Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidents' Day Reflection on Presidents and Religion

washington.jpg j-mccain.jpeg

Every conservative faction has its reasons for being less than fully satisfied with McCain, but we’d do well to get our complaints out of our systems now and, however glumly, vote for him against the Democrat in November.

He at least recognizes the problem of excessive government spending — the core issue from my perspective — while both Clinton and Obama (not to mention Edwards, should that populist gasbag ambulance-chaser find his way onto the ticket) think that “change!!” = more government, which is not only socially destructive but is indeed no change at all, since government growth (and attendant withering of the private sector, civil society, and individual responsibility) has been the norm for at least a century now and is not sustainable. That’s not to say McCain will be “good,” just in all likelihood “slightly better” — and there are no guarantees of even that, just a more reasonable roll of the dice.

I would not be terribly surprised, though, if some of my crypto-left-sympathizing libertarian acquaintances, who not-coincidentally tend to be in the profoundly leftism-saturated, insular world of academia, were tempted to find some excuse to declare the Democrat’s election preferable to McCain’s. These same left-sympathizing libertarians were really fond of the idea of “gridlock” — one party controlling the White House, the other Congress — just two years ago, though, so presumably now that the Democrats control Congress (and are behaving as badly as expected, from everything I’ve seen), they will be consistent and root for McCain for president.

So, despite all the disappointments and intrigue of the primary season, I would expect that pretty much all non-socialists, given the likely options, will soon be on the same page, rooting for McCain, depressing as it may seem that it’s come to this.


As I said long ago, though, one consolation in having McCain be president is his obvious (relative) indifference to the religious right, that faction so often seen as the source of trouble over the past eight years (though there were many sources and many troubles).

Sometimes religion is a tool of resisting the state (or, more directly, a means of shaping a decent and orderly life without recourse to the state), as was arguably the case more often than not during the twentieth century.

Today, however:

(a) progressives (such as Clinton and Obama) are once again, as they were a century ago, often driven by a quasi-religious zeal — and at times by a genuine “religious left” impulse — rather than by mid-century economic “rationality” and “planning”;

(b) conservatives’ religiosity, under Bush, has become a bulwark to their statist tendencies, not their (dwindling) anti-statist tendencies; and

(c) our major external enemy is religious rather than anti-religious in its motivation, a switch to which we have still not fully adjusted psychologically or culturally (the phrase “godless Communism” somehow strikes us as a more natural epithet for a foe than “godful Islamic extremists,” though the latter is actually a better summation of motivations than ever the first was — there were religious communists, after all, as in Latin America [where ostensibly pro-Catholic and communist Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has recently noted his preference for an Obama victory], while secular Muslims are, for the most part, not a danger).

So for all my temptation to whine about McCain’s shortcomings (while other conservative factions each whine about him for its own different reasons, such as his admittedly awful positions on issues ranging from campaign reform to global warming), I must confess that “secular + budget-cutting” is not such a bad summary of what I want. Pragmatist that I am, then, I do not plan to spend the next nine months whining if it looks like I have a chance to get that via McCain’s election — and his picking a running mate other than Huckabee the (ethically-dubious) preacher would be a crucial indicator. If I’m not going to whine, though, neither do I plan to spend the next nine months cheerleading, so tomorrow let us resume this blog’s month-long religion/atheism discussion, and then we move on to whole new topic areas…


Christopher said...

Well, Tyler Cowen (who knows a lot more than most of us about economics) says that our vote will have little effect on US economic health and that we should thus vote on the basis of foreign policy where the president has much more individual influence:

Todd Seavey said...

That view’ll help keep the peace in the faculty lounge, anyway.

Christopher said...

As he’s a prof. at George Mason, I hardly think he needs to hide his free-market ideas when hanging out with his colleagues. Then again, it may just be the law school that swings that way.

Jacob T. Levy said...

No, not just the law school– GMU econ is probably the most hardcore libertarian group of academics in the country, and anyway Tyler’s hardly averse to expressing disagreements with his colleagues! I think we can take it that Tyler meant what he said.

Todd Seavey said...

I meant that in _most_ faculty lounges — lounges such as yours — taking an anti-Republican stance makes it easy to “fit in” among leftists.

