We are living in troubled times. Our state has become too politicized and polarized. Over the traditional and progressive camps we find greater fracturing: on the left, most rival”identities” whose only political language appears to be among victimhood and oppression; at the right, new brands of conservatism and reaction such as domestic conservatism and integralism that tend towards an authoritarian state. Our welfare system breeds cultures of dependency even as its prices soar to levels that cannot possibly be sustained. Our boundaries are not well maintained; our fundamental freedoms are under attack; our educational associations have been far from reality, and our political discourse is odious.
Some observers want to assert this is just the way American politics always isthat factions are nothing new, which John Rawls’s theorizing is an attempt not to reform but to eradicate politics. But the nature of the politics now is not normal, and the rationale is not far to find. Because government at the national level has risen so dramatically in extent, and because it currently insinuates itself into just about any part of our lives, the stakes have never been greater. Our elections are controversial and contested because nobody is able to get rid of control of the colossal energy that’s up for grabs. Consequently, our political culture has become increasingly warlike.
One of the fiercest conflicts in our current political culture concerns the meaning of justice.
I do not blame John Rawls for wondering out loud if we might somehow reach an agreement concerning our most fundamental ideas of justice that we can then have a common touchstone for political deliberation. As I said at the opening essay in this symposium,”On the Legacy of A Theory of Justice,” I think Rawls ultimately collapsed, though he was forward-looking in recognizing our political culture might not survive its ordeal with radical pluralism.
Some political theorists assert that pluralism is new and purpose to Madison’s discussion of factions from Federalist 10 as proof. They’re right that factions are nothing new, but they overlook that Madison’s plan was supposed to neutralize them in national politics by pitting them against each other. His theory was that by raising the number and range of factions and inviting them to compete for power they would effectively cancel each other out, letting the ordinary good to increase phoenix-like in the ash.
But Madison’s faction theory never worked, and he confessed as muchduring that the Washington government when he noticed how efficiently Alexander Hamilton could implement his faction’s plan of domestic industrialization. Contrary to Madison’s expects, America hasn’t been in a position to prevent factions from rising to domestic dominance. That which we have witnessed instead is a history of alternating factional principle, not faction-free government for the common good.
With the greater scope of national government factional battle is getting a real threat to this nation. We are near or at a place where the results of democratic elections are not honored. What do we do to prevent the breakup of the nation?
Though John Rawls has been an important political theorist, he failed to fix the problems posed by radical pluralism. Neither did cause them, as has occasionally been hinted in this symposium. But he did understand that extreme factionalism (or pluralism) poses problems, and his job was an attempt to grapple with this fact. We ought to do exactly the same.
What our current political shares with warfare, however, is deeply felt enmity, a desire to disempower and eventually remove one’s competitors, and the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which include unfettered control over national coverage ) will go completely into the winners.Progressives seem to believe they will finish our political struggles by pushing their innovative agenda ever harder in the courts, in legislatures when possible, by executive orders, and also through propagandizing from the media, the entertainment business and at our schools. But this won’t operate. Even if progressive public policy were coherent and also a source of political equilibrium (which it is not), conservatives are not merely going away. But conservatives don’t have any credible approach either. But the progressives (Rawls contained ) are not in any way confused in their departures in the Founders’ constitutionalism. And they’re not going away either.
In the just-war tradition, among the criteria of jus ad bellum is really a prudentially sound conclusion regarding the chances of doing more good than harm. One needs a”end game,” a plausible plan for how a given warfare will serve the great. Unintended side-effects will need to be considered seriously. The effect of this war needs to have been worth it. In American politics now, we seem to get engaged in a kind of”war.” I use the term metaphorically here so that it designates not actual fighting but political conflict. What our current politics stocks with warfare, however, is deeply felt enmity, a desire to disempower and ultimately eliminate one’s opponents, along with the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which include unfettered control over national coverage ) will go completely into the winners.
But the end-game here is not credible. The”probability of success” is slim and the effort itself is likely to do more harm than good. To put it differently, the way we are fighting our political battles today does not meet the most fundamental conditions of a just war.
His prose style wasas Burton Dreben once remarked–such as something that was interpreted out of high German. His cast of mind was rationalist, his manner of performing”moral theory” too abstract. He was a revolutionary who loathed his historically situated and fashionable progressive tips for self-evident truth. And he was anti-democratic both in his theory of legitimacy and his high hopes for judicial principle.
There’s much else to get political theorists to do besides focusing on the issue that preoccupied Rawls, but it is nevertheless a serious issue, and it is not obvious to me that we will survive it.