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Electoral Politics: Opportunities and Illusions

Fall 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 4

By the time this issue of Modern Age is in print, the midterm elections of 2010 will have been completed and a new Congress chosen, along with many governors and state legislatures and various local officials. This campaign season has been marked by keen enthusiasm and confident anticipation on the part of many voters and candidates who identify themselves as political conservatives. It is not within the purview of this journal to pay close attention to individual contests, much less to engage in partisan electoral activity; ideas rather than particular policies and their agents are the focus. Nevertheless, Modern Age has a deep commitment to politics in a sense that, we hope, Aristotle would instantly recognize: reflection on the ways that men order their lives in communities with the end of enhancing the full development of human nature and the flourishing of individuals in their specifically human capacities. Our aim, then, is not to pick winners and comment on their programs, but rather to adumbrate an intellectual, cultural, and moral framework within which governmental programs may be prudently and decently proposed and administered.

Possibly the most important observation about the current campaign, from this perspective, is that political enthusiasm must always be tempered by recalling that an electoral majority and popular consensus are fleeting, not to say fickle. A mass of the populace may be at any given moment intensely alarmed about a decline in the economy, a financial crisis, or a foreign policy debacle; pervasive outrage or frustration among voters may result in disaster at the polls for the party in power. It is not a mark of wisdom among the political beneficiaries of this development to attempt to build a permanent program of government on such a foundation: intrinsic to our modern age is the mutability of national economies and social practices and expectations, and the popular passions generated among citizens by abrupt shifts in their sense of well-being as well as their actual status are correspondingly ephemeral.

In the wake of the 2006 midterm election and, especially, the presidential contest of 2008, progressive commentators were confidently proclaiming “the death of conservatism” (see Richard Bishirjian’s review of a book with this title by Sam Tanenhaus, in Modern Age 52.3). Conservatives of divergent persuasions were busy blaming one another for the ineffective policies and unappealing personalities that had brought about the ruin. Should the catastrophe prove to be short-lived, should candidates who may not unreasonably claim the title conservative enjoy success in the 2010 campaign, let us hope that electoral triumphs will not result in shallow triumphalism. Anyone who aspires to embody the essence of conservatism rather than merely wear the label will know instinctively that no set of policies will solve all our problems: whatever conservatism is, it is not an ideology with a set of a priori answers to all the world’s ills.

The essays and reviews in this issue of Modern Age all contribute to the realization of an intellectual and cultural matrix in which sound political thought and action can take shape; that is, they all have the effect of reminding us of the limitations inherent in the capacities of mortal beings and of drawing our attention to basic realities that we often neglect among the distractions of daily life. It would be naïve indeed to fail to recognize the existence of pervasive malice and premeditated self-aggrandizement among those involved with society’s governing institutions and those seeking to influence them. Nevertheless, much of the evil in communities is more a result of thoughtlessness and a failure of imagination in the populace than of a deliberate decision to violate the rights of others and cast aside the common good. Whole peoples as well as individuals may suffer from a short attention span: caught up in our insular aspirations and anxieties, we fail to think through the long-term consequences of our choices or grasp with vivid apprehension the full implications of the changes to which we consent. Russell Kirk was adamant in stressing the cultivation of the moral imagination precisely to enhance our awareness of the dangers of heedless acquiescence in ethical and political novelty.

It is, therefore, a great privilege to present in this issue of Modern Age the reflections of the distinguished French scholar Philippe Bénéton on the intellectual and personal relationship between the novelist François Mauriac and the philosopher Jacques Maritain, two towering figures in twentieth-century French letters. Maritain, a Thomist philosopher and exponent of natural law, spent much of his career developing an understanding of the political order that would be compatible with both modern democracy and the traditional Christian vision of human nature. His work is a reminder that social institutions must be founded on an appreciation of man’s eternal destiny as well as a realistic assessment of his worldly situation. While many conservatives would find much to dispute in Maritain’s specific recommendations for public policy, none will deny that the principles on which any policy rests must always be borne in mind.

