Postmodern Conservative

Politics & Policy

Enduring Problems: Predicting Elections, and Leo Strauss

There’s a lot around the web the last couple of days about the Democrats’ Romneyfication of Republican candidates for the Senate. They are being branded successfully as outsourcing oligarchs. That’s because, as in the case of Mitt and Georgia’s David Perdue, they have been. (In Georgia, it appears that, despite her excellent campaign, Michelle Nunn might have reached her personal glass ceiling at about 46 percent of the vote. As undecideds decide and libertarians decide not to cast futile votes for their candidate, Perdue, meanwhile, is creeping toward 50 percent.) So let me agree with Pete that it’s a real issue that the development of the division of labor and high technology does really take out middle-class jobs and make the economic condition of ordinary Americans with their struggling and often broken families more insecure. The solution is not “welfare” programs that are literally counterproductive, but, as Pete, Paul Ryan, Yuval, and the others have shown, there are possibilities that are more market-friendly and market-sensitive. It’s just not true that the growth caused by liberating “job creators” from taxes and regulations will be enough. I gave a talk along these lines at Middle Tennessee State yesterday (sponsored by my old friend the honors dean John Vile), and some in the diverse and attentive audience thought I might not even be a conservative! Well, a few even thought that, because I see a lot of a lot of predictive power in libertarian futurology, I was actually a libertarian. What I really said is that libertarians say such and such, and something like that might well happen, but the consequences of this or that new birth of freedom might not be change that ordinary Americans — or any free and relational being — can believe in all that much.

Peter, of course,  is right that the strong argument for voting for highly successful businessmen is that you know they’re smart and can get stuff done. And it almost always speaks well of the person to want to cap his or her career off with public service.  The danger is that he or she might continue to spend too much of the day in the exclusively oligarchic mode. 

The elections of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 were easy to predict, and if you googled enough you could see where I got the outcome almost exactly right in each case. So I was sure that Republican cluelessness and corruption would transform Congress in 2006, that Obama would win easily in 2008 but come up short of a landslide, that Republicans would sweep in 2010, but the most extravagant hopes of tea-partiers were wrong, and even that 2012 would not be all that close. My “predictive method” is just to go with what the polls actually say. That’s the problem this time. The polls look good for Republicans, and I think they will pick up seats in the House (quite an accomplishment, given how many the gained in 2010). But the Senate races remain a bit fuzzy and the data somewhat contradictory. I’m going with experts in saying the Republicans will end up with 52 seats, and that would be a kind of wave minus (given that 2008 bloated Democrats’ numbers). 

Rational prediction and control leads me, of course, to the writing of Leo Strauss. Our friend Peter Minowitz has written a fabulous review essay comparing writers on both extremes of the Strauss-o-meter. There’s the wild man Laurence Lampert, who thinks that Strauss was a Nietzschean and that Nietzsche was a Platonist, that philosophers both ancient and modern were about world-transformative projects, that Strauss lacked both guts and prudence when he faked being a political conservative (and the Straussians who followed that lead are just rather contemptible fools). Strauss should have been loud and proud about his atheism, about what turns out to be the life-affirming wisdom of “the sovereignty of becoming,” and all for a kind of cosmopolitan, post-religious world that’s openly for philosophy, universal enlightenment, modern science, and chastened only by the tragic awareness that nature eventually extinguishes every human accomplishment. If that’s not cool, what is? To which you might add, if that’s not crazy, what is? Lampert is a ferociously talented, and endlessly joyous interpreter of great texts. If that’s not fun, what is?

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, by contrast, think that Strauss was deeply critical of Nietzsche’s imprudence, really didn’t think reason could take out the possibility of revelation, really was a conservative and responsible defender of American liberal democracy (despite its flaws), and didn’t have any shocking secret teachings. Sure, he thought that the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Aristotle called “natural law” didn’t really work to make it possible to be both an Aristotelian and a believer. But, hey, most American Protestants think that true too. Strauss certainly didn’t think that an openly atheistic society would be good for either sustainable liberty or philosophy, and so he didn’t think America could dispense with religious support.

Peter judiciously appreciates how brilliantly and meticulously both Lampert and the Zuckerts use the writings of Strauss to support their case. And, where they differ, he typically sees truth on both sides, and well as some stuff (say, about Machiavelli) they both miss. Peter even suggests at one point that the two Straussian poles aren’t as different as it first seems. The “Straussian” idea of philosophy as most deeply the contemplation of an intelligible eternal natural order depends, the Zuckerts suggest, on Aristotle’s somewhat anthropocentric natural science, a science that’s perhaps somewhat “exoteric” and certainly made questionable or simply refuted by modern science. So Strauss is not a relativist or a historicist, but his seemingly unreserved dedication to eternity might have been part of a polemic against “reason in History” or identifying Being with time. It’s unlikely, nonetheless, that Strauss really was with Lampert in affirming “the sovereignty of becoming.” But it’s harder than it first seems to figure out where he’s coming from.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...