We are living in desperate times. Our state has become too politicized and polarized. Over the conservative and progressive camps we see increased fracturing: on the left, most rival”identities” whose only political speech appears to be among victimhood and oppression; about the right, new brands of conservatism and reaction like national conservatism and integralism which are inclined towards an authoritarian state. Our immune system strains cultures of dependency even as its costs soar to levels that may not possibly be continuing.
Some observers want to assert that this is simply the way American politics always isthat factions are nothing new, which John Rawls’s theorizing is an attempt to not reform but to eradicate politics. However, the character of our politics now is not ordinary, and the rationale is not far to find. Because authorities at the national level has increased so dramatically in scope, also because it now insinuates itself into nearly every aspect of our lives, the stakes have never been higher. Our elections are contentious and increasingly contested because nobody can afford to get rid of control of the colossal power that is up for grabs. Consequently, our political tradition has turned increasingly warlike. We see our political opponents as enemies to be conquered, a la Carl Schmitt, rather than as fellow citizens with whom to conclude and make compromises.
One of the fiercest struggles in our current political culture concerns the meaning of justice.
I don’t blame John Rawls for wondering out loud if we might somehow reach an understanding concerning our most basic notions of justice that we could then have a frequent touchstone for political deliberation. As I mentioned at the opening article in this symposium,”About the Legacy of A Theory of Justice,” I think Rawls ultimately failed, though he was forward-looking in recognizing that our political culture might not survive its ordeal with revolutionary pluralism.
Some political theorists assert that pluralism is new and stage to Madison’s discussion of factions from Federalist 10 as evidence. They’re 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 theory was that by increasing the number and range of factions and inviting them to compete for power they would effectively cancel out each other, letting the ordinary good to increase phoenix-like from the ash.
However, Madison’s faction theory never worked, and he confessed as muchduring that the Washington administration when he noticed how efficiently Alexander Hamilton would implement his faction’s plan of national industrialization. Unlike Madison’s expects, America has never been able to stop factions from climbing to domestic dominance. What we have witnessed instead is that a history of switching factional rule, never faction-free authorities for the frequent good.
With the increased scope of national government factional battle is now a true threat to this nation. We are near or at a point where the outcomes of democratic elections are not honored. What do we do to avert the rest of our country?
Though John Rawls has been a significant political theoristthat he didn’t fix the issues posed by revolutionary pluralism. Neither did he cause them, as has occasionally been hinted at in this symposium. But he did realize that intense factionalism (or pluralism) poses difficulties, and his work was an attempt to grapple with this particular truth. We should do the same.
What our current politics shares 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 policy) will go entirely to the winners.Progressives seem to think they will end our political battles by pushing their progressive agenda even harder at the courts, in legislatures when possible, by executive orders, also throughout propagandizing from the media, the entertainment business and at our colleges. But this will not do the job. Even if progressive public coverage were coherent as well as also a source of political stability (that it is not), conservatives are not simply going away. However, conservatives have no credible strategy . However, the progressives (Rawls included) are not at all confused in their departures from the Founders’ constitutionalism. And they’re not going away .
One wants an”end game,” a good plan for how a given warfare will serve the great. Unintended side-effects will need to be considered seriously. The effect of this war has to have been worth it. In American politics now, we seem to get engaged in a kind of”war.” I use the word metaphorically here to ensure it designates not real fighting but political conflict. What our current politics shares 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 policy) will go entirely to the winners.
However, the end-game here is not credible. The”likelihood of success” is slender and the effort itself is very likely to do more harm than good. To put it differently, how we’re fighting with our political conflicts today does not fulfill the most basic requirements of a just war.
His cast of mind has been rationalist, his way of performing”moral theory” overly abstract. He was a progressive who mistook his historically located and stylish progressive tips for self-evident truth. And he was anti-democratic equally in his theory of legitimacy and his high hopes for judicial rule.
There’s much else to get political theorists to do besides focusing on the issue which preoccupied Rawls, but it is nevertheless a most serious problem, and it is not evident for me that we shall survive it.