The collision of materialism and idealism in American Politics

American democracy shows what happens between political contestants when one party is idealistic and the other is not.

I was a Libertarian in college – socially liberal and economically conservative. Still, the College Republicans were friendly to me. They enjoyed a hearty debate over drug legalization, gay marriage, or the War in Iraq. But the College Democrats were weirdly hostile and wouldn’t engage me, though we agreed on many issues.

Republican discourse is idealistic in character. Debate centers around discovering which policies would be best for America, or which policies support shared American values. Republican factions might never reach agreement, but if you’re willing to listen to them, they are willing to listen to you. The Republican youth conference CPAC is a lot of fun to attend for the quality of political conversations.

The Democratic party, however, is thoroughly materialistic. It is all “Who? Whom?”. They will not debate optimal policy with you because that is not what they care about. They care about advancing the interest of their interest groups. The first thought of the College Democrats on me walking into their meeting was thinking who is this guy? Is he one of the people on our side? Being white and male without the typical liberal air of softness and apology was a major tell.

Between the two, Democratic ideology is better adapted for life in a democracy. Rational idealism is a luxury for a trusted, homogenous group. Republicans engaging in idealistic debate foolishly believe that the homogenous America of the first 200 years still exists, that the nation shares a common set of American values. But America is a changin’, as  progressives tell us with glee.

Just as rationalist debate advances policy within groups, “Who? Whom?” is for doing battle between groups. This is tribal warfare on the African savanna and nobody cares what your beliefs are about income taxes. The question of the day is “are you a red or a blue”?

Materialism a very effective strategy in a diverse democracy. Democrats win because Republicans don’t realize that the rules of the game have changed. The national discourse is no longer about optimal policy, “small government”, or “family values”. It is now about stoking class anxiety and class hatred. It is about “wars on women” and the “racism” of voter ID.

Voter ID is a good example of how modern politics work. Republicans adopted the sensible policy that a democratic nation should check ID cards before people are allowed to vote, ensuring that the voter is a citizen with the legal right to vote. Democrats ran screaming, telling minority ethnic groups that the Republicans seek to disenfranchise them. In the last election, minorities voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, giving them a smashing victory. Anxiety over voter disenfranchisment was no doubt a part of that.

Materialism cannot be combated with Idealism. The more real, the more primitive ideology wins. Resisting primitive ideas requires honor and agreement on both sides. Otherwise, it is as if one party brings a gun to a fistfight.

Democrats are perfectly willing to buy minority votes by helping them defraud the government. The only hope for Republicans is to sink to their level, and thus become a thing that they despise, or perish with the middle-class white majority.

Politically we have returned to a Hobbesian world of all against all and anything goes. The ideologies that win will be the groups that are the first to abandon their idealistic hangups and fight dirty until total victory is attained.


The True Knowledge

Ken Macleod writes the best political sci fi.

I first encountered his work through a libertarian friend’s recommendation of The Stone Canal, a homage to anarcho-capitalism set on a Mars-like colony planet. This lead me to the sequel, The Cassini Division, which depicts the anarcho-socialist society left behind on Earth.

Apparently there are two other books in the series, but I started reading one of them and it was terrible.

Macleod’s books explore the farthest reaches of right and left libertarianism. One of the distinguishing characteristics of both far right and far left ideologies is that they embrace materialism over idealism. They have a delightful hard-headed way of analyzing the mechanisms of power as it actually exists. Who holds the guns? Who makes the call on how they are used? If there is democracy, who controls the education system and the media that determines public opinion? It is no accident that neoreactionaries look to far leftist figures like Alinsky, Chomsky, Lippman, and Lenin for advice on the mechanisms of political change.

On the other hand, the discourse of the intellectual mainstream is idealistic. The power to make their fictions a reality is a given, so they spend their time weaving ever more complicated ideals. It is practically a theological enterprise, scholastic even. Their thoughts are far removed from the mechanism of power – violence is as alien to them as inalienable rights are real. To the extremist, mainstream discourse reads like the Summa Theologica to a non-Catholic.

Lenin’s concise formulation of political logic – “Who? Whom?” is a favorite on the reactionary right. It loses some meaning in translation – the basic idea is that fights over ideology are really fights over people – who wins and who loses, or who is doing and to whom it is being done. The socialist society in The Cassini Division, is based on a similar philosophy called “The True Knowledge”, a shockingly realistic creed:

Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours, everyone for theirselves. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything.

All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil.

This is the true knowledge.

We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety, frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a universe of things.

Things we could use.

Among untrustworthy people, the True Knowledge is a necessity. Naive idealism always loses against “Who? Whom?”. It is only after sovereignty is secure that the more idealistic side of human nature may be indulged.