The Landscape of the American Political Battlefield

HomeArticlesThe Landscape of the American Political Battlefield

An ongoing debate in American political science regards the dispositions of the factions within American society towards one another; some scholars argue that a culture war obtains, while others point towards the peaceful transitions of power and the respect for political opposition in America as hallmarks of an exemplary civil society.[1]  Eric Voegelin analyzed the cultural factors which affect the propensity for a good society to emerge following a revolutionary movement in his renowned New Science of Politics (1952) and rearticulated this argument in the essay “Freedom and Responsibility in Economy and Democracy” (1960).  In the first, he depicted America as particularly well-positioned to resist ideological fanaticism, and in the second he depicted the aspects of German society which exacerbated ideological fanaticism.  These works are especially helpful to us today because the same sort of ideologically inspired arguments that afflicted Voegelin’s time are increasingly identifiable today, and presently challenge American political institutions.  With American institutions bent but not broken, we may still conclude that “the fate is in the balance.”[2]

The deficiencies of civic virtue in German society which Eric Voegelin so masterfully exhibited in his works from the 1950s and early 1960s are more recognizable in American society than when Voegelin wrote.  The types of social movements afflicting Germany in 1960 have grown much stronger in America since then, and although American institutions have proven resilient against degeneration by ideological fanatics thus far, the evidence today suggests that the concerns voiced by Voegelin regarding Germany are now fully applicable to America.  This finding is important because it suggests that the American regime could be at stake if measures are not taken to relieve the current ideological environment through rational debate.

Review of Voegelin on Civic Virtue

Voegelin’s 1960 essay, “Freedom and Responsibility in Economy and Democracy” was addressed to a German audience and addressed why Germans at that time lacked “a sound knowledge…of the right behavior of man in political society.”[3] Voegelin’s work from this time indeed often focuses on the substance of this “sound knowledge” and what is needed for “right behavior.”  Voegelin viewed the knowledge needed to be an understanding of the limits of human knowledge and of the human propensity to err in light of claiming to possess certainty of knowledge that no human may possess.  The behavior needed is a cultivated curiosity for truth in all matters of consequence to humans, and the open-minded disposition towards the truth necessitated by the human inability to attain certain knowledge.  This behavior may also be characterized as restraint in the face of the temptations associated with having a libido and with wielding power.   Such behavior is grounded in the knowledge of classical philosophy and the Christian (especially Protestant) religion, which instill the fundamental viewpoint that man is fallible; the eradication of both from the forces shaping German society in the twentieth century had resulted in the Nazi regime and the continuing ideological corruption within Germany even after the fall of the Nazi regime.

Voegelin emphasizes the variation in western liberal societies regarding their respective propensities to succumb to ideological fanaticism, as had the Germans.   He was especially fond of the American and English societies in this regard.  In “Freedom and Responsibility” he put it this way: “one important aspect of the German historical-political situation is particularly distinct from the Ango-Saxon.  Unlike in England, no Second Reformation took place in the eighteenth century in Germany. . . for in the critical period of the Industrial Revolution and the forming of the industrial proletariat, the second reformation carried Christendom in England to the people . . . and thereby virtually immunized them against later ideological movements.  A comparable phenomenon does not exist on the continent, above all not in Germany.”[4]  Voegelin argues that the lack of the second reformation in Germany is responsible for both the prominence of Marxism in the nineteenth century and of Nazism in the twentieth.[5]

The concluding chapter of The New Science of Politics (1952) depicts a similar variation in the propensity for ideological infatuation amongst western liberal societies.  As depicted there, the timing of the national revolutions reflects a relative proximity to the protestant movement – the English and American revolutions, occurring prior to the French and German, display a greater resilience of soul against ideology than the latter.  This is because “in the seventeenth century . . .  gnosticism had not yet undergone its radical secularization.   England had preserved the institutional culture of aristocratic parliamentarism as well as the mores of a Christian commonwealth.”  America, too, “also had the good fortune of [having its revolutionary founding come] to its close within the institutional and Christian climate of the ancien regime.”[6]  France and Germany, he posited, were blown into rocky waters because of the secularized nature of the movements that destroyed old institutions.  The French Revolution “permanently split the nation” and the German, “in an environment without strong institutional traditions, brought for the first time into full play the economic materialism, racist biology, corrupt psychology, scientism, and technological ruthlessness – in brief, modernity without restraint.”[7]

In “Freedom and Responsibility,” Voegelin also ties the sound knowledge needed for a society to avoid the temptations of appealing but misleading philosophical and political systems with political institutions.   Voegelin asserts that Germany lacks the “centuries-old depth of western democracies.”[8] The longevity of the English and American constitutions, much older than Germany’s 1871 constitution, provide the backbone needed to endow that civil theology which endows political institutions, in time, with venerability.    He asserts that it was only feasible for Hitler to commandeer the German state because Germany lacked the “established, respected traditions which, for example, made it impossible even for a Roosevelt to fill the Supreme Court . . .”[9] Hence, Voegelin’s thesis in both pieces is ultimately that the Second Reformation helped to endow American and English institutions with that sense of civil theology necessary to endure against the tempting mass movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Voegelin transitions in the second section of “Freedom and Responsibility” to analyzing the attitudes and behaviors of his German students in the early 1960s.  He found that three traits characterized these students: value-relativism, existentialism, and neo-positivism.  Voegelin referred to this cultivation of these traits in German students as “non-sense” because these attributes facilitated the “arbitrary narrowing down of the area of discussion in political science.  The investigation is to be restricted in such a way that rational principles of action cannot become thematic.  It is the attitude of dogmatists . . .”[10]  To limit one’s way of thinking along such ideological lines was profoundly dangerous to the preservation of democracy:

