The Unlikely Political Wisdom of Nietzsche
The last decade has seen heightened progressive concern with alleged conservative mendacity. Last year, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman criticized the rhetoric of the recent presidential election campaigns as reflecting our “post-truth politics.” Satirist Stephen Colbert has lampooned political spin as “truthiness,” which is as much an indictment of contemporary American political culture as it was of bloviating conservative TV hosts. After he lost his bid for higher office, Al Gore wrote The Assault on Reason. In the early George W. Bush years, then-comedian and now Minnesota Senator Al Franken wrote a best-selling book called Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). Chris Mooney’s 2005 book The Republican War on Science was a best-seller among liberal audiences. In his 2010 novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen portrayed a Bill Kristol–type character as hypocritically denouncing Islamist lies about 9/11 as Zionist plot while defending the Platonic idea of the “noble lie” to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In accusing conservatives of lying and deceit, these progressive writers offer more than schoolyard taunts. They are suggesting that political conservatism is powerful because it has adopted a stance of growing relativism — a kind of conservative postmodernism — regarding the basic facts of reality, which has been picked up by much of society and the media more generally. Part of the critique is anticorporate: The Tea Party, global warming skeptics, and conservative think tanks are often described as wholesale constructions of financial interests. And part of it is aimed at American religiosity: We are far less likely to believe in evolution and global warming than are people in other, more secular, developed nations.
But if American irrationalism is old, the progressive view that we live in a post-truth era is new. Progressives blame declining societal respect for facts, the rise of deceptive partisan media outlets (like Fox News), and social media and blogs for creating an echo chamber effect in public discussion. Where the liberal case against political conservatism used to focus on the right wing’s small-mindedness, lack of compassion, and selfishness, today it is focused on perceived conservative lies told to the public. The insinuation behind the complaint is that if people only knew the truth, we wouldn’t have the problems of global warming, economic recession, and poverty — or at least such challenges would be far smaller. More truth, it is assumed, will lead to a better world.
The liberal criticism has some merit. Conservatives often did offer made-up reasons to invade Iraq, and they often do deny the basic facts of climate change and misleadingly describe new social programs and regulations as socialism. But often what is called reality-denial or deliberate deception simply reflects or exaggerates different interpretations of the situation. The expansion of health care is the expansion of the role of government and a socialization of the costs of providing universal insurance. Earlier versions of the Affordable Care Act did subsidize coverage to illegal immigrants. What is often described as conservative denial of global warming often does not amount to a denial that a hotter earth would be catastrophic. And while the Bush Administration officials were indeed wrong about WMDs in Iraq, they deceived themselves before they deceived the public.
There is evidence, too, that liberals also lack a strong relationship with the truth. Like conservatives, liberals engage in objective reality denialism. Polling data suggests that 45 percent of Republicans believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States; another poll suggests that more than half of Democrats believe it was very or somewhat likely that President George W. Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Liberals bemoan their words’ being taken out of context by conservatives, but are all too happy to play the same game when they get the chance. Witness the countless liberals who pounced on Governor Mitt Romney for saying that he liked “being able to fire people,” without acknowledging the context of his comments.
Though liberals also tell half- and untruths, and justify lying for political purposes, the conservative case against liberalism today revolves less around declining respect for the truth and more around values — specifically, growing societal decadence. Conservatives blame intergenerational poverty, national debt, and threats to national security on failures of individual responsibility, narcissism, and do-gooder authoritarianism. To be sure, conservatives accuse liberals of lies. “You lie!” was the famous shout by Rep. Joe Wilson against President Obama’s claim that his health care reform legislation would not provide insurance to illegal immigrants. Rush Limbaugh can be found daily pointing out yet another Democratic deviation from the truth, sometimes accurately. But lying is a tangential aspect of the conservative critique of liberalism. More important is hedonism, the erosion of firm moral convictions, and a kind of corrosive compassion that dissuades individuals from feeling the need to take responsibility for their actions. That liberals don’t see this, or are dishonest about it, is a secondary concern to conservatives.
To be sure, progressives fault conservative values just as conservatives fault liberal duplicity. They accuse conservatives of violating sovereignty, personal liberty, and natural limits. But increasingly, progressives tend to explain the existence and persistence of these value violations on the rise of a post-truth era in American politics. If only people knew and cared enough about the truth, conservatives would not be allowed to get away with these obviously terrible things. But such reasoning implies that we have similar values and worldviews. We might neither have nor need agreement on these in order to achieve common action.
Our post-truth society was uncannily predicted by one of the great philosophers of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche. Observing the rise of modern societies in Europe, Nietzsche saw religious authority on the decline and concluded that the era of a unified belief system had come to an end. The idea both excited and troubled him. It excited him that Judeo-Christian religion was on the decline, since he considered it a version of herd morality that kept creative people from realizing their true potential. But it troubled him because he feared that democracy was herd morality in new clothing.
For many conservatives, Nietzsche is the greatest chronicler of moral decadence in the modern period. Nietzsche worried that all that was strong, beautiful, and creative in society would become corrupted by herd morality and a kind of vampiric pity that extracted the life-force not just of the pitied but also of those who pitied. Democracy, Nietzsche worried, would result in the weak ruling the strong, as a consequence of the degradation of the creative and artistic energies of the great, or the potentially great. Democracy would turn us into “last men” with no concern beyond present comfort — what we might today call couch potatoes. In Nietzsche’s account, when the strong Romans ruled, “good” was defined as strength, pride, and wealth. This morality was overthrown by Judeo-Christian morality, which defined “good” as meekness, humility, and poverty. What is good and true to the rich will always be very different from what is good and true to the poor. While not exactly advocating a return to the morality of ancient Rome or Greece, something he understood to be impossible, he was calling for a “revaluing” of creative personal power and individuality against the bitter and resentful morality of the permanently or contingently weak.
