Sense and Nonsense: An Apocalyptic Election

The story is told, without any apparent reference to time or place, of a discussion about the qualifications of two candidates. “What do you think of our two candidates for mayor?” one gentleman asked another. “Well,” said the latter, “I am glad that only one can be elected.” For many, no doubt, this is the mood of the November elections.

I have always thought that one of the basic strengths of the American presidential system is that by and large it puts up two candidates for an office, either of whom can do the job, so that the country is more or less safe with either.

This thesis of two viable candidates has its limits, I know. It has been soberly argued (the neoconservatives often hold this) that in elections since the late 1960s, the real danger that the Marxist world presented left us little room for error or the luxury of choosing either candidate. The country and the world simply was not safe with the Democrats of that era.

But now, with a repackaged Clinton and the fall of Marxism, it does not make so much difference who rules. The world can take care of itself. We can afford a man with no experience in foreign affairs. But let’s not neglect the home front, however much difficulty we have on the cultural level trying to figure out just what a home (or a homeless) might be. No real danger to the country exists, we are told, except maybe from “fanatics” with moral causes within the country.

Not only is the world safe for democracy, then, it is safe with either candidate. The account is given of an election in which Edward Campbell opposed Thackery for a seat in the British Parliament in the last century. The two gentlemen met during the course of the campaign not for a modern debate but for an exchange of friendly and proper English greetings. When he took leave of his rival, Thackery remarked, in what seems to be bad but oft-heard grammar, “May the best man win!” “Oh, no,” Campbell responded in words that themselves contain a certain amount of ambiguity. “I do hope not. I want to win.” The best man never wins, the better seldom. Wanting to win on the one hand, and virtue on the other, may not be, as Campbell implied, clearly related, even to the candidates.

The Democrats have come up with a kind of “economic man” thesis, something not altogether new, needless to say. I heard the Attorney General of Georgia, I think it was, argue this issue with former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman the other morning. Nothing of the Democratic candidate’s personal character or capacities is really important, the Georgian seemed to maintain. To reverse Lynn Martin at the Republican Convention, “You can be one kind of man and another kind of president.” What is ultimately important is jobs, nothing but jobs.

The assumption is that the Democratic Party knows how to create or more often “guarantee by law” jobs by some mysterious method other than low taxes and a high entrepreneurial economy. Indeed, sometimes it seems—if we ignore the figures for proposed new taxes—that this formula is what the Democrats are proposing. The so-called moral or family issues are not important when compared with the real issue, jobs. The fact that 92 percent of the country is working is discounted by a sense of worry and unrest.

Abortion is now mostly a closed issue. Nobody is going to do anything about it. In fact, three out of six Reagan-Bush Supreme Court appointments have made Roe v. Wade infinitely worse in theory, as Russell Hittinger recently explained. We will hear nothing from Catholic politicians about this issue except a kind of vague ineffectual piety that all candidates can live with. The “seamless garment” rules in practice. Ironically, the American Catholic hierarchy has mostly discredited itself by its economic, war, and myriads of other statements. No one takes them seriously since they have little political clout where it counts and what they say often sounds quite different from what the Holy Father is saying. So the issue is clear. Jobs. The world is safe for democracy at long last. All we have left to do is enjoy it, or as Francis Fukuyama suggested, become bored with it.

This thesis about only one issue—“jobs”—is the domestic counterpart to the conventional explanation of communism’s fall. The foreign policy version of the same ideological mentality is that Marxism fell exclusively because of economic man. There were no spiritual or moral forces at work in Russia or Eastern Europe. All this talk about freedom of religion or even Fatima was just a kind of superstructure, as Marx said it was.

The Marxists in power for 40 years did not know how to run socialism properly. We need to make another try. This is why we have universities: to tell us how, in new configurations. Marxism’s bad name ought not to imply that government protection of jobs is out of date. “Investment,” the new word for spending, is also the road to industrial policy and control. Mankind is a rather pedestrian kind of thing. All anyone really wants are economic guarantees for jobs. This is what wins and loses elections. This is what the people are made of, what they are interested in, what stirs them.

Yet, in truth, important things in life are not really political. The world will go on no matter which candidate is elected. Perhaps we should not take elections too seriously, even if we do not buy the economic man thesis. In fact, taking elections too seriously may just be one of the main problems. We really begin to identify spiritual problems as equivalent to political ones. Solzhenitsyn has bitingly maintained that we modern democratic peoples do identify our morality with our positive laws. If it is legal, it is good. We no longer think there are things more important than Caesar, than jobs. That is, we think that Caesar is to provide us the jobs to let us do what we will, no matter what we will. But if this is the case, then elections somehow become more important than they ought to be.

The other day, someone gave me a copy of a recent address of Patrick Buchanan, who seems to have a refined penchant for getting himself vilified in the media. Buchanan argued that, quite to the contrary, this election did make a considerable difference. Indeed, it was a watershed, even an apocalyptic election in which the issue of jobs was, in the long run, a rather minor issue, whether it is recognized to be such or not. The measure of Buchanan’s media unpopularity, I suspect, is the measure of the degree to which his thesis might just have some plausibility to it.

