The following is a conversation with Eric Cheng about his recently published book, Hanging Together: Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship and the Challenge of Difference and Disagreement (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
I recently had the chance to spend some time with your latest book, Hanging Together: Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship and the Challenge of Difference and Disagreement. I’m struck by the novelty of your solution to what is essentially a problem of civil discourse. Some call it a hyper-partisanship or polarization. Plenty of scholars and organizations – Braver Angels is a prominent one – today focus on how to fix this problem, how to get citizens to see one another as sometimes adversaries instead of constant enemies. Yet your book stands out for its prescription that citizens ought to view their relationship with one another a particular way and that, supported by some policy changes, we could thereafter right the ship, as it were.
Let’s begin with a few definitions: what exactly is role-based constitutional fellowship?
Role-based constitutional fellowship is a metaphor of democratic citizenship. It describes the bonds that, I believe, citizens in pluralistic liberal democracies ought to be encouraged to share. I describe it as a form of ‘fellowship’ because citizens under this metaphor share a sense of common purpose. This sense of common purpose is ‘constitutional’ because citizens gradually come to share in a commitment to preserve – and to work to improve – a particular constitutional regime: liberal democracy. And that sense of common purpose is ‘role-based’ because citizens do not contribute to it by acting in the same ways, but rather by acting in different ways according to the different roles they occupy in different spheres of society. So, what it takes for fellowship to emerge among formal political actors will differ from what it takes for fellowship to emerge among citizens at large, which in turn will differ from what it takes for fellowship to emerge between political actors and citizens at large.
I would be happy to dig into the details on how I think constitutional fellowship should emerge, and how this fellowship assumes different complexions in these different contexts. But my main claim is that the more constitutional fellowship is present, the more pluralistic liberal democracies can harness the benefits of difference and disagreement and avoid unduly squashing difference and disagreement, but also prevent the expression of difference and disagreement from overheating and spiraling out of control. When constitutional fellowship is present, mainstream political actors compete as adversaries who recognize one another’s legitimacy and are willing to compromise with one another, rather than as enemies who wish to destroy one another. Similarly, citizens at large will share in a certain sort of trust – one that can accommodate the sorts of contestation required to redress undue social hierarchies, but also ensure that that contestation will not provoke excessive backlash among members of dominant groups. And political actors will take adequate steps to ensure that the compromises they strike with one another will not encourage citizens to believe that the political class is in it for itself and out to harm the people. My hope is that my book can inform how proponents of democracy should respond to today’s political upheavals without sacrificing the goal of greater social equality.
As you describe it, and after having read the book, the division of labor idea makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. There is something fundamentally different between fellowship among general citizens and among politicians, requiring different playbooks to solve the problems of, as you term them, difference and disagreement. Definitionally, I understood difference to mean descriptive differences (age, sex, race, etc.) and disagreement to mean ideological competition (creed, religious belief, and so on). Is that a fair assessment?
One of the most striking aspects of how you describe role-based constitutional fellowship in the book is as a “negative ideal.” It is an ideal in the sense that this is how citizens ought to behave, but negative in that fellowship does not constitute perfection. A number of interesting questions flow from this, and from your description just now.
First, what is the theory of justice that role-based constitutional fellowship is aiming toward? You mentioned the goal of greater social equality and, indeed, the book points toward rectifying “undue social hierarchies” as one potential outcome (which also, as an aside, begs the question: what is a due social hierarchy?). How do you define greater social equality, and how could a negative ideal help move the United States in such a direction?
Those are fair descriptions of how I understand difference and disagreement. I understand conflicting religious beliefs and creeds to be forms of difference rather than disagreement because they do not necessarily have to inform ideological competition — although they certainly can and often do! The main take away is that difference and disagreement are distinct but related concepts. Differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and religion often can, but do not necessarily, inform political competition. Conversely, the dynamics of political competition can, but do not necessarily, draw upon citizens’ differences. Certainly, though, political actors often aggravate and politicize citizens’ differences for partisan gain.
