By DONALD DeMARCO
Robert H. Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, states that modern liberalism is “a mood rather than a philosophy.” As such, “it cannot be other than anti-intellectual.” By philosophy, he is referring to the ideals of truth, justice, goodness, and liberty that inspired the Founding Fathers of America as well as the great philosophers of history. A “mood” may be private or public. A private mood will have little effect on society if it is not supported by one that is more national.
Victoria Woodhull is a good example of a political aspirant whose mood was virtually solitary. She was the first woman to run for president of the United States. Her platform was an amalgam of free love, birth control, prostitution, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and equality. One journalist deftly captured her eccentric personality when he said, “If you spliced the genes of Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Heidi Fleiss, and Margaret Thatcher, you might have someone like Victoria Woodhull.”
She ran in the 1872 election against Ulysses S. Grant as a member of The Equality Party and asked Frederick Douglass to be her running mate. The former slave, however, refused the nomination since it was clear that a close association with Woodhull would ruin his future. Mrs. Woodhull did not enhance her public profile by living at the same time in the same house with both her present and former husbands.
Because of a scandalous story she published concerning Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent clergyman at the time, she was charged with violating an obscenity law and spent the eve of the election in jail. The “Queen of the Quill,” as she was called, gained no electoral votes and could not even vote for herself since, at that time, women had not been given suffrage.
Her “impending revolution” never got off the ground. Economic hardships along with a tainted reputation made it impossible to find housing in Manhattan. As a result, she and her family were forced to spend weeks sleeping on the floor of her newspaper office. Her 12-year-old daughter was obliged to assume an alias in order to attend school without harassment. Frustrated and burned out, Victoria Woodhull moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. The mood of the country was not on her side during her brief though intense political life.
She has not been forgotten, however. Mary Gabriel penned Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored in 1998. In that same year, Barbara Goldsmith published Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. And as recently as 2000, Jacqueline McLean produced Victoria Woodhull: First Woman Presidential Candidate.
The mood of a nation changes from age to age. Today’s mood would have been highly congenial to that of Mrs. Woodhull. Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, is a serious candidate for prime minister of Canada. His platform supports the legalization of prostitution and marijuana, and the promotion of abortion and same-sex marriage. He has expressed admiration for China’s dictatorial tendencies and gushes over trendy issues such as feminism and environmentalism.
Despite his popularity, he is nonetheless a sitting duck for criticism. One critic puts it this way: “Justin Trudeau as party leader is like a child on his first day in school. Nice haircut, nice clothes, and lots of new friends. Only he has no ideas, no economic or foreign policy, or anything else. But at least he is fun to watch.”
Justin Trudeau is a political reincarnation of Victoria Woodhull. He has the good fortune, however, that his predecessor never had – namely, the mood of the nation. But moods, being essentially anti-intellectual, as Professor Bork has pointed out, resist intelligent discourse.
It is vain, for example, to introduce such timeless notions as truth, justice, goodness, and beauty. They make no impression on a mood. In the marketplace of economic ideas, bad ideas are soon discarded for better ones. But in the marketplace of political and academic ideas, the bad ones — even those that are egregiously bad — can have a long life. In fact, bad ideas, rather than being exposed for what they are worth, can easily be rationalized as “avant-garde,” “on the cutting edge,” “pushing the envelope,” “daring,” “bold,” and so forth.
“The forces that put the Edsel out of business,” as Bork notes, “do not apply to Harvard professors.”
Politics is at its best when it is united with a philosophy that acknowledges the primary significance of a common good that is anchored in truth and is animated by goodwill. Moods come and go. Justin Trudeau may be no wiser than Victoria Woodhull. But it is imperative for citizens of a democracy to hold to a philosophy that is more enduring and more substantial than a mood. God does not shed His grace on a mood.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)