If, for instance, you disagree with people as radically as a laissez-faire capitalist surrounded by welfare-statists and socialists must but most of the time merely find yourself nodding along as people say “That Bush is a warmonger” and “That Obama might be better for the poor, the way these Republicans waste money,” you may as well be a lefist, like a Nazi-infiltrating spy whose behavior never externally differs from a Nazi — a sad lost opportunity for education, if you will.

Christopher said...

One shouldn’t violate Goodwin’s Law on one’s own blog.

Personally, I don’t talk about politics with my colleagues, except when the issue involves China and I actually have some expertise. Jacob, as far as I can tell from reading his online writings over the last 10 years, hasn’t exactly kept his views hidden from other academics.

I have no problem with people asserting that most academics in the humanities lean strongly left. There’s little room for doubt about that. But I do grow weary of your assumptions that any political thoughts those of us in academia have that are at odds with your own are no more than attempts to fit in with the cool kids.

Todd Seavey said...

We philosophy students were using Nazis as a convenient and appropriate metaphorical device long before some snickering lawyer (named _Godwin_, by the way) decided to declare any use of such metaphors invalid — and with society trending totalitarian, it’s not a good time to declare such metaphors invalid.

Here’s Seavey’s Law: Use apt comparisons, including the many made available by the often-relevant history of Naziism, especially when discussing phenomena such as collectivism, groupthink, and of course actual totalitarianism.

I will say this, though, in support of the view that not all academics are leftists: some obviously have a hard time understanding, as a good Marxist would, the extent to which allegiances are shaped subconsciously rather than by a conscious desire to be like the cool kids (I’m sure that reporter who famously said she couldn’t understand how the Republican got elected when no one she knew voted for him also never once said “I want to fit in with the cool people”).

On a related note, Brown alum lit-major, MLA veteran, and Dartmouth librarian Laura Braunstein (I adore her, but _can you guess whether she’s a Republican??_) forwards this article about a rare Dem/GOP academic couple studying the filter effects that make academia leftist.
As with media bias, one can be very sincere and still be a product of one’s environment.

Jacob T. Levy said...


Here’s the thing, Todd. The basic structure of our disagreements *predate* my entry into professional academia by a good number of years. After all, I found fusionism with the right sufficiently unattractive as to prompt my goofy Spectator resignation almost [holy freaking sugar] 18 years ago. I was arguing with you about the perils of a Christian Coalition-dominated GOP back when the CC was first taking over rural school boards in the early 1990s. And my “libertarianism and welfare liberalism are both liberalisms, but conservatism isn’t” view is almost as old– call it no later than Rawls’ Political Liberalism, 1993.

I’ve become more of a wet and trended away from anarchism, in ways that derive from my intellectual identity as a political scientist and don’t have any clear left-right valence. But I haven’t moved noticeably left in either substantive views or rhetorical posture. If you think life in the mythical faculty lounge (neither of the departments that has employed me has had such a thing, though my grad school department did) has made me conform, please point to something on which I’ve changed over time. Anything I’ve disagreed with you about since 1990 can’t have been caused by faculty lounge peer pressure!

toddseavey said...

Clearly, the probably is literalism, not liberalism.

Jacob T. Levy said...

sorry– was cranky last night!

Todd Seavey said...

No problem. I cannot expect to hear no objection if implying — as I more broadly am — that the professoriate and those drawn to it may inherently overvalue the articulation of ideas, leading to an instinctive preference for liberalism and dismissal of conservatism (which often values unarticulated values and time-honored practice instead), and thus for a Clinton or an Obama with a “plan” or for that matter a Rawls with a “model” (or in many cases, say, a Palestinian with a list of historic grievances) rather than a “misunderestimated” Bush or a silent but patriotic Catholic with machine gun, though I respect the professoriate enough (in a sense) to believe that today’s orators and _their choice of targets_ for partisan political criticism will do more than percentage-point differences in current outlays to determine what will be considered the “moral high ground” tomorrow — and thus that the trend is all toward the articulated values of liberalism, which are wrong and will likely destroy this nation, or at least reduce it to the status of an Italy.

It may be too vast and subtle a problem to fairly raise here, though. It was certainly a vast sentence.

So here, in conclusion, a president-related story we can all enjoy: I just heard on the news that a counterfeiter of $100 bills was arrested after it was noticed his bills had Abraham Lincoln on them. Hard to imagine that happening.