The question of what theory of justice I intend constitutional fellowship to aim towards is an interesting one. I purposefully want to remain vague about this, for part of what it means to live in a liberal democracy is to be free to not just debate what justice looks like exactly, but to also try to advance one’s contested vision of justice without fear of retribution. It is this freedom that I worry is increasingly under threat. So, I intend for constitutional fellowship to be a way to preserve that foundational framework. That is why I describe it as a ‘negative ideal’: it is an ideal intended not to realize perfect justice, but rather to prevent what I would call tyranny — and to guarantee the freedom to both debate what justice looks like and advance one’s preferred conception of justice.
With that being said, I do believe that constitutional fellowship must also help rectify undue social hierarchies. Differences between various social groups often manifest themselves in terms of power and privileges. Members of the racial or ethnic majority, for example, might enjoy certain economic privileges denied to minorities. Members of the majority might suffer less from hate crimes, purposeful discrimination, and implicit biases. And they might also see themselves represented in the cultural mainstream far more prominently than do minorities.
The problem with these sorts of hierarchies, for liberal democracy, is that they undermine the extent to which groups with less power and privileges, such as racial or ethnic minorities, can indeed participate in public debates over what justice looks like. Worse still, in extreme cases, the persistence of these hierarchies can mean that minorities may only enjoy their rights of citizenship effectively as gifts — gifts which more powerful groups bestow, but can withdraw at any time.
Therefore, I intend for constitutional fellowship to help redress these social hierarchies as well. Must those hierarchies be completely eradicated? I leave this question open. Certainly, however, I do think, at the very least, these hierarchies must be redressed to the point that they no longer disadvantage or harm less powerful and privileged groups in the ways I have just described. Insofar as those hierarchies disadvantage or harm less powerful and privileged groups in those ways, then, I think they are undue.
Here is another way to put all of this. Liberal democracy is the regime that prioritizes political equality, the idea that citizens, as a general rule of thumb, should be free to enjoy the same political rights, regardless of their political persuasions. Liberal democracy does not require social equality. A polity can qualify as a liberal democracy even if certain hierarchies between different social groups persist. Yet there comes a point when too much social inequality jeopardizes political equality or renders political equality hollow. So, what constitutional fellowship offers, I believe, is a path to ensure that there is enough social equality to guarantee genuine political equality.
That makes sense. So, the very difficult problem here, which you also allude to in the book, lies in the real tension between the freedom to “advance one’s own conception of justice” and the goal of “rectifying undue hierarchies.” How can role-based constitutional fellowship deal with a large number of harder oppressors whose conception of justice is an undue hierarchy? It would seem that the freedom to allow too broad a competition over what justice is can lead (and has led) to oppression — a peril of difference and disagreement. But maybe before we dive into that question, I should ask for a few more details about the different roles in your conception of fellowship.
As I read it, role-based constitutional fellowship is, if not in full agreement with, at least not opposed to James Madison’s basic arguments in the Federalist. We can use institutional constraints to preserve political equality by preventing any one faction — or any one conception of justice — from dominating. That means, I suppose, that the only standard of justice is closest to Madison’s in Federalist no. 51: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” That is, justice is the preservation of natural rights and individual liberties; a state where the weaker is protected against the stronger; a state that is always being pursued and may never be obtained. Which sounds fairly similar to how you describe a “negative ideal” — not the best — but perhaps the best possible way to sustain liberal democracy.
Your distinction between liberal political equality and liberal social equality is helpful here. What are the different roles in the political sphere and how can these be balanced to preserve political equality and create a culture of trust (a space where citizens are confident that, while disagreeing, their fellow citizens ultimately want to perpetuate liberal democracy)?
You have identified one of the central challenges or tensions I hope constitutional fellowship can help overcome or alleviate: how can we preserve an institutional framework that allows citizens to advance their own conceptions of justice, all the while rectifying undue social hierarchies, if many citizens have conceptions of justice (or social attitudes) that will motivate them to try to preserve those hierarchies?
This brings us to the heart of my vision of role-based constitutional fellowship. You are right to construe constitutional fellowship as being intended to preserve what Madison calls a certain sort of civil society or state — what I call liberal democracy. However, where constitutional fellowship certainly deviates from Madison’s vision — or, at least, how Madison’s vision is often construed — is that constitutional fellowship aims to do so by cultivating a culture of trust. So, constitutional fellowship assumes that smart institutional design to channel political competition and social contestation in ways conducive to the preservation of liberal democracy — while welcome — is not enough.
