Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate Hardcover – Sep 10 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Rarely has partisan rhetoric been more divisive or political bickering more infantile than over the last few election cycles. In this short book, Dworkin, a professor of law and philosophy at New York University and Oxford University, argues that liberals and conservatives must realize that each camp is working for the same goal of a better nation. Dworkin (Law's Empire) builds this work on the assertion that most Americans accept certain fundamental principles, the most important of which are the beliefs that "each human life has a special kind of objective value" and "each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life." From these conventionally conservative maxims, Dworkin constructs an unmistakably liberal legal framework, coming down in favor of due process for terror suspects, same-sex marriage, abortion rights and progressive taxation and social welfare policies. Written in simple and sometimes repetitive language, some of the book's sections are more compelling than others. The too-brief passage on abortion, for instance, is unlikely to make any converts, and the final chapter, on tax-and-spend policies, may strike some as naïve. Though his claim that democracy is imperiled by a dearth of rational public debate is certainly overblown, Dworkin's book deserves careful consideration and response. (Sept.)
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"Of the season's books deploring the quality of our political discourse, the classiest is Ronald Dworkin's Is Democracy Possible Here?"--Michael Kinsley, New York Times
"Can it be legitimate to set aside the normal constitutional rights to privacy and to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention--or from being tortured, in the case of suspected terrorists? Can we balance their rights against the risk to other people's right to life itself, so as to justify some downgrading of rights of terrorist suspects? With painstaking clarity Dworkin shows how such a preparedness selectively to downgrade protection of fundamental rights offends the deepest principles of the US Constitution, when in turn we read these as concretizing more fundamental principles of human dignity...Is Democracy Possible Here? is a strong opening statement in this hoped-for debate, from a resolutely liberal stance."--Neil MacCormick, Times Literary Supplement
"Ronald Dworkin . . . argues that liberals and conservatives must realize that each camp is working for the same goal of a better nation. . . . Dworkin's book deserves careful consideration and response."--Publishers Weekly
"A perceptive and penetrating book. Mr. Dworkin's distinction between a tolerant religious community and a tolerant secular community, and his argument about balancing security against honor and not against rights, should be required reading for every American."--The New York Observer
"[Dworkin's] object is not to confirm liberals' prejudices, whether well or ill founded. It is to argue a way out of prejudices on both sides: he does it with grace and, for the most part, with justice. . . . [T]he book has real value. For its purpose is to remind us that a healthy debate is impossible without a culture of argument and a desire by political leaders to find an agreement to differ based on mutual recognition of the nature of the issue and its centrality to political life."--John Lloyd, Financial Times
"Eminent philosopher Dworkin . . . attempts to address our 'degraded politics,' which he believes threaten the legitimacy of America's political order, by proposing two principles that can be shared even among those on opposite edges of today's political divides: that each human life has objective value and that each person has responsibility for realizing the potential of his or her own life. . . . [This is] among the most accessible of Dworkin's many books."--Robert F. Nardini, Library Journal (starred review)
"Is Democracy Possible Here? is not a work of political theory, but an intervention in the nation's political culture. . . . [Ronald Dworkin's] openness to political dialogue is, ultimately, what makes Is Democracy Possible Here? such a constructive book."--Mike O'Connor, Austin American-Statesman
"There is much to recommend in Dworkin's short book. . . . His quest to discover the common ground he and his fellow citizens actually share is admirable. His recognition that the common ground is to be found in widely shared and deeply held premises about the equality and freedom of all is sound. And his case on behalf of progressive reform . . . is elegantly put and will provide fellow left-liberals with fresh inspiration and conservatives with fresh challenges."--Peter Berkowitz, First Things
"Ronald Dworkin's latest masterpiece . . . will appeal to anyone interested in learning more about the current state of American politics. As well, it will also appeal to anyone interested in political pedagogy and contemporary politics. Here, they will find a rich source of material regarding the social and political debates of this time. Dworkin has succeeded in providing an historical context for his two core principles of American democracy, and his account of the current lack of debate within the public sphere will bring new frontiers of inquiry to readers of all political, legal, and moral backgrounds. This is a book that deserves thoughtful consideration and engaged response; I highly recommend it."--Stephanie Zubcic Stacey, European Legacy
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Dworkin sets forth two principles of human dignity to which all parties can agree: 1) "that each human life is intrinsically and equally valuable," and 2) "that each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realizing value in his or her life."
These principles are highly abstract and probably most parties would disagree on their application. The improvement in political debate here lies in the fact that debates can go back to a common starting point rather than having parties try to demonize and discredit each other as if they had mutually exclusive worldviews.
In the application of these principles to the policy on torture of enemy combatants, I found Dworkin's views recognizable because they coincide with my own. The use of torture is clearly at odds with any principle of human dignity and should be condemned. However, there are extreme and unique situations where torture may extract information that could save thousands of lives. How does one balance this against human dignity? Dworkin seems to suggest that we do a cost/benefit analysis - typical of legal thinkers. And I tend to agree. However, it is a problematic area and remains unresolved.
