Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate

Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate

by Ronald Dworkin

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Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate by Ronald Dworkin

Politics in America are polarized and trivialized, perhaps as never before. In Congress, the media, and academic debate, opponents from right and left, the Red and the Blue, struggle against one another as if politics were contact sports played to the shouts of cheerleaders. The result, Ronald Dworkin writes, is a deeply depressing political culture, as ill equipped for the perennial challenge of achieving social justice as for the emerging threats of terrorism. Can the hope for change be realized? Dworkin, one the world's leading legal and political philosophers, identifies and defends core principles of personal and political morality that all citizens can share. He shows that recognizing such shared principles can make substantial political argument possible and help replace contempt with mutual respect. Only then can the full promise of democracy be realized in America and elsewhere.

Dworkin lays out two core principles that citizens should share: first, that each human life is intrinsically and equally valuable and, second, that each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realizing value in his or her own life. He then shows what fidelity to these principles would mean for human rights, the place of religion in public life, economic justice, and the character and value of democracy. Dworkin argues that liberal conclusions flow most naturally from these principles. Properly understood, they collide with the ambitions of religious conservatives, contemporary American tax and social policy, and much of the War on Terror. But his more basic aim is to convince Americans of all political stripes--as well as citizens of other nations with similar cultures--that they can and must defend their own convictions through their own interpretations of these shared values.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400827275
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013), winner of the 2007 Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize, was the author of many books, including Sovereign Virtue, Freedom's Law, and Life's Dominion. He was the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York University and the Bentham Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London.

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Is Democracy Possible Here?

Principles for a New Political Debate

Chapter One


In Search of Argument

AMERICAN POLITICS are in an appalling state. We disagree, fiercely, about almost everything. We disagree about terror and security, social justice, religion in politics, who is fit to be a judge, and what democracy is. These are not civil disagreements: each side has no respect for the other. We are no longer partners in self-government; our politics are rather a form of war.

The 2004 presidential election was sickeningly divisive. Republicans said that a victory for the Democratic candidate would threaten the survival, even the salvation, of the nation. Vice President Cheney said that a victory for John Kerry would be a triumph for Osama bin Laden and America's other mortal enemies. Some Roman Catholic bishops declared that voting for Kerry would be a sin that any Catholic would have to confess the next day. Liberals declared the stakes just as high, but the dangers all in the other direction. They said that the Bush presidency had been the worst and most incompetent in our history, that its reckless wartime soak-the-poor tax cuts and horrendous budget deficits would damage the economy for decades, that the invasion of Iraq was an immoral, inhumane, and botched diversion that, so far from making us safer from terrorism, had immeasurably deepened our peril. They announced themselves not just disappointed but sickened by the election's results.

The vote was very close-decided by a relatively small number of votes in one state-and it was geographically clustered: the Republicans won the more rural Midwest, South, and Southwest, and the Democrats the urban centers, the coasts, and the industrial northern tier of states. The television networks colored Republican states red and Democratic ones blue on their electronic maps on election night, and the maps divided America into great, contiguous blocks of the two colors. Commentators said that the colors signaled a deep, schismatic rift in the nation as a whole: a division between incompatible all-embracing cultures. The red culture demands more religion in public life and the blue culture less. The blue culture wants a more equal distribution of America's wealth; it favors higher taxes on the rich and nearly rich. The red culture says that high taxes penalize the successful for their success and ruin the economy; it wants still lower taxes. The blue culture insists on less freedom for business and more freedom for sex; the red culture wants it the other way around. The blue culture declares global warming to be a grave threat and pleads for the protection of wilderness as a threatened irrecoverable treasure; the red culture believes it irrational to compromise economic prosperity to protect trees. The red culture holds that it is insane to limit in any way our government's power to fight our terrorist enemies; it is suspicious of international organizations and impatient with critics who cite the human rights of alleged terrorists. The blue culture agrees that terrorists present an unprecedented danger to the country, but it is anxious to nourish international law and support international organizations, and it is willing to run increased security risks rather than weaken the laws and traditions that protect people accused of crimes and threatened with terrible punishment.

Some commentators argue that we are more deeply and viscerally divided even than these political differences suggest; the stark political split emerges, they say, from an even deeper, less articulate contrast between two mutually contemptuous worlds of personality and self-image. Blue-culture Americans, they say, crave sophistication; they cultivate a taste for imported wine and dense newspapers, and their religious convictions, if they have any at all, are philosophical, attenuated, and ecumenical. Red-culture Americans guard a blunter authenticity; they drink beer, watch car racing on television, and prefer their religion simple, evangelical, and militant. Bush won the 2004 election, on this story, in spite of the fact that his first-term performance was unimpressive, because the red culture slightly outnumbers the blue culture at the moment and Bush managed to embrace not only the political preferences of that red culture but its morals and aesthetics as well.

