Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

The Problem of Pluralism Isn’t Real

 

I recently read Linda Zerilli’s  A Democratic Theory of Judgment. The book explores and sort of gestures at a solution to what we might call the Problem of Pluralism. Here’s the problem, in the abstract, in my own words.

 

Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

Many political theorists think the idea of “truth” is a threat to democracy. To illustrate, suppose that utilitarianism is the objectively true theory of justice. By hypothesis the government should just do whatever utilitarianism requires. If the public disagrees, too bad—they’re wrong. But this strikes some theorists as undemocratic, as it seems to make citizens’ opinions irrelevant for deciding what to do.

On the other hand, if we dispense with the idea of an objective truth, we fall into skepticism or pernicious relativism. Rational argument is impossible. Debating justice is equivalent to arguing about whether the present king of France is bald or whether pineapple pizza tastes good. Denying truth leaves democrats defenseless against authoritarian critics of democracy—by hypothesis, it’s not true that democracy is better than other forms of government.

 

Zerilli’s book offers an extremely abstract sketch of a possible solution to this problem. It’s really unclear at the end what her view is and how it’s supposed to solve the problem.

But I don’t think that’s the major problem with the book. Rather, I worry that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.* I worry this book, and those it builds upon, tries to solve a merely theoretical problem created by mistaken theory of democracy, rather than a real problem plaguing actual democracies.[1]  What Achen and Bartels call the “folk theory of democracy” holds that voters’ ideologies, political beliefs, and policy preferences explain their voting behavior and the outcome of elections.[2] The Puzzle of Pluralism presupposes a version of this folk theory, and holds that the diversity of ideology, political belief, and policy preferences is philosophically problematic. But the folk theory is false.

By analogy, consider that in Dungeons & Dragons, there is a monster—the Tarrasque– so powerful that it’s puzzling how any adventuring party could defeat it. A Google search indicates gamers have written hundreds of pages theorizing how to fight it. But while there really are better and worse theories about killing the Tarrasque, it’s merely a theoretical problem, because the Tarrasque doesn’t actually exist.

I worry something like that holds true of this book and others in the genre. Normative political theorists write book after book about how to solve the Problem of Pluralism. But after you read, say, Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists, which provides a comprehensive overview of sixty years of empirical work on voter behavior, you realize they might as well debate how to kill the Tarrasque.[3]

Rawls, Arendt, Habermas, and others believe that citizens have diverse ideologies, incompatible perspectives, distinct values, and differing worldviews. Anyone pushing an agenda has to justify her favored policies to these different points of view.

Now compare this to Democracy for Realists: Empirical research finds the overwhelming majority of citizens in modern democracies lack an ideology or anything like a comprehensive political worldview. Most citizens have hardly any real political opinions—they have few opinions at all, and the few opinions they have are largely ephemeral. They are loyal to this or that party on the basis of identity politics—“people like us vote Democrat”—not because they accept, or even know which, ideas and policies the parties push. They sometimes engage in post-hoc rationalization that “feels like thinking”; that is, they sometimes temporarily convince themselves that they agree with whatever they mistakenly and temporarily believe their party believes. Citizens don’t have much in the way of political values, period, let alone competing or incommensurable values. They have few beliefs about politically salient facts, about recent or distant history, or about what causes what. Democracy is not a bunch of citizens with incompatible judgments about social scientific, historical, and moral matters; it’s more like a system which chooses government by periodically polling overwhelmingly judgment- and perspective-free citizens. Elections are “largely random events”.[4] And this is not some new development—democracy has been like this since political scientists started studying voter behavior.

The Puzzle of Pluralism is at best/worst a puzzle for a tiny subset of the citizenry. The modal, mean, and median voter lacks an “ism”; so there is little value or belief pluralism. We don’t have to worry about forcing our vision of the truth onto their differing worldviews, because they don’t have worldviews.