“Rational discussion is, however, the lifeblood of democracy. . .  The primary danger [to democracy] is the intellectual climate in which movements like National Socialism and Communism can grow.  And the primarily dangerous climate surrounding us is created by those intellectuals (‘thinkers’ or ‘philosophers’ would not be the right word) who in their political attitude stand not at all on the left, radical wing of the anti-rational gnosis, but who declare their support for democracy.  We will have to deal successfully with this primary danger to democracy if we want to survive as democrats.  Freedom and responsibility are vain words if rational knowledge is prohibited, if we are not allowed to contemplate rationally the rightness of our actions.  We have to fight the prohibition of questions regarding ideological premises that intellectuals try to force upon us; we have to regain the social freedom barely still existing today to cultivate the science of right action.”[11]

Thus, this 1960 essay is particularly valuable to those seeking to analyze 2018 America because, as I intend to show in this work, the lack of rational discourse evident in 1960 Germany can be seen in America today.  This irrational discourse is cultivated by the indoctrination of American students with the same three philosophical traits as Voegelin identified in German students.  Furthermore, this discourse is aimed toward a degeneration of American political institutions.  This particularly volatile cocktail of social ingredients produced social revolutions that have irreparably altered Germany’s and France’s regimes.  The American case is now amplified by the context Voegelin was able to identify: the conditions of America’s founding and history had, through his writing in 1960, preserved American institutions.

Changes in American Society

Voegelin had linked America’s sound knowledge of rational principles to America’s involvement in the Second Reformation.  Throughout the decade of the 1950s, this heritage was empirically prominent in American culture.   Indeed, today’s America is a more secular society and a decidedly less Protestant society than the America of the 1950s.  The social forces driving this secularism had simply not become prolific at that date, though the social revolution of the 1960s would provide the opportunity for such growth.  The series of Supreme Court rulings that radicalized the Establishment Clause and effectively removed any veneration for religion in the public education system did not begin to roll out until 1962; case law prompting the removal of religious symbols from public spaces did not appear until the late 1980s.

The trend against religiosity in America, exemplified by this case law, is empirically discernible.  According to Gallup, those identifying with no religion have increased steadily from 1% to 20% of the population from 1957 to 2017.[12]   In 2017, 73% of Americans believed that religion was losing its influence, 65% had not attended church or synagogue within the past week, and 46% were not members of a church or synagogue at all.[13]  Each of these numbers was at or near record levels since Gallup began collecting such data in 1992.  America is also a decidedly less protestant nation that it was in the fifties.   Affiliation with protestant denominations has declined steadily from 70% of the population in 1957 to 38% of the population in 2017, according to Gallup[14].  By contrast, the percentage of the population identifying with Catholicism, Judaism, and Mormonism have all remained nearly constant throughout the same time period (Catholicism has declined from 27% to 24%, for instance).[15]

Such high attrition rates in Protestantism are especially noteworthy in light of Voegelin’s analysis of American institutional resilience.  Voegelin’s analyses indicated that America’s Protestantism was a cause of American institutional stability.  Before examining the ways in which the whittling away of Protestantism has manifested in American universities since Voegelin wrote, we might review some of Voegelin’s remarks on the American students of the 1950s.  He found these students to possess the type of sound knowledge needed to display rational behavior in civic spaces.  For instance, he recounts one instance at Louisiana State University in the early 1950s when an exotic dancer from New Orleans attempted to dance publicly on the university’s parade grounds.  This event caused an impromptu riot to break out among LSU’s male students.  Voegelin explained this behavior as rebellion against the irrationally lurid public behavior of the dancer.  Having never been exposed to such behavior, the students found it to be wildly out of order with civil standards.  So the young men partook in a rebellion to preserve the social order; much as America’s founders sought to preserve their rights as Englishmen.[16]   The social changes of the 1960s, however, would produce college students who became ignorant of the sound knowledge needed to preserve a rational civil order, and instead began to undertake rebellious behavior aimed to change instead of to preserve that order.

Before moving on, it is important to emphasize that the diminishment of Protestantism has not even decimated and certainly not annihilated the Protestant tradition and the associated cultural dispositions from American culture.  Rather, the clashing of American factions along the cleavages created by these changes has accounted for the rise “culture war” claims cited above.  One side of this coin wishes to preserve, and the other to fundamentally alter America’s institutions.  In such a context, the purpose of this essay is to identify the strategies and tactics of the movement aimed at such alterations.  Strategically, we see this movement cultivating hostility through the philosophical teachings of many of our universities.  Tactically, we see this philosophical disposition used to facilitate a subtle prohibition of questions concerning the movements motivations and end-game goals.

