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Confusing Politics With Religion

Ross Douthat has been heroically measured in his assessment of the GOP’s populists, pointing out that they may be morons on tactics, but they often have better policy ideas than the Republican regulars. Now that the idiotic, entirely avoidable crisis is over, he says that Lessons Had Better Be Learned if the GOP is going to save itself from itself. Excerpt:

However you slice and dice the history, the strategery, and the underlying issues, the decision to live with a government shutdown for an extended period of time — inflicting modest-but-real harm on the economy, needlessly disrupting the lives and paychecks of many thousands of hardworking people, and further tarnishing the Republican Party’s already not-exactly-shiny image — in pursuit of obviously, obviously unattainable goals was not a normal political blunder by a normally-functioning political party. It was an irresponsible, dysfunctional and deeply pointless act, carried out by a party that on the evidence of the last few weeks shouldn’t be trusted with the management of a banana stand, let alone the House of Representatives.

This means that the still-ongoing intra-conservative debate over the shutdown’s wisdom is not, I’m sorry, the kind of case where reasonable people can differ on the merits and have good-faith arguments and ultimately agree to disagree.There was no argument for the shutdown itself that a person unblindered by political fantasies should be obliged to respect, no plausible alternative world in which it could have led to any outcome besides self-inflicted political damage followed by legislative defeat, and no epitaph that should be written for its instigators’ planning and execution except: “These guys deserved to lose.”

Yeah you right. I’m always fascinated by the question of how we know what we know, and was thinking this morning about what kind of mind sees what just happened as either a victory, or a defeat that happened not because the cause was hopeless, but because the cause was betrayed, its noble defenders stabbed in the back by faithless RINO traitors. Because that is the emerging narrative within the right-wing bubble.

Can the Tea Partiers’ beliefs be falsified? I don’t think they can be. I mean, is there any evidence that could convince them that the fault here lies with themselves, in the way they conceive politics, and in the way they behaved? It sure doesn’t look like it. In that sense, they think of politics as a kind of religion. It’s not for nothing that the hardcore House members stood together and sang “Amazing Grace” as the impossibility of their position became ever clearer. They really do bring a religious zealotry to politics.

Let me hasten to say that I’m not endorsing the “Christianist” meme, which I find far too reductive, among other things. Besides, many of the Tea Partiers and fellow travelers are not motivated by religious faith, but by a religious-like zeal for their political ideology. It was like this on the Right before the advent of the Tea Party. There has long been a sense on the Right that the movement must be vigilant against the backsliders and compromisers, who will Betray True Conservatism if you give them the chance. Again, the religious mindset: politics as a purity test. In this worldview, a politician who compromises sells out the True Faith — and faith, by definition, does not depend on empirical observation to justify itself.

I have had conversations in recent years with fellow conservatives who simply could not bring themselves to face the failures of George W. Bush — failures that were also the fault of all those who supported him (I voted for him twice). Similarly, I have had conversations with liberal friends who cannot see any fault in Barack Obama. When I point out that he has done the same things that caused them to condemn Bush, they just blink and say some version of, “Well, he must have his reasons, and besides, have you seen how crazy the Republicans are?” So the “politics as religion” thing is not confined to the Right.

But it does dominate the Right today in a way that it does not affect the Left. As Douthat points out, if the Republicans fail to confront this epistemic problem in their own ranks, the disaster that the party’s hardline led it into will be repeated. A good way to start is to return to the principle that conservatism entails a rejection of ideology. Here’s Russell Kirk, on the “errors of ideology.”:

Kenneth Minogue, in his recent book Alien Powers: the Pure Theory of Ideology,uses the word “to denote any doctrine which presents the hidden and saving
truth about the world in the form of social analysis. It is a feature of all such doctrines to incorporate a general theory of the mistakes of everybody else.”

That “hidden and saving truth” is a fraud—a complex of contrived falsifying
“myths”, disguised as history, about the society we have inherited.

Religion requires us to believe the impossible; that’s what makes it religion. Politics is the art of the possible; that’s why it is not religion.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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