Democracy is not like a giant amateur political theory conference with interminable debates. It’s a system of agnostic know-nothing, opine-nothing Hobbits and party loyalist Hooligans.

The central problem of democracy is not “How do we justify policy when citizens have an intractable diversity of political beliefs?” It’s more like, “How do we justify policy when there is no ‘will of the people’, and further, the overwhelming majority of individuals lack any significant political beliefs?” If anything, democratic theory faces the problem of perspectival and ideological nihilism, not pluralism.

 

 

 

[1] Cf. Daniel Dennett, “Higher-Order Truths about Chmess,” Topoi 25 (2006) 39-41

[2] Achen, C. and Bartels. L., Democracy for Realist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1-10.

[3] Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). My own Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), contains a less comprehensive summary of the same position.

[4] Achen and Bartels 2016, 2.

*Note that I think Jacob Levy’s work on pluralism is different, because it’s about identity rather than about belief.

 

  • Ben Kennedy

    I’d be happier just attacking the truth value of their assertion that democracy is objectively “better” – that is the real Tarrasque here, not the rather insignificant problem of pluralism. Isn’t this the approach a true Vulcan would take?

  • Deirdre McCloskey

    Dear Jason [Brennan, for other readers],
    Re your post on Bleeding Heart Libertarians on July 10, 2017, “this is why political theorists need to read empirical work”
    Good point, which a grad student at the U of Chicago in Poly Sci, Alfred Saucedo, and others in my Sunday Evening Seminar at my home in Chicago, have been wrestling with recently. Saucedo (alfred.saucedo@gmail.com) has been pointing out to our little band of theorists that, for instance, military units or voters have loyalties way, way before they have anything resembling ideas or even ideologies. Saucedo’s thesis in particular puts into deep question the theoretical puzzles that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has generated, to give a prominent instance of theory without facts. I myself started to see the point through a glass darkly back c. 1990 from colleagues in political science at the U of Iowa, John Nelson and G. R. “Bob” Boynton in particular. Another way to approach your point, a way which does not leave us nihilistically despairing, might be rhetorical. That’s what we did at the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (Poroi) at Iowa. Notice what is true, that humans build their loyalties with stories and metaphors, tales my mother taught me. Then we can see the “irrationalities” of voters (e.g. going to the polls at all) as expressions of their favored tropes of identity, and can study them. They are always going to be non-mechanical in a free society, I reckon.
    Regards,
    Deirdre

  • Sean II

    “But while there really are better and worse theories about killing the Tarrasque, it’s merely a theoretical problem, because the Tarrasque doesn’t actually exist.”

    Look, if you’re gonna spoil season two of Stranger Things you really oughta warn people…

    That said, your argument seems to hinge on the odd assumption only self-aware values count as values.

    But why should this be so? I grant that on interrogation voters don’t have much in the way of a coherent, articulated ideology (of course not, most aren’t smart enough), but that’s hardly the end of it.

    The problem of pluralism can exist as long as people differ systemically in behavior, or if you like, revealed values.

    Simple case: time preference. Humans differ in this continuous trait, and that difference is predictably correlated both with clusters of other traits AND with certain sets of policies.

    A lot of political economy comes down to collective marshmallow test taking.

    Should we have rules to enforce the obligation of debt, or should we sponsor pogroms against the miserable kulaks who run Visa?

    People differ in the way they see such questions, and it probably doesn’t matter if the difference is articulate or pre-reflexive. What matters is it’s there.

    If a place has enough people of the “death to Visa” mindset, it’s gonna trend in a Venezuela direction. If it has more of the two marshmallow kids, then Switzerland or Singapore.

    But of course every society has some of both, and the resulting clash of values ensures that some segment is always being frustrated in its preferences.

    That seems like value pluralism, and it seems to reliably cause problems.

    • marshmallow kid

      Singapore was founded in 1819 and it has only become rich (relative to the rest of the world) in the past few decades (and it only started to grow in the sixties or seventies). Does the collective marshmallow test taking explain Singapore’s development?