Destruction of the Science of Right Order in American Universities

Voegelin’s analysis of Germany in “Freedom and Responsibility” focused on the ways that German students were failing to demonstrate the sound knowledge needed to preserve German political institutions in the face of ideologically fanatical times.  Today, American students are comparable to the German students Voegelin taught in 1960 in the ways identified by Voegelin in this essay.  As the above section notes, changes in religious attitudes have occurred steadily since about 1960.  Many of the changes discussed in this section are likewise not new, and have been well-recognized since at least Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind recounted the radicalism at Cornell in the 1960s.  However, the steady amplification of these trends continues unabated since Bloom’s work, and a brief description of some tendencies demonstrated among contemporary American students is warranted in this piece.

Voegelin focused on the strong tendencies toward existentialism, value-relativism and neo-positivism in German students of 1960.[17]  He noted that each of these tendencies eroded the capability for rationality in Germany needed to preserve German political institutions.  Today, each of these traits is evident in American university students.   Changes in American society since 1960 that diminish rational discourse through existentialism, value-relativism and neo-positivism which have been buttressed by support through university research and curriculum offerings are too numerous to offer any sort of categorical analysis in the space allotted here.  Instead, I may merely identify some of the ways in which things that Voegelin had identified as tendencies in 1960 Germany are now institutionalized aspects of today’s American education system.

Existentialism is a philosophical system which may easily give rise to value relativism.  “Themes from Existentialism” is, for instance, hailed by Brown University as “by far the most popular philosophy course at Brown.”[18]  The prominent existentialist thinkers from whom Voegelin demurred (Kierkegard, Hegel, and Sartre) are all standard fare in most philosophy programs today and household names to undergraduate philosophy students; most have not heard of Voegelin.   Though Walter Kauffman was able in 1960 to write about the “Reception of Existentialism in America,”  “Heidegger in America” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010.[19]  Therein, Woessner argues that Heidegger is among the most influential philosophers of America in the twentieth century.[20]   Heidegger‘s conquest is so thorough that I have personally suffered through a professional development presentation by a Presbyterian University’s religion professor which focused on the philosophy of Heidegger.

Brown’s degree requirements for political science, which are very similar to requirements for most American political science degrees, would do little to push students into courses on classical political philosophy.  Merely one political theory course is required for graduation, and students may take elective courses in African-American studies, sociology, and a number of other choices in lieu of philosophy courses if they wish.[21]  These trends have been occurring since Voegelin wrote, but classically trained political philosophers simply do not have the votes in their academic departments to change these trends in curricular offerings.

These curricular requirements diminish the propensity for American students to possess the sound knowledge of civic virtue needed to preserve American institutions.  American institutions are buttressed by the type of rational thinking which was evident in classical and Christian philosophy, and also displayed by the American Founding generation, as Voegelin pointed out in his observations on America’s success as a nation.   Courses in classical and Christian philosophy, therefore, would be fundamental to any basic education in American government.   These topics may now be avoided in American political science training.  A student may instead find himself led by his advisors or friends into a more fashionable course on existentialism, and his only exposure to philosophy limited to the value-relative likes of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Voegelin contends that “value relativism posits in its radical form that the social science researchers act within the values dominant in his society and time.”[22]  This quote aptly describes the contemporary American university course offerings, which have been flavored by the existentialist tendencies discussed above.  Academic discussions of the highest good and right reason are replaced with discussion on identity issues, triggers, and social justice.   Women’s studies, for instance, did not exist as a degree offering in 1960.[23]  Such studies would have occurred within traditional philosophy courses at that date; and, indeed, such topics are replete in the great philosophical texts of the West.  The idea of women’s studies as a major degree developed in America concurrently with the proliferation of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, growing from 0 to 276 major programs nationwide by 1977; by 2007, there were 650 such major programs nationwide.[24]  Many of these majors have been augmented since to “Gender and Sexuality Studies,” to also investigate issues related to the more recent LGBT movement.  In other words, a tight correlation exists between the proliferation of existentialism and of the proliferation of value-relative collegiate curricular offerings.

Classical philosophy’s quest to understand objective ethical standards are, when taught, generally presented as antiquated by instructors.  A tenured faculty member at a prominent New England university recently remarked at Political Theory’s flagship academic conference, “I categorically reject all of Aristotle.”[25]  So the idea of objectivity, represented by this called professor as “all of Aristotle,” is presented as one of a plethora of philosophical systems, and done so pejoratively to impress upon students that it is the only amongst that plethora which, because it touts objective truthfulness, in untruthful.

Neo-positivism is likewise entrenched in American universities, and this movement has also grown since Voegelin attacked it in the 1950s and 1960s.  Statistical training is a rote requirement for all American graduate students in political science, and some prominent programs have eliminated not merely classical political philosophy but all political theory offerings completely.  Neo-positivism as an entrenched and almost required tool for social science research has had the effect of further empowering the social agendas which gave rise to the trends of existentialist philosophy and value-relativist thought.  It has essentially replaced rational thought and discussion as the primary medium through which the truth is disclosed to American students.   Because statistics are the subject to manipulation and by-definition void of metaphysically inspired queries, they enable scientific conclusions to justify the social prerogatives of the day, whatever they may be.

