Academic journal article Borderlands

Ann Coulter and the Problem of Pluralism: From Values to Politics

Academic journal article Borderlands

Ann Coulter and the Problem of Pluralism: From Values to Politics

Article excerpt

Introduction

1. Contemporary liberal political theory has reached its own internal limit--and that limit is politics. When confronted by today's proliferating political claims, the 'normative' approach of liberal political philosophy finds itself on the horns of a dilemma: either it stretches its universality in order to cover more cases, or it hardens its edges in an attempt to maintain critical purchase. But the former choice makes liberal theory so thin that it no longer clothes even the most modest of claims. And in taking the latter approach, liberal theory is forced to declare it 'reasonable' to place so-called indecent peoples beyond the purview of universal human rights. To maintain its commitment to universalism, liberalism must become meaningless; to remain meaningful, it must become illiberal. Divided within itself, the limits of liberalism belong entirely to it alone.

2. While comprised of diverse interests, contemporary liberal thought centres on a few specific, overlapping issues: multiculturalism; thick or thin groundings for justice claims; the contest between secularism and faith; the politics of recognition; and, internationally, attempts to establish some basis for consensus between the 'decent peoples' of the world. In all these cases, liberal thought tends to derive the core political issue (the central political problem that liberalism would solve) from the presumed 'fact' that persons live within reasonably bounded traditions--traditions that then give rise to a primarily cultural value-orientation. Such value orientations are taken to lead to conflict, exclusion and hierarchy within or between traditions in ways that are obviously problematic--and such conflict thus needs to be addressed in one way or another by the liberal state.

3. Liberal theorists are not at all naive, of course. For most contemporary approaches, these central value differences can never be fully eradicated. Therefore, the political 'solution' cannot be the elimination of difference. Instead, in order to be both fair and free, the state must show presumption in favour of the free choice of individuals in matters of cultural tradition and belief--hence it must strive for neutrality among competing traditions. But, at the same time, the state must also intervene into society and into specific cultural traditions so as to ensure equal treatment and respect of each by all others. Hence, for example, liberal theory argues that the state should institute legislation or procedures to enforce fairness and non-discrimination. In this context political theory sets itself the challenge of designing a system that can achieve two ends: that system must simultaneously hold contradictory values-systems in harmony, while at the same time making it possible to regard this very harmony as a universal value that all can share without contradiction. Political thought strives to be constitutionally non-interventionist when it comes to individual activities, while creating institutions and procedures that cultivate behaviours in individuals that will enable those individuals to conform to constitutional expectation.

4. As these examples make clear, liberal political theory often casts itself in the role of rule maker--or better, game designer. It devotes much of its time to worrying about what rules must be instituted in order to act politically, and it concerns itself primarily with how to justify those rules in a way that gives them the appearance of universality and neutrality. In contrast, our argument begins with the observation that the conflict and the conjoining of rival political interests and perspectives is always already taking place. We eschew the model of game designer precisely because, for us, the game is already under way. Why busy oneself with writing a playbook (much less a rulebook) for a game that is late into its second half? Rather than act as rule makers for an ideal future liberal polity, political theory, we argue, must commit itself to assessing the balance of forces (economic, cultural, legal, intellectual or biological), the forms of activity of various kinds and classes of political actor, and the shape taken by political movements of all kinds and manifested in multiple fora. …

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