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The Despair Election

My friend Michael Hanby, the Catholic philosopher, and I were having an e-mail conversation about the Late Unpleasantness. He said something that I thought was too good not to share. I post it here with his permission:

I really think there is a pervasive, but unarticulated sense that liberalism is exhausted, that we are at the mercy of systematic forces, difficult to name, which can be manipulated by the powerful but not governed by them, and that our problems are unsolvable.   The reasons for this anxiety are manifold and cannot be reduced to politics or economics, though there are obvious political and economic dimensions that defy easy demographic categorization.  In other words, the fact that we are in civilizational crisis is becoming unavoidably apparent, though there is obviously little agreement as to what this crisis consists in or what its causes are and little interest from the omnipresent media beyond how perceptions of crisis affect voter behavior.  This seems to me a crucial part of the point and a key to understanding the sudden collapse of ‘movement conservatism’ on the one hand, and the increasingly shameless sophistry and cynicism of progressivism on the other hand.  Part of what it means to say that liberalism is exhausted is that liberal order–which is more fundamentally a technological order–cannot even supply the conceptual categories and thought forms necessary for understanding our predicament.

In fact, I doubt we any longer possess enough of a ‘civilization’ to understand what a ‘civilizational crisis’ would really mean.  We would not see it as a crisis of soul, but a crisis of management, in other words, another technical problem to be solved.  We would no doubt think of it as something to be diagnosed by a battery of journalists, economists, evolutionary psychologists, and sociologists, who could then show us what levers to pull in order to fix it.

But if this is anywhere close to correct, then it seems to me that what we have in this election is fundamentally a contest between two forms of despair:  Hillary represents despair in the form of cynicism and resignation, as evidenced by the fact that neither she, nor her surrogates, nor even her flacks in the press really pretend to believe in what she is selling.  There is obvious cynicism within Trumpism as well; his supporters, on those rare occasions when he makes sense, seem to know that he is lying to them.  But Trump represents despair in the form of anger and desperation, the willingness to embrace a strongman and a charlatan in the (false) hopes of regaining some kind of control over ‘the system’, whatever it is (which is a fascinating question, by the way.)  Both are absolutely awful, indeed unthinkable, albeit in different ways, and yet this is what liberal order has come to.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, I know, and I’ve been accused of indulging in despair myself whenever I paint it.  Hope is hard, I admit.  But my response is that it is not the pessimist about liberalism who lacks hope, but the optimist who cannot see beyond its horizons.  This is extremely difficult since liberal order IS the horizon of American thought and life and casts such a powerful spell over our imaginations.  But it seems to me that the test of your Benedict Option, and really of Christianity, as well as our own individual lives, is precisely this question of where our hope really lies and whether we can see that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in liberal theory.  In other words, we’re back to the basic question of God or Nothing which is imposing itself on us in ever new and more urgent and indeed more painful ways.  But as C.S. Lewis reports when Puddleglum puts his foot to the fire for the sake of Narnia, “There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.”  Perhaps this is something to hope for.

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75 Comments To "The Despair Election"

#1 Comment By Ken Hamilton On September 16, 2016 @ 9:40 am

One of the major conservative newspapers, the New Hampshire Union Leader, has endorsed Gary Johnson for president. That is good advice for all conservatives to follow.

Clinton is a liberal Democrat.

Trump is a liberal Democrat(e.g., his new child care policy, plus just about anything he talked about on public policy prior to June 2015).

#2 Comment By David J. White On September 16, 2016 @ 9:46 am

I see I have “Hanky’s” diagnosis in the first line of my comment above. Please correct to “Hanby’s”. Spellcheck I’m guessing.

Yes, Hanky’s diagnosis is enough to make one cry.

(Sorry, sorry, sorry …)

(I knew Michael Hanby slightly when he was at Baylor.)