It would be silly to deny that the political divisions among Americans are unusually deep and angry now and that these divisions run along a fault line that can usefully be described as separating a red from a blue political world. But the two-allembracing-cultures story that is beginning to become received wisdom is at least an exaggeration. The geographic division of the 2004 election results does suggest that regional differences played an important part. But the two-cultures story claims more: that some deep general account of character or worldview runs through each of the two sets of political positions and attitudes, some deep account that forms each set into a unified culture of conviction, taste, and attitude. It is difficult to see what that unifying account might be. There seems no natural reason why people who favor more celebration of the Christian religion in their community's public life should also favor lower taxes for the very rich, for example, or why they should be less sensitive to violations of the human rights of accused terrorists, or why they should be more likely to resist regulations that might slow environmental pollution. I very much doubt that most of those who voted for Kerry prefer Chardonnay to Schlitz. Perhaps the two-cultures thesis is not so much an explanation of our politics as itself the creation of our politics. One dominant force in recent elections has been the political alliance between evangelical religion and powerful commercial interests, and that alliance seems less the result of an underlying, deep cultural identity than of a political masterstroke: persuading people who hate gay marriage that they should therefore also hate the progressive income tax.

In any case, however, whether the two-cultures thesis reports a genuine and deep split between two zeitgeists competing for national dominance, as the commentators think, or whether it is only an amazingly successful political invention, that thesis now has a political life of its own. It has been seized on for polemical effect by both conservatives and liberals. Here is the version of the thesis offered by Newt Gingrich, the former and powerful Speaker of the House.

Over the last four decades, America has been divided into these two camps. In the first are those elites who find it acceptable to drive God out of public life and who, in general, also scorn American history, support economic regulation over freedom and competition, favor a "sophisticated" foreign policy led by the United Nations, and agree with the New York Times. But Americans in the other camp who are proud of our history know how integral God is to understanding American exceptionalism, know how vital the creative and competitive spirit is to being American, and believe that America is worth defending even if it irritates foreigners who do not share our values.

This absurd account of how Americans now divide is sadly not atypical in the hatred it declares for half our country. Many liberals are guilty of parallel absurdities: they paint most Bush voters as stupid or delusional or as terminally gullible peons at the mercy of manipulative and greedy plutocrats. The most serious consequence of the assumption of a comprehensive and unbridgeable cultural gap is not the stereotyping, however, or even the contempt each side shows for the other. It is the lack of any decent argument in American political life.

I mean "argument" in the old-fashioned sense in which people who share some common ground in very basic political principles debate about which concrete policies better reflect these shared principles. There was none of that kind of argument in the formal election rhetoric of the last presidential election-in the nominating convention oratory or the unending television commercials. The three presidential debates were hailed by some journalists as unusually revealing, but they were not. The rules of the debates, as usual, stifled sustained argument about any issue, and journalists reporting the debates wrote and talked almost entirely not about an argument but about the demeanor and body language of the candidates.

Formal campaign rhetoric has not been much to brag about in the United States for a very long time: perhaps since the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the news is not much better when we look beyond the formal campaign to the contributions of public intellectuals and other commentators. Intellectuals on each side set out their own convictions, sometimes with great clarity and eloquence, and they described the allegedly radical inhumanity and danger of the other side's views. But neither side made any proper effort to find the common ground that makes genuine argument among people of mutual respect possible and healing.

Here is one example-I believe entirely representative-of the wholly unargumentative character of our politics now. Gay marriage was much discussed by the candidates and in the media and was, according to the exit polls, an issue of considerable importance for the public. Neither candidate would say a word for it; both agreed that true marriage is between a man and a woman, and they disagreed only about whether it is appropriate to forbid gay marriage through constitutional amendment, a prospect both candidates understood was probably impossible anyway. Still it became a political issue, and most of those who thought gay marriage an abomination apparently voted for Bush. But in spite of all the attention to the issue, neither candidate seemed even to notice, let alone reply to, the careful case made by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the widely shared principles of her state's constitution required her to decide that gay marriage be permitted no matter how offensive that might seem to most people. Her decision was treated simply as an event that might be capitalized on by one side and might embarrass the other, with no apparent concern about whether her claim that established principles required that decision was right. After all the shouting and denouncing, there can be only a tiny number of Americans who have any idea what the legal argument was about.

If the two-cultures view is right, the lack of argument in American politics is understandable and inevitable. The split between the two cultures would be an unbridgeable gulf separating the comprehensive and wholly clashing worldviews of two Americas. If that is so-if the division between the two cultures is not just deep but bottomless-then there is no common ground to be found and no genuine argument to be had. Politics can be only the kind of war it has become. Many students of our politics think that that is our situation, and they may be right. But that would be alarming and tragic. Democracy can be healthy with no serious political argument if there is nevertheless a broad consensus about what is to be done. It can be healthy even if there is no consensus if it does have a culture of argument. But it cannot remain healthy with deep and bitter divisions and no real argument, because it then becomes only a tyranny of numbers.

Is the depressing diagnosis right? Is there really no common ground to be found between the trenches of two hostile political armies? Is no real argument possible?