One key thing to note about this culture of trust is that it is not intended to encompass all citizens. Rather, it encompasses what I have called elsewhere the democratic mainstream. I intend for constitutional fellowship to cultivate trust among citizens who are either committed to liberal democracy or disposed to act in ways conducive to liberal democracy’s survival. So, while constitutional fellowship, as I will discuss, does offer ways to expand the reach of the democratic mainstream, it excludes those citizens whom I am inclined to call autocrats. Mingling among those autocrats are certainly ‘proud oppressors’ — extremists, such as white supremacists and Identitarians, who wear their prejudices on their sleeves and wish to codify undue social hierarchies at the expense of liberal democracy itself.
My thesis is that the desired culture of trust can emerge when members of the democratic mainstream behave in certain ways, according to the various roles they occupy in different spheres of society. As a result, the production of trust in different spheres of society requires different approaches, and members of the democratic mainstream can contribute to that culture of trust by fulfilling different roles within those spheres.
Consider the formal political sphere — the arena where politicians and parties compete to win office and to control the state. My argument is that the right sort of trust can emerge through a division of labor between ‘principled pragmatists’ and ‘principled purists.’ Now, both sorts of political actors share certain things in common. Both can believe in different things: they can hail from the left, right, or center. Both are committed to liberal democracy. And both wish to further the common good. However, they aim to promote the common good in different ways. Principled pragmatists tend to look for compromises and to support incremental reforms when more significant reforms are not politically feasible. In contrast, principled purists are more reticent to compromise. This does not mean that they are never willing to compromise! After all, if they are never willing to support any agreements unless they get everything they want, then they reveal themselves to be unprincipled purists who care more about their own psychic well-being than about actually improving the world. Still, what it does mean is that they are less keen to support incremental reforms.
The right sort of trust in the formal political sphere can emerge when principled pragmatists and principled purists operate alongside each other. As political actors who must win elections to enter government, principled pragmatists would, of course, continue to compete. However, outside of election seasons, they would aim to compromise with one another, and the compromises they strike would help produce trust. By giving some things up for the sake of forming agreements, they show one another that they value the continuation of their relationship. Yet there is a danger that principled pragmatists will lose sight of the common good, and that they will end up compromising — whether they realize it or not — to fulfill their narrow self-interests or simply to do one another favors: there is a danger that pragmatists will become unprincipled. So, principled purists, in their relative stubbornness, can help keep principled pragmatists honest, and ensure that the compromises which principled pragmatists strike actually serve to further the common good. This would then reduce the danger that the trust which emerges among political actors will be interpreted by outsiders as a sign that mainstream politicians form an exclusive, self-serving club — an establishment that is out to get ‘the people.’ In short, under constitutional fellowship, the production of the right sort of trust among political actors requires Joe Biden’s and Mitt Romney’s, but it also requires Bernie Sanders’s.
Consider next the general citizenry. The goal here is to produce trust between members of underprivileged and oppressed groups on the one hand and non-extreme members of privileged and dominant groups on the other hand — a sort of trust that accommodates the rectification of undue hierarchies between them. My argument here is that the right sort of trust can emerge through a division of labor among the underprivileged, the oppressed, and their allies through the practices of ‘shouting back’ and ‘talking.’ In a nod to more radical democratic perspectives, I do believe that certain forms of shouting back — not just civil disobedience, but also more extreme forms of disruption, such as rioting in some cases — are necessary to compel the privileged and the dominant to pay attention to the persistence of problematic social hierarchies. For example, there is evidence that the only times when a significant number of Americans took the persistence of racial injustice seriously were during the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s, the L.A. Riots in 1992, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the 2010s.
However, it is both strategically counterproductive and ethically problematic for the rectification of undue social hierarchies to consist solely of shouting back. If these practices are taken too far, then they might inspire backlash. Indeed, even if the privileged and the dominant are compelled to relinquish their advantages, the practices of shouting back might have effectively weaponized citizens’ differences beyond repair. Even non-extreme citizens might have become habituated to view their differences in zero-sum terms, whereby the gains of one social group must necessarily come at the expense of another.
