The right's big morality puzzle: Why giving in won't save liberals from the politics of cynicism

The answer to the Tea Party won’t be found via a veil of ignorance -- but an ambitious, energized Democratic Party

By Kim Messick
Published November 16, 2014 4:00PM (EST)
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul                                      (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/photo montage by Salon)

In the July 10 issue of The New York Review of Books, Samuel Freeman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania who studied under John Rawls at Harvard, takes issue with certain ideas of the British philosopher Bernard Williams -- ideas that might be seen, directly or indirectly, as a series of respectful rebukes to his former teacher. Reviewing a posthumous essay collection by Williams, Freeman notes his rejection of “moralism” in political philosophy -- “moralism” being Williams’s term for the view that political philosophy is “an extension of moral philosophy, concerned primarily with questions of justice.” Against this, says Freeman, Williams argues:

[P]olitical philosophy should concern politics… which is different from morality. For [Williams], the main problem with moralistic theories of political justice is their claim that impartial principles of justice… apply universally, regardless of a society’s history, practices, or fundamental values.

Rawls’s great work, "A Theory of Justice" (1971), tries to develop exactly this kind of view, one that will apply to any rational person who agrees to think about justice under certain constraints. Williams, on the other hand, believed that political philosophy should proceed from “the cultural practices and historical circumstances of the societies to which it applies.” Its “primary role” is to provide a reflective, historically grounded critique of a political community’s practices, and in doing so to defend what’s worth defending and to criticize what needs criticizing. As these thoughts suggestWilliams's version of political theory is more concerned with legitimacy than justice, though justice is, of course, one aspect of legitimacy.

Rawls himself eventually moved closer to something like this historicist view of political thought. But Freeman focuses on Williams’s admission that some political decisions may have to be defended on “abstract, procedural” grounds when citizens differ deeply in their ethical beliefs: [T]his acknowledgement seems to reintroduce a need for the impartial morality Williams eschews, at least for a public political morality that is acceptable and justifiable to democratic citizens who have different and conflicting values.

Here Freeman clearly links the “abstract” and “procedural” with the impartial, and the impartial with the moralism Williams wants to avoid. If we decide to be liberals, Freeman seems to argue, we have to think about political philosophy as something continuous with moral philosophy. We have to be John Rawls -- the early John Rawls -- rather than Bernard Williams.

All of this may seem a fairly dusty dispute between academic philosophers, but I think it points to something extremely important. The cluster of ideas Freeman is concerned with -- liberalism as committed to a strong concept of impartiality, impartiality as a matter of “morality” -- is enormously influential within liberal thought. It is also, I think, deeply confused, and this confusion has significant practical consequences for liberalism, many of them unfortunate. So at least I will argue in what follows.

Before we begin, a quick disclaimer to avoid confusion. To argue that liberalism is independent of moral philosophy does not imply that liberalism never employs moral concepts. It quite obviously does. The question, rather, is whether liberal purposes can be adequately described and defended if we take them to be fundamentally political rather than moral. We want to know if we can talk coherently (and persuasively) about liberalism if we view it as principally concerned with the organization of public life and the relations of power any such organization must entail, and not with the final ends of humanity generally or with questions of ultimate worth and value. If the answer to that question is yes, it won’t matter that liberalism shares some concepts with morality. Just because the notion of a “right,” say, can occur in both moral and political theory won’t make the latter an instance of the former.

* * *

We should probably start with a brief characterization of “liberalism.” No important question was ever settled by a definition, of course, but on the other hand no argument ever profited from lexical uncertainty. This is especially true of terms which are themselves highly contested, as is certainly the case with “liberalism” -- an honorific to some, a pejorative to others.