On the issue of capital punishment Dworkin tries to show two sides of the argument. Being a liberal, he is personally against capital punishment. On the other hand, he argues that death as punishment is not at odds with human dignity. A death penalty advocate would argue that there are issues of deterence and retribution that must be observed. Again this opens the debate to other sets of issues. Where does one draw the line on human dignity?
These two examples illustrate how difficult it is to achieve a substantive political debate as opposed to the disparagement and invective that we witness today. Dworkin's principles are hard to disagree with, and he clearly illustrates the problems we get into if we deviate too far from these principles. This book is an interesting and useful contribution to the need for civilizing our current political debate.
As a moral non-realist in search of near-universal principles centered on shared human concerns and desires, I readily sympathize with Dworkin's goal. And indeed, in the current climate of recession, division, cynicism, and pessimism, it is difficult not to sympathize. As Dworkin notes, "American politics are in an appalling state. We disagree, fiercely, about almost everything" (p.1). But as an avid follower of politics, I seem some hope: in America, there appears to be an overwhelming popular consensus against the shameless business orientation of our parties, and there is also a general agreement on elementary safety-net measures - despite its absence among our congressmen. But as an avid follower of politics - especially the politics of secularism - I rather wonder how this might be accomplished. So-called `culture warriors' quite openly take their idiosyncratic values and denials as basic, incontestable truths. For those who oppose the program of the religious right, marginalization must be the strategy following the failure of argument. We are fortunate that this group is as marginal as it is - bloated and overrepresented as it is. But it is a constant threat to any hope of shared premises. This religious style in American politics changes; but as Hofstadter diagnosed the `paranoid style' (there's another issue), the `theocratic style' has always been with us. And it will continue to be with us.
Why is this example so important? Because any principle admitting consensus in a religiously pluralistic society must be secular, or at least so liberally ecumenical as to practically be secular, almost by definition. But the American popular Right is staunchly anti-secular. Apart from a small minority, the Right at least agrees that everyone has a right to whatever belief or unbelief they desire. But beyond that, secularism is Bad. They expect the conformity of classrooms, tax policy, and spending to idiosyncratic values. David Barton, one of the most influential conservatives today, makes a killing by misrepresenting the constitution's establishment clause as providing for a `one way wall', i.e., the state cannot interfere with churches, but churches can seize and control the machinery of the state. A moment's reflection is all that is required to see the contradiction in this idea, quite apart from its lack of historicity. But no demolition, no matter how devastating, convinces a sincere Christian Nationalist of conviction of the inherent absurdity in this `one-way secularism'.
Dworkin is correct to note that the religious right and the economic right need not be aligned as they are now; in our history, there have been such circumstances. William Jennings Bryan (Cross of Gold speech, Scopes Trial), various Christian socialists (including the author of the `under God'-less pledge, Edward Bellamy), the progressive character of the 19th century revivalist movements, and other examples come to mind. There are many prominent progressive religious figures, and I know a great many Christians who are deeply concerned by the political alliance of religion with corporate and/or right libertarian interests. And there is also a great tradition of religious secularism ever since Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island - the first colony with actual religious freedom - who is the ultimate source of the wall of separation metaphor. But as far as I know, this has always been a minority tradition and one dependent on compromises of a temporary nature. And even if the zeitgeist shifts in the far-off future, the problem of finding common principles for contemporary debate remains.
So the question I ask is this: does Dworkin successfully overcome these and similar obstacles? I do not think so. For example, consider his initial principles:
1. "Human life has a special kind of objective value. It has value as potentiality; once a human life has begun, it matters how it goes" (p.9).
2. The principle of human responsibility: "each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life, a responsibility that includes exercising his judgment about what kind of life would be successful for him" (p.10).
Loosely speaking, these are égalité and liberté, respectively. But (1) immediately draws attention: what constitutes a human life? It is obvious that this is a matter of tremendous division in America. Abortion, the rights of women, the limitations of privacy, all are rooted in the following question: does the fetus have the rights of a person? Dworkin does not think so (p.79). He cites and agrees with the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, placing the status of the fetus under the principle of individual choice, namely principle (2). But this conflicts massively with the conservative Christian interpretation of (1). In short, these principles, applied in such a manner, cannot be basic for religious conservatives. And yet Dworkin sees no conflict between (1) and (2) (p.11). But any such consistency cannot be assumed as a unifying truth. (For an issue of such passion as abortion, Dworkin's treatment is awfully thrifty.) Because of such applications, the fact that (1) logically includes both the pro-choice and pro-life positions does not make it a unifying principle. Our left and right simply do not agree on the nature of human dignity.
