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Is Democracy Possible Here?
Principles for a new political debate
Ronald Dworkin

Patrick Hayes
posted 8 February 2007

Ronald Dworkin wants to start an argument. A good 'old-fashioned argument' where people who share basic political principles have a discussion about how these should best be put into practice. It's this type of discussion that he sees as completely lacking in American politics today, where content is shunned for posturing, analysis of body-language or empty rhetoric. Dworkin damningly claims that 'our national politics fails the standards of even a decent junior high school debate'.

Where serious discussion exists, it exists in either the Republican or Democrat camps, with a vacuum between the two where constructive political debate should exist. Instead only contempt and fierce exchanges occur, with both sides slinging cheap shots, but not engaging in any debate that could seriously get someone to question their political assumptions. As Dworkin argues, there is no longer any civility between the two camps: 'our politics are rather a state of war'.

As a result, American democracy is in dire straits. The problem Dworkin faces in starting his 'old fashioned' type of argument is precisely this. As there is no agreement between the Democrats and Republicans that they share any common ground - despite the consensus that now exists about many once-contested political questions - it is impossible for political progress to take place. The first task that Dworkin identifies, therefore, is the need to establish core principles between the two camps, an agreement on which would lay the foundations through which a more constructive form of political discussion could take place.

Dworkin attempt to do so is attempted in a mere 10 pages. He establishes his two 'core' principles through a powerful conversational rhetoric - 'Start with yourself. Do you not think it is important that you live your own life well, that you make something of it?' The only alternative to this, apparently, is that we seek pleasure, rather than value, from life. And those who seek pleasure actually do also seek the good life, even if they don't know it. As a result, 'most of us, from both of our supposedly divided political cultures accept that it is important… that we lead lives that are overall good lives to lead.'

It's at this level that Dworkin hopes to 'tempt' people that 'Americans across the political spectrum, with relatively few exceptions' share his dual principles that every human life has equal and intrinsic value and that each has 'an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realising value' are assumed after this point. He then goes on to offer a series of concrete examples that support these arguments, applying these principles and examining, amongst others, terrorism, gay marriage and religion. Dworkin makes no bones about the fact that his position emerges to as one that is a 'very deep shade of blue'. His only desire is that people across the political spectrum adopt his two principles and, having established shared values, can then have a proper political debate.

But are his arguments that convincing? His argument that the vast majority of Amercians accept the position that if you see your own life as important, then you see all lives as equally important is particularly sketchy. Dworkin recognises that 'unfortunately many people are racists', albeit closet racists. However he simply states that racism in America is typically reducible to 'tastes about association, not grounds for an objective judgement about the relative intrinsic importance of different human lives.'

Why? Why couldn't it be the case that racists actually believe that they are in some ways superior to other races and the fact they don't want blacks in their neighbourhood says something more than the fact that they don't want to associate with them? Dworkin doesn't explain. He just bulldozes his own two principles across usually backing up his claims with ad populem arguments such as 'If, like almost all Americans, you do not believe that there is anything about you that makes the success of your life particularly important objectively, then on reflection you must admit to embracing the first principle of human dignity.' Dworkin admits that 'no nation's politics can be run like a philosophy seminar' and he is far better when he stops trying to browbeat his readers into admitting that they do accept his core principles really, and instead starts to engage in political debate. His attack on Creationism, for example, is comprehensive and convincing.

Dworkin concludes his book with a confession that, despite the fact that he is calling for an argument, what is also needed is faith in humanity: 'I 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.'

This is undoubtedly true: if you have no faith in the person you are arguing with to be able to engage with you, then why bother? But certainly a faith in the American citizen's ability to reason is weak in many areas of the book. His critique of political consultants, for example, is as follows: 'If the political consultants tell the politicians to treat us as ignorant, we will remain ignorant'. Secondary school is also blamed for producing 'thoughtful and undemocratic' voters. Furthermore Dworkin has no faith in majority rule and is keen to use judges and the law to limit what the people can do politically in order (perversely) to protect democracy. Nowhere is this attitude more clearly stated than when Dworkin argues that, 'many people have no interest in philosophical challenges to their settled political preferences…Real argument or introspection is the last thing they have in mind.'

If this is true, then what use is there in trying to convince Democrats and Republicans alike that they can engage in constructive debate though accepting that they share Dworkin's core principles? It appears that the problem of a lack of constructive political debate may run deeper than even he is prepared to admit. As a result Dworkin seems to be clutching at straws when he starts making concrete suggestions about how to improve things politically. No matter how much legislation is introduced to try to 'wise up' political debate on television, it unlikely to happen unless the substance is there in the first place. Even Dworkin admits that one should be sceptical about the idea of a national holiday called 'deliberation day', where voters can spend time thinking and debating political issues. Dworkin is sceptical however, because 'people may not wish to spend their new holiday in that way', not because the idea that you can somehow spark political engagement through giving people a holiday borders on the ridiculous.

Dworkin defends the idea by saying that 'every suggestion should be explored'. This reeks of desperation. Whilst Is Democracy Possible Here? is a well-reasoned polemic, my lasting impression of the work is that it is written by someone who has lapsed into idealism, having become rusty through the lack of any vigorous political debate. This is obviously not through want of trying - where he can imagine people responding to his arguments, he will genuinely try to engage in the debate.

Although Dworkin may well be right that Republicans and Democrats have more in common than they accept, trying to impose a framework through which they debate is likely to be of little practical consequence. It's far less likely to spark a constructive debate than engaging people and taking the rational approach Dworkin excels in to contemporary political issues.


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