Therefore, I deem it necessary for those practices of shouting back to be balanced by the practices of talking. The underprivileged, the oppressed, and their allies must also find ways to build bridges with non-extreme members of privileged and dominant groups, and to try to cultivate trust. I show that such trust can emerge through the practice of good manners in everyday social interactions — civility — and through transparent discourse on the nature and persistence of potentially undue social hierarchies. Such transparent discourse would take place (and, realistically speaking, can only take place) in special forums, such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, appropriately-designed and moderated diversity workshops, and minipublics.
In the case of race and ethnicity, then, under constitutional fellowship, the practice of good manners, supported by transparent discourse in those special forums, would help trust emerge between minorities and those members of the majority who are not white supremacists or Identitarians. Through them, various forums of civic disruption — appropriately constrained — would help ensure that trust serves to redress undue social hierarchies, and does not merely put a smile on domination.
I believe that these divisions of labor can help cultivate the culture of trust necessary to preserve and improve liberal democracy. But you are right: what if there are many autocratic political actors who reject liberal democracy? What if many members of privileged and dominant groups are extremists intent on perpetuating undue social hierarchies? Or what if many members of privileged and dominant groups are simply uninterested in rectifying those hierarchies? In other words, what should be done if a ‘democratic mainstream’ does not exist in the first place? This is a serious challenge. However, remember that constitutional fellowship does not aspire to a culture of trust that encompasses all citizens. Rather, it only aspires to a culture of trust that encompasses the democratic mainstream. So, the appropriate course of action in contexts where the democratic mainstream is teetering is to restore conditions where the democratic mainstream can begin to be fortified again in the ways I have just detailed.
This means a few things. First, in terms of the general citizenry, it means extremists must absolutely be confronted, but also that outreach must especially be made to those who can ‘go either way,’ as it were. Specifically, we must distinguish among ‘proud oppressors,’ ’complicit oppressors,’ and ‘unwitting, well-intentioned oppressors.’ Proud oppressors are extremists and must be confronted — no question. However, complicit oppressors and unwitting oppressors have softer attitudes. Unwitting oppressors genuinely oppose prejudice on the level of principle; it’s just that they underestimate the degree to which undue social hierarchies are systemic and not necessarily perpetuated purposefully. Meanwhile, complicit oppressors harbor certain attitudes that are more problematic. For example, white complicit oppressors might be proud of their race in ways that lead them to be thankful for their special privileges and status — and to worry about what might happen to those privileges and to that status if minorities were to gain more social power. However, like unwitting oppressors, complicit oppressors reject explicit prejudice.
Both unwitting oppressors and complicit oppressors, to varying degrees, can go either way. Due to their principled opposition to prejudice, they might be inclined to support liberal democracy. Yet they often underestimate the degree to which undue social hierarchies are not perpetuated purposefully, and they might worry about what would happen to their privileges were there greater social equality. As a result, unwitting oppressors and complicit oppressors might — under the right circumstances — be moved to align politically with proud oppressors. Accordingly, efforts must be made to ensure that they turn towards the democratic mainstream, rather than towards proud oppressors. Here, the practices of talking are surely vital. Unwitting oppressors and complicit oppressors are less likely to align with proud oppressors if they feel that they are being listened to, and that they are not merely being condemned as bigoted. In short, a dual approach is required whereby the underprivileged, the oppressed, and their allies condemn proud oppressors all the while working to keep unwitting oppressors and complicit oppressors in the democratic mainstream.
Second, in terms of the formal political sphere, the restoration of conditions where the democratic mainstream can begin to be fortified requires a demonstration that it is not politically advantageous to align with autocratic political actors. After all, the reality of formal politics is that political actors must worry about reelection. Certainly, there are some political actors who are willing to risk their own political careers in order to stand up for what they believe to be the right thing. Liz Cheney comes to mind here. However, we cannot reasonably expect most political actors to be so heroic. We should assume that most of them — even those who are not extremists, and who care about liberal democracy — will at least be tempted to radicalize and join the autocratic coalition if doing so is politically advantageous.
