July 2004
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Day July 16, 2004

Robert Reich and the nature of the conflict within liberal democracy

Robert Reich, in a recent American Prospect column, argues that the “coming conflict” of the 21st century isn’t against terrorism but between partisans of religious society versus secularists. He concludes:

The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.

I’m in agreement with Eugene Volokh — Reich is wrong that the “next” battle is religion vs. secular society. It’s simply more complex than that.

On the other hand, Reich is not entirely incorrect in identifying religion versus secularism as a major source of tension in this country. Christopher Hitchens would seem to agree, characterizing himself as a “single issue person” whose goal is the “unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism.” Carl Sagan, before his death, wrote and spoke tirelessly about the need to supplant superstition with rationality and science in order to survive humanity’s own worst instincts.

And Reich’s sense that a conflict is brewing is likely true. Even at a subjective level, many of us feel it when we look at this country and its deep divisions. Stanley Greenberg’s “Two Americas” aren’t separate by accident. Political disputes are more acrimonious, and debate more polarized, than it has been in decades. So what is the actual source of the conflict? Can it be avoided?

I’d like to advance a thesis, and discuss it a series of posts. I believe there is both a strong division and a gathering conflict, and it is between two visions of how a liberal democracy works. (1) The first vision could be called “autonomy,” and describes what happens when a liberal society works to demolish sources of illiberal restrictions, whether economic or ideological, in order to protect individual rights. The second vision could be called “diversity,” and describes what happens when a liberal society works to protect the right of free association and diversity, even if the behavior within protected groups is illiberal and may violate a universalist notion of individual rights.(2) This division, not religion itself, drives our current cultural conflict. Religion and secularism are only in conflict because each tends to be allied with a different vision of how liberal society should work.

Adherents to the first vision tend to believe that civil and human rights are universal, and an important job of government is to ensure their application equally, even if this means denying certain groups a right to engage in a behavior which is judged to be illiberal. Adherents to the second vision tend to believe that freedom means the ability to choose how to live, even if that way of life doesn’t match other people’s notion of civil society.

To see why these visions are often mutually exclusive, consider the situation of a religious group that requires women to stay at home, and not join the workforce. Liberals who follow the “autonomy” vision are horrified by this, perhaps thinking “after all the progress we’ve made towards civil rights and women’s rights, how could people still be so unenlightened? How could the women in this group allow their rights to be trampled like that?” Autonomy liberals would naturally tend to support laws or court decisions which banned such behavior. Champions of diversity, on the other hand, champion the preservation of the choices people make in their ways of life. The ability to pursue religious practices, even if not shared by all, is a hallmark of a free society. After all, the choice of free adults to belong to such a religious group is adequate to indicate their consent to its practices, even if illiberal. Diversity liberals would be horrified by laws or court decisions which banned the right of free association and enforced governmental control over group practices, because the role of government is to preserve diversity, not outlaw ways of life.

Neither group falls outside the normal political spectrum in a liberal democracy. Neither view is incompatible with a free market or private property rights, and therefore the distinction made above is different, and orthogonal to, the distinction usually made between political “conservatives” and “liberals” on issues of economy.(3) And frankly, since both political “liberals” and “conservatives” in the U.S. today believe in free markets (albeit with differences on regulation and redistributive economic justice), the distinction between universal autonomy and protection of diversity (even if illiberal) is the biggest source of acrimony between the “liberal left” and the “religious right.”

Thus, Reich wasn’t entirely wrong in identifying the conflict between religion and secularism. He simply didn’t identify the source of the conflict between them, because it has often been possible for religious and secular groups to co-exist peacefully in the past.

Today’s conflict may be different, and less tolerant of compromise. Strongly religious groups necessarily support protection of free association and group diversity, at the expense of individual freedom and autonomy. Advocates of a strongly secular public sphere necessarily support universalization of civil rights, suppression of illiberal traditions and behavior, and are willing to destroy diversity in order to achieve guaranteed individual freedom. Some groups, both religious and secular, are willing to draw from both liberal traditions, and achieve a balance. But others increasingly are not, and as the groups who are unwilling to compromise become further polarized and extreme, the battle lines are drawn for a conflict between these views on how a free society should work.

As we become further polarized, and committed to a “winner takes all” approach to solving political problems, both sides in a conflict seem to adopt “universalist” tactics: in order to protect the group freedom and practices they support, the solution is to impose that way of life on everyone. And this is happening today in the U.S.: the “religious right” seeks to embody fundamentalist Christian ideals into state, federal, and Constitutional law. And the more secular left seeks to prevent any form of illiberal practice, even if held dear by a religious group, from being protected by law. The controversies over abortion and gay marriage are excellent and ongoing examples.

In this post I’ve simply outlined the philosophical division that I believe underlies the “Two Americas” and our sense of looming cultural conflict. My intention is to dissect this further in upcoming posts — many questions suggest themselves. Are these views of liberal society truly mutually exclusive? If so, is there a strong argument for how one position better protects liberty and freedom better than the other?

And if we are to revitalize liberal political thought in this country, do we follow one vision or the other? Or do we need the mythical “third way” which might allow us to heal the polarization and appeal to individuals of both stripes?


(1) Within this and following posts, the term “liberal society” and “liberal democracy” is meant to indicate the generic commitment to individual rights, self-government, and liberty found in societies that have given up (or rebelled against) absolutist forms of government.

(2) This distinction, between autonomy and diversity, is a deep one in the political philosophy of liberalism, and did not originate with me by any means. I’m simply exploring its history and ramifications in these posts.

(3) In situations where I mean to refer to the modern U.S. notion of “liberals” and “conservatives,” both of which are really flavors of traditional “liberal” thought, I do so in double quotation marks. Perhaps in a future post I’ll take up the differences between modern U.S. and classical definitions of “liberal” and “conservative,” and how these relate to modern “libertarians” who purport to be the successors of traditional 19th centural liberalism.