#3 Comment By John Uebersax On September 16, 2016 @ 11:10 am

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but it does seem pertinent to again mention Pitirim Sorokin’s conclusions on cultural change, derived in part by massive empirical studies: (1) that such crises can be found throughout history; (2) at present we’re experiencing an exhausted and increasingly desperate end-stage of cultural materialism; (3) the good news is that this will potentially give way to a new era of Idealism; (4) the bad news is that it may take existential crises to abandon materialism.

#4 Comment By Andrew E. On September 16, 2016 @ 11:19 am

Will she be inviting them in from parallel universes? Because we do not have 40 million illegals. The number is closer to eleven million.

Wrong, see Adios America

#5 Comment By JonF On September 16, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

Re: we have yet to hear a cogent description of what “bridled” capitalism is/looks like

Something along the lines of Sweden, or maybe Germany: the means of production is left in private hands and the owning class is welcome to get rich (there are the equivalent of billionaires in both countries) but there are strict limits as to how much they can screw their workers, cheat their customers or damage the environment. Also, basic social welfare matters (healthcare, child care etc.) are publicly provided, or at least publicly backstopped. The model may not be perfect but it appears to work quite well all in all.

#6 Comment By JonF On September 16, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

Re: Wrong, see Adios America

Sorry, tinfoil hats are always a fashion don’t.

#7 Comment By Mike On September 16, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

I don’t think that stark realism, in the sense of authentically and rationally assessing culture as it is, leads to true despair. Pessimism about the liberal order only leads to real despair if we can’t see anything beyond that. However, if we have the hope of Christ we can see beyond the end of our particular civilizational structure (something that Hanby points out). Indeed, I think that Hanby’s assessment (once we embrace the sadness of that likely end) leads to hope. A more pure hope. The hope of heaven, and that God is bigger than all of this.

#8 Comment By Tony D. On September 16, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

They’ve all been “despair elections” to me ever since Jimmy Carter shattered my youthful illusions way back when.
(And these can’t-shut-em-off video ads have GOT to go. I won’t consider donating as long as they’re there.)

#9 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On September 16, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

The success of the Benedict Option will also depend on it’s being able to still incorporate those aspects of liberalism that eclectic thinkers like Rod Dreher take for granted as being part of the environment (the same way liberals have taken for granted that conservative-protected social institutions were part of the environment).

#10 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On September 16, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

Rod, you have never lived inside the kind of mono-culture you’re going to end up creating, like I have. I don’t think you can appreciate how stifling it will be. You may think that Benedict Option communities will be made up of people like you and those in your Orthodox church (a very small group of people were in that your local church and you had a pastor that you really respected), or people who comment sympathetically to this blog. I’m pretty sure the reality will be a much more monolithic and close-minded group, as this was my experience in the evangelical church, which I grew up in and graduated from Christian college in. Most people sympathetic to traditional Christian values (I am one of these) are not like you. Would it even be possible to listen to the Stones in most of these people’s Benedict Option community, for instance?

[NFR: Of course. — RD]

#11 Comment By CatherineNY On September 16, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

Re: Sweden as an example of “bridled capitalism,” here is an article about how many billionaires Sweden has (short answer: lots) [1] “The Swedish tax code was substantially reformed in 1990 to be friendlier toward capital accumulation, with a flat rate on investment income. Sweden has no taxes on inheritance or residential property, and its 22 percent corporate income tax rate is far lower than America’s 35 percent.” I think a lot of American capitalists would welcome those bridles. As for Hanby’s critique of the liberal order that (thankfully) prevails in the West, it is only because of that liberal order that we are freely discussing these matters here, that we can talk about a Benedict Option in which we can create an economy within the economy, because in the non-liberal orders that prevailed through most of history, and that still prevail in a lot of places, we’d be under threat from the state for free discussion, and we would have little or no choice of education or jobs, because we’d be serfs or slaves or forced by government to go into a certain line of work (like my husband’s Mandarin teacher, a scientist who was forced into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and then told that she had to become a language teacher.) I’d be interested to know what kind of system Hanby would like to see replace our liberal order. Presumably one where he would be in charge.

