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Truth and Politics
By Peter O’Brien

A poll taken after the mid-term elections reveals that some 50% of Democrats label Republicans as evil, and 44% of Republicans use the same label for Democrats. 54% of Democrats view Republicans as ignorant, 49% of Republicans reciprocate. The polls goes on and on, detailing a growing schism, each calling the other bigots, sexists, racists, etc.

Yet, I suspect Americans, if everyone were stripped of their party affiliation, would occupy something approaching a middle ground, a "place” where many people who would see "eye-to-eye" on a host of issues.

But such people don’t define the parties and don’t define the issues. Rather, those who lead the parties, and the majority of those who craft public opinion, occupy positions on the far left and far right; they organize people, and they organize public thought. And the poll failed to grasp a key aspect of the schism between these two groups.

Those on the right have been labeled - fairly I would submit - as doctrinaire and even dogmatic. They would rather uphold certain philosophic positions than yield philosophically and address needs of the current political reality, whatever they may be. This leads to unyielding political positions even during a crisis.

Those on the left have been labeled as pragmatists - again I would submit a fair label - practitioners of what used to be called "Realpolitik,' though the label was, interestingly enough, often used to attack those on the right. They would rather act, and address the problem at hand and ignore precedent, what was or wasn’t done in the past; this leads sometimes to both hasty actions and unintended, negative consequences.

This dichotomy between the two groups can be expressed otherwise: those on the right maintain there are many actions you may want to take - what look like obvious solutions to glaring problems – which will lead to future consequences that are simply too dire; therefore those actions must not be taken even in the midst of crisis or tragedy. Stated otherwise, there are philosophical absolutes that must never be violated.

Those on the left submit that politics and governance is the practice of compromise and continual adjustment; we must be willing to do what is necessary now and not be bound by abstract rules or absolutes; in the practice of politics there can be no absolutes.

And therein lies the problem at its very root: are there absolutes?

The Progressives, who form the philosophical heart of the left, the new core of the Democratic Party, submit there are no absolutes, in politics or in philosophy. Law, ethics, morality are constantly evolving, what was right once can be wrong, what was wrong once can be right, as we evolve. The Progressives hold that there are no absolutes; no absolute rules, no absolute truths. The conservatives take the other tack, there are certain core beliefs - truths - that are, in fact, absolute, that cannot be compromised in any way. And to do so is to bring about grave, even ruinous, consequences.

Michel Foucault, a leading philosopher of the Progressive movement, suggested that tribes were the natural relationship for people; we stay together not because of right and wrong or higher values, but because of membership, belonging, part of one group, not part of that "other" group. Tribal membership demands we adopt the tribe’s values, irrespective of what values might exist in some other, theoretical world. And the tribe’s values are simply the tribe’s values; we adopt them to retain membership, no absolutes, except what the tribe demands.

Is there a danger if there are no absolutes? An astute observer of the American scene noted: "Right and wrong can’t be decided by a vote.”

But that’s exactly what "rule of the tribe” means: the tribe decides. It doesn’t matter what that rule is, or how it might change, tribal membership demands you follow the rule.

What does that look like? Consider Afghanistan. Or Somalia. Your Clan defines who you are, how you act, your friends and your enemies. There are no absolutes, and no rights as we understand them. In fact, in the end there is only power, power and membership. Or ostracization.

I suspect the bulk of Democratic Party voters don’t see things in those terms. But Democratic Party leadership has adopted that philosophy, and whether they individually understand it, that is where they’re headed. The question is whether rank and file Democrats will follow them off the cliff.


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InBrief 11jul19

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