The sum of the institutionalization of these three traits in American higher education is that the conditions necessary for a rekindling of classical political science are quite poor at present.   Moreover, these traits are affecting the behavior of our students and the functioning of the university system.  These are not accidental outcomes, but an expected product of the of the curricular choices offered by American universities.  This is a strategic selection of curricular offerings designed to produce a fundamental confusion regarding the veracity of social arguments.  An exemplary development in the trend of value-relativism is the rise in recent years of false claims made by college students who alleged some sort of racial or sexual discrimination in apparent attempts to for good grades or reputations.  Students discern the value-judgements of our system rather quickly, and some have developed tools to exploit it.  Some of them have learned that the victimized portrayals of race, gender, and sexuality in their curriculums may be exploited to their benefit.  Instances of black students defacing their own dormitories with racist graffiti have been documented, as have false incidents of sexual harassment.[26]  To find our youth playing so loosely with the truth in the arena of justice bespeaks an educational trend in which truth and justice are neither serious nor interesting topics of study.

Institutional Assault in America

ISIS’ destruction of religious temples in Palmyra in its plight to create a new caliphate shocked observers in the West.  But in reality, the act of destroying old “modes and orders” is one which any incipient political regime, or any movement aspiring to create a new political order, must undertake.    The current revolutionary movement sweeping America, therefore, also undertakes this activity.  The key difference is the subtlety required to force change upon one’s own liberal society using those same liberal modes.

This portion of this essay contains two goals.  First, this essay will identify that a significant attack is indeed occurring on America’s political institutions.  Second, this essay will identify that this attempted destruction of order is connected to the deterioration of the traditional religious structures and viewpoints which had been that aspect of the Second Reformation that had insulated America from gnostic radicalism in the 20th century; or, this institutional deterioration is connected to the growth of the attitudes discussed above: value relativism, neo-positivism, and existentialism.

The ISIS case cited above is one of conquest and is consequently not very difficult to analyze; territory is conquered, and then temples are torn down.  Change is imposed by physical force.  Institutional change occurring through a social movement in a liberal society looks much different, and is more challenging to analyze.  Force must masquerade as persuasion and the changes implemented simply appear to be the passage of laws, or the lawful prosecution of individuals, as the normal outcome of the appropriate legislative or judicial process.   Attempts to change Institutions change do not appear as attempted change (and change may not appear as change); attempted and even actual change masquerades as proper functioning.  However, when we see the destruction of traditional symbols of political meaning in the American South – statues of Confederate soldiers – we do see a very basic similarity to Palymra: the motivation behind the destruction is a desire to rid a society of the ideas being represented by the demolished structure.

Voegelin’s analysis of the systems used to facilitate the prohibiting of questions in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1960) is helpful in disclosing this tendency in America.[27]   According to Voegelin, constructs designed to achieve particularly ideological ends will prohibit questions or rational discourse about such constructs, precisely because such discourse would expose the irrational or ideological nature of the construct.  In other words, artificers of institutional change for the purposes of ideological gain are often aware that their constructs would not pass scrutiny on objective terms, but can appear to be appealing if they are only scrutinized in the light suggested by the artificer.  They understand that their construct is the product of hostility toward this or that component of existence, and therefore will take efforts to conceal this hostility and that their desire is to destroy existing institutions before they to construct something different instead.  In the very tangible case of the destruction of confederate statues, the act is done overtly in the name of eliminating hatred; the concealed act, the expression of hostility toward the ideas of freedom as preserved through a balanced federal structure, and the concealed motivation, the desire to rebalance power in a national government who may restrict freedoms which conflict with the identities empowered by value-relative thinking supplanted by existentialist inclinations, are not noticed for what they are.

In “Freedom and Responsibility” Voegelin articulates a keen awareness of how problematic this strategy can be for democratic societies.  In particular, he asserts those who pose as defenders of democratic institutions while attempting to actually change profoundly those institutions can actually be quite successful at doing so.    America, like many regimes, has a deeply seeded civil theology that venerates its institutions; the democracy functions because the people have a preference for it.  Fomenting any institutional change, therefore, requires that the ideological movement designing change does not appear hostile to the regime.  Thus, as mentioned, we see statues perverted into idols of slavery rather than left as the idols of freedom which they were when self-interpreted by southerners.  We also see substantial headway in the movement’s ability to effect public opinion with these re-definitions; in about half of the country, more individuals saw these statues as “racist” than did individuals who saw them as expressing “southern pride” (a poor description), and even in the South individuals were deeply conflicted over this issue (in part because “southern pride” does not accurately portray the meaning of the symbol – “freedom,” “federalism,” or “states’ rights” may have produced different responses, but the surveyor prohibited this answer with his selection of answer choices).[28]

In this case, the phenomenon of the prohibition of questions appears in a subtler form than it had in Voegelin’s analysis of Marx.   Marx invoked clearly: “do not think, do not question me.”  Totalitarian death squads brought to light the practical consequences of this rhetorical strategy with horrifying clarity.  Here, the meaning of a statue is simply defined in public media, and substantiated through the empirical evidence provided by a scientific analysis.  On the surface, there is nothing here to remind us of totalitarian-style gnosticism.  But the meaning of the statues identified (racism) is not what the statues mean to those who revere them (freedom).  The definition offered subtly betrays a hostility towards the socio-economic situation of the south.  And the evidence presented to support this definition subtly prohibits the true meaning of the statues from surfacing in public discourse.   The word-play invoked here is of fundamental similarity to Marx’s “do not think, do not question me,” in that it defines the terms in the issue.  The scientific analysis of fundamental similarity to the practical work done by the death squads of the 20th century, in that it dissuades dissent from the terms declared by the theoretician.