#12 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On September 16, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

Liberalism is worldview-weary, in the sense of being morally exhausted. But is modern liberalism also incoherent, in the sense that its left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing? I believe so. Consider the conflict between two of liberalism’s main factions–gays and feminists. The incompatibility of their aspirations and/or paradigmatic beliefs is breathtaking.

With same-sex marriage, liberals have in effect rejected the Patriarchy Explanation, to the disadvantage of feminism. The Patriarchy Explanation says that marriage is privileged because of the prevalence of patriarchy, and not because of, say, reasons of human flourishing or the general fact of procreation. Under the rubric of “marriage equality,” liberals have rejected feminism’s patriarchalism thesis in affirming the institution of marriage. Pro-SSM liberals regard that institution as on the whole an indisputably good thing, despite its defects and shortcomings. Such a belief about marriage is one that feminists cannot honestly or with consistency espouse without substantially qualifying that belief and turning it into something else entirely.

The Patriarchy Explanation for marriage is that marriage is regarded as uniquely valuable because men ensured that marriage is socially privileged, and the reason they made it socially privileged was to subjugate or control women. For feminists, patriarchalism is the only good explanation for why marriage is socially privileged. Since patriarchalism is a bad thing, an institution (marriage) that has been essentially created by patriarchalism cannot be unambiguously or presumptively a good thing. But that view of marriage is counterintuitive, as well as being surprisingly unpopular even in a “liberated” society.

Same-sex marriage leaves feminists without a culturally compelling paradigm, a paradigm based on anti-patriarchalism. The patriarchalism thesis entails the presumptive badness of marriage. An unqualified acceptance of the goodness of marriage by pro-SSM liberals thus undermines feminism. (No gay couples say, “We’re excited about getting married because the institution of marriage is kinda sorta okay.”)

Does Hillary Clinton agree with feminists that the Patriarchy Explanation alone tells us why marriage is socially privileged? Or does she agree with gays in assuming the Patriarchy Explanation must be false? If she chooses the latter, she will be admitting that feminist theory is due for extinction. If she chooses the former, she will not only help to undermine the legitimacy of same-sex marriage but also commit political suicide. It would be more logical for Hillary to choose the latter, which means that the first woman presidential nominee of one of the major parties will, if elected, hasten the counterrevolution–the demise of feminism.

In Hanby’s terms, this is not something that can be manipulated by the powerful–it can’t be made to go away by intellectual, much less political, elites–and it is unsolvable. To revise the end of one of Hanby’s sentences: “[Liberalism] cannot even supply the conceptual categories and thought forms necessary for understanding its own foundational principles.” Liberalism suffers acutely from contradiction and incoherence. I believe this is a more concrete problem–lots of traction in terms of contemporary liberal theory–than is the question of whether liberalism is spiritually bankrupt.

#13 Comment By Andrew E. On September 16, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

New Hampshire Union Leader, has endorsed Gary Johnson for president. That is good advice for all conservatives to follow.

Johnson is for amnesty. That is not conservative. And that’s all that’s needed to dismiss Johnson as a real option. The only serious candidate for conservatives in this election is Trump. Child care policy or no.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 16, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

Sweden has no taxes on inheritance or residential property, and its 22 percent corporate income tax rate is far lower than America’s 35 percent.” I think a lot of American capitalists would welcome those bridles.

Indeed. That is why we should NOT become like Sweden. Too right wing by half.

NFR: What? Liberalism *is* the Enlightenment. — RD

To coin a phrase, what you don’t know about the Enlightenment is a lot. Its one of your favorite boogeymen and scapegoats, and of course you delight in blaming liberalism on it.

E.g., “Descartes only recognizes as worthy of attention arguments which proceed by rigorous deduction from premises which are self-evident or known to be true a priori.”

Without writing a lengthy philosophical treatise, does this sentence in any way describe what passes for reasoning among liberals? Liberal arguments utterly lack rigor, and proceed from premises recognized as true only by the sponsors. Etc.

#15 Comment By Nelson On September 17, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

Johnson is for amnesty. That is not conservative. And that’s all that’s needed to dismiss Johnson as a real option.