      One century ago, Argentina was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. In the 21st century, it became a Venezuela 2.0. Does the collective marshmallow test explain that difference?

      • Sean II

        Something very familiar about you, stranger. A certain caprine quality in the knit of your argument, I think.

        Anyway…I went back and re-read my comment. Turns out it doesn’t say time preference is the only thing that differs among human societies from place to place and time to time.

        Thank goodness, for that would have been a very stupid thing to say.

        I’m afraid that makes your comment an orphan, though. Sorry.

        • marshmallow kid

          “Turns out it doesn’t say time preference is the only thing that differs among human societies from place to place and time to time.”
          It certainly doesn’t, but your comment explicitly says that time preference is responsible for long-term economic success:

          Your statement has the structure: You have X as an input, you get Y as an output (Input: Enough people with innate characteristic X -> Output: Economic success).

          Maybe I should be more charitable and read your comment as: “Time preference is one factor among many others that contribute to long term success in a country, which means that good time preference doesn’t necessitate economic success and bad time preference doesn’t necessitate economic disaster.” However, that would make this statement of yours suspect:


          Does A LOT OF it comes from “collective marshmallow test taking”? Intuitively, there needs to be a certain level of time preference in the population for the country to succeed, but is this level high and does it influence political economy that much? Obviously, what is “intuitively” right may be wrong. so I appreciate any studies you have to back up that claim.

          • marshmallow kid

            lmao, I don’t know how the tags work on here. I’ll repost:

            “Turns out it doesn’t say time preference is the only thing that differs among human societies from place to place and time to time.”
            It certainly doesn’t, but your comment explicitly says that time preference is responsible for long-term economic success:

            “If a place has enough people of the “death to Visa” mindset, it’s gonna trend in a Venezuela direction. If it has more of the two marshmallow kids, then you get Switzerland or Singapore.”

            Your statement has the structure: You have X as an input, you get Y as an output (Input: Enough people with innate characteristic X -> Output: Economic success).

            Maybe I should be more charitable and read your comment as: “Time preference is one factor among many others that contribute to long term success in a country, which means that good time preference doesn’t necessitate economic success and bad time preference doesn’t necessitate economic disaster.” However, that would make this statement of yours suspect:

            “A lot of political economy comes down to collective marshmallow test taking.”

            Does A LOT OF it comes from “collective marshmallow test taking”? Intuitively, there needs to be a certain level of time preference in the population for the country to succeed, but is this level high and does it influence political economy that much? Obviously, what is “intuitively” right may be wrong, so I appreciate any studies you have to back your claim up.

          • Sean II

            Okay, let me be explicit now:

            I only know one person who argues like this, and reads BHL.

            You’re either him, or you’re doing a dead-on impression.

            But it doesn’t matter either way, because your reply is a straw man unresponsive to my comment and way off-topic to the original post.

            Brief refresher:

            The original post is about whether the problem of pluralism can be real, given the evident political vacancy of voters. Not a perfect summary, but that’s the big idea.

            My response is about whether that alleged vacancy is real, for what if we can find political content in human behavior if not in ideology itself? In the course of which I offered one simple (and very obviously simplified) example. Didn’t flesh it out completely, because I shouldn’t need to. It’s just there for sake of illustration. Didn’t encase it in an exhaustive set of disclaimers and qualifications, because that would be ridiculous.

            So if you’ve got anything on the main point, let’s hear it. And if not…

          • marshmallow kid

            Is this innate political content in human behavior a strong predictor of economic success in a country? You implied it was (you have enough x, you get y) and I just questioned that assumption.

            It seems now that you don’t really defend that now . That’s all I wanted to know.

            I have nothing to say about the problem of pluralism.

          • Sean II

            You’re right. I have no interest in defending what I did not say.

            Is that unusual?

