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Change? Whatever. Relativism and the Moral Cowardice of Democratic Politicians

04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Party may embody a repellent coalition between corporate-funded predators, delusional fundamentalists, and sub-literate paranoid mobs. But they're right about one thing: Democrats, with few exceptions, are weak-willed surrender monkeys (no offense to the simian among us) who won't fight even for themselves, let alone other Americans. How many times have we seen some version of the headline, "Democrats Cave on...?" Insert the forsaken cause, legislation, or value of your choice.

Democrats seek compromise, as if the other party has a goal beyond the extermination of their opponents. On her February 10th MSNBC program Rachael Maddow did an excellent job of documenting what happens when Democrats strain to include the "good ideas" of Republicans into proposed legislation, like health care reform. Again and again GOP members reward such conciliatory gestures by claiming to have been excluded from discussions, and ultimately by voting against or threatening to filibuster measures they had once ardently supported. Democrats don't seem to get that returning to power is the raison d'être of right-wingers, for whom campaigns never end and whose every action is a performance calculated for maximum political benefit.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) famously said that Obama's efforts to achieve health care reform "will be his Waterloo." The GOP view of governing is the inverse of that well-known observation by the Prussian military historian Carl von Clausewitz, "War is a continuation of politics by other means." For contemporary neo-conservatives, politics is just another zone of combat in which the aim is not public service (for them, a quaint concept like the Geneva Convention), but the annihilation of one's enemies by any means necessary. And the enemy is defined as any force that threatens to interfere with personal and corporate enrichment or the swaggering exercise of power and domination for its own sake.

When Democrats voice their whining plea for "bipartisanship" Republicans rightly hear the creaking knees of capitulation. They want to "negotiate" with liberals the way the lion wants to negotiate with the lamb. Democrats agonize over what concessions to offer, while the only question Republicans wrestle with is which part of their opponents' shriveled viscera to eat first.

This is a situation in which the exceptions impressively prove the rule. What does it say about the majority of Democrats when one of them, the exemplary political pugilist, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), distinguishes himself from his colleagues by picking the Internet domain name congressmanwithguts.com. Sadly, he's so unlike his peers, we know exactly to whom that name refers. While Democratic politicians and the mainstream media purveyors of conventional wisdom wring their hands over "partisan warfare," Mr. Grayson's exceptional example makes it even more obvious that only one side is fighting.

Progressives have often scratched their heads in utter bewilderment at the Democrats' weakness, incompetence, and easy willingness to betray their principles. Of course for Blue Dogs, like Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), their motivation is scarcely mysterious. The only principles they hold dear are fealty to their corporate paymasters, and retaining the now dubious status of their jobs. (Members of Congress are now so reviled that, unlike serial killers, no one has even put them on trading cards.)

It is those Democrats who appear to hold liberal values and who are not so closely aligned with America's oligarchy of wealth that leave so many of us flummoxed. Many have wondered to what extent are we dealing with a profound ignorance of the psychology of power politics, a crippling inhibition of aggression, or a masochistic desperation to earn the approval and recognition of their GOP abusers. Clearly, all three factors are involved. To this list I'd like to add my own diagnostic assessment of Democratic decrepitude -- one that I hope won't turn into an autopsy by the time of the mid-term elections.

We can understand the mind set underlying the timidity and fecklessness of Democratic politicians by shining a light on their implicit, largely unconscious but powerfully disabling world view: relativism. To make sense of this way of thinking, it is important to start by understanding the perspective to which relativism is a reaction -- absolutism.

Absolutism, like relativism, can be thought of as a defense mechanism, as well as a philosophy. As a philosophy, absolutism sees knowledge as reducible to fixed, universal truths -- often divinely ordained -- that are unchanged by history, evolution, or new information. It can be thought of as a kind of fundamentalism, with or without deities. It can wear the mantle of religion, science, or political ideology. All its texts are holy books that cannot be questioned. Its categories consist of multiple dualities. With dichotomous buckets like good and evil, saints and sinners, patriots and traitors, absolute truth and total falsity, masculine and feminine, master and slave, and us and them, everything can be made to fit.

