Thursday, June 09, 2005

Democracy as Pluralism

John McGowan, the blogger at Public Intelligence, but who is also guest blogging over at Michael Berube's perch, weighs in on the Republican assault on democracy:

Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits.


Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative. Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do.

But liberalism also provides a positive response to pluralism. It guarantees, through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations, the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should, I believe, promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored public sphere (or, to use another term for it, civil society). In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues. And, in some but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved.

The key point here is that democratic procedures of decision-making, which guarantee to all interested parties their chance to say their piece (their chance to sway others by argument) and use the vote and majority rule to adjudicate differences, is a vital liberal expedient for keeping the peace. That's because democracy, amazingly enough, has proven an astoundingly effective way to get people to accept peacefully the fact that they have ended up on the losing side of a political debate that was resolved by a vote.


The larger point, however, is the decline of the commons... So I am definitely talking about a perennial problem in all liberal democracies. Liberalism is always kicking against the pricks, is always struggling against powers' desire to exclude, to consolidate, to have it all its way. Establishing and maintaining a vital public sphere is never easy.

First off, I want to paraphrase John's essay and say that what John is suggesting here is that the essential dilemma in American politics is between those who favor and want to continue the process of pluralism (liberals, progressives) and those who do not (conservatives). Obviously I agree with this viewpoint and think much of our current debates either avoid this conflict, or otherwise tilt to the wrong side of it (in the case of Faux News, Ann Coulter, etc, it's not a matter of tilting--it's an all-out assault on the assumption and value of pluralism).

I also want to highlight what otherwise might be marginalized in his essay by suggesting that, as John says, "Liberalism is always kicking against the pricks." In other words, liberals are tempted to think that there was once a golden age of liberalism that conservatives have gradually and subtedly taken away. I think this perception is false, in that the American story has always been one of trying to push the boundaries of prejudice and power to including more people (whether they be of another race as in past struggles, or whether they be of different religious preferences and sexual norms, as is the primary struggle today). But I don't think it's accurate to believe that the current conservative juggernaught is in some way a change from a more liberal, Democratic era. I don't believe it is.

Probably best to recognize, as Bilmon does in his post from the other day, that liberals are for the most part going against the grain of conformity and authoritarianism in their support of minority rights and interests.

Finally, it's again worth noting that for conservatives, the "problem" is "personal responsibility" or the supposed lack thereof, meaning that government and society's role is a punitive one, designed to make people "behave" and conform to nationalistic or imagined majority norms.

For liberals, the problem is how to minimize the abuses of power, particularly as it concerns the rights and aspirations of society's "irregulars".

Needless to say, this has always been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a struggle of monumental proportions, and a struggle in which there will likely be more losses than wins. Over time, however, liberalism hopes to advance the causes of the traditionally disenfranchised, establish the grounds for a productive and safe pluralistic society and to expand the room and tenor of the commons.

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