Democracy and Moral Conflict

Terence Ball in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

9780521513548 Not so long ago political scientists spoke confidently, if none too felicitously, of “consensus” on “the democratic creed” as a “functional prerequisite” of democracy.[1] In the United States and other western democracies this alleged consensus was attributed to “the genius of American politics,” which was said to be nonphilosophical and anti-ideological (Boorstin); to a “Lockean consensus” which made material interests and property rights central to our politics (Hartz); and even to “the end of ideology” itself (Bell).[2] “Consensus historians” narrated the history of the United States as a story in which conflicts — social, political, ideological, and class — did not loom large but were subsumed under a larger and grander narrative of widespread agreement about what it meant to be an American and a small-d democrat.

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing to this day, this alleged American consensus came under severe strain as students and others protested the Vietnam war, marched against racial segregation and for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and (more recently) animal rights and environmental protection. No less significant was the reaction from the right as: the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964; the Religious Right rose to political prominence, fueled in large part by objections to (as they saw it) illegitimate, immoral, and unjust Supreme Court decisions allowing abortion and outlawing prayer in public schools; more recently still, Tea Party activists rant about the “radical socialist agenda” of President Obama and have unseated congresspeople they deem insufficiently conservative in bitter and hard-fought primary contests (whether or to what extent they might succeed in the 2010 mid-term elections remains to be seen).

In short, if there once was a fairly seamless American consensus (which I rather doubt, as I shall later explain), there is no longer. This is the ragged backdrop against which Robert Talisse attempts to argue a new and compelling case for democracy in post-consensus America and elsewhere. He writes that at present “our popular democratic politics is driven by insults, scandal, name-calling, fear-mongering, mistrust, charges of hypocrisy, and worse” (p. 1). Hardly Habermas's “ideal speech situation” in which “the forceless force of the better argument” carries the day![3]

Philosophers, political theorists and others who try to account for and make sense of such discord are at a loss to do so in any wholly satisfactory way. Oversimplifying somewhat, two general accounts have emerged of late.

More here.