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Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate Paperback – Jul 21 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 21 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691138729
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691138725
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15.8 x 1.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 249 g
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #370,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Format: Paperback
I really liked the style and some of the discussions, but Dworkin makes so many missteps and blind assertions that it comes off as propaganda for the Liberal Democratic way: rhetoric rather than philosophy. Unfortunately, Dworkin appears to not get that only Liberal Democrats are going to be convinced that Rationalization could work, because it does require faith that the voters of the world can be made better for the sake of the Community--and that's exactly what the other side fears, but Dworkin has completely missed this fundamental principle of Liberty and thus misunderstands his opponents.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 9 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
The uncommon denominator April 30 2011
By Jesse M. Parrish - Published on
Format: Paperback
"We need to find ways not merely to struggle against one another about [political issues], as if politics were contact sports, but to argue about them from deeper principles of personal and political morality that we can all respect" (xi).

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.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A Common Denominator for Political Debate Dec 7 2006
By Izaak VanGaalen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Having weathered another election cycle of verbal and emotional combat between the polarized "red" and "blue" electorate, one begins to wonder if there is any common ground for constructive political debate in our contentious democracy. In his new book, legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin answers in the affirmative. He believes that there are certain principles on which both sides can agree. Problems, however, arise when these principles are applied to making concrete policy decisions.

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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
especially relevant in today's divided political climate Aug. 21 2011
By MV - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dworkin begins with the premise that there are two fundamental values upon which our decisions as human beings and as Americans must be made: each human life is intrincially and equally valuable; each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realizing value in his or her own life (choice). He argues that almost all humans in the United States (and other like minded western countries) would agree with these premises.

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).
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Principles still matter Jan. 4 2007
By K. Benner - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Only Dworkin can get you back to understanding just how important principles are to decision making. "Principles Matter" (his best work in my opinion), and now he applies that same logic to preserving democracy in a world where we are continously befuddled by mass media and political spin bent on stirring our emotions. Anything to keep you "tuned in" and riled.

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.
Dworkin hits a home run again June 24 2013
By Aldayo - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great essay by one of the greatest american jurists, recently lost to the grief of the scholar community, Dworkin explores some of the most recent themes that reflect flaws on the american concept of democracy and respect to human rights. A must read to englobe the wide vision that this author developed throughout his career.

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