Out–Clintoning Clinton

By Gene Edward Veith

Al Gore takes postmodernism to its logical conclusion and leads liberal politics to an all–time low

Bill Clinton was our nation's first postmodern president. As World has argued, the president's capacity to "construct alternative truth claims," to re–invent himself according to the needs of the moment, to compartmentalize his life, and to create his own morality, is a political manifestation of the new worldview that rejects all absolutes. Now the first election of the new millennium—with its disputed and repeated ballot counting—shows how postmodernism may make constitutional government impossible.

The two candidates exemplify two different approaches to the end of modernism, marked politically by the failure of all of the seemingly rational, scientific schemes—socialism, Marxism, welfare–state government programs, and all of the other social–engineering schemes that marked the now–defunct century—to create the progressive utopia.

One response to the end of modernity is to recover what was of value in the premodern era and to apply old worldviews in new, creative ways to our contemporary times. Thus, we have a new classicism in education and in some sectors of the art world, and the new cultural relevance of conservative Christianity. Postmodern America also saw a revival of conservative politics, with the success of Ronald Reagan. Now George W. Bush, with his compassionate conservative programs and new–image Republicanism, is the standard bearer for that mentality.

The other response to the end of modernist rationalism is to take the next step and deny rationalism altogether. These postmodernists maintain that truth–claims and moral absolutes are nothing more than a personal or social construction. Politically, this means the politics of spin–doctoring (professional construction of plausibility paradigms), image manipulation (since style, not substance, is what persuades in an era without truth), judicial activism (since law is just a matter of interpretation), and ruthless power politics (since truth is nothing more than the imposition of power). For those unbounded by the limits of truth or morality who see everything from cultural institutions to human nature as a social construction, the state has, theoretically, infinite power.

Al Gore has inherited this mantle. Despite his apparent retro–liberalism, Mr. Gore is actually taking postmodernism further than his mentor. Mr. Clinton re–invented himself when he needed to, in a manifestation of what postmodernist psychologist Robert Jay Lifton approvingly calls the "Protean Self." But Mr. Gore is even more Protean, changing his persona from week to week, audience to audience. More seriously, postmodernism teaches that ideological and cultural disagreements are not just differences of opinion, but rather issues of power, that culture is a thinly disguised mask for groups in power oppressing those who are not, who, in turn, must be "empowered" to turn the tables. Thus, Mr. Gore scored votes by setting groups against each other and promising, "I will fight for you!"

The election showed the nation split right down the middle, with the big cities, the universities, Hollywood, the cultural elite—who cut their teeth studying Derrida and Foucault in the universities—and the masses whom they influence voting for Mr. Gore. The more traditionally minded Americans in what the coasts contemptuously refer to as "flyover territory" went for Mr. Bush. And the result was, essentially, a tie.

On Nov. 20, everything hinged on Florida. In the early 20th century, the aftermath would have created no problem. Modernists, for all of their faults, have a trust in rational, objective truth, which can be determined with the aid of science. Modernists trusted machines. Counting ballots by machines was once a progressive reform, a way of making it more difficult to cheat, countering the notorious ballot–stuffing of corrupt political bosses with the nonbiased certainty of modern technology.

But the postmodernists of the cultural elite do not believe in this kind of modernist certainty. Truth, they believe, is a matter of interpretation. Language is certainly just a matter of interpretation ("it depends on what the meaning of is is"), and so is everything made out of language, such as laws ("the constitution must be interpreted to fit the needs of changing times"). In postmodernism, even hard, tangible, scientific evidence is susceptible to various interpretations.

So the election of the president of the United States hinged on the hermeneutics of chads. Partisans held pieces of flimsy cardboard up to the light and tried to interpret the meaning of tiny indentations and miniscule punchouts hanging by a fiber. And, surprise, surprise, the numbers kept going up for Mr. Gore.

Democratic operatives spun a sanctimonious paradigm of simply wanting every vote to count. Students of postmodernism know, however, that postmodernist hermeneutics does not believe in respecting an author's—or, by extension, a voter's—original intention. Objective meaning is inherently indeterminate, they believe, so it is completely legitimate to construct a paradigm that advances the power interests of your side.

According to these tenets, assiduously taught in just these terms in the nation's universities, contradictions of logic or morality need not get in the way. One may assert transcendent principles—such as the objective rights of voters—as a rhetorical ploy to persuade public opinion, but then work to get the ballots of military men and women thrown out on hyper–technical interpretive grounds, without worrying about the inconsistency.

Also, since every truth claim is ultimately a matter of personal preference and since logic is not valid, arguments are refuted with ad hominem attacks. The goal: Destroy your opponents personally, go after their reputations, give them a negative image, make them appear ridiculous and incapable of being taken seriously. Thus, the media trashing of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was vilified and ridiculed, in the vilest, most personal terms, for doing her job and standing up for an objective legal deadline.

Republicans, with their naive modernism or genteel premodernism, tend not to be so cynical, and have trouble coping with or even understanding what they are up against. They need to realize that, for postmodernists, the only thing that counts is power. Without any moral restraints—in the cosmic absence, in Mr. Gore's words, of the very possibility of any "controlling legal authority"—all that remains is the sheer exercise of power. Those who think in these terms are too cynical to be moved by moral or legal or rational scruples and will be utterly ruthless in their pursuit and exercise of this power.

On Nov. 20, the issue was in the courts. The founders, who so carefully checked and balanced the executive and legislative branches, assumed that the courts would be checked by the constitution. But in their touchingly premodern way, they had no conception of postmodern legal theory, by which courts do not just discover what the laws and the Constitution say. Rather, the law and the Constitution itself are matters of "interpretation," and the rulings of a court are legal "constructions."

As of the time of this writing, no one knows how Florida's judicial powers will rule. They may adjudicate the objective facts according to an objective legal standard. Or they may construct a ruling according to their own ideology, emulating the justices who constructed the right to an abortion.

But, however the election goes, Americans should be asking whether political institutions that originated in a worldview resting on transcendent absolutes can survive if the culture no longer believes in any of them. What were for the founders "self–evident truths"—belief in a Creator who endowed "inalienable" rights—are no longer self–evident. Indeed, in many circles they are routinely dismissed as unworthy of discussion. Rights are a social construction, not grounded in any kind of transcendent God. But, as postmodernists have shown, what is constructed can be deconstructed, and rights created by the state can be taken away by the state.

One tenet of postmodernism has not been brought up in public, and for good reason. According to postmodernism, freedom is an illusion. Our sense that we can do as we please is itself a social construction. According to the poster child of postmodernism, Michel Foucault, Western democracies are not free at all. Indeed, they are the easiest to control. This is because those in power make their citizens control themselves. This is far more efficient than a police state, since each individual, imagining that he is free but in reality internalizing the values of those in power, becomes his own policeman. And they are so easy to manipulate.

Used by permission. Copyright World 2000.