          • I have nothing to say about the problem of pluralism.

            Would have been great if he had lead-in with this one, but alas…

            Anyway, you’re right: There’s a certain familiar odor on this one.

          • Sean II

            One can’t be too careful with scrapie.

            The pattern really is distinct. Stays the same from topic to topic.

            You might start out talking about small benefit-high-risk externalities or something, and offer as an example the fact that camping causes forest fires.

            Next thing you know disqus alerts, and you see a reply: “Oh, right. And I guess you’ve never heard of lightning. That hasn’t caused any forest fires at all. Of course not.”

            You realize it’s foolish to reply, but sometimes you do anyway.

            And, I swear to fucking god, 20 comments later you find yourself arguing about something completely ridiculous, like what year the Smokey the Bear prevention campaign came out.

            Not just that: you find yourself arguing with a guy who sincerely believes that, if he can get you to state the wrong year, it’s the same as winning the whole argument.

            That’s really the giveaway. This board is characterized by people who like to argue up – away from specific examples, toward abstract principles.

            Against that background it really stands out when you see someone who has the opposite preference, and does his best to drag every argument down into the muck of mere details. The minute I saw a reply beginning with “Singapore was founded in 1819…”, I was all “Where do I know that voice?”

          • Not just that: you find yourself arguing with a guy who believes that, if he can get you to state the wrong year, it’s the same as winning the whole argument.

            Nailed it.

          • King Goat

            I like how in the previous thread you said the ‘modal’ argument you get into is that when you make arguments on statistical probabilities others take these as generalizations and cite counterexamples in rebuttal, but when you come across it here you assume it must be me. Glad I’m on your mind I guess, but by you’re own concession, this is the argument you’re going to get a lot, from a lot of people.

          • marshmallow kid

            brah, you’re reaching
            I saw a comment, apparently I didn’t understand it correctly, questioned it and you made 10000 assumptions about it. Sorry if that was offensive or if it reminded of someone you didn’t like it lol. Chill.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            The Smokey the Bear prevention campaign came out in 1944. However, the slogan “Remember only you can prevent forest fires” wasn’t implemented until 1947.

            Probably more information than you wanted.

          • Sean II

            No, this is just the sort of thing I have to know if the subject ever comes up.

            Keep it coming!

          • HermanStone

            When did he infiltrate public schools? I feel like 70% of my elementary education consisted of heavy handed Smokey propaganda. The other 30% was D.A.R.E.

          • Sean II

            Mitch Hedberg joke generator:

            Back in school Smokey told me ‘don’t start forest fires’, and the DARE officer told me ‘don’t do drugs’. One day I remembered both at the same time. So I decided to throw out the joint I was smoking…BUT WHERE?

          • “Smokey the Bear says only I can prevent forest fires. If that’s true, then what do I need Smokey the Bear for? Okay, Smokey, I’ll prevent the forest fires; you can just stand there and look threatening.”

          • HermanStone

            “Smokey said, ‘Only you can prevent forrest fires.’ Man, that’s a lot of pressure to put on an eight year old.”

    • Peter from Oz

      One can but applaud that comment, Sean II.
      Most government measures are enacted without any real partisanship at all. It is only on a few high profile issues that the Parties, the media and the lobby groups really campaign. And a lot of that campaigning goes on between elections. Governments do most of their work then. They aren’t influenced by public opinion so much as theopinion of the chattering classes within the Beltway.

  • The fact that people don’t have a *coherent* or *articulated* worldview doesn’t mean they don’t have a worldview. Or maybe “set of sympathies” is more descriptive. People act in the political sphere on the basis of some (usually tacit) set of sympathies, and whether or not they can explain those to you coherently, it makes sense to try to reconstruct them and figure out which ones can be made practically compatible with which other ones, and which can’t.

    • Jason Brennan

      Given the utter failure of political scientists to find even tacit or unarticulated beliefs despite trying over and over again to find them, I think we should be wary of making this assertion.