Fortunately, the traditional tools of classical political science may equip us to diagnose these so-called defenders of democracy as fraudulent advocates of democracy and instead as earnest advocates of their own power.  Hostility from the revolutionary movement in general can indeed by shown towards the same institutions and structures which they are purporting to defend.  We can also show that attempts to defend American institutions while also changing those institutions clandestinely are occurring in our contemporary politics, and being undertaken by the very actors who are claiming to be protecting our institutions.  The entire recipe for the construction of ideologically inspired systems and for the prohibition of questions regarding those systems is robustly identifiable in American political culture in recent years.  So much is sufficient to demonstrate that the type of institutional harm caused through irrational motives as discussed by Voegelin is presently occurring in America.

Hostility to American institutions is evident as outright hostility on some occasions in the era since social change could be detected in the early 1960.  Catherine McKinnon’s assault on the U.S. Constitution in light of a free speech ruling which contradicted her ideological prerogatives pertaining to pornography in the 1980s provides one very good example of hostility and a desire to profoundly change more than policy.  She rails against both the notion of freedom and against the Constitution by arguing that “those domains in which women are distinctively subordinated are assumed by the Constitution to be the domain of freedom.  ..our exclusion means that the First Amendment was conceived by white men from the point of view of their social positions.”[29]  She clearly indicates her hostility toward white men in the ensuing line: “Some of them owned slaves, most of them owned women.”[30]  If her hostility and if her antagonist have not been made clear:

“I must say that the First Amendment has become a sexual fetish through the years of absolutist writing in the melodrama mode in Playboy in particular.  You know those superheated articles (she is now referring to this magazine as one would a coffee-table staple which everyone reads, and not one sold from a plastic sleeve to mostly underage teenage boys in seedy gas stations) where freedom of speech is extolled and its imminent expression is invoked.  Behaviorally, Playboy’s consumers are reading about the First Amendment, masturbating to the women, reading about the first Amendment, masturbating to the women, reading about the first amendment, masturbating to the women.  What is conveyed is not only that using women is as legitimate as thinking about the Constitution, but also that if you don’t support these views about the Constitution, you won’t be able to use these women.”[31]

The hostility evoked towards (especially white) men in these passages is very difficult to miss.   She has moreover, through the apparent affinity of Playboy for the first amendment, attempted to establish some sort of causal relation: the protections for individuals granted by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights are not actually protections at all, but clandestine means for men to solidify their domination over women.  So, there is not only a hostility evoked towards the sexuality of men, but also towards the Constitution of the United States.  We may consider this narrative as an example of a soft prohibition of questioning.  The hostility assumed in her argument precludes any fundamental questioning about its premises.  She does not wish to be bothered with queries about this causal relationship.  She does not wish to combat the dearth of empirical evidence in the form of published essays, collectively called the Anti-Federalist Papers, which clearly indicate that the concerns of the Founders drafting the Constitution were with governmental tyranny and not with sexual dominion.

The situation is especially confused because the movement represented here by McKinnon, though it views the Constitution as its enemy, postures itself as the true defender of the American values articulated in the Constitution.  Though MacKinnon attacks the First Amendment, she is also out to further the safeguards assured by the First Amendment in the first place, i.e., the general protection of individual rights through the free expression which may persuasively defend those same rights (so long, of course, as we don’t mean to include pornographic expression in the lot of free expression).   Thus, the students in our universities are forced to decide who the true defender of democracy is: the Constitution which protects rights including speech, or the political movement which would have to fundamentally alter or abolish the Constitution (and the social view of white men in course) to protect a slightly (or radically) different set of rights.  This is all admittedly quite confusing, and would be especially so for an undergraduate student who is just grappling with the notion of justice in a serious way for the first time in his life, and doubly so in the environment in which they are trained to believe that the hostility expressed by MacKinnon is just as philosophically credible as, if not more philosophically credible than, the next proposition.   Through the academic tendencies discussed in the above section, we do not equip our youth with the sound knowledge necessary to adequately wade through the morass of conflicting social forces which confronts them in our contemporary society.

