Friday, November 03, 2006

The Objectivist Election Controversy (and Its Causes)

Dr. Leonard Peikoff's "The DIM Hypothesis" is now available free of charge to registered users at the Ayn Rand Institute website. I am grateful that this valuable resource has been offered to the public, but its sudden release and all the intense back and forth debate among Objectivists on the upcoming elections underscores the problem with Dr. Peikoff's initial statement advising how one should vote: Dr. Peikoff did not sufficiently flesh out his position--he simply asserted it. That said, I do not think that merely asserting a point is the act of wickedness some people have made it out to be. It simply assumes that if you know a person and his general philosophy, you yourself can fill in the blanks in the presentation of their argument.

Yet in this instance, some people clearly need more, and thankfully others have filled in the void (primarily Diana Hsieh, Dr. John Lewis and Craig Biddle). I agree with their analyses that the Republicans are philosophically far worse than the Democrats and must be condemned and opposed. Nevertheless, I am torn over whether actively supporting for the Democrats earns us much of anything.

For example, in my congressional district, the Democrat running for office is a professor and Dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and the key architect of the Clinton plan to socialize medicine in the early 1990s. Voting for such a person is utterly repugnant to me. Because of its duplicity and moral failures, the Republican Party deserves to lose and I withdraw my support for it, but at the same time, I simply have a hard time actively helping the Democrats to win, even if only through my vote. (But then again, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet to serve your larger end, even if doing so is unpleasant).

This all said, I still maintain that the actual act of voting on election day has been overblown in its importance. Elections are one-time events that encompass a concrete, binary choice, and voting in them is hardly the only one thing a person can do to defend his values against irrationality. In fact, I think writing articles such as this one is far more valuable than even 10,000 votes cast one way or another. Our individual vote is only worth the chance that it can swing an election, but a well-reasoned essay has the power to impact the thinking of thousands of people for the better. Objectivist voters are not yet kingmakers, but we can be intellectual activists.

And thus, I come to the daily newsletter and sporadically-produced periodical The Intellectual Activist, the once-grand standard-bearer of the Objectivist movement. In my view, the only Objectivists who have been acting badly of late are the ones who actively support the conservatives (whatever their ostensive exceptions, caveats, or wishful thinking). These Objectivists would be primarily Robert W. Tracinski, editor of TIA and ex-chairman of the Center, and his cohort, Jack Wakeland.

Tracinski & Wakeland are the ones who have bombarded their readers with near-perceptual level reporting on the goings on in Iraq at the expense of Objectivist principles. They are the ones who have argued that Objectivists who fail to support George Bush are doing the enemies work, and that Objectivists who have criticized the "Just War Theory" that animates America's current war-fighting strategy are offering "bogus" arguments. And they are the ones who have argued that if we only "persist" with the conservatives' path in the war, we will have our victory; in fact, they have attempted to enshrine such misguided persistence as a virtue.

In my estimate, the pair's ideas and actions—their consistent unwillingness to understand the conservatives and offer principled opposition to them—have placed them far outside the good.

For example, consider Tracinski's op-ed "The Democratic Party Adds Nothing to the National Debate"—the real source of the current acrimony among Objectivists today. Tracinski writes:

Like many on the right, I have been deeply unsatisfied with the Republican Congress. The Republicans, I thought, ought to lose enough seats in the November congressional elections that they feel they've been punished for runaway federal spending.

But as the election gets nearer and I think more about what is at stake, I have come to realize that the best outcome is for the Democrats to lose.
Notice that Tracinski's frames his emotional state as being "deeply unsatisfied." He is not outraged at the massive increase in government spending under the Republicans or their failure to abolish any significant government spending program, nor is he appalled at the abject failure of the Bush administration to wage a ruthless war against the Jihadists, nor is he even offended that the conservatives are working to inject their mystical creed into public life. Instead, Tracinski is simply "deeply unsatisfied." Tracinski's emotional state is not an argument, but it is revealing. It makes me wonder what it takes to actually ruffle his feathers.

And why does Tracinski claim that a Democratic defeat in November is the best outcome? He argues that if the Republicans are bad, the Democrats are worse, and thus they deserve to lose more. In the process, Tracinski utterly fails to appreciate the nature of the ideas that have come to dominate the Republican party. He fails to grasp the degree that they are associated with capitalism, business growth, and a strong defense, and yet how their core philosophy actively betrays these values. Rather than punish the Republicans for their pale-faced betrayal of capitalism, Tracinski calls upon his readers to reward them at the polls (unless these Republicans are super-religious, and then it's OK to withdraw one's support).

