Political Discourse

If you look to your right, you'll notice that the first blog I include among my links is "driftglass".

The author of this eponymous blog is an extremely talented writer, who does a great job of mixing eloquence and forthrightness. His brilliant use of crass language (e.g., fundamentalists as "Christalopithecans" and "Christopaths", the GOP's "Fuck Everyone But Me" ethos, Rove depicted as "Don Karleone", and so on) often seems an appropriate response to the vulgar sentiment that emanates from the right these days.

Nevertheless, driftglass is representative of a breakdown in American political discourse. He does not take positions counter to his own seriously. He answers claims with epithets rather than arguments. He is a master of the ad hominem.

Now, to be fair, he sees himself as responding to a rightwing that has abandoned argument and adopted similar tactics. If they refuse to reason with their opponents, why should he bother reasoning with them?

I have recently been having email conversations with my dear friend Ben on divisiveness in American political life. Ben is that rarest of breeds, a reasonable conservative. (But I kid! He's really more of a moderate.)

In any case, if not for Ben, I might not recognize that there are reasonable cases to be made, for instance, against the welfare state and affirmative action, and for the death penalty and abstinence education.

In studying deliberative democratic theory this term, I find myself often thinking of Ben. The reason that we are able to remain friends despite considerable disagreements is largely due to the mutual respect we have for one another.

Theorists like Gutmann and Thompson see this attitude as the central virtue of a democratic society. So long as we feel a need to treat our opponents as reasonable people who happen to have different values, that is, so long as we feel a need to justify ourselves to them when it comes to implementing policies that affect us all, healthy political discourse can flourish.

Chantal Mouffe, perhaps my favorite contemporary political theorist, calls this relationship an "agonistic" one between "adversaries", as opposed to the "antagonistic" relation between "enemies".

Enemies are those whose motives we impugn. We see them as incorrigibly evil, hopelessly ignorant, or batshit insane. In Rawls' language, they are unreasonable and should thus be excluded from political discourse. As a result of this, those of us who remain politically active increasingly find ourselves talking only to those who disagree with us.

driftglass is a paradigmatic case; he never tries to reach out to the other side. Blogs that have made such an effort--Left2Right comes to mind--have been dismissed by many as being in bad faith and elitist. I used to read and respond to comments on that blog before the feature was disabled, but by then I had long since given up on it. All too often, the commenters were anti-intellectual, seeing fit to respond to a professor's elaborate arguments with a wave of the hand (or just the finger). However, to be fair, the professors themselves did not always argue in good faith.

I like deliberative politics insofar as it is an ideal that would probably make for a better, more democratic nation. Today, the powerful and wealthy see little need to justify themselves to anyone. Candidates are marketed like laundry detergents while political dialogue has degenerated to the dozens. Civic-mindedness and public-spiritedness are at a nadir. Secrecy and fearmongering are used to silence dissent. The state of our union is not merely not "strong"; it's hardly worthy of the term "union" at all.

It's easy to blame this on the GOP. After all, prominent elements within it are eliminationist, endeavoring to create a one-party state. Sometimes, the only effective response to force is more force. And yet, I am not willing to give up the fight for a more reasonable public sphere.

The American left--if it can even be called that--is itself divided. Internal dissent abounds, and is probably partly to blame for our relative impotence. Nevertheless, I see it as our greatest strength.

Many on the right are intolerant of internal dissent and only recently have significant cracks opened on their united facade. These days, I often ask myself, where are the Republicans with principles? Why have moderates allowed themselves to be bullied into silence? Thankfully, people like Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter are starting to come forward to question the GOP leadership.

Perhaps we will see an end to the unholy alliance of neocons, theocons, bigots, and libertarians that comprise the modern-day GOP. Our democracy could sure use more than 2 political parties. (A split in the right would also allow for a split in the left, so that those of us who are not members of the Republican wing of the Democratic party might actually have a voice.)

Part of the solution is recognizing that us-them is never a satisfactory categorization of groups. Sure, not everyone will respond to reason, but many still feel the need to justify coercion. Let us make efforts to talk in good faith to those who are willing to listen. If we are to be partisans, let us be partisans of respect, reciprocity, and reasonableness.

We are all human beings here. Perhaps not all of us are inheritors of the Enlightenment, but many of us are. We mustn't lose sight of that. The Enlightenment gives us the hope of creating a society based on principles of liberty, equality, and justice rather than on the maxim that might makes right.

Those who still favor patriarchal authority, revelation, and intuition over democracy, science, and reason remain our enemies. But, in truth, this group is not as large as we sometimes fear. Many religious individuals are our allies here; they see the human mind as a divine gift that should not go to waste.

Ultimately, education is our greatest tool. When I teach class, I tell my students--and quite honestly I mean it--that I care little about the content of their opinions but ask only that they try to justify what they say with reasons that most people would accept. Yes, that means I am excluding those individuals who see human reason as an affront to God's greatness, but is this really so much to ask?

Can a nation thrive with absolutely no values in common? So why not encourage this one minimal commitment that opens the doors to a healthy pluralism that does not require violence to resolve disputes? Have we not had enough bloodshed, enough conversions at the tip of a sword or the barrel of a gun?