The strategy of philosophically evoked hostility can produce the tactic of prohibiting questions pertaining to the credibility of the hostile proposition.  This dynamic was brought into full display recently in the Senate proceedings which confirmed Bret Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  In this episode, the weight of value relativist indoctrination was manifest in the eagerness displayed by many to circumvent due process protections in the case of alleged sexual assault.  Particularly interesting was the eagerness displayed by some actors to quell concerns over apparent gaps in Christine Blasey-Ford’s account of the assault.   Inconsistencies in a story can be important, as they may demonstrate some falsity.   Blasey-Ford’s inability to recount important details from that event, such as where it occurred, how she got there, or how she returned home afterwards, could not be recounted in her sworn testimony to the Senate judicial committee.   Many rushed to defend these inconsistencies by pointing out that psychological research demonstrates that survivors of trauma often forget facts pertinent to their traumatic event (as others cited these inconsistencies as evidence of deception).

Indeed, a sizeable body of psychology literature deals with this issue, and ostensibly supports this conclusion.[32]   The nuances, however, within this literature leave plenty of room to doubt the presentation of it in mass media.[33] For instance, frequently cited research within this field argues that the impacts of trauma on memory are most significant within months of the event, and that psychological therapy may remediate memory deficiencies.[34]  We also know from Blasey-Ford’s testimony that she is not only a psychologist herself but sought counseling and discussed the alleged incident with a professional psychologist.  Of course, no casual observer is equipped with the knowledge needed to draw any conclusion about what occurred in this specific case from scientific research.  Such research draws generalized conclusions about these types of traumatic experiences.   Thus, whether Blasey-Ford manufactured her Senate testimony is irrelevant, as the defense of her testimony offered in public effectively prohibited any meaningful reflection about her specific case.  Pointing to expertise as a means of prohibiting questions about dubious claims made within the political arena has emerged in this case as a tactic relied upon to circumvent such questions.  Rather, the general claim suffices as the defense; the expertise of the subject matter expert and the ignorance of the audience serve to prohibit questions.  Trust in expertise and a lack of self-confidence in the audience relative to the expert is evoked to psychologically dissuade questions from arising.

This same essential strategy of fomenting attempted change through hostility, and of prohibiting questions about the attempted change through the tactic of experts tacitly shunning ignorant audiences can be seen working against the Trump administration in other areas.  Among the most interesting of the scholarly responses to Trump came from the discipline of psychiatry.  Shortly after Trump’s election, Yale University held a “duty to warn” conference, consisting largely of psychiatrists.  Each paper published from this conference makes a case against Donald Trump’s psychological character, arguing that his presidency is consequently particularly dangerous.  The concluding paper argues that “there are two huge dangers [nuclear war and environmental catastrophe] that the human species faces…Trump wants to race toward the precipice as quickly as possible.”[35]  Consequently, a well-known press published a 300-page selection of essays under the auspices of one of America’s most elite universities in order to explain the profundity of Trump’s danger to America.

John Gartner, for instance, develops the narrative that Trump is “a profoundly evil man” who is “increasingly more irrational, grandiose, paranoid, aggressive, irritable, and impulsive.”[36]   Many of the essays make the case that public statements uttered along the campaign trail, because of their generally despicable nature, betray a dangerous mental instability in both Trump and Trump supporters.[37]  Craig Malkin, for instance, cites as his evidence for pathological narcissism a tweet sent by Trump regarding the Celebrity Apprentice.[38] Malkin’s concluding section suggests that the meaning of Trump’s election for the human race is dire; “Spotting Lethal Leaders: How to Save the World” questions “if pathological narcissists . . . bring themselves to the precipice of disaster, why should we, as nations, allow them to pull us into the abyss with them.”[39]

Interestingly, this is not the first time that psychiatrists have accosted a political figure whom they have not interviewed personally and disagreed with politically.  Barry Goldwater successfully sued for libel after a similar diagnosis from psychiatrists prior to the 1964 election.  The Goldwater case established the “Goldwater Rule:” accusations should not be made by psychiatrists against any type of public figure without having diagnosed them personally.  The rule is well-known to practitioners and mandated by the APA code of ethics.  Nevertheless, the Yale authors each violate the Goldwater rule.  They evidently do so because they understood that the danger posed by Trump was profound, and because “the public trust is . . . violated if the profession fails in its duty to alert the public when a person who holds the power of life and death over us all shows signs of clear, dangerous mental impairment,”[40] Malkin professes that doing so is for the sake of “allowing risk assessment (to the country, to the world) to take precedence over the sanctity of current ethics.”[41]

One participant in the conference was a legal scholar and lawyer.  James Herb felt this “duty to warn” so profoundly that he not only participated in this conference, but undertook legal action to prevent Trump’s election by filing a petition in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to “determine [the President’s] mental capacity.”[42]   Herb made it clear that it was his duty to circumvent to the electoral processes in the United States due to the urgent nature of the circumstances, which he could detect but so many others could not:

“I assumed that Trump would not get the Republican nomination for president.  Then, in July 2016, he did.  I started to agonize over the possibility over a Trump presidency.  It was true that two hurdles stood between Trump’s nomination and what I believed might be the Apocalypse.  One was the general election . . . the second was the voting of the Electoral College.  Was there anything that I, a simple probate attorney, an ordinary citizen, could do?  I started to review the public record regarding things Trump had said and done.  I compiled a list of two hundred items that I believed reflected his mental disability to discharge the duties of a president.  The list could have been substantially longer, but I stopped at two hundred.”[43]

The district court in Florida twice rejected his case; after the election the author filed another arguing that Trump should be dismissed from office per the 25th amendments “incapacitated person” clause, which was also rejected.