That’s the best reason to vote for Johnson. Conservatives whine about the government not leaving people alone, but they want government to take away freedom from “the other”, i.e. immigrants. Make up your minds. Is it a conservative principle that government leave people alone or not?

#16 Comment By Jim Houghton On September 17, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

“…the fact that neither she, nor her surrogates, nor even her flacks in the press really pretend to believe in what she is selling.”

I wish the writer had expanded on that statement a bit, since I don’t see it as received wisdom. What is she “selling” and what is there about it that relies on belief for its worth or legitimacy? I completely get the part about Trump being a lying sack of pig droppings — that is manifest truth. But please, sir…I want some more where Clinton “selling” something that is unworthy of our support is concerned.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 17, 2016 @ 9:10 pm

I’m not for “Amnesty.” I’m for coming to terms with the reality that for a variety of reasons, there are 11 million or so people living, working, paying rent and taxes, buying homes, raising children, in the US of A, who are in a legal limbo that is not conducive to liberty under law. I’m also for coming to terms with the reality that trying to send them all away will do more damage than fully integrating them into our national life as legal residents and, many of them, eventually, citizens.

President Obama is approaching this very sensibly… first attention to those who grew up in the USA and don’t really know any other country as “home,” even if they weren’t actually born here, then to those who have been here the longest without breaking our laws any more than the average American does, while firmly seeking out those who are a real menace to peace and good order.

That is common sense no matter what we do about our borders. And yes, getting control of our borders makes sense. If a Quaker activist can lead some Salvadorean refugees through a poorly guarded fence, then the Sinaloa Cartel can send an armed force to take over a remote area of a national forest. But we should have made better arrangements for admitting Salvadorean refugees, or, we shouldn’t have funded the Salvadorean elites in their efforts to resist the FMLN.

#18 Comment By Sewanee Reviewer On September 17, 2016 @ 11:00 pm

@Nelson : “Conservatives whine about the government not leaving people alone, but they want government to take away freedom from “the other”, i.e. immigrants.”

Nonsense, unless of course you think that you’re somehow depriving people of freedom by not letting them move into your house.

America is our house. Immigrants have no right to come here unless they’re invited. If they come in illegally they have forfeited their freedom as surely as any other criminal.

One would have thought that nice liberals and zealous neocons would have at least pretended to try to make the countries of origin more livable, rather than wrecking them with bombings, assassinations, and gushers of weapons, firing up the tribal and sectarian hatreds and wars that unleashed the floods of refugees now hammering down the gates of the West.

One would have thought those same nice liberals and zealous neocons would have had some feeling if not love for their fellow Americans, that they would have tried to protect their livelihoods and standard of living, rather than importing the tens of millions of foreigners who now compete with us tooth and nail for jobs, housing, school places and scarce government resources.

@Jim Houghton : “But please, sir…I want some more where Clinton “selling” something that is unworthy of our support is concerned.”

Herself, obviously. If you “completely get the part about Trump being a lying sack of pig droppings”, surely you get that?

Clinton was first certified as a “congenital liar” by Bill Safire in the New York Times back in the ’90s. She’s built up an insurmountable lead on The Donald in that department.

[2]

A shame Safire didn’t live long enough to see that comparatively early judgment resoundingly confirmed by her many later and even more appalling lies and deceptions.

#19 Comment By cdugga On September 17, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