Conservative thinkers Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama, and Harvey Mansfield have written books — The Closing of the American Mind (1987), The End of History and the Last Man (1992), and Manliness (2006), respectively — that worry that modernization, democratization, and feminization of society have resulted in a weakening of the human will to creative greatness. Bloom defended Nietzsche’s view that all people are not equal, and that egalitarianism is not necessarily a virtue. Like Nietzsche, Bloom argued instead that “Egalitarianism means conformism,” and that “egalitarianism is founded on reason, which denies creativity.”
In contrast to many liberals, who view truth and power as often opposed, Nietzsche believed that what we understand as “the truth” is itself always a function of power — the power to dominate how people think about reality. In this view, competing conservative and liberal accounts of global warming, health care, and the Iraq war are part of larger power struggles over describing reality. Nietzsche would ask us to be skeptical of those claiming to be simply telling the truth. Efforts to declare some accounts about reality to be true and others false is always a power move. He meant this not as an indictment of power; he considered the will to power to be the essence of life itself. Instead, he was denouncing the notion of truth as innocent of power plays.
While not going so far as to say that all accounts of reality are accurate, he was saying that all truths must be understood as both perspectival and contingent. Because we all have different bodies, origins, histories, and standpoints, we all have different perspectives and accept different things as true, frequently changing our views over a lifetime. This view foreshadowed the view endorsed by much of today’s cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics, which view reason as more a slave to instinct and power than the other way around.
Nietzsche leaves us with a notion of objectivity as multiple, fractured, partial, and contingent:1
There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity” be.
In place of God’s eye we would have countless eyes with divided perspectives, unconsciously projecting mental preconceptions onto external reality. What results is a kind of deep pluralism — not simply the recognition of different socioeconomic standpoints, but also an acknowledgment of the ways in which these perspectives are shaped by animal instincts, culture, and ideology. If we want the fullest picture of a thing, we need to consult other people’s perspectives, and the more we consult, the better.
Nietzsche’s understanding of truth represented a break from the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition’s aspiration to achieve an omniscient perspective. Plato, like many of today’s progressives, conceived of the truth in absolute terms. He imagined that there was a World of Forms, of perfect ideals — including the Good, and the True — against which we should measure our fallen, messy reality. Where Plato believed that philosopher-kings were justified in advancing the “Noble Lie,” Nietzsche thought we were mostly unaware of our lies, unable to distinguish them from interpretations and our waking “dreams” about the reality of the world. Nietzsche wanted philosophy to recognize that we never have been able and never will be able to get wholesale agreement on the truth. Unlike Plato and many of today’s experts, Nietzsche did not hope that his version of objectivity would resolve the divisions of this world. On the contrary, he imagined that it would result in the proliferation of conflicts, including those with a narrow and those with a “higher” point of view.
Progressives are right that we increasingly live in a post-truth era, but rather than rejecting it and pining nostalgically for a return to a more truthful era we must instead navigate the post-truth era to advance liberal values. Where the New York Times and Walter Cronkite were once viewed as arbiters of public truths, today the Times competes with the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News with Fox News and MSNBC, in describing reality. The Internet multiplies the perspectives and truths available for public consumption. The diversity of viewpoints opened up by new media is not going away and is likely to intensify. This diversity of interpretations of reality is part of a longstanding trend. Democracy and modernization have brought a proliferation of worldviews and declining authority of traditional institutions to fix meanings. Citizens have more freedom to create new interpretations of facts.
This proliferation of viewpoints makes the challenge of democratically addressing contemporary problems more complex. One consequence of all this is that our problems become more wicked, more like vicious circles, more subject to conflicting meanings and agendas. We can’t agree on the nature of problems or their solutions because of fundamentally unbridgeable values and worldviews. In attempting to reduce political disagreement to black and white categories of fact and fiction, progressives find themselves uniquely ill-equipped to address our current difficulties, or to advance liberal values in the culture.
A new progressive politics should have a different understanding of the truth than the one suggested by the critics of conservative dishonesty. We should understand that human beings make meaning and apprehend truth from radically different standpoints and worldviews, and that our great wealth and freedom will likely lead to more, not fewer, disagreements about the world. Nietzsche was no democrat, but the pluralism he offers can be encouragement to today’s political class, and the rest of us, too, to become more self-aware of, and honest about, how our standpoint, our values, and our power affect our determinations of what is true and what is false.
In the post-truth era, we should be able to articulate not one but many different perspectives. Progressives seeking to govern and change society cannot be free of bias, interests, and passions, but they should strive to be aware of them so that they can adopt different eyes to see the world from the standpoint of their fiercest opponents. Taking multiple perspectives into account might alert us to more sites of possible intervention and prime us for creative formulations of alternative possibilities for concerted responses to our problems.
Our post-truth era, in short, need not be an obstacle to taking common action. We might see today’s divided expert class, and fractious publics, not as temporary problems to solved by more reason, science, and truth, but rather as a permanent feature of our developed democracy. We might even see this proliferation of belief systems and worldviews as an opportunity for human development. We can agree to disagree and still engage in pragmatic action in the world.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, Sections 11-14.