Therefore, if autocratic forces are insurgent — and if some non-extreme political actors are radicalizing to join the autocratic coalition — then political actors who stand outside of that coalition must focus on winning by any means necessary. In those circumstances, political actors who remain in the democratic mainstream — now, the defenders of liberal democracy – must set the project of trust production aside, and aim instead to demonstrate that participating in the autocratic coalition will lead to electoral defeat. This means that the defenders of liberal democracy must embrace aggressive contestation. I acknowledge that this recommendation might seem to contradict the spirit of constitutional fellowship. However, to compromise with the forces of autocracy is to compromise the basic survival of liberal democracy. So, I submit that this is an appropriate recommendation. Once the defenders of liberal democracy have demonstrated that participating in the autocratic coalition is politically disadvantageous, it is appropriate to reach out to those who joined the autocratic coalition for cowardly reasons (rather than for ideological reasons), and to begin to reestablish some degree of trust with them.
This is the situation that the United States regrettably finds itself in. Several studies have shown that while the Democratic Party (for all of its problems) remains a small-D democratic party, the Republican Party now shares far more in common with far-right parties in Hungary, India, Poland and Turkey than with its traditional sister conservative parties in Canada, Australia and Western Europe. Sure, there are some individual Republicans like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins — principled conservatives — who have found a way to remain in the Party yet speak out against the autocratic forces within it. However, for the most part, the Republican Party is now a coalition of far-right autocrats and cowardly conservatives who should know better — and who probably do know better. So, the appropriate course of action for Democrats at this time is to play hardball. Democrats should continue to reach out to those principled conservatives who have spoken out against the forces of autocracy. For the most part, however, Democrats should focus on trying to defeat the Republican Party at all costs. Only when those cowardly conservatives have rejected the autocratic forces which currently control their party should trust building begin once again.
Lots of good things to think about in your recent response — the clarification of what you meant by a culture of trust was particularly helpful in understanding your broader objective. So, we might now say that Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship may expand the “democratic mainstream”— thereby extending the sphere, to borrow again from Madison, of those included in the culture of trust. Autocrats, as seems right, or those who would see liberal democratic principles fail, are not included in this culture of trust because: A) they will not likely be persuaded, and; B) they probably do not want to become a part of the democratic mainstream in the first place.
A brief note on autocrats, or “Identitarians” (those who promote the interests of their own cultural group over others): these groups may themselves be numerical minorities. The easiest extreme example in the United States is the terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. Yet shouting back seems to apply only in the event that autocratic ideas become prominent in society and politicians espouse these ideas — as has appeared evident especially since the January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol. So, we might envision the democratic mainstream — comprised of those who wish to perpetuate, or who might be disposed to perpetuate, liberal democracy — as a planet surrounded by satellites of autocratic groups and ideas forever trying to land.
Does it torture the language we are using here too much to say that, under the theory of Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship, Proud Oppressors should be proudly oppressed?
I am reminded again of competing ideas of justice. It is a central problem in liberal democracies that, while they would like to juggle all competing claims of justice in society, there are some ideas that cannot be tolerated because they are evil. Take Germany’s policies on Nazism: the state prohibits the spread of Nazi propaganda because men have used those ideas for evil. But that’s a relatively easy case. What of the opposite? What of manifestly good and true ideas?
This is a much harder. Suppose for the sake of argument that a Principled Purist like Bernie Sanders is actually right that individual mass wealth accumulation is bad both for society and for the individual. Suppose that his conviction is true. Is there room in Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship for the existence of truth, which should not be compromised on? It would seem the answer is “yes.” We might look to the abolitionist movement in America for a clearer case here.
A lot then rides on the distinction of what makes a group or idea autocratic, or opposed to liberal democracy. Not to belabor the point we talked about earlier, but it seems as though a concrete vision of justice would avoid the trouble of periodically identifying autocratic ideas ad hoc, which runs the risk of the majority squashing good ideas by mislabeling them as autocratic.
I agree that the goal should be to ‘extend the sphere.’ But there are limits to how far the sphere can indeed be extended. So, I think that your follow-up questions concern how we should treat those autocrats who lie beyond ‘the sphere.’ What is strategically the best way to minimize their influence? And, importantly, are there any normative constraints small-D democrats must observe when confronting those autocrats?