      • Me

        Jason, I think you’re confusing worldviews with policy preferences. Saying that voters ” don’t have worldviews” is simply overstated.

        • Sean II

          There does seem to be a crazy reductio looming at the extreme end of all this.

          It seems like you could use a similar method to “prove” that religion does not exist because most worshippers can’t actually tell Vishnu from Xenu if you give them a quiz on the abstract principles involved.

          Meanwhile back in real life the followers of Vishnu are not in fact interchangeable with the followers of Xenu. These aren’t just arbitray tribes that sprung up here or there for no reason. They behave differently in lots of interesting and interestingly correlated ways.

          The same seems true of those who worship the ass or the elephant. Clearly a bit more than mere arbitrary tribal loyalties going on here.

          Sure, some of their associated positions could be flipped, and some seem like cases of purely cynical counter-programmming. (Climate change in particular feels like it could have been a Republican issue, if only they’d thought of it first.)

          But a lot of things aren’t like that. Some of this stuff has real roots. To take an amusing example:

          Try explaining the affinity of trial lawyers for the Democratic Party as just, you know, a case of people tribing up for no special reason.

          Hell, even the Nika riots were about more than Green vs Blue.

      • The problem of pluralism is really about norms more than beliefs. Beliefs and worldviews are there to justify norms. Do you also think norms don’t exist, or that conflicting norms are a fake problem?

    • Theresa Klein

      What if they are just voting based on tribal affiliation, and post facto rationalizing the adoption of views they believe are held by their tribe?

  • stevenjohnson2

    I see a scrawled note about how political theory didn’t use facts, real world knowledge, cited things to show off and lacked rigorous arguments. Plainly, Jason Brennan means to make it clear that he’s ironic-modeling again!

    The proper conclusion from real world knowledge is that when policy is not affected by popular preference, most people don’t waste time in cohering a political theory that justifies their policy preferences and organizes them to accomplish as many ends as possible. In revolutions, the mass of the population most certainly engages in ceaseless debate on policy and personnel. And it is indeed extraordinary how intractably pluralist the population may be, contradictions quite often resolved by force.

    Work such as Achens and Bartels lacks rigor because it uses a limited tool, voting; samples only modern, peaceful times; conceives of political ideology only in very narrow terms, highly verbalized and abstracted from the issue of efficacy, perceived and real. Putting too much emphasis on such selective evidence betrays at best very sloppy thinking.

    One justification for democracy, albeit one rejected by libertarians and other conservatives, is that intractable pluralism has commonly led to internecine violence. The majority has in the end the presumption of victory. Democracy, conceived as majority rule, accepts that civil peace is a positive good. The issue then is ensuring that the majority accepts the surrender on terms that permit social intercourse. I’m not sure how libertarians and other conservatives can justify minority rule. But then, I guess that would make for whole libraries in an effort to square the circle (and the academic payrolls to match?)

  • This is a very reasonable assessment of the situation of the individual voter, but I think it leaves out where the action is in terms of the tensions of pluralism. It’s less Republican Voter A and Democrat Voter B that are likely to have irreconcilable conflict in their frameworks. It’s more like the Amish, Native American tribes, and ethnic nationalists spearheading separatist movements are likely to. Even Catholics, who are individually conventional in the sense described in your post, likely recognize the authority of an institution guided by individuals who do indeed have developed, articulated, and rhetorically deployed frameworks at odds with the status quo in various ways. (That the Catholic Church is itself pluralistic with different warring parties within it does not detract from this point).

    Nevertheless, I follow you in thinking that most of the theoretical work on this subject is stuck in models that bear little resemblance to reality. I like your co-blogger Jacob Levy’s approach in the Multiculturalism of Fear as well as Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom; those works seem to me to thread the needle between concerns over the tensions of pluralism and sticking closely to the empirical reality on the ground.

