Making Sense of the Surreal: The Worldview of American Politics, Part 1

American politics seems to have taken a turn to the surreal. At Netroots Nation a few weeks ago, Martin O’Malley, running to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency, was booed offstage and later apologized for saying “all lives matter” rather than the obligatory “Black lives matter.”

The President has made homosexual rights a major theme of his foreign policy, pressuring nations in the Global South to support same sex marriage, yet he also supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has just reached a deal with Iran, both of which execute homosexuals.

Radical feminists object that a “trans-woman” (i.e. a biological male who identifies as female) isn’t a real woman and shouldn’t be included within the feminist orbit, while mainstream feminists reject this as transphobic and instead wholeheartedly embrace the entire LGBTQ agenda.

How do we make sense of any of this?

Politicized Postmodernism
There is a core set of ideas that unify these and other seemingly incoherent aspects of American political life. These ideas come from a politicized version of postmodernism that shapes much of what goes on in American culture and politics and is particularly prominent among Progressives.

Like many versions of postmodernism, political postmodernism begins by denying that we can know truth in an absolute sense. Instead, pretty much everything we think of as truth (and with it, reality) is a social construct; that is, it is a way of looking at things that is created by society and typically serves the interests of those with power.

Hard binary categories, such as male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, or black and white, are especially harmful social constructs. These are better viewed as a continuum, with no clear, hard and fast definitions or distinctions between them. This idea contributes to support for the LGBTQ agenda.

Truth is Personal and Political
Postmodernists in general tend to believe that truth is personal and relative; we see this idea reflected in Justice Kennedy’s assertion that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life....” The politicized stream of postmodernism goes beyond this and also sees truth as political: social power defines reality, and thus reality can change as social ideas and conventions change.

Because of this, ideological postmodernists tend to see solutions coming from the Federal government rather than from lower levels of government or private institutions or actors. It takes action at a national level to reshape the culture. Rather ominously, the idea that reality is a social construct that can be changed also means that political postmodernism has decidedly totalitarian impulses: to create a better society, it is essential to control what people are permitted to think, since that will define their reality.

Strategically, political postmodernism follows its totalitarian predecessors in setting out a specific plan of attack for controlling and shaping the culture. Like other totalitarians, they moved into education to gain control of the school systems, and they moved into the media and entertainment industry to shape the public’s imagination, both of which were areas largely abandoned by theologically conservative Protestants in the early and mid-twentieth century.

To their control of these institutions, the ideological postmodernist added one new thing: the control of language. Language is particularly important as the means by which society can either preserve the status quo or change into new realities. The core idea is that if you make certain words and phrases unmentionable, you make the ideas behind them unthinkable. As a result, language becomes highly politicized, with control of words seen as essential to create a better world. This is the idea behind “political correctness” and the never-ending search for words that will paint groups they support in a positive light and those they oppose negatively.

The Zero Sum Game
Along with the complex of ideas surrounding truth, reality, and politics, political postmodernism views the world as a zero sum game; that is, if one person advances, it must be at the expense of another. In particular, any group that gains power must do so by taking it away from another. In other words, differences in power are caused by oppression, which is one of the few sins in political postmodernism.

As a result, postmodernists tend to be particularly critical of capitalism, which in their view is based on unhealthy competition rather than cooperation, produces winners and losers, and thus is intrinsically oppressive since the winners could only win by exploiting the losers. To put it differently, the poor are poor because the rich are rich, hence the obsession with and rhetoric about the 1% and income disparity.

Along with capitalism, Western liberal democracy is also believed to be founded on a system of institutionalized oppression that has allowed elites (typically defined as rich white heterosexual males) to monopolize power. As a result of the competitive ideology that the political system shares with capitalism, Western culture promotes the wealthy over the poor, whites over blacks, men over women, heterosexual over homosexual. This leads to the oppression of the poor, people of color, homosexuals, bisexuals, the transgendered, and women.

In general, all the world’s problems have been caused by this kind of exploitation, and any contrary evidence is simply an example of the elites lying about their responsibility for the problems. Thus the destruction of the African American family in America is blamed on slavery despite the fact that in the 1950s African Americans had a lower rate of out-of-wedlock births than whites. The problem is far more recent than slavery, but that cannot be acknowledged without undermining the basic premises of the worldview.

Although in principle political postmodernists believe that no culture is superior to any other, in practice they tend to blame Western society for all the wrongs in the world and extol the virtues of non-Western cultures. The zero sum game is at work here as well: since western culture dominates the globe, it must have achieved this position through oppressing and exploiting other cultures, and because oppression is wrong, the oppressor loses virtue, which passes to the oppressed. So Western civilization is evil and non-Western cultures are good.

Similarly, oppressed groups (women, ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, homosexuals, the transgendered, etc.) are seen as having moral authority that those in power lack. This is why mainstream feminists, for example, support homosexual rights, which would seem to have no connection to their basic cause, and why both of them often offer support to various Muslim groups even though those groups may oppose women’s rights and homosexuality: they are all “oppressed” by the institutional power structures of the West, and therefore they are all virtuous and on the same side in the fight against oppression.

This is why saying “all lives matter” rather than “Black lives matter” is seen as an insult worthy of condemnation: it shows insensitivity to the injustice suffered by Blacks and therefore denies them the moral authority that comes from suffering oppression. It is also why George Zimmerman was identified as “white Hispanic”—a term that did not exist prior to Trayvon Martin’s death. Identifying Zimmerman as Hispanic alone would have made him a member of a minority group that by definition does not have the power to oppress, so he had to be made white to make him fit the plot line.

The Grand Bargain
Aside from race, the most important issue in many ways for political postmodernists is sexual freedom, for reasons explained in this article. The great desire is for unlimited freedom—in practice meaning sexual freedom—free from consequences and guaranteed by the government. Thus the government must supply free contraception and must support abortion on demand and at no or low cost; teens who cannot bring an aspirin to school are given contraception and abortion services without parental notification or consent; sexual experimentation and exploration is encouraged as long as it is done “with protection;” all girls are to be vaccinated for the HPV virus; etc.

But consequences are not always biological: people also need to be protected from the social consequences of their behavior as well. Thus people identifying as LGBTQ are celebrated, and any attempt to suggest that some forms of behavior are morally wrong or even that homosexual behavior is associated with a wide range of negative health consequences is seen as being “judgmental”—another postmodern sin related to oppression. And people need to be protected from this by government laws and regulations that shield them from any hint of disapproval of their behavior, whether by bakers, photographers, florists, or even coworkers and acquaintances.

We thus get to another surreal element of American political life: the demand for unlimited (sexual) freedom free of consequence enforced by government regulation. As long as sexual freedom is maintained, all other freedoms are negotiable, particularly if they conflict with the new first freedom. This suits the political classes, because decreasing other freedoms increases their power.

In the next article, we will look at some of the problems associated with this worldview.

Next steps

Can you articulate the tenets of post-modernism? After reading this article, see if you can’t write down three or four of them, and if you can formulate cogent arguments against them.

Further Reading:
If you need help grasping post-modern thought, see another of Glenn’s articles called “The Post-Modern Presidency.” There are a number of very fine books on post-modernism in the Online Store; try A Primer on Postmodernism.



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