Uni­fied in our po­lit­i­cal ac­ri­mony

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Ger­son

— If there is any uni­fy­ing theme in our de­graded po­lit­i­cal dis­course, it is the be­lief that the other ide­o­log­i­cal side is mainly re­spon­si­ble for de­grad­ing the dis­course. Both hard right and hard left ar­gue that the other guys started it and act with greater ruth­less­ness, and that the time has come, by gum, to take off the gloves, play by their rules and fi­nally kick some ide­o­log­i­cal ... as­sump­tions. We are see­ing a per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal be­lief that the provo­ca­tions of pol­i­tics are asym­met­ri­cal.

This might be mildly hu­mor­ous if it were not un­der­min­ing the prac­tice of democ­racy at ev­ery turn. Don­ald Trump sup­port­ers have fi­nally found a candidate will­ing to speak the lan­guage of con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio, even though he is not ac­tu­ally a con­ser­va­tive. The tone of Rush Lim­baugh and Ann Coul­ter is enough. No more of that po­lit­i­cally cor­rect rub­bish about ci­vil­ity, mu­tual re­spect, rea­soned ar­gu­ment, hon­esty, pol­icy so­phis­ti­ca­tion, eth­i­cal rec­ti­tude and ba­sic de­cency. What we need is strength. The pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee — amaz­ingly — is run­ning on a prom­ise to re­strict the abil­ity of the press to crit­i­cize him.

On some pro­gres­sive col­lege cam­puses, re­strict­ing the speech and as­so­ci­a­tional rights of peo­ple you don’t like has be­come a school-sanc­tioned club sport. And it is hard to throw a dead hedge­hog with­out hit­ting an aca­demic who will ar­gue that all moral­ity is a lin­guis­tic game, or a neu­ral epiphe­nomenon, or a strat­egy of class priv­i­lege, and that pol­i­tics and ev­ery­thing else, deep down, is a mat­ter of power. This is ed­u­ca­tion on the the­ory that the world needs more lit­tle Ni­et­zsches.

There seem to be a lot of peo­ple nowa­days who view the pur­pose of pol­i­tics as stig­ma­tiz­ing and si­lenc­ing your en­e­mies.

Into this pol­luted po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere comes a dif­fer­ent sort of aca­demic, who might be de­scribed as a demo­cratic en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist. John Inazu, a pro­fes­sor at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and a ris­ing young con­sti­tu­tional scholar, has writ­ten a timely, valu­able book ti­tled “Con­fi­dent Plu­ral­ism: Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing Through Deep Dif­fer­ence.” Inazu is propos­ing a na­tional cleanup ef­fort to make our pub­lic life more pleas­ant and pro­duc­tive.

This in­volves, first, a le­gal or­der that is gen­uinely plu­ral­is­tic — a lib­eral so­ci­ety will­ing to ac­com­mo­date non-lib­eral com­mu­ni­ties within it. Peo­ple have a right, in Inazu’s view, to as­so­ciate in groups, and those groups — even the ones that we don’t like very much — should (gen­er­ally) be treated the same in pub­lic fo­rums. Inazu de­fines “pub­lic fo­rums” broadly, as ev­ery­thing from ac­cess to the side­walk for protests to tax breaks for non­prof­its. As­so­ci­a­tions should gen­er­ally be shielded from ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism, ex­cept when they plot may­hem.

This is easy to ac­cept in the­ory. In prac­tice, ac­cord­ing to Inazu, it means all of us must be will­ing to “en­dure strange and even of­fen­sive ways of life.” For some, this may be a Catholic or Mus­lim re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion that with­holds cer­tain of­fices from women, or a trans­gen­der ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion at a more con­ser­va­tive pub­lic univer­sity, or a col­lege that ed­u­cates only women, or a Mor­mon Taber­na­cle Choir that ad­mits only Mor­mons.

What is fright­en­ing about Inazu’s ac­count is how weak the foun­da­tions are in cur­rent le­gal in­ter­pre­ta­tion for this type of gen­er­ous plu­ral­ism. The Supreme Court has de­liv­ered con­tra­dic­tory guid­ance. Inazu would pre­fer to see plu­ral­ism pro­tected by the for­got­ten right of peace­ful as­sem­bly. But, as it stands, some of the most im­por­tant theories and prac­tices of our democ­racy, ar­gues the au­thor, have “al­most no con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion un­der cur­rent doc­trine.”

The sec­ond part of Inazu’s book ad­vo­cates for a cul­tural or­der that up­holds plu­ral­ism through the prac­tice of demo­cratic virtues such as tol­er­ance, hu­mil­ity and pa­tience. Here the charge has come that the au­thor is be­ing naive — try­ing to throw a tea party in the midst of a civil war.

Inazu an­swers, calmly, that we should not over­es­ti­mate the bit­ter­ness of our cul­tural con­flict (as I prob­a­bly did at the start of this col­umn). Peo­ple with strong dif­fer­ences still man­age to find a “mod­est unity” in pur­suit of lo­cal, con­crete goals — build­ing a park or im­prov­ing a school — as well as to model friend­ship across ide­o­log­i­cal divi­sions.

On the other hand, we should not down­play the stakes. Tol­er­ance, hu­mil­ity and pa­tience are not the or­na­ments of a democ­racy, they are its essence. They al­low us to live at peace amid deep dis­agree­ment. Those on the right or the left who un­der­mine plu­ral­ism and dis­miss demo­cratic values are, in fact, bul­lies. And there is no real free­dom lived at their mercy.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated columnist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.


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