  • Theresa Klein

    The recent election has led me to think that most people, probably the vast majority of voters, don’t have a coherent ideology, but vote almost entirely based on tribal affiliation. We saw Republican voters, and even some Democrats, switch to the opposite positions on trade in concert with their tribe. It was kind of breathtaking to witness. Numerous people commented to me that they were voting for Trump because “he pisses off the right people” – in other words that he enraged their tribal enemies and they were more interested in fighting their tribal war than in any of the actual policy positions he held.

    • King Goat

      I heard that a lot myself.

      I think there might be something more to that though. I tended to hear that from friends that were rural, working class, white males. From previous conversations with them I get they feel ‘culturally’ oppressed to a large degree. They like to tell what many would consider racist/sexist jokes, and they’re upset that nowadays some people call them on that. They like to smoke, and they’re upset they have to go to the designated smoking area at work for that. The religious ones are upset because everyone doesn’t want to hear ‘Merry Christmas’ in late December. They feel like they police what the say (you know, the way ethnic/religious/etc., minorities always have had to do), and that upsets them. In Trump, they see someone who says what he wants, gets the outrage, and yet plows forward. That excites them. Those people that made them uncomfortable by calling out how their comments were racist/sexist/just thoughtless, are *now* the ones uncomfortable. And that’s a great value to many.

      • Theresa Klein

        I think it’s a little more complex than that. There’s a faction of people who do want it to be socially acceptable to be racist again. I think those people are a very small component of a larger group of people who feel like they can’t express conservative beliefs in general, even in the most civil language without being attacked. Unfortunately, the faction that just wants to be racist in public has taken advantage of the moment to basically expose themselves. And I think that people are seeing that and they are repelling mainstream Republicans. Which is sad, because it would have been nice to have some sort of sensible check on political correctness going to far again.

        The funny thing is – we’ve kind of been here before with the militia movement in the mid-1990s. The alt-right isn’t really anything new. They’re the same white supremacists they were 20 years ago. There was a whole anti-PC movement in 1993 too, and then all the racists came out of the woodwork, and the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and everyone was like “Oh right, THAT’s why we don’t let people tell racist jokes in public anymore. I forgot … “

        • Can you cite even one example of a conservative reacting to the Oklahoma City bombing that way?

          • Theresa Klein

            It’s a generalization. There was an anti-PC movement, at the same time this militia movement , which was aligned with white supremacist groups emerged, and then after the Oklahoma City bombing the racialist movement was suppressed again. Not specifically a direct link to PC, but that was part of the atmosphere of the time. People saying the PC was going too far, and then that sort of giving license to these far right groups to come out of the woodwork and complain about not being allowed to use racial slurs.

          • Sean II

            “It’s a generalization”

            Thought you were against those.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored. Although Dennis Prager has argued somewhat convincingly that there is nothing wrong with generalizations, since it is only from generalizations that one can see patterns.

          • Sean II

            Yes, that’s the funny part here.

            The only real evidence for a link between the anti-PC backlash and the militia movement is: both were populated by white dudes.

            Now, I don’t have a problem with people noticing that, asking questions, digging around to see if the similarity is superficial or deep, etc. Starting with the obvious question is okay in my book, at least until we have some finer-grained information to work with.

            But how does Theresa usually feel about noticing such things?

            I mean, aren’t we supposed to see these militiamen only as individuals or something?

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            In the aspegers world we have the following saying: If you’ve met one person with aspergers, you’ve met one person with aspergers.
            Maybe we need a similar saying for our militia friends: If you’ve met one militiaman, you’ve met one militiaman.
            I wonder if Theresa will approve.

          • Theresa Klein

            Acting on generalizations about people is a bit different than making generalizations about objects. Objects don’t have rights. People don’t have moral duties towards objects.

          • Sean II

            “Acting on generalizations about people is a bit different than making generalizations about objects.”