To search for necessary and sufficient conditions for every usage of such a word is a fool’s errand. But this doesn’t mean we have to settle for a purely situational concept. Liberalism -- like any complex tradition -- is best understood as a family of theories, one marked by continuities of concern but differences over emphasis and approach. The core concern of Western liberalism, I believe, is individual freedom. What binds liberals together is the belief that freedom is the cardinal value in the organization of political life. What divides them is how liberty should be balanced with other values, and how the various dimensions of liberty should be balanced with each other. On my view, then, libertarians and “welfare state” liberals belong to the same general tradition, but differ fundamentally from Burkean conservatives on the one hand and, say, socialists on the other. These persons affirm traditions that prioritize values other than liberty -- authority for the former, equality for the latter.

If these remarks are correct, they immediately suggest several things. Most obviously, they imply that liberalism is actually quite limited in scope. It is not a theory about all of human life; it addresses itself to one particular thing human beings do together -- namely, to the practice of politics. Of course this “one thing” is, to be sure, hideously complex, so its limited scope does not in any way mean that liberalism is something simple. But it does suggest we should be wary of those, on the left or the right, who detect within liberalism grand metaphysical designs or elaborate philosophical ambitions.

This doesn’t settle the question between Freeman and Williams, however, because it doesn’t rule out the possibility that we need moral philosophy to make sense of liberal politics. A modest, politically focused liberalism could still be a “moralized” liberalism. In particular, it could be a liberalism dependent on at least two claims: first, that a strong concept of impartiality is essential in politics; second, that this is (in some substantive way) a requirement of “morality.”

There is a line of thought that seems to suggest exactly this. Historically, liberalism is closely linked with constitutionalism. This means (among other things) that liberalism is not just a theory of politics generally, but also, more specifically, a theory of the state. It also means that liberalism is committed to the rule of law.

The notion of the rule of law, though far from simple, is easy enough to specify in an intuitive way. Essentially it means that a society is not subject to the exercise of arbitrary power -- that laws are made in duly ordained ways, apply to everyone, and are enforced regardless of rank or station. (The second clause is needed to rule out the possibility of an absolute monarchy, which could satisfy the other two conditions.) This clearly involves some idea of impartiality, in the minimal sense that similar cases are treated similarly. But to see just how minimal this is, consider a law to the effect that no green-eyed person can receive a tax refund. If I work for the IRS and refuse a refund to my brother because he has green eyes, I have applied this law impartially. The rule of law has, in that sense, been satisfied. But no one would claim that the law itself is impartial, not in the sense of “impartiality” that matters to liberalism. Nor is it clear that the rule of law, in itself, is a moral requirement as opposed to a prudential consideration derived from experience -- absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc etc. So these ideas alone probably won’t get us a moralized liberalism with a strong concept of impartiality. Are there ideas that will?

Let’s return to the tax refund law. It’s a textbook case of the kind of law that offends us precisely because it lacks impartiality. But exactly how are these two things related? What offends us isn’t simply that the law singles out a class of persons for special treatment; many laws which don’t offend us do that. A law that forbids convicted sex offenders from living within one mile of a public school will not be attacked because it lacks impartiality. If our different responses here have a principled basis, we have to explain why the addresses of sex offenders lie on one side of the principle but the tax refunds of green-eyed persons lie on the other.

The conventional explanation is that the prohibition against sex offenders is rationally related to a legitimate goal of social policy -- the protection of children -- whereas no such goal could conceivably lie behind the tax refund law. Does this suggest any general conclusions about how liberalism and impartiality are related? At the very least, it would seem to imply that liberals believe the law should distinguish between persons -- should not treat them impartially -- only when doing so furthers some rational, legitimate end. If we leave behind specific statutes and focus instead on constitutional fundamentals, we see that liberals generally favor an impartial distribution of basic rights and powers -- freedom of speech and the press, freedom of religion, certain political (and civil) liberties, and essential legal protections such as due process. Liberals argue that everyone should have these rights, and that everyone should possess them to an exactly equal extent. It follows that liberals must regard any unequal -- that is, non-impartial -- allocation of these rights as rationally unrelated to legitimate social goals. But this might mean either of two things. On the one hand, the goal involved might be legitimate, but either independent of, or actively thwarted by, the unequal allocation; on the other hand, the allocation could be a rational way to advance an illegitimate goal. (We needn’t concern ourselves with the logically possible case of an unequal allocation that doesn't advance an illegitimate goal.)