The elements involved in the Yale Conference show these authors masquerading as defenders of democratic values and institutions, while at the same time attempting to find loop-holes to the normal operations of those institutions in order to change them for merely political gain.   One can discern that the violation of the Goldwater Rule or the filing of legal action – work by experts done in their respective fields – is used to provide them with the justification needed to make this case.  Because their actions are profound, they assert that they must be correct.  The situation becomes confused, again, because successful professionals with an array of initials after their names have sounded the alarms.

The situation occurring in McKinnon and Yale are not isolated incidents, nor are they restricted to academic presentations, as Herb’s petition indicates.  Some of the machinations occurring within the Federal Government betray actors who seem to possess strategies and tactics.  In the fall of 2018, several months before midterm elections, the purported leading Democratic Senator for the Presidential nomination in 2020 echoed the plea to invoke the 25th amendment.

Senator Warren’s call came one day after an anonymous opinion editorial in the New York Times, which claimed to be penned by a “senior administration official,” alleged the President’s instability and unfitness for office.  The editorial too called for the 25th amendment to be invoked.  In this case, as in the Mc-Kinnon / Blasey-Ford example, the theoretical maneuvers made by academics to justify hostile behavior towards a political actor appears in full public form.  Particularly interesting about this letter is its anonymity.  Anonymity was once invoked during the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debate in order to remove personal passions from the equation.  This case is altogether different.  Anonymity is now invoked as a manner of prohibiting questions concerning the veracity of the claims in the letter.  A secret cabal is acting under the auspices of the defense of democracy: “we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”[44]  And, moreover, the hostility and personal vendetta against a president whose “policies have already made America safer and more prosperous” can easily be detected: “the root of the problem is the president’s amorality.”[45]

The American political institutions provide an opportunity for opposition – and perhaps especially even senior opposition from within an administration – to work effectively without resorting to anonymity.  Indeed, the station of these officials provides them with this opportunity, as Richard Neustadt summarized best:

“Those who share in governing this country frequently appear to act as though they were in business for themselves.  So, in a real though not entire sense, they are and have to be.  When Truman and MacArthur fell to quarreling, for example, the stakes were no less than the substance of American foreign policy, the risks of greater war or military stalemate, the prerogatives of Presidents and field commanders, the pride of a proconsul and his place in history. … There is no reason to assume that in such circumstances men of large but differing responsibilities will see all things through the same glasses.”[46]

In other words, the station of this alleged anonymous actor in our system affords him the ability to confront the president, and, as many others have done when their arguments and interests were not followed by the president, resign.  Our free and eager press would additionally afford this individual the opportunity to tell his story openly, and to impact our upcoming elections accordingly.  He could, indeed, persuade more voters through this openness, where he riles much suspicion towards himself, and thereby support for the President, through secrecy.  The strategy of anonymity does not even make sense as a political strategy nor as a means of protecting the individual’s stake in society.  He would be provided countless opportunities for public gain following his exposition.

Anonymity as a tactic to prohibit questions serves as means of ostensibly validating an idea, and in this case, no one may challenge this author’s assertions that the president is “half-baked,” “reckless,” “impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective.”[47]  Given that the author has claimed that the President has been successful in important issue areas, for instance, we many not ask him to clarify what he means by “ineffective.”  Thus, anonymity may serve to compound the role of expertise as a tactic used to prohibit questions about the claims made by the anonymous expert.

Additionally, some of the machinations occurring within the judicial process in order to obtain information which might eventually lead to an impeachment display some of the same characteristics discussed by other actors in this essay, and provide evidence of the high levels to which the philosophical trends in America, beginning with our universities, have attempted to deteriorate American institutions.

The investigation conducted by Special Prosecutor Robert Muller has been conducted, at least in part, by actors who are motived in ways similar to the scholars reviewed above; that is, actors who saw it as their due place to attempt to rescind the election of President Trump due to a deep-seated hostility towards him, his policies, and/or his supporters.  This hostility was clearly demonstrated by the substance of the text messages between the FBI agents who were working on that investigation, when, for instance, Peter Strozk claimed of the FBI in a private text message: “we’ll stop” Trump’s presidency.[48]  Evidence at this date does not allow me to continue with an analysis into this issue.  But when we see in the field of justice an expert who is displaying hostility and a willingness to manipulate legal processes with the design of facilitating some political goal, we should, at least, be curious about the spectacle.


The analysis conducted above presented various strategies and tactics utilized by American political actors, and categorized each of these cases as examples of a subtle prohibition of questions.  Strategically, each case demonstrated some sense of hostility expressed towards the prevailing institutional or social order in America, and invoked this hostility as evidence of a need to alter or change political circumstances in extraordinary ways.  Tactically, the extraordinary nature of the actions attempted in these cases is downplayed or concealed by the subtle prohibition of questions used in the various cases.  Specifically, we saw claims of expertise, anonymity or both being used to obfuscate the factual basis of the appeal being made by the expert.

