Vantage Point: Status quo interests have 'death grip' on American politics

Kenneth Taylor

Kenneth Taylor

Recently, I participated in a symposium on Capitol Hill titled "Legislating Values: Setting Priorities for the 109th Congress," co-sponsored by Stanford and the Economist magazine. My fellow panelists were Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sen. Jeff Sessions and Adrian Wooldrige, author of Right Nation. Morton Kondracke, executive editor of the newspaper Roll Call, moderated. Since I'm not a political philosopher, I was flattered but also surprised by the invitation. I do play a political philosopher on the radio, though. Plus, scratch any philosopher even a little, and you'll draw the blood of a would-be Philosopher King.

At the time, the Republican senators still planned to launch the so-called nuclear option, an effort to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters of federal judicial nominees. The Democrats planned to bring the Senate to a halt in response. The "crisis" has passed, but a showdown still looms. Though ostensibly about the direction of the Supreme Court, the subtext remains our conflicting values. Supposedly, a culture war is raging in America. Americans are clearly divided and at odds on many fronts. But I hope we are not at war. In war, one seeks to vanquish the opponent, to seize his territory. Politics, at its best, is about achieving reasonable compromise. The question is whether reasonable compromises on the many issues that divide us are anywhere in sight.

In the symposium, I argued that compromise is possible only if the legislature is extremely slow to impose values on the polity at large. That doesn't mean that values can never be legislated. But such legislation must have a basis in what philosophers call public reason. A public reason is one acceptable to reasonable participants in public debate, independent of differences in comprehensive moral outlook. For example, some believe on purely religious grounds that the blastocyst is an already ensouled human life, fully deserving of legal protection. But as long as the only grounds for that belief are Holy Scripture or divine revelation, it remains an illegitimate basis for legislation.

In a democracy, the instruments of state power are there for the seizing. If the party that seizes the instruments of power today feels entitled to impose a narrowly sectarian set of values, the party that seizes power tomorrow will feel equally entitled to impose its values. This is a recipe for social instability and for the de-legitimization of the instruments of state power.

Paradoxically, respecting the public-reason constraint may also threaten instability and de-legitimization. That constraint may appear to require that the committed fundamentalist, for example, must hold in abeyance his most deeply held convictions if he is to enter the public square. But the committed fundamentalist is unlikely to regard his convictions about, say, the inviolable sanctity of even the earliest stages of human life as one that he may fairly and legitimately be asked to surrender. That conviction is implicated in some of his most identity-constituting projects. To surrender it is to surrender an aspect of his very identity. He will find himself alienated and at odds with a state that appears to demand such surrender.

Not all instability is created equal, however. The emancipation of slaves; the end of Jim Crow segregation; forced school integration; the enfranchisement of women, African Americans and other minorities—all produced or required great social upheaval. But the state was right to offend millions on behalf of justice and progress. Stability in the service of reaction is no virtue, instability in the service of progress no vice. Still, it would be hard to deny the cost. Decades later, we still feel the reverberations in our unsettled and divided politics of those bygone days. Sometimes a choice of values simply must be made—a choice that will offend some and cheer others. Unfortunately, there is no easy formula for deciding when the social benefits of divisive choices outweigh the social costs.

If we could trust in the wisdom of our political leaders and if we had a more honest and deliberative politics, we might have some grounds for optimism. But we cannot and we do not. The political class is extraordinarily adept at manipulating and mobilizing us around phony values issues in campaigns that often leave us more rather than less divided. We are hardly ever treated as democracy's primary and essential stakeholders. We are hardly ever offered campaigns that seek to lay out in an honest, systematic and fair-minded way the issues that face us, the cost and benefits of the available alternatives, or the real potential winners and losers.

Americans tend to believe that we have the best of everything: the most vibrant economy, the fairest system of justice, the best health care system, and on and on. The facts sometimes say otherwise. Our vibrant economy produces staggering income inequalities. Tens of millions have no access to affordable healthcare. We have incarcerated more people for more crimes for longer periods than any industrialized democracy in the world. It need not be so. Democratic societies have handled the kinds of problems we face with far less division, inequality and injustice. But faced with the harsh reality of our shared lives and the hard choices we must make, we who are privileged often accept comforting narratives that justify our own privilege. That does not make us evil or pernicious. It does make us human and ripe for exploitation and manipulation by concentrated interests, fully invested in the status quo. Until their death grip on our politics is broken, fundamental problems will go unaddressed and the gulfs between us will grow deeper.

Kenneth Taylor is a philosophy professor, chair of the Philosophy Department and co-host of the radio program "Philosophy Talk."