By Bernd Schwabe, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hannah Arendt, Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Truth

How far are we from totalitarianism? Hannah Arendt would say not as far as you think.

It’s not like politicians have ever been married to the truth anyway. So, when the president of the United States lies, not just on a consistent basis, but virtually every time he speaks, it becomes difficult to grasp exactly how much damage he is doing. Sure, it’s more flagrant, but it is also in keeping with a certain trend toward the undermining of objectivity in political life. Trump, in his absurdity, remains a logical extension of America’s long and absurd quarrel with reality, particularly on the political Right.

No recent event has demonstrated this better than Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, a dumpster fire in which Trump was not even one of the main combatants. It was shocking just how combustible the entire situation was, especially since — in the wake of Cristine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations — the question of truth quickly became so central to the toxic nature of the hearings.

Politically speaking, truth should be a source of stability and orientation. Our civilization — that is, modern Western society since the Enlightenment — has in many ways been built on the idea that there are objective procedures and standards, exemplified by activities like science, law, and history, to which we can appeal to avoid this kind of toxic politicization.

Responding to this situation should have been relatively simple given the circumstances. In a less polarized era, Kavanaugh’s nomination would have been quickly withdrawn and likely replaced with an even more conservative jurist, such as Amy Coney Barrett. Despite the howls of Republicans, Blasey Ford’s allegations were hardly “character assassination.” These were credible allegations made by a private citizen whose experience with Kavanaugh raised serious questions about his character and fitness to be a Supreme Court justice.

Moreover, there were far too many corroborating details, such as the fact that not just Kavanaugh but his drinking buddy at the time, Mark Judge, was also in the room. If this was simply a case of mistaken identity, as some conservatives have suggested, is it likely that she could have been mistaken about both of them?

Republicans have argued that our criminal justice system entails a presumption of innocence and a right to due process. But, aside from the fact that Republicans really only seem to care about presumptions of innocence and due process when powerful conservative men are involved, this was not a criminal proceeding. This was a job interview for one of the most consequential appointments in our system of government.

Finally, there was Kavanaugh’s response to the allegations, which involved both blanket denial and flagrant partisanship. Both of which should have disqualifying. The partisan attacks speak for themselves. What liberal will trust the impartiality of Kavanaugh’s legal opinions now? On the other hand, by denying such a credible allegation outright Kavanaugh foreclosed the option of taking a reasonable and, dare I say it, judicious stance toward his accuser. By admitting the plausibility of Blasey Ford’s claim, he could have at suggested that he was drunk and had no idea that she had perceived his actions as an assault. This could have at least allowed him to accept some responsibility for his behavior.

All of this suggests that the responsible course of action would have been to replace such a damaged and delegitimized nominee. That Republicans chose not to is an indication of the fact that they, like their base voters, have come to inhabit an alternate, and ultimately quite fragile, reality. They, and the conservative movement that has placed them in power, have waged a long-term war on the very idea of objectivity and its role in politics. The result, demonstrated in microcosm during the Kavanaugh hearings, has been utterly corrosive of our politics, rendering our institutions impotent to address our most pressing problems, and our citizens increasingly desperate for a messianic, and hence antidemocratic, leader.

Given the daily political turmoil we seem unable to escape, it’s worth considering exactly what role objectivity should play in politics. Politics, after all, is decidedly not objective. If it was, it wouldn’t be politics.

Yet, without some minimal level of objective content, politics would be sheer chaos and conflict. We need rule-governed institutions, laws, constitutions, objectively researched facts, stable markets, and effective public policy. Politics, for the sake of stability, largely takes place within the context of these objective circumstances — or at least it should. But it seems that American politics has for some time become dissatisfied with the idea of operating within these objective circumstances.

To take stock of just of dangerous this prospect is, I’d like to look to the ideas of the post-World War II-era philosopher, historian, journalist, and political commentator Hannah Arendt.

Arendt is something of a lost treasure in American political commentary, despite the fact that her ideas might be more relevant now than at any time since the height of the Cold War. She began her career as a highly regarded philosopher and commentator in Germany but fled the Nazis in the 1930s. Ultimately, she immigrating to America in the early 1940s, where she continued to serve as a journalist, philosopher, and political commentator.

She wrote one of the earliest, and perhaps still most influential, books on totalitarianism. The book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, made her a world-famous political commentator. During the 1950s and ’60s, she became arguably the most highly regarded public intellectual in America. Indeed, her influence was so immense that it would probably be more accurate to call her a public intellectual for public intellectuals.

She was also impossible to categorize in terms of ideology. Conservatives loved her thoroughgoing opposition to communism and any other form of totalitarian impulse, along with her skepticism of utopianism in politics. Liberals loved her attacks on modern political extremism and admiration of the American constitutional order. Leftists loved her celebrations of participatory democracy, radical pluralism, and individuality.

