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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.