Such obfuscation is occasioned as a means of prohibiting questions only in the social context described above.  The continental philosophical tendencies of the mid-twentieth century now exemplify a sizable percentage of American university curricular tendencies.  The traits of value-relativism, existentialism, and neo-positivism analyzed by Voegelin in “Freedom and Responsibility” have replaced a sizeable portion of the social influence of Protestantism in America.  The consequences of these social changes are profound, although these consequences are hedged in the American case.  The philosophical rationality represented by the Protestant movement has lost ground since the fifties, but remains energetic and impacts American elections.  The subtly in the American version of the prohibition of questions is a result of this antagonism between the gnosticism represented by the social revolutionary movement and the philosophical validity of America’s traditional natural-rights principles.  The landscape of this battlefield disadvantages the forces of gnosticism; subtlety is not the true friend of coercion.

The good news, then, for American institutions is that they have not broken to the relentless assault upon them, which began at about the time that Voegelin was lauding the Americans’ sound knowledge which had long allowed them to preserve those institutions.  Though my students have not heard of Voegelin, they exhibit a sincere curiosity for his ideas when I introduce them to him.  Kavanaugh was confirmed. The 25th amendment petition discussed above was filed, but dismissed multiple times.   The organizers of the Yale conference admit that “most” of their professional colleagues did not share their views.[49]  The effects of the anonymous editorial cannot yet be detected, but I do suspect it will do more harm than good for this cabal.  No real ground has been gained in the attempts to replace the Electoral College in the two years since Trump’s election.  An FBI Director and multiple agents have been fired for attempting to use the justice department as a tool of persecution against a duly elected President.   Although Voegelin’s analysis of Germany is increasingly useful in helping us to analyze some of the political trends occurring in contemporary America, it is still fair to say that the fate remains in the balance.



[1] see, for instance: Fiorina, Abrams, and Pople.  2004.  Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. Longman Press; McCarhty, Poole, and Rosenthal.  2006.  Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches.  MIT University Press.

[2] Voegelin, Eric.  1987.  The New Science of Politics: An Introduction.  The University of Chicago Press.  pg. 189.

[3] Voegelin, Eric.  2000.  The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, volume 11.  “Freedom and Responsibility in Democracy and Economy.”  University of Missouri Press.  pg 70

[4] Ibid, 72

[5] Ibid.

[6] Voegelin, Eric.  1987.  pg. 188

[7] Ibid, pgs. 188-9

[8] Voegelin, Eric.  2000.  Pg 71

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, pg 81

[11] Ibid


[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Film, “Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of Consciousness”

[17] Voegelin, 2000.  pgs 79-82.


[19] Woesner, Martin.  2010.  Heidegger in America.

[20] Woessner, Heidegger in America, 2010.  Cambridge.


[22] Voegelin, 2000.  pg 79


[24] ibid

[25] Susan P. Liebell.  Association for Political Theory Conference, Columbus OH.  Oct, 2016


[27] Voegelin, Eric.  2004.  Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.  ISI Books.  pgs 17-21


[29] MacKinnon Catherine A., “The Sexual Politics of the First Amendment,” Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, 207

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid, 209



[34] Rothbaum, Barbara et al.  1992.  “A Prospective Examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Rape Victims.“  Journal of Traumatic Stress; Grey et al.  2002.  “Cognitive Structuring within Reliving: A Treatment for PeriTraumatic Emotional ‘Hotspots‘ in PostTraumatic Stress Disorder.“ Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy.  Vol 30: no 1.  pg 37-56

[35] Noam Chomsky, “Epilogue,” in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 357

[36] Gartner, John.  “Donald Trump is a)bad b)mad c)all of the above,”  in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 107

[37] Much of the evidence cited by these authors aligns with the ideological hostilities mentioned above; particularly insofar as the evidence seems to amount to ideological disagreement concerning worldviews, but little more.  One author, for instance, cites comments made in private of a sexual nature that disparaged women, as well as his helping to fund the prosecution of four blacks, as evidence of unfitness for office.  As the four blacks had been charged with raping a woman in Central Park, Trump’s decision to assist in this prosecution might  we may see that the women’s rights issues take deference to social justice issues when the two conflict, as in this instance.

[38] Craig Malkin, “Pathological Narcissism and Politics,” in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 57

[39] Ibid, pg 65

[40] Judith Herman and Brandi Lee, “Prologue,” in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 5.

[41]Malkin,pg 65

[42] James A. Herb, “Donald J. Trump, Alleged Incapacitated Person,” in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 136

[43] Ibid.  pg 137

[44] Probably the New York Times Edtiorial Board itself, “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” NYT, 9/7/2018

[45] ibid

[46] Neustadt, Presidential Power, 38

[47] Anonymous.  The New York Times.  “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” September 5, 2018


[49]Judith Herman and Brandi Lee, “Prologue,” in Lee, Brandy, et al.  The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.  St. Marten’s Press. 2017, pg 1.

Scott Robinson

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Scott Robinson is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView, Assistant Professor of Government and Assistant Director of the Center for Law and Liberty at Houston Baptist University. He is currently working on a book on John Locke’s political rhetoric and its long-term impact on American political thought.