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Seeking Justice at a Factional Nation

We live in troubled times. Our state has become too politicized and polarized. Over the conservative and progressive camps we find greater fracturing: on the left, rival”identities” whose only political language seems to be among victimhood and oppression; on the right, new brands of conservatism and response like domestic conservatism and integralism which are inclined towards an authoritarian state. Our immune system breeds cultures of dependency even as its prices soar to levels that cannot possibly be sustained. Our boundaries aren’t well preserved; our fundamental freedoms are increasingly under assault; our educational institutions are disconnected from reality, and our political discourse is odious.
Some observers want to argue this is simply the way American politics always is–which factions are nothing new, and that John Rawls’s theorizing is an attempt to not reform but to eliminate politics. However, the character of our politics today isn’t normal, and the motive isn’t far to seek. Since authorities at the national level has increased so dramatically in scope, also because it currently insinuates itself into nearly every facet of our lives, the stakes have never been higher. Our elections are controversial and increasingly contested because nobody is able to eliminate control of the colossal energy that’s up for grabs. Consequently, our political tradition has become increasingly warlike. We view our political opponents as enemies to be conquered, a la Carl Schmitt, instead of as fellow citizens of whom to conclude and make compromises.
One of the fiercest battles in our present political culture concerns the meaning of justice. “Social justice,””redistributive justice,” and”equity” vie for dominance within more traditional theories of justice grounded in reciprocal rights and duties and commonsense notions of virtue.
I don’t blame John Rawls for wondering out loud if we might reach an understanding about our most basic ideas of justice so that we might have a frequent touchstone for political deliberation. As I said in the opening essay in this symposium,”About the Legacy of A Theory of Justice,” I believe Rawls ultimately collapsed, although he had been forward-looking in recognizing our political culture may not survive its ordeal with radical pluralism.
Some political theorists argue that pluralism is not anything new and stage to Madison’s discussion of factions in Federalist 10 as evidence. They are right that factions are nothing new, but they overlook that Madison’s plan was to neutralize them in national politics by pitting them against each other. His concept was that by raising the number and variety of factions and inviting them to contend for power they would effectively cancel each other out, letting the common good to increase phoenix-like in the ashes.
However, 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 plan of domestic industrialization. Unlike Madison’s hopes, America hasn’t been able to prevent factions from rising to national dominance. That which we have seen instead is that a history of switching factional principle, not faction-free authorities for the frequent good.
With the greater scope of national government factional battle is getting a true threat to the country. We are near or at a place where the outcomes of democratic elections aren’t honored. What can we do to prevent the breakup of our state?
Though John Rawls had been an important political theoristthat he did not address the issues posed by radical pluralism. Neither did he cause them, as has sometimes been hinted at in this symposium. But he did recognize that extreme factionalism (or pluralism) introduces problems, and his work was an attempt to grapple with this actuality. We ought to do the same.
What our existing politics shares with warfare, however, is profoundly felt enmity, a urge to disempower and finally eliminate one’s opponents, along with the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which include unfettered control over national policy) will go entirely into the winners.Progressives appear to believe they will finish our political conflicts by pushing their innovative agenda ever harder in the courts, in legislatures when potential, through executive orders, also throughout propagandizing in the media, the entertainment industry and in our schools. But this will not work. Even if progressive public policy were coherent as well as a source of political stability (which it’s not), conservatives aren’t simply going away. However, conservatives don’t have any credible strategy . However, the progressives (Rawls included) aren’t at all confused about their departures in the Founders’ constitutionalism. And they’re not going out .
One needs a”end game,” a credible plan for how a given warfare will serve the great. Unintended side-effects will need to be thought about seriously. The overarching effect of the war needs to have been worth it. In American politics today, we appear to get engaged in a kind of”war.” I use the word metaphorically here to ensure it designates not actual fighting but political conflict. What our existing politics shares with warfare, however, is profoundly felt enmity, a urge to disempower and finally eliminate one’s opponents, along with the anticipation that upon victory that the spoils (which include unfettered control over national policy) will go entirely into the winners.
However, the end-game here isn’t credible. The”probability of success” is slender and the effort itself is likely to do more harm than good. In other words, how we’re fighting with our political conflicts today doesn’t meet the most basic conditions of a just war.
His prose style wasas Burton Dreben once remarked–like something which was interpreted from top German. His cast of mind has been rationalist, his manner of performing”moral concept” overly subjective. He was a revolutionary who loathed his historically situated and stylish progressive suggestions for self-evident reality. And he had been anti-democratic equally in his concept of legitimacy and his high hopes for judicial principle.
There is much else to get political theorists to perform besides focusing on the issue which preoccupied Rawls, but it’s nevertheless a serious issue, and it isn’t clear to me that we will survive it.