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You Were Right, Dad, About the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

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When you’re a kid, authority isn’t the stuff of political theory, it’s a feature of the landscape. A natural characteristic. Parents and teachers and some other adults have it. They also seem to know everything there is to know, as if adulthood means getting let in on all the same secrets. But when authorities contradict each other, cracks start to appear in this imagining of knowledge and the social world.

In my case, it was less that cracks began to gradually form, as that my dad took a hammer repeatedly and regularly to it. This usually took the form of telling me something my teacher had taught me was just wrong, especially if it was a history teacher. “But you should put what they said on your test,” he’d say, after trashing their telling of some episode in history. This only made things more uncomfortable. Not only was he challenging my teacher’s authority in the sense of expertise, but he was giving a pretty cynical picture of their authority in the sense of having a say over my future. Meanwhile, I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to adjudicate who was right about the actual history.

When I retell this story to him now, my dad tells me that I drew the right conclusion from this tension—which is that I needed to be able to live with uncertainty, as all adults do, and to make my own judgments. But a strong part of me suspects that guiding me to a better understanding of authority and individual responsibility was not his actual goal that the time. I’m pretty sure he just thought my teachers were wrong, and like any member of our family, he wasn’t going to keep quiet about it.

For those of you who are unaware, I’m Adam Gurri, the editor-in-chief here at Liberal Currents. And whether or not he meant to problematize my naive understanding of authority back then, my dad, Martin Gurri, has quite a lot to say about authority now, in the second edition of his book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

The story of how the second edition, with an actual print run, came about, is in many ways the story of the transition from the heady days of 2011’s mass protests, to the fear and partisanship of 2016’s populist surges in the West. It was the former that he had in view in 2014, when he was sending me Microsoft Word files of the drafts of each chapter of the first edition. I read these largely on my phone, during my commute, sending him little copy edits as well as my thoughts.

My dad’s interest in 2011 made a lot of sense to me at the time. Ten years earlier, I had followed him into the blogosphere with a youthful idealism about its prospects. In 2004 and 2005, my dad saw the global blogosphere as a source of intelligence, which was his job, as a media analyst at an outfit that moved around within the government during his career, but was originally within the CIA. He and his coworker, friend, and general partner-in-crime Tony Alcott attempted to drag the lumbering edifice of media intelligence into the 21st century. Their efforts were frustrated by the mindset of an intelligence community which romanticized information that was secret rather than actionable. Persuading such an institution to accept an analysis which cited a blog, when the blog might have been called something like “The Rantings of a Sandmonkey,” was next to impossible.

In his book, my dad relies on Walter Lippmann‘s novel definition of a public: “not a fixed body of individuals” but “merely the persons who are interested in an affair”. In 2004 the blogosphere was teeming with publics, pursuing numerous affairs. As a 19-year-old, I joined some of these publics myself, spinning up a garish Blogger page from which to participate in the controversies of the day. The affairs I was interested in were primarily political, but I was also deeply involved in debates over the future of media, which at that time took the form of bloggers vs. journalists.

Like the mutinous public of my dad’s book, I had an intense desire to see the “mainstream media” smashed to pieces. Unlike the nihilism he analyzes, however, I had a positive vision—albeit a rather naive one. I believed that the public could replace the press entirely; I unironically bought into the “citizen journalism” movement and saw myself as very much a part of it. Economists with their own blogs would replace financial journalists. Bridge bloggers would replace foreign correspondents. A networked republic of free individuals would replace professionals entirely.

Alas, this network-utopia of citizen journalists was not to be. Instead, after a period of intense crisis in which many major news organizations were shuttered, institutional journalism has arguably gone through a cycle of tremendous revitalization. The most successful bloggers have followed paths much like Nate Silver’s and Ezra Klein’s: first being called up to the major leagues as a writer at an established publication, then going on to spearhead digital-only publications of their own. The abandonment of the objective style of writing, coupled with an active and critical public to which writers must constantly answer, has given the whole ecosystem an overtly partisan flavor that the old media system avoided—or hid, depending on who you ask—by design. The explosion of partisan fervor in the wake of the 2016 election has transformed the surviving old media outlets and given them new life. Whatever one thinks of these developments, it’s clear that organized and professional journalism has adapted to the new environment, rather than being replaced by amateurs.

