The angst of Iowa

Chris Carlson AP Republican presidential candidates from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. … Continued

Chris Carlson


Republican presidential candidates from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman arrive for a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011.

“To Ron Paul, or not to Ron Paul, that is the question.” Or Rick Santorum. Or Michele Bachmann. Or Rick Perry. Or Newt Gingrich. Or, gasp, Mitt Romney. The Iowa caucus is proving to pose a genuine existential dilemma for Republicans. Ideological purity or winning? Or even more profoundly, “Who are we?”

I think this is a genuine existential crisis, and not one manufactured by or for the media. The main premise of existentialism, the 19th and 20th century philosophy, is on display in Iowa. Existential dilemmas arise, according to this philosophical viewpoint, because the individual is confronted with a world of apparent meaninglessness and absurdity. This creates a sense of confusion, even disorientation.

One immediately recognizes confusion and disorientation as the overriding characteristic of the Republican race for president in 2012.

Existentialist philosophy is a good way to understand the conflicting choices of the GOP in 2012. Newt Gingrich is not the only one in the public square today who can quote existentialists. So can I. Newt likes Camus, whose philosophy of absurdism may very well fit our times, but I prefer Kierkegaard.

The great philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, is widely regarded as the founder of existentialism. He started by critiquing idealism for its too general and abstract morality. This critique is based on Kierkagaard’s conviction that it is the individual who is solely responsible for giving his or her life meaning in the face of existential obstacles such despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. In his great work, “Sickness Unto Death” he shows his core philosophical conviction that it is God’s infinity that creates human anxiety, and people long to escape this dilemma. Hence they domesticate the Christian faith and make it easy and palatable to escape their anxieties. This is never a way out.

It is remarkable how much the crucial issues posed by Kierkegaard are on display in Iowa. This existential dilemma is best illustrated by the two candidates that represent the philosophical poles most distant from one another: Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.

Ron Paul represents the extremity of the GOP longing for existential freedom and self-determination. Paul can be seen as the ‘Ayn Rand candidate.’ Rand is the radical individualist and atheist philosopher so beloved of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and the budget-cutting, ‘you’re on your own’ political view. Santorum, Perry and Bachmann gravitate toward this pole in varying degrees.

Mitt Romney represents what Kierkegaard called “the crowd,” the group, the public, that is influenced by media: in Kierkegaard’s case, by newspapers, and their “blow with the wind” attitudes that are the antithesis of “the truth.” Kierkegaard observes, “The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from ‘the public’ which is really an abstraction.”

Romney is a perfect illustration of what Kierkegaard meant when he said the “crowd is untruth.” Romney’s political positions are almost comically tied to public opinion, i.e. “the crowd.” Romney seems to have no core convictions. When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, polls showed him that he could not win unless he was pro-choice. So he became pro-choice. But it is clear that a pro-choice candidate cannot win the GOP presidential nomination, so Romney suddenly avowed he was anti-abortion, giving rise, among other well-known flip-flops such as on health care, to the “Mitt v. Mitt” ads. Newt Gingrich and his malleable political views also gravitate toward this pole.

The GOP’s choices seem to have come down to the candidates of radical individualism living only for self (while also avowing faith), or the candidates of no self (also avowing faith) living only according to “the crowd.”

Hence the angst of Iowa.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • qarandi99

    Zionists do not like RON PAUL
    because he would end the aid to Israel
    if he got the chance.

    WHY does Israel get to Violate UN resolutions,
    when other nations are severely punished for ignoring UN resolutions?

  • ccnl1

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    (The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and STDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and STDs.)

  • dawnmorning

    WAPO who has smeared Dr. Paul multiple time a day for weeks claiming he is a homophobe and a racist didn’t do a single story on Santorum saying gay marriage leads to bestiality.
    The media doesn’t care. The only thing they care about is making the money by following orders.
    Months and nothing about Santorum the most OPENLY bigoted candidate in the race.
    Destroy Ron Paul is all they care about.

  • quiensabe

    Your philosophical knowledge is matched only by your lack of knowledge about Jesus, Susan.

  • WmarkW

    The modern Republican party is Newt Gingrich’s creation. If he wins, it means Iowa Republicans like the current position of the party. If Bachmann, Perry and Santorum collectively beat him, it means the voters like Gingrich’s party, but not him personally.

    I have always said that Republican voters are not, in totality, the Christian Right extremists some people make them out to be. I expect Iowans will vote for the party to change in two directions — Mitt Romney to create a party that isn’t embarassing for an educated suburbanite to vote for; and Ron Paul to say that the small government philosophy should not exclude defense, the finance industry, big business or big agriculture.

    If Iowa and New Hampshire voters send those messages, then the whole political establishment should take note that status quo is not an acceptable option.

  • ThomasBaum

    If it is true, could it be because Israel is one of the few countries on earth that other members of the UN have vowed to wipe off the planet?

  • wmarkw

    the modern republican party is newt gingrich’s creation. if he wins, it means iowa republicans like the current position of the party. if bachmann, perry and santorum collectively beat him, it means the voters like gingrich’s party, but not him personally.

    i have always said that republican voters are not, in totality, the christian right extremists some people make them out to be. i expect iowans will vote for the party to change in two directions — mitt romney to create a party that isn’t embarassing for an educated suburbanite to vote for; and ron paul to say that the small government philosophy should not exclude defense, the finance industry, big business or big agriculture.

    if iowa and new hampshire voters send those messages, then the whole political establishment should take note that status quo is not an acceptable option.

  • mgginva

    I’m sorry . . . I’m just a bit shocked . . . Isn’t this a Washington Post owned site? Huh.
    How did an article that isn’t extremely anti Ron Paul get here? Is there a policy at the Post that allows last name challenged reporters to tell the truth – or at least let them print what they want? Does Ms. Thistlethwaite have pictures of someone with a monkey?
    I’m confused. . . I’ve seen hundreds of Post sponsored articles lately and every one of them has been rabidly anti Paul.
    Hmmm. I wonder if Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite will still be on staff tomorrow. If not, I’d bet she could make a living playing Scrabble.

  • mgginva

    My friends in Israel think it would be better for Israel if the US stopped all foreign aid. It amounts to less than 2% of their budget but makes them have to answer to the US like wayward children. And don’t forget the US sends aid to others in the middle east who aren’t exactly friends of Israel. The RJC is idiotic in their treatment of Dr. Paul. Their manipulations and attempts at using the media to steer people away from Ron Paul has opened an ugly can of worms they would have been better off leaving alone.

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