The Rise of the Heinlein Republican

With his surge in the polls I’ve been trying to get a handle on the philosophy of Newt Gingrich, and after finally seeing signs which should have been obvious all along and confirming them with a bit of research, I realized what I should have caught on to long ago, that Newt Gingrich is a Robert Heinlein Republican.

Like many in my generation I grew up reading Robert Heinlein’s Science Fiction novels almost religiously. Heinlein’s dystopian vision of the future and his romantic obsession with man as superman was enormously appealing to a teenager growing up in the space age. The Heinlein man could perfect himself and conquer the universe singlehanded by sheer determination and willpower. Heinlein’s theme was the triumph of the individual over time in Methuselah’s Children, over space in The Man Who Sold the Moon, over conventional morality in Stranger in a Strange Land and over the governments of lesser men in Farnham’s Freehold. Heinlein’s political philosophy of Rational Anarchism is summed up by the Professor Bernardo de la Paz in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

“In terms of morals there is no such thing as a ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free, because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything that I do.”

Heinlein’s muscular, militaristic individualism carried with it a deliberate intention from the very first to influence politics. After World War II Heinlein experimented with direct involvement in politics, served in elective party office in California and ultimately campaigned for Goldwater in 1964 and may have ghostwritten ads and speeches for his presidential campaign. In this period Heinlein had a friendship and rivalry with fellow writer L. Ron Hubbard. They supposedly had a long standing bet to see who could start a religion which would change society. Hubbard’s answer to this challenge was the creation of Scientology. Heinlein’s answer came through his writing and the ideas expressed in some of his bestselling novels of the late 1960s and its ultimate product seems to be Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has admitted to being a Heinlein fan and his own fiction has a clear Heinlein influence. Gingrich is also friends with and has collaborated with Science Fiction author and former Reagan era technology adviser Jerry Pournelle, who sees himself as the heir to Heinlein’s ideas and literary tradition. Pournelle was a protege of influential neolibertarian thinker Russell Kirk, and has written extensively on politics from a neolibertarian perspective. Neolibertarianism is a branch of libertarianism which fits the Heinlein model quite closely. It at least partially deemphasizes the principle of non-coercion and places a strong emphasis on individual liberty, disdaining bureaucratic government and elevating the military to a near iconic status. The world envisioned in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is very much the world of the neolibertarian movement.

Gingrich has clearly taken the Heinlein ideology to heart on many levels. His serial infidelity and request that his wife engage in an open relationship are pure Heinlein. Heinlein was an avowed libertine who practiced open marriage and advocated total sexual liberation and rejection of conventional morality as a recurrent theme in much of his writing. Gingrich’s obsession with colonizing the moon is also straight out of Heinlein’s work. Some of Heinlein’s most influential writing centers around the colonization and development of the moon in books like The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Gingrich’s hostility towards bureaucracy, flaunting of the conventional political process and love of innovation for its own sake are pure Heinlein.  His egotism and obsessive character are also straight out of Heinlein.  Gingrich himself has much in common with megalomaniacal developer Delos D. Harriman in <i>The Man Who Sold the Moon</i>, though Gingrich seems not to understand that the self-destructive Harriman was intended more as an anti-hero than a role model.

Many observers of the libertarian end of the political spectrum see Heinlein’s vision and the ideas of the neolibertarians as the “ugly” side of libertarianism.  Disconnected from social morality and focused on the responsibility of the individual to himself and not to society, it can lead to views which verge on being an oxymoronic kind of libertarian fascism.  Ironically, this aggressive subset of the generally much more innocuous libertarian movement seems to have much greater political marketability.

To a generation of middle-aged voters who grew up on Heinlein and the writers he influenced, the Gingrich message and the Gingrich style have a real resonance.  You can see this in how Gingrich has successfully positioned himself as the defiant individualist in his challenging of the media establishment and how easily voters have been convinced to dismiss his unconventional personal life.  The fully realized individual is above conventional morality and is not accountable to anyone but himself.  The more Gingrich defies those who would judge him the more he proves that he is the kind of individualistic superman which Heinlein’s writing has convinced us that we all ought to be.  We identify with Gingrich and live vicariously through him, more like a literary character than a real human being.

In embracing the Heinleinian model of an anti-statesman Gingrich seems to have actually struck a thread with a public which is very unhappy with the conventional political establishment.  Even though he himself was part of that establishment for many years, he has thrown himself into the role of the outcast returning in triumph to exact vengeance on his detractors, a mythic archetype which is widespread in legend and literature and manifests in Heinlein’s work repeatedly.  Gingrich is the hero returned from exile.  He is Valentine Michael Smith and Thorby Baslim and Lazarus Long rolled into one unlikely package.  The unanswered question is whether Gingrich has the shortcomings of a mortal man or the inevitable victorious destiny of a literary character.

This article appeared in slightly different form on Blogcritics Magazine