Perhaps in painting despair, the portrait would be less hazy and the problems to be addressed would become better defined, if, instead of saying the shameless sophistry and cynicism of the left, and the cynical lies and senseless arrogance of the strongman on the right, we actually listed the real issues and problems within our abilities to discuss. IMO this is front and center the method social conservatives have been manipulated with, and reduced to tools for what the GOP actually stands for. As in, we cannot know the details of issues facing our country, we can only try and make sure that the people we elect to represent us are good. Issues of the day then take a back seat to identity politics, labeling the opposition and inciting fear of other. If we could begin to address those issues without labeling and blaming the opposition, we might become more interested in solving the problems for the future rather than judging what type person would be best at solving our problems for us.
Despair is reduced by plan and decision. Those plans and decisions must tend towards inclusiveness and consensus, and away from exclusive righteousness to even have a chance for consideration. Since we are discussing about a social conservative and a catholic philosopher walking into a bar talking about growing evil and the vengeful god of the end times, we might joke about how, after a few drinks for the catholic guy anyway, they came to the conclusion that starting from despair ends up with despair. Like, we might understand, and take the lord at his word when he says thou shalt not, and then be able to progress beyond the evil plan of desperation offered up by all the component conspiracies from hell. We could have the last laugh instead of joining all those left to do nothing but point , cry and cringe in fear with an AR in one hand and a bible in the other. Times change and things evolve. Progressives, of whatever stripe, want to direct that evolution towards a better place for the future. More equality improves the lives of more people. Instead of labeling who we judge to be the deserving winners and losers, we should have more faith in what true democracy is. Many conservatives appear to be so fearful of change that they end up labeling progress itself as something evil that they must protect themselves from (more 30 round clips?), and never realize that fear of change is used against them and their children to further the documented concentration of power and wealth concerned with little else but maintaining that power and wealth to the exclusion of the rest of us. Fear trumps everything. Fear is why so many conservatives, even social conservatives, cannot recognize the GOP anymore. The GOP is the NRA party. There may still be other things that many conservatives are concerned, or more concerned about. But we should not fool ourselves, for better or worse the NRA is in control of republicans and perhaps more than half of our people. The gospel of material reward for the righteous lends us their despair for a future that does not give them what they thought they deserved. We did all the right things, so who is to blame for our misery? We are left fearing for ourselves and the future. Evil tells us we are miserable, who is to blame and how we can protect ourselves. Evil says we have the right to shoot those we fear and those who we are told, don’t represent us. Despair is the suicide of Islamic fundamentalism, god willing. You would think we would be so much smarter. The don does nothing if he doesn’t at least make us look into the mirror for why we would support him.

#20 Comment By Ted Roedel On September 18, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

What is this comment, but the sigh of exhausted Movement Conservatism? Trump is its Reductio; Hillary, for her part, is hobbled by the fact that she has not gotten out ahead of the Progressive Wave that is newly rising in our politics – and if she is not adroit enough to catch it, it’ll wipe her out, too.

It is plain that conservatives have nothing to offer, to resolve the spiritual crisis that remains at the heart of capital-L Liberalism (if they had, they would of come up with something, instead all they gave us was Trump). Progressives now have a chance to do better. And I think we can. Minority-driven identity politics, in contrast to white identity politics, is an enormously hopeful development in our culture; along with Feminism, it is serving to unwork the culture of White Supremacy that the American experiment has so far been bound to.

This unworking has led to wrenching changes, and cultural conservatives will never be able to reconcile themselves to those changes. But the cultural conservatives will not always be with us.

Progressivism has a grand vision of the Future to pursue. The dignity of GENUINE equality of opportunity, for All; and a more just world, where environmental justice is an integral part of our domestic AND foreign policy.

It is the rising cultural focus on the environment, which will really serve as the broad-based spiritual dimension that is lacking in our societies, today. Proper stewardship of the environment provides a vision for how we are to act in the present, with a view to the needs of others far beyond our own, personal sphere. It will involve a sacralization of the biosphere, particularly its most vulnerable parts. And it will not be easy, either – the challenge it presents being itself a source of inspiration.

Conservatism as an attitude or philosophy has always had much to offer culture; but conservatism as a political programme has never been anything but a disaster, from the Ancien Regime to today’s GOP. With Trump, Ding Dong! The Wicked Thing is Melting! It is a great time to be young. The future can’t come fast enough – !

