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John McCain, Postmodern Candidate

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One night after the presidential election of 2000 in November and before the ultimate resolution of that election by the United Stages Supreme Court in mid-December, as I lay in bed listening to Nightline, I heard James A. Baker III explaining to Ted Koppel why it would be wrong to supersede the mechanical counting of votes in Florida, which had favored Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush over Democratic opponent Al Gore, with manual recounts: Because, Baker argued, human beings were naturally biased and fallible, whereas machines were inherently neutral and objective.

It occurred to me, in my semi-conscious state, that there was an anomaly here. The inevitable subjectivity of human judgment and action was one of the principal tenets of postmodernism, and conservative intellectuals had been railing against postmodern theories for a while, considering them the latest outrageous outcroppings of liberal relativism. Lynne Cheney, for instance, the wife of Bush's vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney, had written a whole book on the subject called Telling the Truth, in which she accused postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida of aiming at "discrediting the objectivity and rationality at the heart of the scientific enterprise."

From these late-night musings, I developed an analysis of the 2000 struggle in Florida, and its outcome, which was published in the March 26, 2001 edition of The Nation under the title "Deconstructing the Election: Foucault, Derrida and GOP Strategy." The other, corollary tenet of postmodern thinking that excited the scorn of conservative intellectuals was the argument that, given the impossibility of objective reasoning in human affairs, what happens in history, and how it gets interpreted, are a result of pure power relations--hence the postmodern catch phrase "reality is socially constructed." I recounted in my article how Republican operatives manipulated every lever of power available, including, and especially, at the end, the U.S. Supreme Court, to gain the presidency. Republican strategy in Florida in 2000 both made use of postmodernist concepts, and was an actual fulfillment of them.



At the time, I viewed the Republican embrace of postmodernism in Florida as temporary--an improvisational tactic geared to a discrete, particular situation. The judgment was premature. By July 2004, future New Republic editor Franklin Foer was writing in the pages of that magazine that the George W. Bush administration "takes the radically postmodern view that 'science,' 'objectivity,' and 'truth' are guises for an ulterior, leftist agenda." That October, in an eye-opening article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine by Ron Suskind called "Without a Doubt," the Bush administration's underlying postmodern ideology was starkly confirmed. Suskind quoted a Bush aide as postulating that people such as him live "in what we call the reality-based community," which the aide defined as those who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality...That's not the way the world really works any more...When we act, we create our own reality."

With this background, a column by Neal Gabler that ran in the March 31 issue of The Oregonian calling John McCain "the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency" seized my attention. In the column, "The Maverick Manipulator," Gabler contended that the reason for McCain's great appeal to the media at that time was his attitude of ironic and cynical detachment toward his own campaign and toward politics in general. Gabler saw this attitude expressed in McCain's "willingness, even eagerness, to let the press in on his own machinations of them...In exposing his two-way relationship with the press this way, he reveals the absurdity of the political process as a big game," Gabler said. Expressed differently, McCain during the primary season "let the press in on" the fact that he didn't really believe much of what he was purveying to the Republican electorate, but was saying it solely in order to achieve his party's nomination.

Since capturing the Republican nomination, however, McCain's high standing with the media has collapsed. The disillusionment of the press with their former golden boy began with his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, a choice they viewed as irresponsible and dangerous, then accelerated as the McCain campaign began operating at a shocking level of mendacity. Joe Klein wrote in his September 29 column for Time, headlined "The Lying Game": "His campaign has been a ceaseless assault on his opponent's character and policies, featuring a consistent and witting disdain for the truth...This persistence in repeating demonstrably false charges is something new in presidential politics." In a piece in the October 8 issue of The New Republic called "Liar's Poker," Jonathan Chait opined: "Here we have distilled the essence of the McCain campaign's ethos: Perception is reality. Facts don't matter. McCain has presented himself as the grizzled champion of timeworn values. But the defining trait of his candidacy turns out to be a postmodern disdain for truth."

When the postmodernist mindset of the administration of George W. Bush became evident, I flattered myself that in Florida I had unearthed the first evidence of Republican gravitation to this ideology. I soon learned that political scientist Shadia B. Drury had begun excavating such grounds long before me. In a series of books stretching from 1988, Drury traced the infiltration of right-wing postmodernism into the contemporary conservative movement. A chapter called "Neoconservatism: A Straussian legacy," in Leo Strauss and the American Right, summarized the writings of neoconservative pioneer Irving Kristol, who, like Strauss, regards as fundamentally malign the ethos of rationalism and liberalism that made the modern world. Drury wrote of Kristol's influence: "When domestic politics is turned into a contest between the forces of good and evil, when political opponents are regarded as the enemies of civilization, the results are dishonest political tactics, corruption, and conflict."

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, Irving's son and intellectual heir, a trusted adviser of John McCain since 1997, has publicly endorsed the scorched-earth tactics that are now the essence of McCain's campaign. Can a pure postmodernist Republican strategy triumph again in a crucial presidential election? I hope not.