Category Archive 'Michael Hanby'

20 Oct 2016

“The Despair Election”

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2016theshining

Rod Dreher last month quoted an email he had received from Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby on the state of the American politics.

I really think there is a pervasive, but unarticulated sense that liberalism is exhausted, that we are at the mercy of systematic forces, difficult to name, which can be manipulated by the powerful but not governed by them, and that our problems are unsolvable. The reasons for this anxiety are manifold and cannot be reduced to politics or economics, though there are obvious political and economic dimensions that defy easy demographic categorization. In other words, the fact that we are in civilizational crisis is becoming unavoidably apparent, though there is obviously little agreement as to what this crisis consists in or what its causes are and little interest from the omnipresent media beyond how perceptions of crisis affect voter behavior. This seems to me a crucial part of the point and a key to understanding the sudden collapse of ‘movement conservatism’ on the one hand, and the increasingly shameless sophistry and cynicism of progressivism on the other hand. Part of what it means to say that liberalism is exhausted is that liberal order–which is more fundamentally a technological order–cannot even supply the conceptual categories and thought forms necessary for understanding our predicament.

In fact, I doubt we any longer possess enough of a ‘civilization’ to understand what a ‘civilizational crisis’ would really mean. We would not see it as a crisis of soul, but a crisis of management, in other words, another technical problem to be solved. We would no doubt think of it as something to be diagnosed by a battery of journalists, economists, evolutionary psychologists, and sociologists, who could then show us what levers to pull in order to fix it.

But if this is anywhere close to correct, then it seems to me that what we have in this election is fundamentally a contest between two forms of despair: Hillary represents despair in the form of cynicism and resignation, as evidenced by the fact that neither she, nor her surrogates, nor even her flacks in the press really pretend to believe in what she is selling. There is obvious cynicism within Trumpism as well; his supporters, on those rare occasions when he makes sense, seem to know that he is lying to them. But Trump represents despair in the form of anger and desperation, the willingness to embrace a strongman and a charlatan in the (false) hopes of regaining some kind of control over ‘the system’, whatever it is (which is a fascinating question, by the way.) Both are absolutely awful, indeed unthinkable, albeit in different ways, and yet this is what liberal order has come to.

Read the whole thing.

I do not agree, by the way, that “the conservative movement collapsed.” I think it became startlingly apparent that a significant portion of the American electorate was furiously angry at the left, but at the same time was not in the least conservative in the traditionally understood meaning of the term. That portion of the electorate proceeded to select Trump as its leader, rebelling against elite establishment liberalism but at the same time rejecting the ideological constraints and intellectual leadership of the post-war conservative movement.

Since Trump seems destined to lose catastrophically, I would be disinclined to read too much into the failure of intellectual conservatism to connect with a suddenly coagulated group of unhappy, dissatisfied low-information voters with a demonstrable preference for noise, excitement, and insulting behavior over substance and serious ideas.

Support for the Trump candidacy could be looked upon as intrinsically frivolous. Trump voters have good reason to recognize that Trump is lying about everything and that Trump is perfectly capable of going back on any and all of his promises. They also have plenty of evidence that Trump is not winning and they had to recognize all along that the election of a political outsider with all of Donald Trump’s deficiencies was an outside chance at best. But this group of voters plunged into Trumpism with all the uncritical emotionalism of the Highlanders charging English cannons at Culloden. They wanted to give the finger to the coastal establishment elite so badly that it seems the gesture was enough for them. They could just get by on denial as to the ultimate result.


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