Feeling burned out on my idealism of a decade prior, and moving away from the way of thinking that had led me to it, I was skeptical at first of the theory chapter of my dad’s original edition. “Maybe you can cut that down or just leave it out, show your point of view in the specific analyses,” I suggested. “It’s sort of the whole point,” he gently pushed back. He must have wondered why I would think a chapter entitled “My Thesis” could simply be removed.

Once editing was done, he self-published the book in the Kindle store. After an initial push to promote it on both of our parts, it seemed, by the end of 2014, that it would end up just mildly more successful than some of our other online forays.

There are few things more frustrating than realizing your dad was right, but not only was his thesis correct: I was wrong to think the book’s story was closed in 2014. In December of 2015, Virginia Postrel would publish an interview with him about the book to highlight the clarifying power of his framework. Postrel was the first to frame the book as an explanation for Trump in particular. In hindsight, she was remarkably early in saying so; Trump, though the frontrunner, was not yet the nominee, and many still felt comfortable dismissing the possibility as too absurd to merit consideration. The Brexit referendum, another imponderable, was still six months away. The attention drawn by Postrel’s interview snowballed as the desperation to explain the events of 2016 reached new heights, resulting in my dad’s indie e-book getting a second edition, with a publisher and a print run this time.

But popularity isn’t what changed my mind. In the end, I have to say you were right, dad—just as you undermined my teacher’s authority with me years ago, so today does a public in revolt undermine authority everywhere in a similar manner. The public does so by calling attention to wrongs, again and again and again, until “failure sets the agenda” and trust in any leadership crumbles.

My dad had watched the development of media more carefully and with a greater appreciation of the stakes than I was capable of as an idealistic college kid. One result is a key concept in the book, which transcends the blogger vs. journalist or amateur vs. professional dualisms: the overall information sphere with its tremendous redundancies and complex interrelations. This plays an important part in how he explains, for example, the role of social media in the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Proponents of the idea that the Tahrir Square protests were caused by social media point out, as my dad does, that it began with a Facebook event created by a group that had gone up to show solidarity with a young man abused by thugs of the Mubarak regime. Critics, such as Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell, point out that the biggest crowds didn’t show up until after the regime had shut off the Internet. My dad’s reply relied crucially on the idea of the information sphere, “which has absorbed old and new media alike”:

The dominance and influence of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian uprising has probably been exaggerated, but there’s no question that the channel exemplified to many observers the power of the information sphere. The regime certainly felt this way. Its agents dropped Al Jazeera’s signal from the Nilesat satellite, and orchestrated the physical intimidation of Al Jazeera staff in Egypt. These efforts collided with the redundancy factor and came to nothing. Other Arab channels offered Al Jazeera space on their satellites, and much of Al Jazeera’s footage came from amateurs who could not be shut down or intimidated.

The channel kept the story of the uprising alive by streaming it to every corner of the globe. (…)My guess is that Al Jazeera was instrumental in framing the event to the world as a struggle between idealistic youth and a vicious thugocracy. It led Western public opinion—including, it may be, in the White House—to a tipping point favoring the end of Mubarak’s reign, despite real fears about the consequences of instability in the cradle of the Muslim Brotherhood.

YouTube amplified this sentiment, re-hosting video from Al Jazeera and other broadcasters, as well as raw footage from cell phone cameras which somehow found a path to the web. Unlike TV or live streaming, YouTube could select the most visually dramatic moments, and make them searchable. It archived spontaneity: a defiant young man suddenly gunned down by security forces, a bizarre horse and camel charge by Mubarak supporters into the crowd at Tahrir Square.

Virtually all YouTube videos favored the protesters. In the aggregate, the result was a brilliant exercise in geopolitical persuasion, wholly uncoordinated, but the more authentic and effective because of that.

In 2014 I found the chapter on the “phase change” of 2011 extremely fascinating. It was still so recent then and yet it became clear I had known hardly a thing about what had happened. It also contains a passage which is a personal favorite, in which my dad’s otherwise carefully even-handed tone tips into contempt:

The Egyptian public had endured 30 years of Hosni Mubarak. The indignados at Puerta del Sol had suffered a loss of future prospects because of the severity of the economic crisis. In Israel, the public’s existential challenge to the established order came because Leef had found it unendurable to lengthen her commute.