This is not the only blow against Dworkin's project, but it is a severe one. The actual weighing and application of these principles, basic though might seem, undermines their common status. As an analogy, nearly everybody claims to believe in free speech, but the free speech of Westboro Baptist Church or Pastor Terry Jones remains divisive. Nearly everybody supports cutting taxes and spending, but relatively few wish to cut any particular spending.
This aside, Dworkin writes clearly and argues well, if incompletely. He is an unapologetic liberal professor - again, good luck on that unity business - and the book is excellent reading for the vacillating, cringing liberal of today. Dworkin shows that liberals can take the principled road. But I needed no convincing on these scores.
Dworkin wants to start an argument. Excellent, but I fear that the search for common principles is vain until we repair other features of our democracy. The sorry state of the press comes to mind. And as Bertrand Russell noted decades before and others have noted since, press reform is secondary to political reform. But how is political reform possible? Indeed, the only serious avenues are themselves `divisive', and propaganda - particularly from the business sector - has ensured that this is the case. As Dworkin notes, "Americans are horribly misinformed and ignorant about the most important issues" (p.128). But I think the problem runs deeper than Dworkin suspects: it is not only that people are marginalized and ignorant; they simply do not think in principled ways. Why should they? There is no well-represented way to do so.
Apart from seeking common principles and defending liberalism, Dworkin presents a decent outline on conceptions of democracy. He discusses the failures in our present system and presents concrete proposals for reform. But again, the system is highly resistant to reform; Dworkin and I share a pessimism on this matter. But then the problems remain! As Dworkin states, "I have called for argument in this book, and you may think that I have now, at the very end, fallen back only on faith. You may be right. But argument is pointless without faith in those with whom you argue" (p.164).
For now, I feel sadly obligated to pointlessness. I fear that the rationalist, secular left has to bludgeon the opposition into submission through the crude weight of votes, through manoeuvrings and tactics. We have to tame religion and shut down corporate propaganda; we cannot change the absolutist mind. Perhaps someday we'll find our common principles which may at least make our differences commensurable; my political opponents are decent human beings with concerns similar to my own, after all. But I feel like we must still rely on progressive stand-bys: we need better education. We need people who know how to think in a principled manner. We need a continuation of the Enlightenment. We require wholly different circumstances. And we are so far away.
His arguements are solid, as always. Even if you prefer other "principles", you have to respect his approach and where his values weigh in on critical decision making. Dworkin has a way of revealing to the reader just what principles he or she are applying and sometimes we come away horrified at your own logic, which, of course, we thought was flawless. This book helps us take stock of own own opinions and how we can be more constructive towards preserving the democracy we all believe we cherish. Somewhere we need a divisor to utilize against the bombardment of mass communication and political belligerence. This is an excellent beginning.
The rest of the book then is to show how if we accept these premises then we must agree on certain other policies: with regards to terrorism, we must not unlawfully hold anyone imprisoned; with regards to religion we must uphold a tolerant secular state (not a tolerant religious state); with regards to poverty, we must develop ex ante programs that provide "insurance" to all people that would be the least a reasonable person would expect for him/herself; and with regards to political structure, we must accept political argument and respect not just the majority rules.
Unfortunately, as well argued and reasoned as his positions are, the fundamental assumption he makes is not without problems. Would all people agree that those two principles are the MOST important? I think not. He briefly addresses those who would disagree (as he provides counter arguments for all his positions), but his attempt to argue us in to agreeing with these principles is not altogether convincing in and of themselves.
Clearly, many of us hold different fundamental principles (that we may not like to acknowledge--greed for example) but regardless of their error or unpleasantness, they will not go away in the face of reasoned argument.
Dworkin makes the mistake, I think, of using reasoned argument against people who are not remotely interested in the flaws in their logic. So, while I enjoyed reading the book and found it illuminating and something with which there is much to debate, I don't think the people who I would debate with would be those that disagree with the book (I don't think most of those people would bother to read it).
The real enemy turns out to be political favoritism, perks and competitive postures that secure real benefits for one side or the other that fuels the progress or the resistance that the politically driven individuals and groups display in the pursuit of their goals, aided by many groups and individuals seeking the same kinds of preference.
Democracy becomes little more than a flag waving in the breeze, battered by the ferocious tornado like winds that become the funnel clouds into which democracy is shoved in order to win - at all costs. Just as in tornadoes, none are spared in the darwinian postures presented by only two parties, and like other opposing forces, many are swept up as debris to be disgorged in the aftermath.
Tornadoes have little in common with what government was meant to be, or in adding stability to an organized body of citizens who wish to maintain a country - but in the fervor of the electoral moment - who's thinking about government - when football is the name of the game. Government elections approached like football has always been the problem of self government and democracy since only one side wins, and the other side loses. Non-participants bet on the outcome, and some win, some lose, a chance that defies the notion of government.
Highly recommended book for practical politics and to identify what is important in nation building and what isn't.
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