Here I want to focus on a different idea of hers, one that should almost need no argumentation, that should transcend ideology. This is the idea that politics is an absurdity unless it is circumscribed by a commitment to an objective reality that transcends it, a reality that must form the boundaries of our politics. Needless to say, she would have been horrified by our current era, where politics is increasingly claiming to be the determining authority of what reality is.

T o understand Arendt’s position, it’s essential to understand her experiences with, and analyses of, totalitarian politics.

Totalitarians claimed to understand the fundamental political and historical principles that drove all human action. While their ideas were extreme simplifications, the framework they appealed to was anchored in highly regarded modern philosophies, particularly that of Hegel, Kant, and Marx.

They drew from these philosophers the idea that humans were not the primary actors of history. Rather, it was broad, overarching historical trends and causes that determine human political action. Thus, humans were never the authors of their fates but rather, at best, executors of historical forces that would eventually overwhelm those who opposed these forces.

It was on the basis of this belief in a kind of deeper metaphysical and historical reality, beyond the reality we observe with our five senses, that totalitarians justified their murderous and tyrannical activities. If the laws of the land conflicted with these deeper historical laws, than the laws must be changed. So also, for any institution or group who stood in opposition to those historical laws.

This justified the liquidation of scientists, historians, journalists, and jurists who insisted on objective law and reality. It also justified the liquidation of entire communities and groups whose existence somehow told a different story than that of the totalitarian laws. The bizarre calculus of totalitarians even justified rewriting history itself, because they viewed the deeper historical truths as more real than concrete events and circumstances.

It is only as a response to this general modern trend of thought demeaning human agency to the benefit of overarching historical trends — its political logic finally realized in totalitarian politics — that Arendt’s celebrations of participatory politics can be fully understood. The modern world has increasingly sought to remove agency from human beings, channeling them into careerist and consumerist lives over which they exercise little control. But human beings could in fact control their destinies, according to Arendt, by acted and deliberated together.

This participatory political ideal was highly influential in the early days of the New Left in the 1960s’ civil rights and student movements. As the contemporary left has become increasingly focused on identity politics, the original participatory ethos of the New Left has become something of a path not taken, though it is perhaps seeing revival in the modern Green movement.

Yet, despite her celebrations of participatory politics and political action, Arendt insisted on a reality that at first seems paradoxical. She argued that political action must have limits — that it is in fact only meaningful within such limits. She referred to this reality, generally, as the “human condition,” the fact that political action must take place within a context that conditions it and limits it. Furthermore, she argued that humans in political societies have traditionally gone to great lengths to limit the power and scope of politics still further, through the imposition of laws, constitutions, and institutional structures.

Hence the paradox: that political action must be undertaken to enact limits on its own scope and capacity to act.

I t is this paradox that has attracted so many conservatives to her ideas, despite her traditional association with the political Left. Arendt, having studied totalitarian politics as closely as any observer at the time, understood that politics, because of its inherent potency and potential for hegemony over social life, must be keep within carefully circumscribed limits. There must be aspects of our world that are left beyond the reach of politics — our laws and constitution, privacy, religion, freedom of expression, our twin pursuits of knowledge and happiness.

Politics must never become total.

This idea — that unbounded political action and ambition is inherently dangerous and unpredictable — may justifiably be called the primordial idea at the core of conservative political thought. It has been expressed in various forms by conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott to William F. Buckley. It is also an idea that has been all but abandoned by the contemporary right-wing political movement, excepting a few, increasingly rare, old-guard #nevertrumpers.

The modern political Right, especially since the election of Trump, has abandoned the idea that there should be any limit on their power and have progressively sought to politicize every institution in American society. In that sense, the contemporary conservative movement is far closer in its inclinations to totalitarians than to its ostensible intellectual forebears.

The Kavanaugh fiasco is only the most recent example of this rising tendency toward totalitarian political approaches in the American right wing, though it is also one of the most revelatory. On full display was the entire scope of their long-term attempt to seize control of every objective structure of our society that might pose an obstacle to it cultural and political dominance.

Here was the decades-old quest to pack the U.S. court system, especially the Supreme Court, with the most conservative jurists available. Here was the endlessly bizarre, illiberal, and cynical strategy of politicizing religious communities, playing on their theological disconnects from the modern world. Here was the literal alternate reality they have sought to create by establishing conservative media outlets that essentially function as propaganda arms of the Republican Party.

The common denominator of all these activities is an impulse that is proto-totalitarian. It is an attempt to politicize truth.

