Andrew Lionel Blais asked a provocative and interesting question in response to an earlier blog post and I have been mulling over how I might respond. Let me give it a try. [Andrew, by the way, wrote his doctoral dissertation with me at UMass back in the day, and then published it as a fine book, On The Plurality of Actual Worlds, with UMass Press.] Here is what he asked: "How would you begin the talk with your socio-political doppelganger who is now wondering about the problem of reintegrating the extreme leftists into American society?"
This is, I believe, a question that is both pressing and extremely difficult to answer. Let me begin by recalling a fact that has been much discussed in various ways by theorists of democracy over the past three centuries: There is a fundamental difference between conflicts of interest and conflicts of principle in a state that aspires to make decisions about matters of public importance by means of some form of popular democracy. Conflicts of interest can be compromised; conflicts of principle cannot be. One thinks, in the American context, of such interest conflicts as the struggle over control of range land by farmers and ranchers [a favorite theme of old Westerns], or the conflict between creditors who sought low or non-existent inflation [so that debtors pay back notional dollars that are worth as much as those they borrowed] and debtors [principally farmers with mortgages on their land] who felt oppressed by the gold standard and wanted steady inflation that would progressively diminish the real burden of their debt [the theme of The Wizard of Oz]. Disputes over taxation and the role of the Federal Government in the creation of a social safety net are also conflicts of interest, for all that they are often portrayed as matters of principle.
But there are some conflicts that truly are over matters of principle, and it is very difficult to see how these can be handled effectively within the American political system, which is designed to deal with conflicts of interest. The most important issue of principle in the history of America was of course slavery, and nothing short of a long and bloody war could resolve the issue decisively, leaving resentments, hatreds, and political deformations that persist to the present day. Much of American public life for the past two hundred and twenty-five years has been the story of the playing out of that conflict of principle.
But both this principled dispute over slavery and the various conflicts of interest are secular in nature. We are confronted today with a number of conflicts of principle that are essentially religious in their motivation and intensity, most notably the conflict over abortion. [I tend to think that the dispute over same sex marriage, despite the frequent appeal of biblical texts by its opponents, has fundamentally psychological rather than religious roots, although I might of course be mistaken.] If someone believes, as a matter of religious faith, that God implants a soul in a foetus at the moment of conception, and that deliberate termination of that pregnancy, even in its first hours, is therefore the unjustifiable murder of a human being with an immortal soul, there is simply no acceptable and satisfactory compromise possible with someone who rejects that premise. In the nature of the case, no accumulation of facts can resolve the conflict, which is after all a matter of religious faith, nor can any political process involving elections and decisions by courts lead that person to accept anything short of a complete ban on all forms of the deliberate termination of any pregnancy.
I do not think there is any conversation, debate, focus group, or process of political negotiation that can resolve conflicts of principle of this sort. What then is to be done?
The best course available, so far as I can see, is to separate out from the jumbled complex of issues setting the far right today against the middle and the left all those issues that are genuinely conflicts of interest, regardless of whether they have been cast by one side or the other as issues of principle. The Affordable Care Act, taxation levels, income inequality, the relative power of the states and the federal government, the status of undocumented Americans, climate change, the role of the federal government in managing a capitalist economy -- these are one and all conflicts of interest, and therefore susceptible to the sort of resolution that the American political system was designed to accomplish.
If this sorting out can be carried through, there will still remain irresoluble conflicts of principle that cannot be accommodated by politics. Since I believe that time is on my side with regard to these issues, I am content to have them continue to fester unresolved. But if you believe that the direction of evolution of American society is against you, as so many on the right seem to, then you may become either more and more alienated and withdrawn from America as a whole or alternatively more prone to violence as the only hope for ending what you sincerely believe to be an evil condemned by God. There is nothing politics or discussion can do to change that.