I think it’s pretty clear that the real issue for liberals, when they contemplate an unequal distribution of basic rights, has more to do with the second concern -- illegitimate goals -- than the first. After all, if your aim is to exploit or humiliate or oppress a certain class of persons, depriving them of fundamental rights is a perfectly rational way of going about it. So when liberals criticize such measures, their complaints are about moral adequacy, not tactical efficiency. They’re not upset because these forms of inequality don’t “work,” but because the ends they serve are odious.

Williams -- a self-described “man of the left” -- would of course agree that these ends are odious, just as he would agree that basic rights should apply to everyone in a society such as ours. An impartial allocation of these rights advances the primary goal of liberalism, which is precisely to avoid the kind of polity in which some persons are routinely oppressed and harassed by the state. But now we have to wonder what it is, exactly, that Williams and Freeman disagree about. If the impartiality Freeman is concerned with is simply the universal allocation of basic constitutional rights, then really there is no issue between him and Williams.

But Freeman is, in fact, concerned with more than this. As we saw above, he rejects Williams’s claim that political philosophy should restrict itself to the cultural practices of a given society. As Freeman sees it, any such limitation would jeopardize our ability to defend liberal ideals, because one of the hallmarks of our society -- as of liberal society generally -- is that it harbors a diversity of such practices. The only way to secure these ideals -- to make them “justifiable to democratic citizens who have different… values” -- is to anchor them in an “impartial morality.” And here “impartial” clearly means: impartial with respect to the plurality of cultural practices.

Freeman’s view, then, has the following structure. On the normative level, liberalism wants a political regime characterized by an impartial allocation of basic constitutional rights. Such a regime, in turn, will tend to foster a highly diverse society. But to defend this regime, we need a form of justification that’s independent of particular ideals or values -- one that can appeal to all citizens as citizens, regardless of their private beliefs. And the only possible source (or, at least, the best source) of this justificatory impartiality is morality.

Williams agrees with the first, normative part of this structure, but not with its second, justificatory part. This is his real disagreement with Freeman. So why does the latter think that morality can provide us with a justificatory kind of impartiality*

* * *

Liberalism, we’ve said, is the view that equal liberty for all citizens is the cardinal value of political life. Given this, one of the most striking things about liberalism is how it evolved two quite different (even inconsistent) ways of reaching this conclusion.

On the one hand, some liberals argue that human beings are so essentially diverse that any state organized around a single substantive end must necessarily become oppressive and stultifying. No matter how noble this ideal might be, or how widely shared, there will always be citizens whose personal happiness requires them to live outside it. For this kind of liberal -- John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin spring immediately to mind -- the principle of equal liberty is a kind of promissory note, a guarantee to everyone of the social space he/she might need to construct a livable life. Citizens share a commitment to the legal framework that protects this space, but they may share little else in the way of substantive morality.

Other liberals, however, take a different view. They might accept that persons have various interests and purposes, but insist there’s enough commonality in human nature to generate principles which are substantive and universal. The most influential advocate of this kind of view is without doubt the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In a series of ground-breaking works published in the late 18th century, Kant argued that practical norms -- rules of action -- are grounded in reason. For Kant, reason is the faculty by which we grasp the necessary structures of experience and represent these in universal (“categorical”) principles. Kant believed that practical norms reflect the essential fact of our moral experience: our nature as free, equal, and rational beings. Because all persons share this nature, the same norms apply to everyone. For Kantians, a norm that can’t be universalized -- that is, applied impartially -- isn’t just confused or corrupt or incomplete: it’s irrational.

