Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Meditation on the "Progressive" Narrative

In the wake of the Supreme Court's late-March 2012 hearing on the constitutionality of ObamaCare, many liberals responded with shock and anger to the sharp, skeptical questions that justices asked the government's lawyers.

But why? Why did so many liberal/progressive scholars and media denizens arrogantly assume that ObamaCare would be ratified by the Supreme Court in a "slam dunk"? Why were they so stunned to hear potent counter-arguments emerging from the justices? One commentator offers this:

What can explain liberals’ widespread failure to anticipate the Court’s wariness of the mandate? Research conducted by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests one possible answer: Liberals just aren’t as good as conservatives and libertarians at understanding how their opponents think. Haidt helped conduct research that asked respondents to fill out questionnaires about political narratives [emphasis added]—first responding based on their own beliefs, but then responding as if trying to mimic the beliefs of their political opponents. "The results," he writes in the May issue of Reason, "were clear and consistent." Moderates and conservatives were the most able to think like their liberal political opponents. "Liberals," he reports, "were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as 'very liberal.'"

The article is well worth reading in its entirety, because it shows how liberals view everything through the filter of politics--and now assume, based on their political Narrative, that the Supreme Court's opposition to the individual mandate is nothing more than "partisan politics." In fact, though, that charge is nothing more than psychological projection. Commenting on this reaction by the left, some have opined that liberals just don't seem wedded to simple logic. That is true, but it doesn't go far enough in explaining the liberal mindset.

As subjectivists, liberals do not believe in the objective reality that is the basis of logic. To subjectivists, logic (like everything else) is merely an arbitrary social convention. That same subjectivism is the root of their multiculturalism (no culture or society is better than any other), of their moral relativism (there's no objective basis for ethics, so "do your own thing"), and, in this instance, of their doctrine of "the living Constitution" (a document that is as elastic and flexible as their own whims).

But if everything is mere subjective opinion, and opinions clash, then logical persuasion is without merit as a means of resolving disputes -- and the only thing left that can decide disputes is force. Hence, the liberals' view that everything in society consists of "conflicts of interest" and "power relationships"; hence, their quest for unlimited power to dominate, rule, and control others; and hence, their efforts to transform everything that we are, have, or do into a political issue: into a matter to be decided by wielding coercive political power over others.

But why should they, the liberals, be the ones wielding that power?

That's where their "Narrative" comes in. The liberal Narrative is rooted not in the logical, but the psychological. In their morality play, they have cast themselves as "progressives" -- as the smartest, most educated, most culturally sophisticated, most sensitive, most enlightened people on the planet, in contrast with the vast, crude masses of rubes, idiots, bigots, and know-nothings (i.e., the rest of us). The liberals' motive in holding and advancing this Narrative is the indispensable role that it plays in inflating their egos and self-regard. In their self-flattering psychodrama, they cast themselves as the Ruling Class, the social elite that -- by virtue of intellectual, moral, and esthetic superiority -- is entitled to lord it over their inferiors (i.e., the rest of society).

If you want a clear glimpse of the self-congratulatory "progressive" worldview, try to dig up a copy of the old H.G. Wells film "Things to Come." Wells was a socialist, and in his dystopian, sci-fi fantasy, he imagined a benevolent technocratic elite taking over a world that had descended into tribes of savages. Now, there's a lot I like about the film on a metaphysical level: Its no-limits view of human potential reminded me of "Star Trek" ("to boldly go where no man has gone before"). But its view of society is unadulterated "progressive" arrogance: A small, educated in-group of sophisticated geniuses takes total political power, becoming a new Ruling Class to civilize the savage masses...for their own good.

That's the essence of the liberal/progressive Narrative. And philosophical subjectivism allows them to use any means they wish to achieve that total power over the rest of us "savages."

If you now take all of this and apply it to the ObamaCare debate before the Supreme Court, you'll understand at once what was going on, and why the left is so shocked and indignant over the skeptical questioning by the justices. Their legal subjectivism was being challenged, at root. The justices were asking them what "limiting principle" existed upon the power they wish to assume over private economic relationships, and they couldn't answer because they don't have one, or believe that one should exist. Their arguments were transparent sophistry, attempts to provide legalistic excuses to grant them UNlimited power over the lives of the savages. That they should be required to justify this quest clashed with their entire Narrative, and the subjectivism that rationalizes it.

And so how do they respond? Only as they can, through their Narrative filter: Since to them, everything is a "political power relationship," they could only besmirch the alleged political motives of the skeptical justices as being "partisan" and "pro-Republican." This, to the liberal, is a necessary substitute for an argument based on the merits -- on facts and logic -- because the latter don't count in their subjective universe, except as tools of political manipulation.

There are broader, pessimistic conclusions to be drawn here, for example, about the possibility of persuading people wedded to the progressive/subjective Narrative, or about how we ought to engage and fight them. I've argued in my previous essay here on "The Narratives That Guide Our Lives" that the best approach is to advance a compelling counter-narrative. But what that is, and how it might be advanced, are topics for future development and discussion.