What interests me here is Buchanan’s reference to a passage from Malcolm Muggeridge’s little book, The End of Christendom (1980), a book I happen to have on my shelves. This is the book in which Muggeridge quipped with not a little prophetic insight and amusement:

What a wonderful example of fearful symmetry it would be if on the selfsame day that Marxism was thrown out of the Kremlin window, the Vatican was impelled by the pressures of Christian Marxist dialogues with Jesuits and others to issue an encyclical, De Necessitate Marxisme [sic]. Stranger things have happened. This irony, we must be clear, is written into our moral existence. I love it.

Fortunately, the day Marxism was thrown out the Kremlin window, the Pope wrote Centesimus Annus, though, I admit, some of us were worried when he wrote Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (see my Religion, Wealth, and Poverty, Fraser, 1990). But there is no doubt that many Christians of the left would have been delighted with a De Necessitate Marxismi had it appeared in the last half century. Yes, Virginia, and you too Malcolm, there is a divine providence.

The following is the complete passage from Muggeridge to which Buchanan referred in part:

In his astoundingly prophetic novel The Devils, Dostoevsky makes his character Peter Vekovinsky, the liberal-anarchist figure sired by an authentic old liberal… say: “A generation or two and the turmoil will begin.” So indeed it has. No single novel is more worthwhile reading today than this… book, The Devils. Dostoevsky envisages in the context of nineteenth-century Russia precisely what we’ve seen, the story of our time. It is in fact the perfect artistic exposition of my theme, the downfall of Christendom, brought about by the death wish which necessarily accompanies the arrogance of the human mind.

Muggeridge has often associated this death wish with abortion and our attitude toward love and life, something now found in the statistics on divorce, abortion, child abuse, and the thousand other things that go by the name of family values.

If this election is “apocalyptic,” it is because we think that jobs have nothing to do with these moral and spiritual matters, that life itself has nothing to do with these things, that we are indeed economic men. There is some paradox here, for the fact is that we do know the solutions to most of the economic problems, or to put it another way, jobs are the one thing this election should not be about. Still, we can choose not to follow what works. Economically, that may well be what this elections is about.

It so happens that I was reading Dostoevsky’s more famous Brothers Karamazov at the same time I came across the above reference to The Devils. Indeed, the very next day, I read the unsettling account of intellectual Ivan Karamazov’s conversation with the Devil that took place just before his brother’s trial for the murder of their father. Not unmindful of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape, this passage is a sober reminder of the relation between our spiritual and political lives.

In my opinion, there is no need to destroy anything, one need only destroy the idea of God in mankind, that’s where the business should start! One should begin with that…. Once mankind has renounced God, one and all (and I believe that this period, analogous to the geological periods, will come), then the entire old world view will fall of itself, without anthropophagy, and, above all, the entire former morality, and everything will be new. People will come together in order to take from life all that it can give, but, of course, for happiness and joy in this world only. Man will be exalted with the spirit of divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear. Man, his will and his science no longer limited, conquering nature every hour, will thereby experience every hour such lofty delight as will replace for him all his former hopes of heavenly delight. Each will know himself utterly mortal, without resurrection, and will accept death proudly and calmly, like a god. Out of pride he will understand that he should not murmur against the momentariness of life, and he will love his brother then without any reward.

We hear already here Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the whole chorus of the modern project as it conceives man’s nature and purpose on earth.

Does it seem odd to suggest, on the occasion of the fall of Marxism, that liberal democratic capitalism might be in the spiritual danger foreseen by a Russian novelist in the nineteenth Century, a spiritual danger about which the Holy Father disturbingly insists on worrying also? Indeed, it does. Yet we cannot help but realize that the outline of the position counter to God and His order is found everywhere in the fringes of our understanding of this election, and everywhere at the heart of our academies.

No doubt this election more than any other one will be seen as one having to do with the rise or fall of the United States, with the end of an era in which limited government and moral purpose seemed to be at least on the agenda. It is a kind of we-must-be-concerned-with-ourselves election. No doubt, it will bring up in a more graphic way the question that has fermented in the minds of many since the Roman Empire, whether our sins and faults are at all meaningful in the public order.

This election is about Clinton and Bush, about the awful record of the Congress, and, yes, about the aborted deaths legislated in the courts, allowed by the people, that we have not had the courage to stop or understand. But essentially it is an election of the people in which the citizens, often pictured as a reservoir of virtue and dignity, are judging themselves. This election is not really about the candidates.

The election brings up the question, I hesitate to say it, of a corrupt or disordered electorate, of the souls of each of us. It forces us to wonder whether the civil disorders we see are not really caused because the people have refused to act wisely in their voting and their living. Will they now have in place politicians and attitudes that are, in terms of western civility, apocalyptic, portending disorders of personal and corporate soul as dire as Dostoevsky pictured? We do not want to think of these things. We want jobs. We want to think all is well, that our policies about life and death are merely that, necessary but prudent policies, revealing only troubled virtue.

What do we think of our two candidates for mayor? Are we “glad that only one” can be elected? Will “the best or better man win”? Or do we just want a man to win, no matter how he stands to standards of virtue and vice, no matter how we stand to standards of virtue and vice?

Are we indeed coming to know ourselves as “utterly mortal, without resurrection”? Is “the idea of God destroyed” among us? Are we dealing with the end of Christendom and the pride that will replace it? Do I think this election to be apocalyptic? In some sense, I think I do.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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