Open University

A Good Discussion Prior To The Good

By and

By Linda Hirshman

I am somewhat constrained in answering Jacob Levy, because I am indeed working on a much longer piece about the role of foundational philosophical beliefs in contemporary American politics ("Maybe You Can't Be Too Rich, But You Sure Can Be Too Thin"). One of my purposes in sending up the Rawls flare was to sharpen my thinking for the larger project. But I don't want to give away the milk as mom used to say, either. So I'll stick to Rawls's role in fueling the long retreat of the liberal party (hereafter, "Democrats").

Levy argues that Rawls's philosophy "unexceptionably" failed to affect politics. Strangely, Levy then concedes that philosophy matters in politics (quoting Keynes). Rawls too famously believed philosophers were obliged to try to affect politics.
Rawls scholar Joshua Cohen describes Rawls's position vividly:

I visited John Rawls in the hospital in Fall 1995 after reading a draft of his Introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism (1996), and remarked about how he was not pulling any punches. He...said that he was finally expressing some things that he had been reluctant to say previously about the importance of political philosophy. In the passage we were discussing, Rawls says: "Debates about general philosophical questions cannot be the daily stuff of politics, but that does not make these questions without significance, since we what think their answers are will shape the underlying attitudes of the public culture and the conduct of politics. If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and well-ordered society is impossible, then the quality and tone of those discussions will reflect that knowledge. A cause of the fall of Weimar's constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work."

If philosophy is going to matter in politics, once in a while we're going to have to describe its contents for educated lay readers. I tried to use the most common examples of what Rawls had in mind, with free speech and a moderately redistributive economics. I note with pleasure that Joshua Cohen used similar examples when giving a brief description of the Theory in the essay cited above, so I guess we're both guilty of what Levy calls "a weird cheap shot." If I wanted to analyze the effectiveness of the Theory in addressing "technocratic utilitarianism" and the like, I'd try for the J. Phil. But as I said in the first place, the point is it's time for liberal philosophers to leave the senior common room.

Trying for consistency, Levy asserts that philosophy, which matters in politics, does not matter in mass elections. I disagree, and agree with Rawls that "general philosophical answers will shape the underlying attitudes of the public culture and the conduct of politics." That contention is the heart of my larger project. It's not that Rawls caused the philosophical failure of the liberal political party, it's that his dominant way of thinking drowned out most other potential liberal philosophies and did not nourish effective political liberalism (too thin). If you are interested in why philosophy matters in mass elections, stay tuned.

As to Levy's factual assertions, we have some of the same facts:
In the thirty five years between the publication of the Theory of Justice in 1971 and the election of 2006, the conservative Republican Party held the Presidency for twenty-three years, controlled the Senate for seventeen years, effectively controlled both houses of Congress in the last twelve and outperformed the Democrats in state government at an increasing rate until surpassing them in states controlled also in the last twelve. But more importantly, until the election of 2006 finally cost the Republicans the House and their superiority among the states, the trend was steadily in their direction at all levels of government. The Iraq war interrupted that trend, but liberals cannot always hope for colossal, long term, clearly visible foreign policy disasters to win elections. In an effort to convert this break to something more fruitful and stable than the Clinton interregnum, liberals need to thicken their foundations.

And we have some different facts. Levy asks "Has any work of political philosophy ever caused the realization of its ideas in the society of its writer's birth?" This is hardly the forum for a review of the history of western political thought, but Jacob you tempt me irresistibly. Of course philosophy is only one influence, but surely you don't intend to deny that Hobbesian antipatriarchal social contract theory and its later variant deployed by John Locke played a role in the downfall of the Stuart monarchy? No Hobbes, no Locke, just a bunch of untutored English aristocrats sitting around in the 1680's figuring out that James II wasn't the heir of Adam? Both Peter Laslett and Richard Ashcraft btw agree that Locke wrote the Treatise well before the Glorious Revolution, as his contribution to one or another political groups of men organizing the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy, disagreeing only about how much earlier. (I hope this does not sound condescending. I feel quite sure that as a professor of political philosophy, Jacob Levy is aware of the current, persuasive scholarship of these eminent Locke scholars, but since he asserted that Locke didn't affect events because he published the Second Treatise only after the Glorious Revolution, I respond to the essay as written.)

Rousseau and the French Revolution? Utilitarian reformism and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire? Or utilitarian reformism and the first feminist movement, followed fairly quickly by the Married Women's Property Acts? Marx and the first public pensions, health care, and the rest in 19th Century Germany? Or was Bismarck just acting out of a love for humanity, as that other unimportant philosopher phrased it?

The most interesting idea in Levy's essay is that Rawls's theories found fertile soil in the social context in which he wrote: "Rawls or no Rawls; the sexual revolution, women's and gay liberation, and the suspicion of courageous military service as a virtue after Vietnam all helped make virtue-language relatively unattractive for a while. And Warren Court liberalism, in pushing hard against some traditional state practices that had been justified in moralistic, paternalistic, or overtly Christian ways, made "neutrality" a kind of liberal watchword." Levy may be accurately describing the culture of the cosmopolitan elites who made up an increasing portion of the Democratic Party during the wilderness years (Galston documents this demographic shift in his paper as well). He may also be correct that this liberalism is still a barrier to my project of setting out a moral and philosophical grounding for contemporary liberal politics.

Still needs to happen though. It's not the economy, stupid. It's not Kansas. It's not the Elephant. It's not the amygdala. Never was. I'm not trying to be the last person left in the Democratic Leadership Conference. I'm mostly with TNR's Noam Sheiber on that one. But ask yourself this: if you're trying to sell an electorate on, say, a tax-funded health care program, would you rather start with a thought experiment of someone imagining he's no one or hat Canadian guy in the golf cart with Michael Moore in Sicko scratching his had and confessing that he guesses Canadians just care about each other. When liberals make the deep case for why that should be so, they may actually be in a position to win an election not handed to them by the other side.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Show all 31 comments

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.