I provide some answers in the book. For example, I endorse of principle of proportionality, roughly analogous to that found in Just War Theory, whereby the underprivileged, the oppressed, and their allies have more leeway to shout back forcefully the more aggressively and violently proud oppressors behave. But it is the case that my book’s primary focus is on how to fortify and extend the democratic mainstream, rather than on how to exactly deal with those who lie beyond it. So, as I mention in the conclusion of the book, those are questions that I do not fully address there — and they are precisely the questions that I am considering in my current research. Let me, however, give some preliminary answers to those questions.
My thinking is trending in the direction of militant democracy. Proponents of militant democracy maintain that autocrats who threaten the basic liberal democratic order should not enjoy the same political rights as everyone else. They believe that the preservation of a political regime which promises to guarantee the legitimacy of difference and disagreement requires some restrictions on the range of permitted differences and disagreements. So, under militant democracy, proud oppressors, who tend to be autocrats, are indeed, to borrow your turn of phrase, proudly oppressed. I see some limitations in the militant democratic approach, and I am still working out what those limitations are and how to move past them. Certainly, however, I endorse the spirit of militant democracy.
There are two things I’d like to note here. First, I am very sympathetic to your worry that drawing such a sharp distinction between ‘liberal democratic’ and ‘autocratic’ can lead the majority to squash good ideas by mislabeling them as autocratic. Accordingly, drawing on the definition of liberal democracy I posited earlier in our conversation, I would like to insist on a narrow definition of autocratic: autocrats are those who either A) deny the value of political equality, or; B) reject the existence of any connection between political and social equality. Autocrats deny the general principle that citizens should be free to enjoy the same political rights. Or if they do accept the principle, then they adhere to extremely restrictive conceptions of who should be considered a ‘real citizen’ — conceptions that would effectively negate the principle if enacted in practice.
What this means is that I reject certain radical democratic proposals on how to rescue democracy. Radical democrats — many of whom are also left-wing populists — tend to condemn not just autocrats as threats to liberal democracy, but also oligarchs who advance policies that allegedly perpetuate steep social and economic inequalities. Radical democrats call these oligarchs various names: ‘neoliberals,’ ‘centrists,’ or ‘the establishment.’ Indeed, some radical democrats end up saying that it does not matter which of the two hold political power, and that ‘the lesser evil is still evil.’ So, for some radical democrats, extraordinary measures ought to apply to all anti-democrats broadly defined — not just autocrats, but also oligarchs.
I have made it clear over the course of this conversation that I care about social equality. However, I do think this radical train of thought is misguided and dangerous for precisely the reasons you have stated. Indeed, the issue is not merely that potentially good ideas might be squashed; it’s that this definition, if widely adopted, can lead to the rejection of the legitimacy of difference and disagreement. Furthermore, this definition can lead to the denial of the political equality of citizens who might be mistaken, but who are committed to political equality and who do see some connection between political and social equality. Those citizens simply have interpretations of the proper relationship between political and social equality that differ from those advanced by radical democrats. I do not think that Bernie Sanders and the vast majority of the left wing of the Democratic Party are threats to the liberal democratic order. But there are too many real-world examples that show that this logic can lead to dangerous and, indeed, autocratic results. Radical democracy can end up devolving into tyranny, all in the name of fighting oppression. Therefore, it is vital that we reserve any extraordinary measures which might be necessary to save liberal democracy for autocrats — not for anti-democrats broadly defined. We must, to the best of our ability, keep extraordinary measures extraordinary.
Second, not all autocrats are created equal. There are some — whom we have discussed at length here — who are blatant about their disdain for liberal democracy. Yet there are others who are stealthier. They might appear more moderate, and they might invoke democratic rhetoric. Indeed, the policy proposals and institutional reforms they advance might not even appear autocratic at first glance. Some scholars have observed the Frankenstate phenomena, whereby the likes of Victor Orban have pursued institutional reforms that seem perfectly democratic when considered individually in isolation from one another; only when considered together do those reforms’ autocratic implications become clear. It is considerably less obvious how small-D democrats should deal with these stealthier autocrats. Strategically, what works against more blatant autocrats might very well backfire against these stealthier autocrats. And given that these stealthier autocrats advance policies and reforms that have some tenuous claim to be democratic, I’m not sure that the tools and strategies small-D democrats may justifiably use to combat blatant autocrats can be condoned from a normative standpoint either. So, I’m still trying to think through this puzzle.
