Cover Story

Out-Clintoning Clinton

Al Gore takes postmodernism to its logical conclusion and leads liberal politics to an all-time low

Issue: "Judicial overreach?," Dec. 2, 2000

Bill Clinton was our nation's first postmodern president. As WORLD has argued, the president's capacity to "construct alternative truth claims," to re-invent himself according to the needs of the moment, to compartmentalize his life, and to create his own morality, is a political manifestation of the new worldview that rejects all absolutes. Now the first election of the new millennium-with its disputed and repeated ballot counting-shows how postmodernism may make constitutional government impossible.

The two candidates exemplify two different approaches to the end of modernism, marked politically by the failure of all of the seemingly rational, scientific schemes-socialism, Marxism, welfare-state government programs, and all of the other social-engineering schemes that marked the now-defunct century-to create the progressive utopia.

One response to the end of modernity is to recover what was of value in the premodern era and to apply old worldviews in new, creative ways to our contemporary times. Thus, we have a new classicism in education and in some sectors of the art world, and the new cultural relevance of conservative Christianity. Postmodern America also saw a revival of conservative politics, with the success of Ronald Reagan. Now George W. Bush, with his compassionate conservative programs and new-image Republicanism, is the standard bearer for that mentality.

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The other response to the end of modernist rationalism is to take the next step and deny rationalism altogether. These postmodernists maintain that truth-claims and moral absolutes are nothing more than a personal or social construction. Politically, this means the politics of spin-doctoring (professional construction of plausibility paradigms), image manipulation (since style, not substance, is what persuades in an era without truth), judicial activism (since law is just a matter of interpretation), and ruthless power politics (since truth is nothing more than the imposition of power). For those unbounded by the limits of truth or morality who see everything from cultural institutions to human nature as a social construction, the state has, theoretically, infinite power.

Al Gore has inherited this mantle. Despite his apparent retro-liberalism, Mr. Gore is actually taking postmodernism further than his mentor. Mr. Clinton re-invented himself when he needed to, in a manifestation of what postmodernist psychologist Robert Jay Lifton approvingly calls the "Protean Self." But Mr. Gore is even more Protean, changing his persona from week to week, audience to audience. More seriously, postmodernism teaches that ideological and cultural disagreements are not just differences of opinion, but rather issues of power, that culture is a thinly disguised mask for groups in power oppressing those who are not, who, in turn, must be "empowered" to turn the tables. Thus, Mr. Gore scored votes by setting groups against each other and promising, "I will fight for you!"

The election showed the nation split right down the middle, with the big cities, the universities, Hollywood, the cultural elite-who cut their teeth studying Derrida and Foucault in the universities-and the masses whom they influence voting for Mr. Gore. The more traditionally minded Americans in what the coasts contemptuously refer to as "flyover territory" went for Mr. Bush. And the result was, essentially, a tie.

On Nov. 20, everything hinged on Florida. In the early 20th century, the aftermath would have created no problem. Modernists, for all of their faults, have a trust in rational, objective truth, which can be determined with the aid of science. Modernists trusted machines. Counting ballots by machines was once a progressive reform, a way of making it more difficult to cheat, countering the notorious ballot-stuffing of corrupt political bosses with the nonbiased certainty of modern technology.

But the postmodernists of the cultural elite do not believe in this kind of modernist certainty. Truth, they believe, is a matter of interpretation. Language is certainly just a matter of interpretation ("it depends on what the meaning of is is"), and so is everything made out of language, such as laws ("the constitution must be interpreted to fit the needs of changing times"). In postmodernism, even hard, tangible, scientific evidence is susceptible to various interpretations.

So the election of the president of the United States hinged on the hermeneutics of chads. Partisans held pieces of flimsy cardboard up to the light and tried to interpret the meaning of tiny indentations and miniscule punchouts hanging by a fiber. And, surprise, surprise, the numbers kept going up for Mr. Gore.

Democratic operatives spun a sanctimonious paradigm of simply wanting every vote to count. Students of postmodernism know, however, that postmodernist hermeneutics does not believe in respecting an author's-or, by extension, a voter's-original intention. Objective meaning is inherently indeterminate, they believe, so it is completely legitimate to construct a paradigm that advances the power interests of your side.


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