Why? Why would an Objectivist ever seek to reward any Republicans in the face of their repeated failures (including the secular ones who nevertheless tacitly support the religious types)? The way Tracinski explains it, it is because . . .

[t]he more the left fades from the scene, the more the national political debate will be a debate within the right. The American system is not friendly to monolithic one-party rule. The moment one party begins to dominate, it tends to split apart along its internal fault lines. The more the Republicans dominate American politics, therefore, the more intensely they will debate among themselves.
I'd like to know what historical facts Tracinski relies upon to justify his position, for he doesn't offer any. In fact, history tells us that incumbent parties tend to lose mid-term elections, so if the Republicans win a unprecedented victory this term despite a wildly unpopular president, what makes Tracinski think these victors are suddenly going to open themselves up to an era of introspection and self-criticism? Intra-party challenges are caused by bold minorities choosing to assert themselves, and not by a majority's unprecedented victory on a "stay the course" platform. Yet Tracinski & Wakeland are no bold minority. They refuse to ruthlessly attack the Republicans for their faults-and their advocacy suffers for it.

And even more importantly, as Craig Biddle noted, Tracinski has enshrined the promise of mere chattering at some future date while simultaneously ignoring the substantive evil that animates the Republicans now. There are grades and styles of evil, and understanding these divisions and what animates them is crucial if we are to win converts and effectively fight against the irrational. Which force represents the greater threat to our lives: our clearly marked enemies, or the people who claim to be our friends, but turn around and betray us at every turn because they share our enemy's root premise?

The answer to this question is the fundamental issue of this election, and thus far, the question that Tracinski and his allies have failed to properly answer. In fact, I have come to conclude it is fair to ask the above question of both the Republicans, and of Mr. Tracinski and his allies. Egoism demands constancy.

I know it will upset some that I have explicitly targeted not just ideas that I disagree with, but also those who hold them (as well as people that some may hold in high regard). I simply do not see that it pays to maintain the pretense that these ideas do not have a source, and that this source deserves to go unnamed and not be examined for its faults.


Jack Galt said...

Damn! That's the sound on an Objectivist bitch-slap.

Anonymous said...


I really enjoy your commentary and agree with it 100%. I don't know if you have the time or the inclination, but if you do I would love to see you join in the discussion of this over at SoloPassion:

Some good arguments have been made to both support Peikoff's view and to oppose it.

Anyway, thanks for the great post. As of this point, I disagree with Peikoff's voting reccommendation (although I loved his DIM course), but I also disagree with Tracinski on just about everything. I also didn't appreciate him saying Dr. Peikoff is afflicted with "Dominque Francon" syndrome. Tracinski is not even close to being in the same league as Dr. Peikoff. He should remember that.

Ed Cline said...

Great post by our host. It's one thing to misread a politician's intentions or misintrepret his statements; it's quite another to evade a politician's record or repress knowledge of it in an act of grasping for straws. With the Republicans, it's always been the short straw the electorate has picked, and paid the consequences. With the Democrats, it's always been the hand-buzzer at 1,000 volts. I gave up on Tracinski and Wakeland ages ago. They too much wanted it to be true that the Republicans were salvagable. But, wishing never made anything so.

Stephen Macklin said...

I have yet to vote in an election in which a party, or a candidate closely represents my ideas and values. It has always been a choice of picking the one that seamed to pose the least threat to them.

In this election, I don't have that choice. Even with three candidates for Senate to choose from. (The outcome of the election is already a foregone conclusion but that is neither here nor there).

I have not choice but to abstain.

Michelle Cohen said...

Thank you for keeping the heat down in the election debate. I couldn't agree more that the act of voting was overblown beyond reasonable proportions. Several thousand Objectivists cannot sway the election, but even a handful can make a difference as writers and teachers. This is where the battle is.

AnonyMouse said...

Let's not reify the act of voting on Nov 7. We already vote every day with our feet and our pocketbooks. We influence the world on a daily basis when we go to work and do our jobs supremely well. Just as one poster commented that a handful of us can influence many thousands through writing and teaching, so do we also make a profound statement by being gainfully employed and working diligently at our chosen professions. I remember seeing lots of protestors, often young, when I was a student (e.g. in front of the World Bank). I always wondered where they found the time to stand around when the rest of us were in the library or going to our jobs. I still believe that objectivists change the world every day just by putting beliefs into action behind a desk, on a construction site or wherever their careers have taken them.