There is definitely much to think through, but I am grateful for your perspective here. We could continue aboard this train of thought, but should probably move on to discuss the how of Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship. Above, and in the book, you mention several ideas on how such a fellowship might emerge and more specifically what policies could be changed to help it along. The book again divides these suggestions into two categories: the political and the general.
The suggestion that Americans might learn a good deal about liberal democracy from employer-driven diversity workshops was striking, not least because of its challenge to old arguments that voluntary social organizations and activities are the most essential for teaching citizens how to live in a democracy.
I do think that voluntary social associations have important uses for liberal democracy. For example, cultural associations can help minorities and immigrants feel a sense of voice. Those associations can provide certain educational services, and they can help minorities and immigrants report fraudulent landlords, fight unlawful deportations, and navigate interactions with the police. Likewise, associations that are organized around activities or hobbies — sports clubs, music appreciation societies, and bowling leagues (to use Robert Putnam’s famous example) — can be sites where citizens who have differences and disagreements learn to treat one another respectfully, and recognize their shared commonalities. I do not wish to imply that voluntary social associations are of no value.
However, for the purposes of generating the sort of culture of trust role-based constitutional fellowship aspires towards, voluntary social associations have important limitations. Namely, precisely because they are voluntary, they are not ideal venues where citizens can encounter difference and disagreement in the first place, let alone work through their differences and disagreements in ways that help rectify undue social hierarchies. Citizens can simply leave — that is, shut down the conversation — should they come across difference and disagreement. As a result, the empirical evidence indicates that voluntary associations tend to be rather homogeneous — places where people go to escape difference and disagreement, rather than work through difference and disagreement. Cultural associations, for instance, are resilient precisely because they are based on ascriptive identity. And if those voluntary associations are more heterogeneous, then they tend to sustain themselves because their members refrain from talking about politics and religion, as it were. Again, neither of these outcomes are inherently bad. The former outcome can help members of underprivileged and oppressed groups be heard, while the latter outcome can be a good first step in the development of the desired culture of trust. Still, more is needed.
That’s why I think workplace diversity workshops, alongside minipublics and TRC’s, can potentially be more conducive to constitutional fellowship. First, they take place in the context of the workplace, and it is harder for people to leave their jobs than it is for them to leave voluntary social associations. So, employees are, in a sense, forced to find a way to work together. Second, diversity workshops address the sorts of touchy subjects that people are inclined to ignore in the context of voluntary social associations. And if these workshops are structured properly, then they can provide people with certain tools to be able to work through their differences and disagreements, to arrive at a better mutual understanding, and to start rebalancing the undue social hierarchies which exist among them. Such tools include exercises to encourage participants to adopt the perspectives of minorities, as well as conversations where members of allegedly privileged social groups are given the space to voice their own anxieties and perspectives. Indeed, studies indicate that participants of these workshops often develop more inclusive attitudes over the course of those workshops.
The huge ‘if,’ of course, is that those workshops need to be structured properly. They need to focus on providing people with tools to listen to one another better and to avoid becoming combative. If the workshops instead consist of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion expert preaching the social justice gospel and finger-wagging at members of privileged groups, then the workshops will fail miserably.
Ensuring that workplace diversity workshops are structured properly is quite challenging and costly. That’s one of the reasons why, in the book, I deem those workshops useful interventions, but insufficient by themselves. The practice of good manners to convey mutual respect in not just voluntary social associations, but also in shared public spaces and economic associations can, in the aggregate, do more to further constitutional fellowship, even though that practice by itself has certain limitations.
This brings to mind another poignant passage from your book where you discuss “the cost of freedom.” I did not mean to suggest that social organizations are unimportant to Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship, but rather that a comprehensive program to preserve liberal democracy requires meeting people where they are — proactively offering opportunities to confront difference and disagreement in non-hostile, less-voluntary settings. Freedom, however, ultimately means that citizens who both can and want to remove themselves will. Singapore’s solution — to use the government to force diversity in certain housing communities (as you note in the book) — destroys liberty in the pursuit of justice, to again cite Madison, and is not an option.