This is more like my dad as you will encounter him in conversation. The Cuban style of discourse does not involve much in the way of detachment or pulling your punches, and in my family this style was cultivated with great joy on all sides. This is why pronouncements from my history teachers stood little chance of remaining uncontested.

The tone of the original edition was different from what I would expect of my dad in another way. While it has nothing on the primal howls that dominate our current public discussion, its chapters still convey a great deal of alarm. In 2014 he felt like a lone voice in the woods, watching Nightmare at 20,000 Feet-style as liberal democracy was placed in increasing jeopardy but no one noticed. Long before the new edition, however, his preoccupations became commonplace, and the tone of the new chapter reflects this; unflinching in its survey of the situation on the ground but nevertheless attempting to coax us collectively back from the ledge. This is far more characteristic; as an immigrant from a tyrannical regime and a student of history, my dad is quick to put seemingly frightening events into perspective.

I have little to add to the discussion of the titular revolt. It has been examined from every conceivable angle at this point, and its current relevance is precisely what has launched my dad’s book into a second edition with a print run. But what is nearly lost in this focus on the revolt is a matter which, while impossible to treat separately, nevertheless deserves an equal share of our attention: the crisis of authority.

The new edition, in tracing what has happened since the first, pays special attention to this crisis. The image of Charlottesville police standing by as disaster unfolded on their watch stands out as emblematic. At the infamous Unite the Right rally, police outnumbered both protesters and counter-protesters combined—it wasn’t even close. Yet they did nothing. The official report on what happened is merciless; the police and especially the top political leadership in Charlottesville lacked the confidence or the courage to do their jobs. They feared that intervention would make things worse, and ultimately placed the police’s own physical safety before their duty to keep the peace.

It bears repeating that this was no Tahrir Square in Cairo, where vast numbers of protesters filled the streets. The civilian groups were small in number and the police were very large in number, having drawn from a pool extending beyond Charlottesville’s own force, specifically assembled in anticipation of the march. Once more: against a small number of untrained though aggressive civilians, a large number of trained, armed, and organized police lacked the confidence to take control of the situation. This story would have been a farce had it not ended in tragedy.

This constitutes an extreme point in the decades-long process of bleeding away the “authorizing magic of legitimacy” on the part of the “modern” or “industrial” state, as it is described in the book. The institutions of this state stand now like the police in Charlottesville: heavily armed, well staffed, hierarchically organized, yet paralyzed in the face of the foul temper of a mutinous public. Leviathan towers taller and more muscle bound than ever, and perhaps for that reason seems capable of nothing more subtle than the most tepid or most overtly aggressive of actions. We therefore see the incapacity of the Charlottesville police mirrored in the capitulation of the Boston police, who gave up the city for a day and rolled out some tanks—and why do police have tanks?—because of two young men with homemade bombs. Neither city offers a model of what institutionally healthy authority ought to look like.

If the heart of the original edition was a plea to take the revolt of the public and its implications for liberal-democracy seriously, the heart of the expanded new edition is an invitation to imagine a way out of the crisis of authority—again, for liberal democracy in particular.

In a nation like ours, so steeped in John Locke and Adam Smith, we are all too tempted to approach this matter theoretically. But the question of revitalizing a healthy liberal-democratic authority is not one that can be resolved in the manner of political theorists debating the exact parameters of a just war. The breakdown of democratic authority is no abstraction. In Cuba, where my dad was born, civilian government run by democratically elected leaders was tried again and again. Ultimately each experiment in democracy was unable to stand up to whoever managed to establish their authority with a far more limited constituency: the military. Batista carefully maintained the loyalty of the military for many years and exerted an undemocratic influence on Cuban politics long before seizing control outright. And Castro built up his own military force abroad and imported them. Military authority alone proved the only hearty reed as a basis for Cuban governance. Avoiding extreme outcomes like these means wrestling with how they come about in the first place, and actively pursuing alternate paths.

The conditions of the public’s revolt are likely here to stay. What the new edition invites us to consider is not how to end this revolt, but how to live with it: How the institutions of authority, and our leadership class, might be changed in order to truly govern again in the new informational landscape. How to do what Charlottesville police would not, and under less favorable circumstances. How to handle more dangerous threats than the Boston police, and with a steadier hand.

With the second edition’s release, you will be hearing a great deal about The Revolt of the Public in the coming months. What I suggest you do, in each case, is to take care not to lose sight of The Crisis of Authority.