The novels of François Mauriac, however, with their sometimes searing depictions of the moral weakness and spiritual blindness of ordinary men and women and of the resultant calamities, offer a powerful caution to anyone’s political ideas and plans for the renovation of society. The sinful human material out of which communities must be shaped—willfulness mixed with a want of firm will, the selfish disregard for prudent self-restraint—must give pause to any thoughtful observer, to anyone capable of introspection. Between them, Maritain and Mauriac provide important lessons for both the victors and vanquished of electoral campaigns: the one urges us always to keep the highest ideal of human excellence in mind while administering government institutions; the other warns not to expect too much out of the actual specimens of humanity with whom we deal—including ourselves!

Thomas B. Fowler’s “Overview of Evolution” may seem at first even less related to politics than a treatment of Maritain and Mauriac, but in view of the recent politicization of the teaching of science in public schools and the claims advanced for scientific expertise in public policy decisions, the evolution debate (among other scientific issues) has become “political” in the most practical—not to say, the crudest—sense of the term. Evolution has political implications, however, of a deeper and more lasting kind, because it touches upon our understanding of our origin and nature and thus upon our sense of human dignity. Moreover, the long-running controversy over evolution raises the issue of the ordinary, educated man’s standing to challenge the arcane and often magisterial pronouncements of the highly trained expert. Fowler’s essay sets out to explain in comprehensible terms the various ways of accounting for the development of organic life on earth and to furnish thoughtful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of scientific credibility. Perhaps the most valuable overall contribution of his piece is to show that “evolution” is neither a consistent, monolithic concept nor a take-it-or-leave-it proposition as Neo-Darwinian ideologues often suggest. Fowler thus helps the man of no special scientific training come to terms with the debate, so that he might discharge his duties as a citizen in confronting the claims made for scientific authority as the determining factor in political decisions.

Nobuhiko Nakazawa and Ronald E. Osborn both shed new light on figures from the past who still exercise a powerful influence over political thought in the twenty-first century. Nakazawa examines the economic thought of Edmund Burke and finds it less a matter of straightforward laissez-faire technical determinations than of subtle “political oeconomy.” The chief ingredient in Burke’s economic thought, as in all his political judgments, Nakazawa maintains, is prudence rather than a set of specific rules—a conclusion that Russell Kirk would doubtless have found agreeable. Addressing the charismatic and somewhat sinister figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ronald Osborn urges us not to be misled by repeated exonerations of the German philosopher of culpability for the political nihilism that has grown out of his works. Irony can account for only so much misunderstanding on the part of Nietzsche’s epigones, and in any case, according to Osborn’s reading, the philosopher is responsible for his own ambiguity.

The reviews in this issue similarly encompass a broad range of topics with oblique but profound political implications. The place of religion in the public square is handled in Thaddeus Kozinski’s review of Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book on Christianity in the university and Michael Neamtu’s consideration of David Hart’s treatment of the “new atheism.” Richard M. Reinsch reviews a challenging interpretation of the political thought of John C. Calhoun, who was provocative in his own day and remains so in ours, and E. Christian Kopff assesses a new book on the central role of the classics in the culture and education of antebellum America. Richard Cross and David Clinton draw our attention to some of the most momentous, explicitly political events of recent history: the former considers three books on the fall of the Berlin Wall and post-Soviet Europe, while the latter looks at two recent works by Paul Hollander—a Modern Age contributor—on terrorism and national security.

Finally, while poetry may seem as far from politics as one can get, the poems in this issue may be seen, by the responsive reader, to confer a genuine benefit upon the community—that is, upon the polis. In a time of frenetic political activity, a period of leisure spent absorbing the wistfulness of Robert Beum’s “High Gables” and “Plantings,” and the wit of Catharine Savage Brosman’s “Cabbage” and “Four O’Clocks,” will be restorative of the sense of the most fundamental realities, of those moments of contemplation and reflection that political campaigns are waged to protect.

—RVY