NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he disputes that erupted after the Sohrab Ahmari-David French exchange cover a lot of territory — too much to begin to summarize. But they have illuminated a broader debate about the fate of “liberalism,” (itself a disputed term), in particular, a tension between procedural accounts of political life and substantive accounts of the political good. Some liberals and critics of liberalism hold that a “liberal” society requires a value-neutral public square. (Other critics of liberalism argue that, far from being a neutral worldview, “liberalism” itself smuggles certain values into the public square.) This is one of the reasons why Ahmari’s invocation of a politics oriented toward the “common good” and the “Highest Good” has rankled some; they see such an aim as antithetical to liberalism. However, it seems to me that it is possible to bring together both elements of “liberal” procedure — that is, individual rights, contested democratic elections, the rule of law, and so forth — and the possibility of a substantive narrative of the common good (and maybe even the highest good). Indeed, a politics stripped of the good might be unable to sustain the intellectual and cultural capital that makes a “liberal” regime possible in the first place.
In some ways, an absolutely neutral public square is impossible. Any government that exists will espouse certain kinds of values and reject other ones. Government policies will inevitably favor certain interests or groups. For instance, in American public life, we treat health care for the elderly very differently from how we treat it for Americans of working age; conversely, we guarantee young Americans certain educational opportunities that we deny to older ones (a forty-year-old would have a hard time enrolling at a local middle school). Even in more minor ways, government at various levels privileges certain viewpoints. For instance, a principal who instituted “Abraham Lincoln Day” at a public school would probably inspire little controversy outside the wokest or most reactionary wings of American life. “Adolf Hitler Day,” however, would likely garner a rebuke from a local school board. American public holidays in part are about enshrining certain figures in national life. This is one of the reasons why such holidays can be a cultural–political battle line — because they promote certain values and certain figures of esteem.
A neutral public square might not only be impossible; it might also be undesirable. One of the selling points of a democratic political society is to create a government in accord with a people’s beliefs. The idea that government should be constructed in some absolutely “neutral” way is a technocratic fantasy — and, like other technocratic schemes, it might hide its own biases from itself by cloaking them in the language of neutrality. The promise of the Declaration — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — is not a philosophical null-set but instead expresses a certain account of human flourishing. What is involved in “life” and “liberty” might itself be up for political dispute, as contemporary debates about abortion indicate. Even the aversion to cruelty — championed as a key element of liberalism by Judith Shklar and others — itself relies upon a broader ethical account of human life.
Moreover, it is quite possible that certain mores and social institutions are congenial to sustaining a self-governing republic over the long term. John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville certainly thought so. The second president held that the American Constitution would only work for a “moral and religious people,” and Tocqueville’s dazzling survey of nineteenth-century America highlighted the many cultural values and institutions that help democracy in America function. If republican life does depend upon some broader cultural institutions, the question arises about the role of government in promoting that cultural infrastructure (or at least not inhibiting it). As Thomas West’s The Political Theory of the American Founding documents, Americans in the Founding generation were quite willing to use government to nurture certain forms of life — funding religious efforts, using public schools to promote public morality, and so forth. Indeed, part of the conflict between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians in the early-republic era was about which vision of public life to promote, whether the finance and industry of Hamilton or Jefferson’s agrarian vision.
This has a bearing on politics today. For instance, a major theme of conservative defenses of the family is that, in addition to being a good in and of itself, strong families also provide a bulwark for republican life. If families are important for sustaining civic freedom, part of government policy might be thinking about how to strengthen them. There might be prudential limits on how much government can do to advance such aims, but it still could do something — whether funding public schools, giving parents tax-breaks, or encouraging a tighter labor market so that parents can better provide for their children. Again, there might be limits on what government can do effectively, but those limits don’t also mean that government might not play a role in establishing the broader conditions that make a free society possible.
However, the impossibility of a neutral public square does not thereby entail the impossibility of a pluralistic one. From its very beginnings, the United States has had competing views of the public good within itself. As the Boston Puritans found out, attempts to implement an absolutely “pure” society are soon frustrated by disagreement, schism, and dissent. If Americans do disagree about many important issues (as they do and always have done), the idea of a society where disagreement does not immediately lead to bloodshed seems a promising one. The ideas of free speech, civil liberties, contested elections, and so forth offer one way of attempting to maintain civic peace. More broadly, certain norms of toleration seem a precondition for this kind of free, diverse society, and this toleration has both civic and personal components. Even if the government does not institute a certain kind of persecution, organizing mobs of citizens to harass people of a different religion or political worldview also augurs ill for a free, functioning republic.