The contrast is stark. Mill gets to the principle of equal liberty because he believes that human beings are fundamentally different. Kant gets to the same principle because he believes that human beings (where it counts) are essentially the same. Liberals like Mill (or Berlin) accept diversity as a normal, even salutary, part of the human condition, and usually adopt an experimental attitude toward the institutions we’ve designed to mediate and manage it -- political institutions included. Their real value is the sort of life they make possible: a life in which a minimally burdensome public order allows human creativity to express itself in myriad ways. If we can get a decent consensus on the desirability of this kind of order, that’s probably as much consensus as we really need or can realistically expect.

Kantians tend to be uneasy with this pragmatic acceptance of difference. Mill’s version of liberalism strikes them as rickety and uncertain, and far too comfortable with compromises to be properly philosophical. Their universal conception of reason makes them especially nervous when they detect this attitude in discussions of justification. For Kantians, liberal values aren’t really secure unless anchored in principles that everyone accepts (and must accept) as binding on all rational persons.

The foremost proponent of Kantian moral thought in 20th century American philosophy was John Rawls. "A Theory of Justice," which almost singlehandedly revived substantive political philosophy in the English-speaking world, includes many references to Kant and allusions to his influence. (“The theory… is highly Kantian in nature,” Rawls writes in his introduction.) The essence of the theory is found in its famous concept of an “original position” -- an imagined assembly of persons who have to choose principles for the fundamental institutions of their society. To prevent any particular person from rigging things in his or her favor, Rawls positions everyone behind a “veil of ignorance”: his choosers have no information about their particular identities, only highly general facts about their situation as a whole. Rawls argues that the principles chosen in this situation would be principles of justice, and that the only rational decision for his assembly is to prioritize a right to equal liberty: this will secure for everyone as much freedom as possible regardless of who specifically they turn out to be. Because the veil of ignorance separates each person from his/her individuality, it in effect requires the assembly to deliberate impartially. The members are in no position to benefit themselves at the expense of other persons.

Freeman was Rawls’s pupil and friend, and later the editor of several very valuable collections of Rawls’s essays and lectures, as well as the volume devoted to Rawls in the "Cambridge Companion" series. It is only natural that he should defend Rawls against the implied (or explicit) criticisms of other thinkers, Williams included. But we can clearly see in his defense, as in Rawls’s theory, the influence of deeply Kantian elements. Reason gives us access to an impartial perspective from which to contemplate practical questions, an impartiality that both enables and requires (rational) unanimity. This perspective, in turn, is identified with morality: to adopt it is to assume the moral point of view. The liberalism we derive from it is therefore strongly impartial and thoroughly moralized.

* * *

Bernard Williams provides a sustained critique of this Kantian view. One of the supreme intellects of his generation, Williams was a man of broad interests who wrote on a wide variety of topics. Among other things, he was probably more responsible than any other single thinker (with the possible exception of Rawls himself) for the decline in the acceptance of utilitarianism as a reconstruction of our moral views. Where Kantianism is concerned, the nerve of his criticism is his rejection of the nexus of ideas noted above: the association of reason with impartiality, and of both with morality.

Williams’s attack on this position is highly complex, and right now we can only gesture at its details. Its most complete statement is probably to be found in his 1985 book, "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy." There Williams distinguishes between theoretical reason, which issues in statements about the world, and practical reason, which issues in statements about action. Put very crudely, the former tells us what to believe, the latter what to do.

Williams is prepared to accept a role for impartiality in theoretical reason, and employs the notion of an “absolute conception” to illustrate why. The ultimate goal of science, he writes, is a model of the world that doesn’t depend on the perspective of any particular observer. Far from appealing to such perspectives, science treats their partiality as among the things it must subsume and explain. At the limit, such a model supplies “objective” knowledge in the sense that its claims hold for all rational observers, once the peculiarities of their epistemic situations have been filtered through the theory’s own explanatory apparatus.