Featured image is of protesters in Tahrir Square, February 9, 2011.

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Antidemocratic Candidates and Democracy

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“One of the best jokes of democracy [was that] it provided its mortal enemies itself the means through which it was annihilated,” claimed Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, articulating what we now call the paradox of democracy.[1] It was precisely this concern that drove political scientist Karl Loewenstein to coin the term “militant democracy” to urge democrats to protect democracy at all costs: even if they risk “violating fundamental principles” of democracy such as the right to participate.[2] Because antidemocrats exploit the tolerance of democracies, Loewenstein maintained that they must be met with intolerance. Recently, however, political scientist Alexander Kirshner has argued that a legitimate democrat cannot hold this position. Because participatory rights are grounded in the fact that one has morally relevant interests at stake democrats must reconcile democracy with the limitation of democratic participation.[3] Otherwise, they undermine their own commitment to democracy.

To think about this problem, we can consider actual antidemocratic candidacies. Political philosopher Nancy Rosenblum cites the case of the Israeli far-right antidemocrat Meier Kahane. Kahane made the following campaign promise:

[Arabs are a] cancer in the midst of us …. Let me become defense minister for two months and you will not have a single cockroach around here! I promise you a clean Eretz Yisrael.”[4]

Kahane operated on the assumption that he potentially has the power to forcibly deport Arabs. In doing so, he ranked them as inferior members of Israeli society. But we may question how Kahane’s ranking Arabs can be effective at all. Kahane is one man, and other Israelis, including political candidates, disagree that Arabs are cockroaches that should be deported.

But, as philosopher Ishani Maitra argues, the failure to authoritatively intervene lets expressions like Kahane’s serve as a shared background assumption. “An assertion,” Maitra contends, “may be accepted for the purposes of a conversation (and so added to the shared background) even if participants don’t believe in its content.”[5] If such ranking is not challenged, it changes the way we behave due to an update in our background assumptions. We may not like Kach, but now we have an updated background that informs our expectations: a candidate for office has ranked Arabs as inferior and proposed to forcibly transfer them. If he remains in the race, our new assumption is that forcible transfer is an issue that is both normatively and empirically “up for grabs” – and the demos can affirm Kahane’s ranking by electing him.[6]

Allowing candidates like Kahane and parties like Kach to partake in democracy makes it so that Arabs do not participate as equals — the electoral contest itself includes a violent threat against their democratic participation — but their vote is equally weighted with others who experience no such threat. If you and I are participating in equally weighted decision-making, but the agenda only has my exclusion as a possibility and not yours, then we are not participating in the decision-making process as equals.

One may contend that if the antidemocrat is elected but there is a strong judiciary, his threats have no ground. Hence, one need not worry about one’s security as a democratic participant. But I contest this. The problem is not so much the probability of the policy’s implementation. Rather, it is that a targeted group’s inferiority is entertained in the first place, even prior to the election. That is, it is not only the procedure’s outcomes that need to respect citizen equality; but the procedure itself.

Furthermore, the fact that a proposal is not realized does not mean that it will not impact the society’s democratic health. Kahane legitimized the idea of transferring Arabs from Israel as a proposal Israel could realize through its democratic process, which later became a legitimate platform in a single-issue party, Moledet. Rather than being denounced as an unacceptable option, Kahane’s proposals are debated as any other kind of political issue.

In what follows I argue that antidemocrats, qua political candidates, undercut the abilities of members of targeted groups to partake in democracy with their fellow citizens as equals. If my account is correct, we will be justified in regulating antidemocratic participation because it is not a legitimate exercise of a democratic right. I use the term “antidemocrat” to describe candidates and political parties that explicitly want i) to deny civic equality to one or more classes of citizens based on socially salient characteristics such as race and ii) to implement policies that degrade the way in which a state is democratic.

The popular line of thinking is that threats to democracy come in the form of legislation; hence, solutions like judicial review that would strike down antidemocratic legislation when it comes must suffice. However, it is antidemocrats themselves, not antidemocratic legislation, that should concern us, for two reasons. First, waiting until antidemocrats take office and pass legislation lags behind the challenge they pose to democracy: we should not wait until it is too late. Second, antidemocrats even as candidates can damage democracy by threatening others’ rights as democratic participants.