            The fact that people are important is an argument for using the best methods we have to study them. That includes valid generalizations.

            Self-imposed ignorance does not help you serve humanity, it stops you from serving humanity.

          • Okay, it’s a generalization, but from what are you generalizing? That’s why I was asking for just one example of conservatives realizing after the Oklahoma City bombing that they had gone too far with the anti-PC movement. Would you be able to answer the argument that the only people who seem to have decided that “Oh right, THAT’s why we don’t let people tell racist jokes in public anymore. I forgot … ” are people who (a) were never conservatives, (b) always suspected that conservatives are racists, and (c) aren’t willing to defend free speech?

          • Sean II

            There’s an even better reason why no such converts might be found:

            Oklahoma City was not part of a backlash against PC.

            McVeigh was a Waco-obsessed gun nut and tax rebel. No evidence he had any kind of grudge against political correctness, which in 1995 was still mostly a college kid thing.

            Indeed, despite never apologizing for his crimes he went out of his way to disavow racism and homophobia.

            Theresa’s telling of this story is bizarre.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Do you really think there is a straight, or even crooked and meandering, line from the anti-PC works of, say, Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, and Roger Kimball to the development of a militia movement “aligned with white supremacist groups” (my understanding is that many, though not all, of these militia groups were open to Jews and African Americans)? Did folks read “Closing of the American Mind”, “Illiberal Education”, or “Tenured Radicals”, and then decide to take up arms against a tyrannical government? Did all three of the those books, or similar tomes, occupy a prominent place on the bookshelf of one Timothy McVeigh?

          • Theresa Klein

            No, I’m not trying to draw a straight line at all.

            A bunch of stuff was happening that was part of the social mileau.

            A bunch of the same stuff is happening now.

            We’ve been here before. That’s all I’m saying.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      If nothing else, Trump’s triumph in the GOP primary conclusively showed that the much vaunted economic libertarianism of the Republican base was about a millimeter thick. There was always a tension among Main Street conservatives between wanting a small government and wanting an activist government that performed in their interests. Trump resolved that tension in favor of the latter perspective.

      • Sean II

        If you look at actions rather than words, the unmasking happened much earlier.

        The pretense was pretty much dead during W’s reign, but apart from a little tiny stretch in the first half of Reagan’s first term (kinda sorta maybe), the GOP has been frankly statist in its major economic moves for decades.

        Once again, the big difference with Trump is: he talks weird. Doesn’t say the magic words to sooth the journos and the think-tankers.

        But it’s not like the right’s magic words of small government & free enterprise mean much more now than they did in Nixon’s mouth years ago.

        • Peter from Oz

          The problem with government is that it always grows because politicians, no matter what they say to the contrary have a definite interest in that growth. The media too has the same interest. Without politics and the concommitant increase in the size of government, the media would not have enough news to fill their ever expanding schedules.
          And the people too may not have any ideology, but they will probably resist the shrinking of government for the simple reason that they want more ”free stuff.”

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          In years past, many GOP stalwarts achieved the impressive feat of simultaneously believing that government should be reduced to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub, the United States should forcibly democratize the Middle East (and perhaps other foreign regions), and conservatism had to use the state for “compassionate” domestic purposes.
          Whatever else one thinks of Trump, his campaign exploded two of those three premises. The Donald argued that government has a role to play in providing for U.S. citizens, and then our nation needs an “America First” foreign policy. Trump has, particularly through his surrogate Ben Carson, maintained a wee bit of the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism.

  • Peter from Oz

    Jason, can you tell me what the difference is between a political theorist and a political philosopher?
    And what is democratic theory? Another silly academic term that means nothing in particular?
    I now it’s naughty of me to pick on such things when you have written such a good piece, but the question of readability is always in important. I was annoyed by the use of buzz words and the pointed use of ”her” when ”his” would have been correct. This makes it harder to absorb your argument.

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