What makes this kind of “absolute conception” possible in science, says Williams, is just the fact that: "When I think about the world and try to decide the truth about it, I think about the world, and I make statements, or ask questions, which are about it and not about me.”

Because “factual deliberation is not essentially first-personal,” it makes sense to suppose that a true belief about the world for one observer must be a true belief for any similarly situated observer. But precisely this condition is not met by practical deliberation, which is always

first-personal, and the first person is not… naturally replaced by anyone. The action I decide on will be mine, and… its being mine means not just that it will be arrived at by this deliberation, but that it will involve changes in the world of which I shall empirically be the cause… The I that stands back in rational reflection from my desires is still the I that has those desires and will, empirically and concretely, act.

In theoretical reason, my objective is to arrive at true beliefs about the world, and what makes beliefs about the world true or false is something about the world, not about me. This opens up a space for impartiality. But in practical reason my objective is different: here I try to decide what I should do, how I should act; and this can only mean which of my interests and objectives I should realize in the world. (Here “interest” is intended in the broad sense of ends or aims, not in the narrow sense of self-interest.) There is no way to divorce this question from facts about myself, and therefore no way to escape partiality. Any putative reason for me to act must fully credit the primal unity between who I am and what I do. There can be no “absolute conception” of the practical world, and hence no identity there of rationality and impartiality.**

It’s important not to be misled by this conclusion. As we saw earlier, Williams endorsed the liberal idea that basic rights should be distributed impartially. He had no problems with this kind of normative impartiality. What he rejected was justificatory impartiality -- the belief that normative principles are justified (when they are justified) because they reflect, or proceed from, or embody an impartial point of view. And he rejected this notion because he denied that practical rationality is associated with impartiality. It makes perfect sense, then, that Williams had little patience for Kantian arguments that liberal impartiality is imposed on us by the demands of reason itself. His own view was that liberalism is “justified” on practical grounds: it’s simply the best way for people with different values and ideals to conduct their common business. These values and ideals are themselves rooted in the historically grounded forms of life characteristic of modern democratic societies. Liberalism shelters and supports this kind of society; this society, in turn, gives liberalism its purpose. Liberal institutions sustain a modus vivendi -- a way of living peacefully in the presence of diversity.***

* * *

I said early on that confusions about impartiality have unfortunate consequences for liberal politics. It may seem hard to accept this when the discussion, up to now, has been highly abstract. In closing, I want to connect the arguments of Williams, Rawls, and Freeman with an attitude toward politics that is painfully common among some liberal activists and politicians.

The Kantian view of practical rationality was not invented out of whole cloth. It has proved so tenacious in academic circles because it seems to resonate with some very natural (even intuitive) everyday beliefs. When we have identified the best thing to do in a given situation -- meaning the thing supported by the best available reasons -- it seems obvious that it must be the best thing for anyone to do. Our reasons, being the best, must hold for any rational person, and so everyone should share our beliefs about the optimal course of action.

But this is not the situation we normally confront, in politics or any other walk of life. People disagree about what to do; they have wildly divergent, even incompatible ends. Sometimes, of course, we convince them to change their minds. Sometimes they change our minds. We discuss, exchange reasons, debate, and in the end our views may coincide, or at least converge.

But not always. Just as often no resolution can be found, and we must agree to disagree. The question we then confront is how to understand cases of stubborn conflict if we also regard one position (usually, of course, our own) as uniquely rational. We may be tempted at times to charge our interlocutors with bad faith, even irrationality. There is a lot of intellectual perversity in politics, so this response may occasionally be warranted. (Paging Michele Bachmann.) But it seems unlikely that most political disputes can be realistically depicted in this way. People disagree about facts -- about what is and isn’t empirically established -- or they disagree about how data should be interpreted or about how evidence should be weighed or about the inferences the evidence will license. They disagree about which means will best secure certain ends, and about exactly which ends we should prioritize and prefer. At any given point in this process, opposed positions may all be able to claim a certain degree of plausibility. Our political disputes are generally too complicated to sustain charges of outright irrationality; what John Rawls in his later work helpfully called “the burdens of judgment” usually see to that.