Of course, the idea of truth has fallen out vogue in our increasingly postmodern culture, and there are certain sectors of the political Left who would argue that all truth is politicized. But thinkers like Arendt would argue that this may be a sign of just how vulnerable our democracy has become. In her view, truth by its nature is nonpolitical and thus should exist as a fundamental limitation on politics. By politicizing law, religion, and the news media, the American Right has sought to undermine truth itself as it has traditionally existed in our democracy, in the form of legal interpretation, morality, and historical reality.

After studying totalitarianism, Arendt knew just how dangerous and precarious this project may turn out to be.

I n 1967, Arendt published an essay in The New Yorker entitled “Truth and Politics.” It is among her most influential and much-debated essays.

In it, she draws a distinction between truths and political opinions. Political opinions are the conclusions we reach on courses of action applicable to the political sphere: How should we respond to climate change? Should there be “Medicare for all”? Has government surveillance has gone too far? Is this war unjust? What restrictions on abortion are appropriate? Etc., etc., etc.

While certainly, some opinions on these matters are likely better than others, such opinions nevertheless do not lend themselves to conclusive answers. It is possible for political observers to honestly disagree about these questions. In the context of political opinions, the criterion of evaluation is not who is right or wrong, but rather whose opinion is better or worst.

Following a line of thought originating in the early Enlightenment, Arendt saw political opinion as analogous to aesthetic judgments. While opinions may differ about, for example, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, few would suggest that it is not a finer work of art than, say, one of Joan Collins’ also-ran novels. Hence, political opinions do not have a compelling quality, though we can generally distinguish better opinions from worse. We frankly would not place much stock in the opinions of someone who honestly thought Joan Collins’ novels were better than Hugo’s.

On the other hand, truth has a compelling quality. If its conclusions are arrived nonpolitically and via objective procedures, there should be no political dispute about its conclusions. There should be no debate about the circumstances surrounding a military engagement, or whether climate change is real, or about the scope of the government surveillance, or about the state of the American health insurance system.

These are matters of fact, and the sources to which we turn to learn about them should be a consensus of nonpolitical and authoritative scientific, academic, or journalistic sources. Without such a consensus, debating politics is worthless since there isn’t even agreement on the factual circumstances, let alone the relevant courses of political action available. In Arendt’s words, “Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart … belong to the same realm. Facts inform opinions, and opinions … can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.”

For Arendt, the greatest danger to democracy arose when citizens could no longer distinguish between truth and opinion. In totalitarian regimes, this took on a pathological quality. Political opinions were attributed the quality of absolute truth, while matters of historical, legal, or scientific fact were treated as mere matters opinion, and anyway, didn’t really matter because the higher ideological truth should always trump any objective attempt to grasp concrete factual reality.

That similar circumstances prevail in our current era should fill us with fear for the future of our democracy. It should also bring into stark relief just how reckless and dangerous the modern Republican party, and the radical conservative movement that animates it, has become.

By seeking to make commitment to a right-wing ideological agenda the determining factor in how they approach the construction of truth-generating regimes — rather than, for instance, good governance, fairness, or objectivity — the modern conservative movement has in effect sought to disconnect from any factual reality that did not align with its interests. The result has been a party, political movement, and propaganda media awash in conspiracy theories, flagrantly given to exaggeration and misrepresentation, and utterly driven by social and identity-based anxieties and paranoias.

All of this was on full display during the Kavanaugh hearings. The Republican base, along with its leadership, has become so paranoid and insecure that they could not even consider the consequences of placing a man on the Supreme Court whose credibility and judicial impartiality had been compromised before the entire world. They were willing to follow through on this confirmation because they no longer see the value of objective truth and consensus interpretations of the Constitution.

For them politics now determines all, and hence, has very nearly become total. They have abandoned the traditional liberal-democratic idea that some things should be placed beyond the reach of politics. We now increasingly live in a world where the right wing of American politics can only be satisfied with a political outcome where they win, and the opposition loses. This is because their constructions of truth and reality are almost totally determined by their political commitments.

We once lived through another zero-sum era. It was called the Civil War.

The Left, of course, has their own problems, and is certainly not immune to politicizing the nonpolitical and objective. But we should be under no delusions about which side is far more dangerous. It is the political Right who has established their own politically determined version of reality, and who has come to see their political opposition as genuine enemies. When a political movement becomes detached from objective reality and political limits, nothing will stop its autonomous movement except a catastrophic collision with reality. We can only hope the Republicans do not take us down with them through war, constitutional crisis, or ecological disaster.

At some point, America will have to reckon with the pathological reality Republican leaders have abetted and that Fox News has helped create. Until we do, the conservative movement will continue its long march toward totalitarianism.




Author. Freelance writer and editor.

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Jonathan Peter Schwartz

Jonathan Peter Schwartz

Author. Freelance writer and editor.

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