, it is forced to moderate its beliefs or culturally perish over time. Lacking the claim to represent the will of society at large, it is metaphysically disjointed, epistemologically uncertain, and ethically demoralized. It is set on its path to become a faded relic of history.
Decay is not, at this point, an inevitable fate for the left’s philosophy, and this is not a prediction of the rapid demise or transformation of the American left. It is, however, a recognition of the possibility of achieving that state and an encouragement of Republicans to stay the course, embrace a moral defense of capitalism, continue rejecting and arguing against the imposed “narratives” and “discourses” of leftist politicians and commentators, and to do all of this by reference to an objectively grounded defense of man’s individual rights. For a full exploration of that defense, I encourage those interested to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and books such as Free Market Revolution by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins as well as publications such as this one that argue for capitalism on rational, ethical grounds and not on faith or simply by debating economic models. To defend capitalism, they must know that reason and a proper, objective morality are on their side. They must recognize the long-term nature of that struggle without cowering from making bold, moral assertions today. Equipped with these intellectual tools, they will have the confidence to endure what will undoubtedly be a wearying, brutal political battle and cultural transformation to come and to weather victory and defeat with more grace and psychological strength than their opponents with the knowledge that reality—firm, constant, and, in that constancy, benevolent—is on their side.