Saturday, March 22, 2008

Electoral Politics? by Alan Keyes

Because our understanding of politics has been corrupted, we cannot discuss what threatens our political sovereignty until we free ourselves from the effects of that corruption. It's as if we are looking at our political life through lenses or panes of glass that obscure and distort everything we see, including the nature of our own actions.

Thus, though the very possibility of electoral politics derives from moral premises that justify and require self-government, we are led to consider our political choices without regard to those moral premises, as if economic and other material consequences are the only proper subjects of political life.

Why do the American people accept this approach, when it so evidently undermines their claim to political sovereignty?

The "Science" of Politics

The great scientific and technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century contributed to the intellectual triumph of scientific materialism as the paradigm of all human knowledge and expertise. Abashed by the success of their colleagues in the physical sciences, intellectuals concerned with politics and society sought to reestablish their disciplines on what would appear to be scientific grounds.

This meant of course an attempt to understand complex human actions and activities in quantitative terms, with little respect for the moral elements of human consciousness that cannot easily be reduced to material data.

Scientific methodology requires facts — which is to say, measurable objects of study and experimentation. But how does one measure faith in God; the love of family, of justice, or of noble deeds; or the vision of compassion that seeks no gain? How does one measure boundless hate passed on through generations, or fear tasted for so long that it is like an organ in the body? Many things that play a role in human action, for better or worse, defy quantitative expression, including of course the sense of infinite worth that almost everyone instinctively attaches to their own existence.

The sense that there is at the heart of our existence an intangible, indefinable mystery of being may explain why many human beings have refused to surrender their belief in God and transcendent morality, despite pressure from the arrogant ideologues of scientific methodology. Given the proverbial pride of intellect, however, it shouldn't be surprising that many elite intellectuals have not been among them.

Calculating Human Worth

Instead of accepting the true challenge of the human condition, these ambitious intellectuals have proselytized for the redefinition of human activities in terms that would appear to fit the paradigm of scientific methodology. Motivations, of course, cannot be easily quantified, but the behavior they produce can be tracked, categorized, sorted, counted, and compared. The meaning of right and wrong may not be scientifically provable, but opinions about it can be polled, averaged, analyzed, classified, and broken down and out.

In social science methodology, counting has taken the place of measuring, but only by discounting a difficulty that does not arise when dealing with physical things, which is the effect of abstracting from the significance of the unit of measurement — i.e., the worth and significance of the individual human being.

In the realm of mathematical science, the individual is a mere abstraction. No harm is done, it is assumed, when relationships are considered in the aggregate without regard for the worth of the ones being counted.

When applied to human things, however, this mentality denies the very insight that American principles place at the heart of right, justice, and legitimacy — which is that every individual has a worth and dignity not derived from their participation in the community or group, or their relations with other individuals, but which must be respected as a matter of principle, rather than calculation.

"Materialistic Pluralism" and Electoral Corruption

The mimicry of scientific materialism in political and social science is obviously quite compatible with materialistic pluralism as the paradigm of American political life. Indeed, the pervasive acceptance of this paradigm owes much to the apparent confirmation provided by these pseudo-sciences.

Tragically for the American republic, this approach to human affairs rejects in its very premises the understanding of human nature and action on which our free institutions depend. This is nowhere more apparent than in the degraded understanding of elections which it has imposed upon our politics.

In the material sciences, measurement produces a result that is the consequence of the presence or activity of material factors, but in no way a sign of their self-determination or responsibility. Heat of a certain intensity brings water to a boil. But it would be thoroughly unscientific to suggest that individual units of the material being heated somehow "decide" upon this outcome. The action of physical things is what it is, not what the things themselves have determined it to be.

Looked at in this way, the outcome of an election becomes a result entirely abstracted from the individual choices that have produced it. Individuals participate in the result the way agitated molecules participate in the production of heat.

Obsession with Polling

Now, part of the mind recoils from the suggestion that elections are regarded in this way. Yet consider the extent to which, in our discussions and media coverage, we treat them like horse races, or games of chance. The focus of attention is more than ever on the question of who is winning, who will win, who has won.

Talking heads rail on incessantly about who has lost or gained momentum, or who stands where in this poll or that. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the obsession with polling and poll numbers has taken the place of any real interest in the quality, thought, or characteristics of the people standing for election.

The focus is not on who they are, what they believe, or most importantly, why and how they think as they do — but rather on the reaction of the electorate to their presence, the way a chemist focuses on the reaction of a substance to the introduction of a catalytic reagent. For purposes of analysis, the chemist needs to know what the reagent is, not why it is as it is. In the testing process, the objective is to determine from its behavior the nature of the substance (in this case the electorate), not the factors that influence its nature in order to affect its behavior.

Manipulate versus Persuade

Why is this a bad way to understand political elections? Because the ultimate purpose of the election is not just to produce an outcome, but to determine the outcome one way or another. For freedom to be respected, the aim of the political process cannot be simply to determine who wins or loses. It must include an effort to persuade the voters that it is better for them and for their country that one person wins their support, rather than another.

Unless the element of persuasion is taken seriously, the political process degenerates into a competition to see who can successfully manipulate perception to drive the electorate toward an outcome that generates power for their side. When elections focus more or less exclusively on matters of perception, the perception of victory tends to drive out and dominate all the rest. Power flows toward the perception of power.

Impact over Substance

When a candidate's views are simply catalysts for the process of analyzing and manipulating electoral reaction, their content is less important than their effect.

To achieve the maximum impact, every political statement must be limited to words and phrases calculated to achieve that effect. In this context, what makes for a strong viewpoint is not its rational basis or the facts that support it, nor the truth or decency of the principles, ideals, and values it represents. Political strength lies all in the momentary electoral impact, and not at all in the substance.

Many have assumed that the reduction of political discussion to sixty-second sound bites, or bullet point notations of support and opposition, is especially the result of media imperatives, but it is more likely that media coverage is what it is because of the influence of the pseudo-scientific paradigm of politics itself. The alliance between materialistic pseudo-science and material ambition effectively drives from politics the substance that would otherwise offer the electorate some basis for deliberate choice.

Voter Disconnect

This degraded approach to political life necessarily affects the voter's understanding of his political actions. When politics is like a horse race, or a game of chance, casting a vote is like placing a bet.

Though the bettors pick the winner, they would not claim that their choice has determined the winner. They might consult the handicappers to know who looks like a winner. They might follow some gut instinct and bet against the odds. They might try to learn whatever they can about a competitor's form, past performance, handlers and trainers, etc. Such information might influence their pick — but it would not give them the sense that their choice contributed to a competitor's victory or defeat.

Bettors presume that forces beyond their control, including mere chance, are responsible for the outcome.

Politics as pastime, not opportunity for moral choice

Understood in this way, voting and political activity may be seen as engaging pastimes, like sports competitions or a trip to Atlantic City. They cannot be regarded as serious moral responsibilities, through which the people exert their sovereign will and as a whole make the choices that determine the destiny of the nation.

The materialist paradigm of politics therefore undermines the sovereignty of the people by corrupting their understanding of the act through which above all they exercise that sovereignty. They come to believe that their role in politics is to follow the most powerful force, rather than, by their choice, to constitute the powers by which force may legitimately be exercised.

Rather than choosing their representatives, they become elements of a process that periodically alters the appearance of the forces that dominate them, and which actually exist beyond their control.

Is this liberty?

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