[NFR: You should print this out and frame it, and take a look at it every ten years. You may learn something. — RD]

#21 Comment By dave On September 18, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

I have a hard time understanding this one – seems to be some underlying assumptions that I’m guessing were established in earlier missives. An example is this “In fact, I doubt we any longer possess enough of a ‘civilization’ to understand what a ‘civilizational crisis’ would really mean. …But if this is anywhere close to correct, then it seems to me that what we have in this election is fundamentally a contest between two forms of despair:”

And I don’t quite follow that. I don’t necessarily disagree, I am simply missing a few steps. I mean, I’d say the folks supporting Clinton don’t see any sort of civilizational crisis. That’s not her – she’s an incrementalist, someone who will maintain the status quo. Seems to me that’s been one of the arguments her supporters use. This is a smart, steady and experienced manager type of leader. If a majority of Democrats saw a crisis, they would have nominated Sanders. And the GOP elite seemed content with things as they were and were wanting to nominate one of their smart, steady and experienced manager types to maintain the status quo and maybe make a few incremental changes.

I think Trump winning is a sort of despair – I don’t know that many think he’s a transformational leader who can help us weather a major crisis, he’s just the only one who was willing to acknowledge things needed to change. It is a hard job, getting things done in DC, and people with much more political experience than Trump often fail – so often, in fact, that getting anything useful accomplished is starting to seem unusual. I don’t know that his supporters can have much hope that he’ll have any success enacting his agenda, but have chosen him regardless. And that’s a type of despair, in my mind.

And I suppose if by civilization we mean a group of people sharing a common culture and identity then I agree that we don’t have enough of a civilization left to understand a civilizational crisis. You know, I think what it might be is less of a loss of a civilization than it is an overwhelming fatigue and hence failure of any sort of capacity to integrate cultures, which capacity has always been a defining feature of the United States. Though that might not even be an accurate wording – it might be more accurate to say that the defining feature was the ability to assimilate and subsume other cultures into an overarching Anglo-American narrative, and that capacity has withered away.

So I would say the crisis is the loss of a dominant narrative. I suppose the first instinct is to come up with an alternate dominate narrative. And that part seems mostly a projection of insecurities, hence rather aggressive assertions of identity. I assume that will calm down at some point and people will just learn to live within the context of a multi-threaded American identity and narrative and relearn how to pass effective legislation. I don’t know that there is any choice in the matter. Seems it is either that or dissolution (or some type of forced cultural re-education program). In any event, I enjoyed reading the excerpt and am glad he agreed to your posting it. Thanks, and hope your health is improving.

#22 Comment By Jim Houghton On September 18, 2016 @ 7:54 pm

“…the fact that neither she, nor her surrogates, nor even her flacks in the press really pretend to believe in what she is selling.”

I don’t get it. What is HRC “selling”?

#23 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 18, 2016 @ 11:09 pm

I’m not for “Amnesty.” I’m for coming to terms with the reality that for a variety of reasons, there are 11 million or so people living, working, paying rent and taxes, buying homes, raising children, in the US of A, who are in a legal limbo that is not conducive to liberty under law. I’m also for coming to terms with the reality that trying to send them all away will do more damage than fully integrating them into our national life as legal residents and, many of them, eventually, citizens.

I generally agree with this, although I’m more skeptical of immigration in principle than you. I think we should try to integrate Latin Americans who are here already, while doing our best to encourage development of their home countries through trade and foreign aid to create more opportunities for people to make a living at home.

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 19, 2016 @ 12:11 am

I think we should try to integrate Latin Americans who are here already, while doing our best to encourage development of their home countries through trade and foreign aid to create more opportunities for people to make a living at home.

I agree… but the capitalist version of this solution is to export more jobs to Latin America to exploit cheap labor and weaker occupational safety and environmental regulations. We need to find a way to create more opportunities for people to make a good living at home that also promote higher wages for Americans.

I don’t get it. What is HRC “selling”?

A poor quality painting of herself on a cheap china plate with the White House in the background.

For what purpose? Does there have to be a purpose?

#25 Comment By Haverwilde On October 22, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

” but unarticulated sense that liberalism is exhausted,”

As a 1960s Liberal, I must disagree. Liberalism is not exhausted it was murdered by the Socialists. Liberalism with its root meaning from liberty is something that many of us wish to resurrect.