Seeking Justice in a Factional Nation

We live in desperate times. Our country has become overly politicized and polarized. Within the traditional and progressive camps we observe greater fracturing: on the left, most rival”identities” whose only political language seems to be one of victimhood and oppression; about the right, new brands of conservatism and response such as domestic conservatism and integralism that tend towards an authoritarian country. Our immune system breeds cultures of addiction even as its prices soar to amounts that cannot possibly be sustained.
Some observers wish to assert this is simply the way American politics always is–that factions are nothing new, and that John Rawls’s theorizing is an attempt to not reform but to remove politics. But the character of the politics today isn’t normal, and the rationale isn’t far to find. Because government at the national level has grown so dramatically in extent, also because it now insinuates itself into nearly every aspect of our lives, the stakes have never been higher. Our elections are controversial and increasingly contested because nobody can afford to lose control of the colossal power that is up for grabs. As a result, our political culture has become increasingly warlike. We view our political opponents as enemies to be conquered, a la Carl Schmitt, rather than as fellow citizens with whom to reason and make compromises.
Among the fiercest battles in our current political culture concerns the meaning of justice.
I do not blame John Rawls for wondering out loud in case we might somehow reach an understanding about our most basic ideas of justice that we might then have a common touchstone for political deliberation.
Some political theorists assert that pluralism is not anything new and point to Madison’s talk of factions in Federalist 10 as proof. They are right that factions are nothing new, but they overlook that Madison’s strategy was supposed to neutralize them in national politics by pitting them against each other. His concept was that by raising the quantity and assortment of factions and encouraging them to contend for power they would effectively cancel each other out, allowing the ordinary good to rise phoenix-like in the ash.
But Madison’s faction concept never worked, and he acknowledged as muchduring that the Washington administration when he noticed how effectively Alexander Hamilton could implement his faction’s strategy of domestic industrialization. Unlike Madison’s hopes, America hasn’t been in a position to stop factions from climbing to domestic dominance. What we have witnessed instead is a history of switching factional rule, not faction-free government for the common good.
With the greater scope of national government factional battle is getting a true threat to the nation. We’re near or at a point where the results of democratic elections are not honored. What can we do to avert the breakup of the nation?
Though John Rawls has been a significant political theoristthat he didn’t fix the problems posed by revolutionary pluralism. Neither did cause themas has occasionally been hinted in this symposium. But he did recognize that intense factionalism (or pluralism) introduces difficulties, and his job was an attempt to grapple with this actuality. We should do exactly the same.
What our existing politics stocks with warfare, though, is deeply felt enmity, a desire to disempower and finally eliminate one’s opponents, along with the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which consist of unfettered control over national policy) will go completely to the winners.Progressives seem to think they will finish our political struggles by compelling their innovative agenda even harder at the courts, in legislatures when possible, by executive orders, also during propagandizing in the media, the entertainment business and in our colleges. But this will not operate. Even if progressive public coverage were coherent as well as also a source of political stability (that it is not), conservatives are not merely going away. But conservatives have no credible approach either. But the progressives (Rawls contained ) are not in any way confused about their departures in the Founders’ constitutionalism. And they are not going away either.
In the just-war tradition, one of those criteria of jus ad bellum is a prudentially sound judgment regarding the likelihood of doing more good than harm. One needs a”end game,” a good strategy for how a specified warfare will function as good. Unintended side-effects need to be considered seriously. The overarching effect of the war needs to have been worthwhile. In American politics today, we seem to get engaged in a sort of”war.” I use the term metaphorically here so that it designates not real fighting but political battle. What our existing politics stocks with warfare, though, is deeply felt enmity, a desire to disempower and finally eliminate one’s opponents, along with the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which consist of unfettered control over national policy) will go completely to the winners.
But the end-game this isn’t credible. The”probability of success” is slender and the attempt itself is very likely to do more damage than good. In other words, how we are fighting our political conflicts today doesn’t meet the most basic requirements of a just war.
It is relatively simple to criticize John Rawls. His prose style wasas Burton Dreben once remarked–like something that was translated from high German. His cast of mind was rationalist, his way of doing”moral concept” overly subjective. He was a revolutionary who loathed his historically situated and fashionable progressive tips for self-evident reality. And he was anti-democratic both in his concept of legitimacy and his high hopes for judicial rule.
There is much else to get political theorists to do besides focusing on the problem that preoccupied Rawls, but it is nevertheless a serious problem, and it isn’t apparent to me that we shall endure it.