This is a quandary, because it leaves us with an apparent contradiction. One the one hand, we believe that political disputes -- some of them, anyway -- have right answers, answers that all rational parties to the dispute should accept; on the other, we know that our politics is characterized by deeply entrenched differences that cannot plausibly be described as failures of rationality. The obvious way out is to argue that there’s something wrong with our politics -- something that keeps us from seeing the force of these answers, perhaps because we are distracted by concerns other than truth. What might these concerns be? The most natural candidates, of course, are personal ambition, a tactical edge, electoral success: in other words, partisanship.

We have reached what is perhaps the favored meme of all right-minded persons these days. Calls for “bipartisanship,” usually accompanied by denunciations of “partisan division,” are on the lips of every bien pensant citizen, commentator, and official. It’s obvious that our politics has changed, and in a way that’s made it harder, not easier, to get things done. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, we’re constantly reminded, could trade barbs during working hours, then retire to the Oval Office for evenings of brandy, cigars, and hearty Irish banter. The next day a deal would be struck, a resolution achieved, and the great work of governing America would move forward. Today John Boehner, O’Neill’s successor as Speaker of the House, is suing President Obama.

Anathemas against “partisanship” are how we explain the difference between then and now. And while conservatives (of the more housebroken variety, anyway) occasionally engage in this rhetoric, it seems to have a special place in the hearts and minds of liberals. Its ripest expression in recent years is without doubt the keynote address delivered to the 2004 Democratic National Convention by then-Sen. Barack Obama:

[T]here are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes… Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states… But I’ve got news for them, too… We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

At a time when people with ideological differences are unable to work together, it may be natural to suppose that the antidote is to emphasize what they have in common. And in a sense, of course, that’s exactly right. Liberals and conservatives do have things in common, important things. But unless we stay clearheaded here, it’s all too easy to blur this insight into something not only false, but actively pernicious: the dream of a politics without conflict, of a society without division. It’s all too easy, in other words, to believe that our problem isn’t that people with differences can’t (or won’t) cooperate, but that we have differences in the first place.

In a brilliant article (appropriately entitled “The Mirage”) published in the Nov. 17, 2011 issue of The New Republic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz traced in devastating detail the long, lambent career of this delusion in our politics. From the Founders’ hostility to “faction” to the Progressives’ claim that “good government” meant non-partisan, technocratic government, from the “end of ideology” moment in the ‘50s and early ‘60s to the “post-partisan” presidencies of Jimmy Carter and, now, Barack Obama, this search for a frictionless politics of unanimity has issued in a series of political reverses and failures. As Wilentz writes:

[The antipathy to partisanship] failed to prevent the rise of parties or to dislodge them from their central place in American political life. More important, that antipathy invariably ensured ultimate political defeat and even catastrophe, no matter whether the cause being advanced came from the right or the left… [P]arties have been the only reliable vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters… [W]ithout the trust and continuing cooperation born of strong party loyalties, it has been impossible for presidents to work closely with Congress to enact legislation, or to construct an effective executive branch.

This is an absolutely crucial point. If we believe that agreement is our natural state and that we fall into difference only through error, it is a small next step to the belief that the only proper response to conflict -- to “partisanship” -- is rational persuasion. To the extent that we accept this, we will be correspondingly reluctant to treat these conflicts with the techniques of political power. Power, we will think, is tantamount to coercion, and coercion is inconsistent with persuasion. But these techniques are how our politics -- how any politics -- works. We form coalitions, we maneuver for advantage, we look for majorities because eventually debate comes to an end and we have to vote. And regardless of the intellectual level of our debate, someone will win that vote and someone will lose it. There is always a strategic aspect to politics. To shrink from the exercise of power -- from strategic action -- does not elevate our politics; it only cripples it.