As a psychological defense, absolutism can be a way to manage an inability to tolerate the anxieties associated with ambiguity, conflict, or complexity. There is also a developmental aspect to this mode of thinking; it is the cognitive style of early childhood, often not transcended until adolescence when other points of view begin to challenge one's comfortable certainties. In some cases, black and white thinking can linger into adulthood. Obviously, this tends to be the worldview of conservatives, and enables them to speak forcefully and with impressive conviction, even when expounding upon how the Haitian people caused their own earthquake by making a deal with Satan, or pushing more secular fact-free fantasies, like the Democrat's secret mission to kill old folks with health care death panels. They figure, "We are wholly good and Democrats are purely bad. So anything we do or say to defeat them is morally right." (Those interested in a fuller discussion of right wing absolutism might want to check out my July 2, 2009 post on varieties of political hypocrisy.)

Relativism, in asserting that there are multiple ways for people to understand the same phenomena, all of which must be respected, is a kind of thinking that emerges as an effort to move past the limitations, totalitarian tendencies, and sometimes violent repression of difference inherent to absolutism. Being able to appreciate how truth can be culturally, historically, and personally relative is an important advance in numerous ways. In some aspects, this is what makes political liberalism an emancipatory political philosophy. But it has also been what has kept many liberal politicians from being persuasive voices for their policies. By being embedded in a relativistic mode of thinking, there is a risk of being trapped in an ethical void. In a world where all points of view are equally valid, how does one take a stand? How can one make a moral argument for anything? If everything is true, then nothing is true. This sort of epistemological nihilism is a recipe for paralysis, not mobilizing passion and inciting action.

It should be noted that conservatives at times have made a cleverly strategic use of relativism, even though they don't believe in it, and their arguments are ripe with the stench of intellectual dishonesty. They have insisted, for example, that creationism should be taught in science curricula in order to expose students to "multiple points of view" on evolution. Likewise, right wing deniers of global human-caused climate change and the scientific consensus regarding it have claimed that researchers and scholars are divided on the issue, and that the "debate" over the "controversy" should be fully aired. Obviously, contemporary fundamentalists and neo-cons can easily don postmodernist drag when it serves their interests.

One way we can think about absolutism and relativism is as contrasting ways of repressing difference. The absolutist seeks to convert or crush the different. They think, "those who disagree with us should either repent and become just like us, or be destroyed." Anyone familiar with the Christian fundamentalist rapture fantasy will recognize this as the prophesized fate of the Jews; they'll either accept Jesus and ascend to paradise, or perish with the other heathens. In this and similar scenarios, that which is different in others is either benignly or murderously obliterated.

Relativists, on the other hand, repress difference through denial. In politics, they tell themselves, "Our opponents really share our values. We all want the same thing. They have good ideas. And besides, who are we to assert that our point of view is more valid? Disagreement and division are so unpleasant. Republicans and Democrats, laborers and CEOs, patients and those that run the health insurance companies -- we're all Americans. We shouldn't bicker but find common ground, a win-win for everyone."

Don't put that bullet to your head just yet. There is a way out of the grim choice between these two equally limiting political worldviews. They can be transcended dialectically. That is to say we can take the passionate conviction of the absolutist and wed it to the relativist's ability to understand and be curious about multiple points of view. Politicians who think dialectically would be able to situate bodies of knowledge (including their own beliefs) in their cultural, historical, and political contexts, and -- at the same time -- make principled arguments, truth claims and moral commitments.

They could recognize the humanity of their opponents, empathically understand their perspective, appreciate what they might have to offer (to the extent they do), and nevertheless fight those opponents with passion and ferocity when something vital (like health care) is on the line. Obama, at his best during the campaign, exemplified this stance. Tragically, once in office, he (along with most Congressional Democrats) has been sucked back into the black hole of relativism. As T.S. Eliot might have said, unless they reverse course, this is how the Democrats will end, not with a bang but a whimper.