My Agenda

I pursue two projects in this book, and I distinguish them now because I hope that many readers will agree with me about the first even if they largely disagree with me when I begin on the second. I shall argue, first, that in spite of the popular opinion I just described, we actually can find shared principles of sufficient substance to make a national political debate possible and profitable. These are very abstract, indeed philosophical, principles about the value and the central responsibilities of a human life. I suppose not that every American would immediately accept these principles, but that enough Americans on both sides of the supposedly unbridgeable divide would accept them if they took sufficient care to understand them. I shall then try to show the force and bearing of those shared principles on the great issues that divide us: issues about human rights, the place of religion in public life, social justice, and the character and value of democracy. Because I am mainly concerned with American political life in this book, I shall for the most part speak of these principles as the common property of Americans, but of course they are shared by a great many other people in the world, particularly in those mature democracies that Americans take to be their nation's political siblings.

It would have been nice, or at least polemically useful, had I been able to report that my own conclusions in this second, substantive project split the difference between the supposed red and blue cultures, offering some conclusions favorable to the convictions of each side. But that is not the case; the political opinions that I believe follow from our shared principles will strike readers as in fact a very deep shade of blue. I do not mean that they are all traditional liberal opinions; indeed some of them will not seem familiar at all. Liberals have not yet succeeded in creating a contemporary statement of their basic principles and have therefore been unnecessarily on the defensive in recent elections. It is part of my purpose in this book to state a form of liberalism that is not simply negative but sets out a positive program firmly based in what I take to be common ground among Americans. The liberalism I offer is what, in my view, liberalism means and requires now.

It is not surprising that my convictions are all of the same political hue, however, and that does not throw doubt on my suggestion that I begin in principles that we all share. On the contrary; it rather shows how deep these shared principles are. They are sufficiently basic so that a liberal or conservative interpretation of them will ramify across the entire spectrum of political attitudes. I hope readers who disagree with me-these might well be most of them-will therefore take what I say as a challenge. If you accept the premises I am about to suggest, and you disagree with my more concrete political convictions, then you must satisfy yourself that you can interpret those premises in a way that shows why I am wrong. If you can, then we have a foundation for genuine political argument. We can argue about whether your or my interpretation of the shared premises is coherent and if both are, which is more successful.

I must show, of course, that we really can argue over these basic issues. I must show that there is enough substance in the deep principles about human value that I describe as common ground to sustain an argument about what follows, by way of social, foreign, or economic political policy, from those principles. I do not assume that many Americans-or people anywhere-can be drawn into that kind of philosophical argument about those deep values. Most people on each side of the division now seem persuaded that it is useless to try to argue with or even to understand the other side. Evangelical Christians, for example, are rarely tempted to argue with those they believe to be secular humanists and therefore stuck in irremediable error. My ambitions are more modest but still very high. I hope to persuade enough people that this popular opinion is wrong-that it is profitable to study our most heated political controversies at a more philosophical level-to help begin a process that might later reinvigorate the argumentative dimension of our politics.

I shall not describe in any detail the laws and institutional arrangements that my own interpretation of the basic principles we share would support, but I shall describe some of these in a general way as illustration. I shall propose, for example, in the course of the book, that our legal and military procedures of detention should permit no distinction between citizens and foreigners, that political commercials should be banned from television during the months before a national election, and that the very poor should be regarded, like a minority and disadvantaged race, as a class entitled to special constitutional protection. I will not speculate much about the political possibilities of realizing these and my other now unpopular suggestions. At least some of them are politically utopian-it would be nearly impossible to persuade a majority of Americans to accept them, at least for a long time to come-and some would require constitutional amendment. I am a lawyer, and I will say something, particularly in the last chapter, about constitutional law. But my main interest is in political principle, not law. Utopias have their uses; they can concentrate the mind on the real limits of what is possible. In any case, this is no time in the life of the nation-or for that matter in my own-for caution.


Excerpted from Is Democracy Possible Here? by Ronald Dworkin Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Preface xi
Chapter 1: Common Ground 1
Chapter 2: Terrorism and Human Rights 24
Chapter 3: Religion and Dignity 52
Chapter 4: Taxes and Legitimacy 90
Chapter 5: Is Democracy Possible? 127
Epilogue 160
Notes 165
Index 171

What People are Saying About This

Michael Smith

In Is Democracy Possible Here? Ronald Dworkin throws down the gauntlet to conservatives. He articulates a compelling bipartisan account of the abstract principles that govern political decisions and he then argues, trenchantly, that those very principles condemn the conservative agenda. Breathtaking in its conception and peppered with shocking observations about current U.S. domestic and foreign policy, Dworkin's book provides a challenge that conservatives simply cannot ignore. Has he misidentified the principles or misunderstood their implications? The naysayers had better have an answer.
Michael Smith, Princeton University

Kent Greenawalt

Ronald Dworkin is indisputably among the world's leading legal and political philosophers. Here, he tackles major issues of political life in our time and offers challenging analysis and practical conclusions. Writing for a wide audience, he pulls together diverse perspectives in relation to pressing problems and presents difficult ideas in striking and provocative form.
Kent Greenawalt, Columbia University School of Law

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