I am not arguing that any liberal politician takes his marching orders from Immanuel Kant or John Rawls. Political life is always an amalgam of principle and calculation, just as every political actor is a mixture of idealism and ambition. But ideas really do have consequences, and the tendency of some liberals to identify rationality with unanimity is no exception to this rule. For real world proof of this, we need look no further than the legislative history of the Affordable Care Act. From President Obama’s first message to Congress on the subject in February 2009 to its final passage in March 2010, thirteen months elapsed. During most of this time, Democrats had an ample majority in the House and a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. Yet the drafting of legislation dragged on interminably as Democrats, led by the President, searched for compromises that would entice Republican votes -- even after the raucous town-hall meetings of mid-2009 clearly indicated that opposition to health care reform had exploded among Republicans. The GOP, never averse to strategic action, converted this opposition into a mid-term wave election that returned it to power in the House. What did the Democrats get for their bipartisan efforts? Exactly zero Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act.

A helpful contrast with this approach can be found in the attitude of Republicans after the 2000 Presidential election. George W. Bush’s elevation to the presidency by a politically divided Supreme Court prompted some members of the commentariat to call for an era of bipartisan moderation -- a government of national reconciliation, as it were. How did the new administration respond? “The suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs, I just think is silly,” said then-Vice-President-elect Cheney on CBS’s "Face the Nation." “We’ve got a good program, and we’re going to pursue it,” he added. There was no Hamlet-like hankering after Democratic votes, no attempt to submerge the mechanics of political power beneath a veneer of bipartisanship. The Republicans had won, and they were resolved to execute their agenda. Isn’t that why we have elections?

Kantian liberals think their politics is justified because it enacts an impartiality required by reason. When they encounter dissent, they interpret it as a sign that things have gone wrong -- that they have not argued well enough, or that the dissenters have not thought hard enough. They want to return the world to its natural state of rational unanimity. But liberals like Mill and Berlin -- and Bernard Williams -- see liberal politics very differently. They do not see difference as error, but as a consequence of human diversity and creativity. They are happy to accept the burdens of persuasion in political argument, but also resigned to the fact -- and history tells us it is a fact -- that this persuasion will never be perfectly effective. The unconvinced are always with us, and not just because of “the spin masters and negative ad peddlers.” Liberalism is justified because the principle of equal liberty produces less human misery than more repressive regimes, and at least as much security and stability -- security and stability that get reinvested in ever more imaginative and innovative ways of life. What liberals and conservatives share is a mutual interest in preserving the framework of their open, tolerant and free society. The methods of political power are not obstacles in this process, but the means of that preservation itself. Successful governance is what allows our democratic experiment to continue.

The Kantian view implies that disagreement is, at bottom, epiphenomenal. Somewhere out there, beneath all the conflicts and arguments and disputes, is a consensus all persons “really” share, even if at any given time they’re not aware of it. They will share it, just as soon as they approach things rationally. But this gets the situation exactly backwards. Coalitions -- the organizational emblems of consensus -- are important precisely because disagreement will always be with us. George Packer’s National Book Award-winning "The Unwinding" shows us how to use the idea of consensus in a politically intelligent way. It charts the dissolution of the “Roosevelt Republic”: the welfare state liberalism that reigned in this country from the early ‘30s until the ‘70s and ‘80s. But Packer doesn’t try to depict this consensus as in any way natural or necessary. He knows it was the product of a particular historical moment, and of the political agency of a wide range of actors. He knows, too, that its erosion was just one “unwinding” among many. Coalitions are forever forming and unforming. The critical truth here is that consensus does not precede and ground politics, but is itself a political artifact. We create consensus, when we do, through political action.