Can't we just agree to disagree?


Jeff said...


I think you are right when you maintain that the education of reciprocity and tolerance should be one of the goals of a democratic education. However, I hesitate at certain points in this post.

What is at stake in deliberative democratic theory is whether or not deliberative democracy is reductive; i.e. whether or not the advocates of deliberative democracy are attempting to close off some forms of response to what citizens see as injustices done by the state (or by other members of the democracy). It seems to me that the only things we can truly "agree to disagree" about are things that we don't care that much about. There are many cases in which an appeal to reasons that concern the common good simply means silence on particular issues.

For example, much of the protection of natural spaces depends on the activism of those few who care deeply for the land in question--much more deeply than they care for the common good. (Read Edward Abbey on the damming of Glen Canyon--a place most have never heard of, and a dam that provides energy for a huge population, but which eliminated a unique ecosystem close to the Grand Canyon). These places of local, particular beauty (perhaps all beauty is local and particular) make their arguments in experience, and their local, unique character is exactly what precludes them from consideration in terms of the common good. This is why so much of the environmental movement has had to depend upon demonstration, monkeywrenching, and other forms of civil disobedience to make its case--because the vast majority of Americans are too busy driving around in SUV's and eating hamburgers to consider the preservation of a natural space which few will ever see to be important. Would we want to say that these demonstrators fighting for what they believe are undemocratic?
Was Martin Luther King Jr. making a rational appeal to the common good?

This problem is exacerbated if we think democracy beyond national borders. Language becomes an issue--in which language will we deliberate? Esperanto? How can we think about the preservation, for example, of the lifestyle of the traditional Bolivian coca farmer in terms of the common good? Wouldn't we all just be better off if the coca plant was eliminated from the face of the world?

An analogy: deliberative democracy is to democracy as Esperanto is to a living language--both are a hollow, utopian dream for academic professionals. They both express the desire that we all, might, someday, be understood. Do I hear a choir of angels in the background? Have all our differences finally been overcome--might we really all be redeemed in the end: not by the Almighty, but by the spectre of "reasonable" language? Given the choice between those two redemptions, I choose the Almighty--at least there's a compelling story to go along with it.

specter_of_spinoza said...

You make some excellent points here.

While I agree that internationalism is an important issue, I think your point on language is relevant even within the context of the US.

Setting aside the obvious fact that many people here speak Spanish or another native language and have a flimsy grasp of English, there are also important dialectical differences in a nation as diverse as our own.

Moreover, differential levels of education further complicate the picture. Can I respect you as a person if I am insensitive to where you're coming from linguistically, for instance, by speaking "over your head"?

Most crucially, however, are those issues in which neutrality is not a real option: those issues of the common good you mention. To take no side in the battle of the weak against the strong is to favor the strong.

This argument could be made not only by leftists advocating the rights of labor unions but also by religious conservatives trying to protect the lives of fetuses. As you point out, agreeing to disagree here is effectively choosing one side over the other.

Generally speaking, the issue of religion is a difficult one. Sometimes I view France's somewhat extremist solution, with its explicit affirmation of secularism, as the only viable democratic option.

Of course I think that matters of personal conviction should never be subject to coercion, but unfortunately religion is not simply the individual's relation between herself and whatever higher power, as Kierkegaard or James, among others, might prefer.

Rawls' idea that people not vote based on such private convictions is a ludicrous suggestion. Generally speaking, I am not an advocate of such large scale intrusions by the state as would be required to enforce such a rule.

I am not hesitant to call the most extremist religious elements enemies of democracy. However, aside from this small bunch of fanatics, we should be able to include in public discourse a wide range of religious individuals and views.

At least in the US, it would be unreasonable to suspect that everyone subordinate his or her conception of the good to the value of liberal justice. But, I am nonetheless disposed to make arguments of the "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" variety when dealing with the more onerous species of Christians.

In the very least, we can acknowledge that, while one argument will not satisfy everyone, a series of overlapping arguments may do the trick, as in Rawls' idea. Does this then require some sort of strategic or rhetorical considerations to be central in deliberative politics? Could such tactics be construable as good faith efforts?

These are questions I have not seen these DD theorists seriously address.

Jeff said...


Thanks for your reply. Your remarks on language are right on.

After making the post yesterday, I read Rawls' "Civil Disobedience and the Social Contract," which may have complicated some of the points I made above. To argue from a Rawlsian point of view, the point he basically says that civil disobedience is permissible insofar as it is civil--which for him means that it makes an appeal to the "sense of justice of the majority."

Civil disobedience is justified if advocates have repeatedly raised reasons within discourse and were constantly refuted by the majority. So, there is a place for protest and civil disobedience in the Rawlsian state.

The question, then, seems to be what to make of the "sense of justice of the majority." Are we all bound together by a common sense of justice? This seems to me to be a very Kantian thought--that just as the individual's autonomy is constituted by her sense of duty, the state's legitimacy is constituted by a shared sense of justice. I'll throw this question out there: is it possible to be a pluralist state with only one sense of justice? Seems to me at the very minimum this would require a separation of the idea of justice from all other values (and probably make justice something like a transcendental condition of possibility of plural values). Any thoughts on this?

Jeff said...
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