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A Path to Civic Pluralism
American life would be much more enjoyable if we all learned to chill out a bit about politics and embrace people’s differences. (Part two in a series)
Having established the importance of Madisonian pluralism to America’s overall success and stability as a nation—and threats to this equilibrium from highly polarized two-party politics with little intra-party diversity or cross-party competition—we now turn to what a civic project to help restore a commitment to genuine pluralism might look like in contemporary times.
As political philosopher John Rawls famously asked in Political Liberalism:
How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?
Good question. Profound and irreconcilable moral differences often lead to serious conflict and war around the world, particularly when tied to the demands and beliefs of specific ethnic, religious, or racial groups.
What do we do about it?
The American political project has tried to answer this sectarian challenge by embracing (in theory if not always in practice) Madison’s conception of pluralism, where factions based on competing beliefs or interests are expanded and dispersed to avoid any one group capturing power and restricting other people’s liberties. Rawls also defined this type of pluralism as “overlapping consensus” where people with competing belief systems at least agree to a common constitutional order and principles of justice that protect everyone’s rights to live and think as they want.
In simpler language, America is built on a basic principle of “live and let live” protected by a series of institutional checks and balances and divisions of governmental power to ensure that no one highly motivated group of people with specific beliefs or demands can “vex and oppress” others as Madison warned.
For both Madison and Rawls, the goal of political activity in a properly functioning pluralist system should never be to force others to bend the knee to one way of thinking, but rather to carve out spaces for people to live and think as they want with full and equal rights accorded to everyone.
This requires every citizen and political faction to accept some ground rules: (1) A constitutional framework of fair and equal rights for all, protected by the rule of law; (2) A basic commitment to value pluralism in life, mainly, “You have your views and I have mine, and even if I don’t agree with these views, I respect your right to hold them”; and (3) A pragmatic willingness among citizens and representatives to put aside their own values or interests at times to do things in concert with others and advance common goals.
Forging this pluralistic civic tradition has never been easy.
It is even harder to do in contemporary times with two ideologically and demographically sorted political parties pressing heightened cultural divisions into nearly every aspect of modern existence, stoked by constant fear mongering by the media and politicians that one side is trying to eliminate the other side’s beliefs and life choices.
This is an unpleasant way to live and produces unstable and unproductive governments that many people view as illegitimate if they are not on the winning side of any given political battle. Institutional reforms are necessary to encourage more pluralism in politics as will be discussed in the next part of this series. But a civic project to help citizens better overcome hurdles to pluralism is also necessary.
Here are four steps Americans themselves can take to help advance a pluralistic commitment to democratic cooperation and mutual understanding:
Embrace more non-political aspects to life. People mostly get along just fine outside of the world of partisan politics and the media scaffoldings that support it—think about the workplace, neighborhood or school gatherings, sports teams, book clubs, the military, or various interfaith groups. These non-political organizations work well precisely because they encourage cooperation between people with multiple backgrounds and perspectives. In general, everyone agrees to do things together—or work towards a common goal—rather than always pressing their own interests and personal identities.
The more people engage in these pluralistic organizations, and the less they engage in combative partisan politics, the better.
Keep politics out of most relationships and institutions. When people violate pluralistic norms in the workplace or at school or in some other organization, things start to fall apart. This is increasingly the case today as formerly non-political institutions have now been overtaken by people pressing the same dumb culture wars and partisan politics that drive people mad and create conflicts elsewhere.
Don’t be this person. We all need to do a better job of keeping our politics separate from the rest of life—and people in positions of authority within institutions need to better enforce pluralistic norms and rules to help keep it that way.
Resist social pressures to conform to narrow partisan beliefs and negative opinions of others with different views. Partisan politics today is little more than two petty and stupid high school cliques demanding conformity from people inside the group and demanding hatred of those outside of the group.
Who cares really? It’s fine for people to vote for Republicans or Democrats—or to vote for some other party or not to vote at all. We still have to find ways to tackle common economic and security challenges across party and ideological lines to be successful as a nation. No single party will ever fully dominate the other, nor should it.
Just vote for whoever you want to vote for and support whichever ideological faction you want. But remember: no one else is your enemy for supporting different political ideas, leaders, or parties.
Try harder to understand the positions of those with different backgrounds and opinions. This last step is understandably difficult because it requires patience and listening, empathy, and open-mindedness—values in short supply in today’s partisan landscape. But to truly uphold a principle of “live and let live” with mutual respect, people at least need to try to see things from another’s perspective—based on their own terms and understanding rather than a biased conception of those views.
This doesn’t mean acquiescing to values and ideas that might be alien or abhorrent, it merely means respecting other people’s right to see things in a different way as part of living peacefully and cooperatively in a pluralistic democracy.
If America is to revitalize a Madisonian commitment to value pluralism, we as citizens must do a better job of understanding these principles and upholding them in our individual lives.
These four steps should not be thought of as a formal civic project imposed on people from outside voices or groups. Rather, it needs to be an informal project people willingly take on themselves to help America pull back from the partisan polarization and social divisions that increasingly wreck our ability to get things done together.
American life will be much better for everyone if we collectively agree to calm down about political differences and try to listen and understand others rather than trying to use politics to “vex and oppress” them.