Any emphasis on the strategic element of politics inevitably triggers dismay among the high-minded -- and the opportunistic. After six years of a politics that was nothing but strategy, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have suddenly discovered the importance of governing, of "working together." But their cynicism exposes a larger truth. The Republican program of absolute obstruction worked, and it did so, in large part, because of the vacuum created by a Democratic politics of "bipartisanship" and sweet reason. After due allowances have been made for the composition of the mid-term electorate, we are left with the fact that Democrats chose to confront the energy of Republican actors with -- whining. Fastidious appeals for the opposition to be more "reasonable" are no substitute for strategy, and when voters are anxious and aggrieved they want to be reassured, not scolded.

This does not mean giving up on "bipartisanship." It means realizing that this goal, worthy as it is, combines exactly two sensible ideas. The first is the concept of a loyal opposition. One accepts the other party as a legitimate actor within the political system, and doesn't equate policy disputes with treachery or betrayal. And one doesn't reject good ideas simply because they come from the other side of the aisle. Good ideas are rare enough in politics without the burdens of self-imposed ignorance. Progressive politics should always honor these two things, but always reject the utterly spurious notion they often comport with: that "bipartisanship" means you're in the wrong whenever the other guy continues to disagree. This is a recipe for disaster, as November 4 so starkly indicates.

Political conflict can be frustrating and disheartening. Politics is difficult, in part, because it’s the sphere of human life in which we confront most directly the intractability of other human beings -- confront it in a way we can neither avoid nor evade. But the alternative to a frustrating politics is not a perspective beyond politics, from which differences are dissolved in an ideal unity. The alternative is simply more, and better, politics. Similarly, the answer to the Tea Party won’t be found behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance: it will be found in an ambitious, energized Democratic Party. The great liberal presidents -- Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton -- weren’t hesitant about power because they weren’t hesitant about liberalism. They wanted it to win.


*In much of this discussion we’ve run together, under the rubric of “impartiality,” two ideas that are closely related but logically distinct. Rawls refers to them as “universality” and “generality.” A principle satisfies the former when it applies to everyone, the latter when it doesn’t single out any particular group or person. “Anyone with at least a million dollars in the bank may vote” is universal but hardly general. I don’t think anything substantive in the argument turns on this elision.

** I think Williams’s “first-personalism,” as we may call it, is logically distinct from his famous arguments about the distinction between “internal” and “external” reasons for action. The important point here is that the agent’s object, in practical reflection, is an action he himself will perform (or, alternatively, refrain from performing). The agent cannot remove himself from the picture as he can in theoretical contexts, where his object is something independent of himself -- namely, the world. This fact obtains whether the agent’s reasons for action are construed internally or externally. A corollary of this view is that we shouldn’t misread Williams’s first-personalism as the claim that different agents can never share reasons for action. Of course they can: otherwise, no modus vivendi would be possible. What Williams would insist on is that, while we can share reasons for action, we can’t share actions -- not in the same way we share a world in theoretical reflection.

Readers interested in pursuing these questions should consult "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy" and Williams’s classic paper “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in the collection "Moral Luck" (1981). See also "World, mind, and ethics" (1995), a series of essays devoted to Williams’s work in ethical theory. Edited by J.E.J. Altham and Ross Harrison, it contains a thoughtful paper by John McDowell (“Might there be external reasons?”) and a typically incisive reply by Williams. Williams explored questions about agency, responsibility, and action throughout his career; his later work on these subjects is perhaps best approached through his Sather Lectures "Shame and Necessity" (1993) and the 1995 collection "Making sense of humanity," especially the papers included in section one. Many of Williams's specifically political pieces are collected in "In the beginning was the deed" (2005). Of special relevance to our present concerns are the eponymous essay as well as "Realism and Moralism in Political Theory" and "The Liberalism of Fear."

*** These are large claims about highly complex (and sharply contested) issues in moral and political theory. For a brilliant discussion that in most ways runs counter to my own, see Thomas Nagel’s "Equality and Partiality" (1991).

Kim Messick

Kim Messick lives in North Carolina. His blog, "Primarily Politics," is at

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