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.
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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’s is a Washington Post columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.