In this competition between accounts of the public good, a pluralistic society might try to make a space for dissenters. For instance, many Americans might differ from the Amish view of the good life, but our culture still offers a place for the Amish to create their own social forms and abide by their own codes. And a pluralistic society might also try to create broader public narratives that serve as a way of making members of diverse groups feel welcome into the public square. For centuries, many American statesmen have resisted overly sectarian invocations of religion, referencing some God without endorsing a particular religious creed (even if Protestantism often provided an organizing framework for American assumptions about religion). While Americans have often been united in an endorsement of the importance of religion, other themes of unification have also persisted — especially the invocation of a common civic heritage. This heritage has often been imagined as thicker than a mere list of abstract principles. Instead, it has been a brocade woven of bloody wars, common sacrifices and triumphs, political heroes, cultural practices (such as sports), artistic creations, and so forth.
Within the American compact, distributing power has also served as a vehicle for promoting pluralism. Different localities and states can, within limits, craft policies in accord with their own preferences. Slavery might have been an initial instance of this policy of diffusion to reduce conflict, but policy pluralism represents a broader trend in American life. Some citizens, for instance, prefer living in states with a higher tax burden and broader social safety net; others might prefer lower taxes and a leaner state government. Some communities favor high-density living, while others do not. The fact that many of these decisions are made by local authorities helps the broader public feel invested in the workings of government, which in turn builds public faith in civil institutions. This policy diffusion might at times involve frustrations with injustice, but it might also help advance justice over a longer term. For instance, pro-slavery (or at least anti-abolitionist) forces held the advantage in the U.S. Congress throughout much of the period leading up to the Civil War; allowing states to choose their own course on slavery allowed slavery to be banned in at least some areas, laying the foundation for a wider abolitionist movement.
Referencing these procedural elements is not a substitute for substantive discussions about what the common good or the public good is, just like invoking the norms of elections does not answer the question of which political party to vote for. Within a pluralist order, different factions offer competing cases for the public good. What social forms should government encourage? What interests should government favor (and every government always favors some interests)? What threats should it try to counteract? How vigorously should government act to achieve certain aims? Those kinds of questions are crucial for any political system, and procedural norms alone cannot answer them. References to procedure cannot replace questions of the public good; instead, procedural structures offer a way for adjudicating different viewpoints about the public good.
To raise a somewhat (David) Frenchist point: A society of contested pluralism — one that embraces the idea of a public good but also invites debates about this good — highlights the value of courtesy. In a diverse society, politeness toward others is not a mere affectation, nor is forgoing the idea of culture-war-at-all-costs a sign of cowardice. Instead, courtesy and modesty help a free society function. The no-man’s-land of cultural total war is also a dead-zone for republican self-governance.
Saying that government inevitably has a place in shaping the social conditions of broader society need not be an endorsement of a command-and-control regime, in which government bureaucrats set prices, order civilians like robots, and, more broadly, pull the strings of every enterprise from on high. Part of prudent government might be setting limits to the power of government, though various factions might debate about what exactly constitutes appropriate limits. Nor, as implied above, does such shaping of social conditions necessarily lead to radical homogeneity. A distributed government can allow for a diversity of sub-polities to create their own experiments in community-building, and institutions of civil liberties can allow individuals to cultivate differences as well as commonalities.
One of the things perhaps straining these conventions of pluralism is an impatience with it. Especially in a social-media age, partisans are apt to confuse hating the right kind of people (pick your demon) with virtue. A society that makes enmity a foundation of moral integrity is one that will have a hard time sustaining the compromises and conciliations that are necessary to keep a diverse republic functioning and whole. Technology has had other effects, too. The instantaneous communication of the Internet and the ubiquity of smartphones have turned the World Wide Web into an inverse panopticon, in which everyone is watching everyone else. And the concentration of capital and cultural power during the high neoliberal era has made it easier for a few large institutions to act as choke-points for ideological pressure campaigns.
Part of the defense of this pluralism might mean undertaking reforms to diffuse power. But part of it might also involve attending to the deeper ethical sources of a constitutional republic that respects individual liberties. By recognizing that elements of “liberal” procedure are to some extent harmonious with substantive accounts of the political good, we can attempt to set our exercise of liberty on a sturdier foundation. As a matter of history, people from a diverse range of backgrounds and traditions — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and atheist — have been able to find something good about American life. Pluralism alone cannot be the good, but it can be a good in building a political regime in this world of twilight struggle and wonderful riches.