One of the strengths of your theory then appears to me to be its measured approach to policy change. By this I mean that your theory does not rely on any one magical law that will improve civil discourse, but instead considers and suggests a wide-range of potential improvements. While I recognize that the United States is not the sole focus of your book, it does receive a lot of attention. Yet America seems almost uniquely situated to resist Role-Based Constitutional Fellowship — in part due to a prevailing attitude among citizens that, since the founding, has led Americans to fight hard to get away from politics. This attitude, part of which Tocqueville called small ambition (the part concerned with privately accumulating wealth or possessions), seems to have contributed to so many of the undue hierarchies that you point out. Is that a fair characterization of the challenge of difference and disagreement in America, or do you see it in another light?
We could keep going, but I will conclude by circling back again to prominent organizations invested in helping Americans see each other as sometime adversaries, not perpetual enemies. What about universities? You briefly mention universities in the book; how do you see the academy as playing a practical role in creating a more civil society dedicated to perpetuating liberal democracy?
Before you respond, I’d like to thank you for sharing your ideas and say that this conversation has definitely given me a greater appreciation for your book. It’s been a pleasure.
I agree that America presents unique challenges. In a way, though, I think part of the issue today is that Americans are not getting away from politics enough. Every social difference and cleavage is being sucked into — and thus helping to further fan the flames of — partisan contestation. Whether one chooses to get vaccinated or to wear a mask, what movies one likes to watch, even what sorts of food one prefers — all of these things have become proxies for one’s partisan inclinations in a time of tremendous political antagonism. And adding fuel to the fire, that political antagonism is structured in a way that encourages perpetual warfare. Neither side has enough popular support to definitively defeat the other electorally. Neither side ever has the legislative authority to truly enact its agenda. And neither side feels a need to yield.
So, I actually think that a lot of good can be done if Americans learned how to tolerate one another again, and if everyone learned to mind his/her own business! But given how enflamed the divisions of the country currently are, I do not think that that path in and of itself is viable. The breakdown of trust needs to be repaired. So, while I do agree that role-based constitutional fellowship faces serious obstacles in America, I maintain that it represents a viable approach to restore trust in a way that can preserve and potentially improve liberal democracy.
Universities can play a role in this. Certainly, most universities have student bodies that are not as representative as they should be. Some are not diverse enough, while others are too slanted towards students of more affluent backgrounds. Still, universities are places where young adults of a plurality of backgrounds can come together to share common experiences for extended periods of time. So, universities are places where students can potentially learn from one another and learn about one another. This is especially the case in America, by the way. Compared to universities elsewhere, American universities tend to have very vibrant and active student cultures, whereby students are encouraged to form and run their own organizations and clubs — and, perhaps without realizing it, to learn how to work with one another, through their differences and disagreements. So American universities in particular are places where students can learn not just to listen and reach across social and political cleavages, but also certain habits of the heart.
Part of the challenge with universities nowadays, however, is that many of them too have become politicized as left-wing indoctrination sites. Speaking just anecdotally as someone who has spent a lot of time in American university settings but am currently out of the country, I do think that the political actors who advance these critiques grossly exaggerate what happens on campuses in bad faith.
I do think, however, that there are better and worse ways of encouraging students to learn how to become more comfortable with difference and disagreement. And one thing that I think it is vital that we academics in the humanities and social sciences keep in mind is that one of our goals should be to help students develop tools to work through not just difference, but also disagreement. Yes, certain viewpoints are intolerable, and should not be treated as ‘just another point of view.’ But we should aim to cultivate classroom environments where students of a diversity of political persuasions — and not just a diversity of backgrounds — feel comfortable expressing their views, even if they might be ‘outnumbered.’ This means taking the necessary steps to ensure that students who are politically conservative or even culturally conservative do not feel like the professor is telling them that they are wrong simply because they are conservative. And it means taking steps to ensure that students who lean left or who are on the left learn to appreciate that it is necessary for them to actually provide arguments to defend their viewpoints.
This has been a lot of fun! Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the book. I hope our readers have found it instructive.
Eric Cheng is an Assistant Professor at Waseda University, Japan.
Aaron Kushner is Editor of Starting Points and Lecturer at Arizona State University.