Subordination and unequal standing

When antidemocrats participate in elections, they join what political theorist Claudio López-Guerra calls the effective choice set. The effective choice set is a group of candidates that potentially have the power to hold office if elected.[7] In other words, they are a legally valid option for governance. López-Guerra argues that including antidemocrats as a legally valid option disrespects their targets. It expresses to them that the political community is “not willing to stand by them” and conveys that we accept the possibility of the antidemocrat taking office.

López-Guerra’s argument helps us differentiate between preventing antidemocratic candidates from running for office and preventing them from being in a private, voluntary association. Candidates for office do not yet have government power, but neither are they mere private citizens. They can be thought of as quasi-government officials, who may enjoy some of the privileges of government office, such as Secret Service protection. López-Guerra is concerned with the public conferral of respect, and institutions exhibiting equal respect is certainly an important rule for democracies to abide by. However, antidemocratic candidates do not just disrespect but marginalize socially salient groups in the democratic process. They perform an act of discrimination that alters the standing in which their targets participate. This is the wrong that ought to concern democrats.

López-Guerra puts his finger on this: “in allowing an unreasonable party to compete and win,” he contends, “[…] we are ultimately saying that the eventual victory of such a party is acceptable.”[8] When the society in question conveys this — that the eventual victory is acceptable — it undermines the equal standing of their targets throughout the democratic process. Antidemocratic candidates subordinate democratic participants in a way that compromises their ability to participate.

If a presidential candidate advocates for discriminatory treatment, he is not simply expressing an opinion. Rather, he is putting a policy on the agenda. The consequences differ from ordinary speech; I need not count on hate speakers like Klansman David Duke to protect me from unreasonable acts of discrimination, but I should, in a liberal-democratic society, be able to count on the government, and my potential elected representatives, to afford me some protection and treat me as equal to other citizens.

Feminist speech-act theorist Mary Kate McGowan describes how one can enact permissibility facts in some realm through “exercitive speech acts.”[9] For instance, a professor has the power to state “no laptops in class” and enact a permissibility fact over a realm in which he has speaker authority; the classroom. However, he cannot authoritatively enact a “no-laptop” policy in a café because that is not a realm in which he is capable of enacting permissibility facts. This is what we call a “standard exercitive”: an explicitly authoritative speech act that one enacts in virtue of his social position.

Political candidates enact permissibility facts — change what is socially permissible — about democratic deliberation through covert exercitives. Covert exercitives “[trigger] the norms of that activity and thereby [enact] facts about what is subsequently permissible in that activity,”[10] all without explicit intention or without standard authority. In the case of elections, we have a norm where candidates are potential governors. Candidates know this and act on this assumption. In making electoral promises, candidates rely on the assumption that there is a difference between saying “I will do x” as a political candidate and as an ordinary citizen. If no one blocks a candidate from making this proposal, it remains in the realm of possibility as a democratically informed decision. Unless he is explicitly prevented from doing so, the antidemocrat alters what is permissible among the kinds of issues people could vote for.

Shifting what is up for debate

In proposing a policy, political candidates as potential representatives shift what counts as permissible grounds for democratic deliberation unless their platform is blocked. For instance, the antidemocrat can make it so that policies that would usually be considered racist are not seen as such.[11] Trump’s Muslim ban initially shocked his own party; but since no members effectively intervened, it soon became accepted and the “slightly less racist call to ban all Syrians” became the party’s moderate view. 

In liberal-democracies, there is some consensus that fundamental rights should be guaranteed without being threatened by citizens’ preferences.[12] Jurist and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin deems these kinds of issues choice-insensitive issues, meaning that, for example, if most citizens favour a racist policy, a democracy still should not promulgate it because its rightness does not depend on citizen preferences. Choice-sensitive issues, on the other hand, depend on citizens preferences; such as deciding where to allocate funds.[13]

Let’s consider Kach again, which created a disproportionate sense of insecurity for Israel’s Arabs. Even if Kach did not assume the power to enact law, any potential Arab constituents of Kach could not rely on their representatives to perform their duty towards them. Their existence posed a threat to what political philosopher Jeremy Waldron describes as “assurance.” The concept of assurance refers to how citizens in a just society should be able to count on a reasonable level of protection from “violence, exclusion, indignity, and subordination.”[14] Portraying policies that subordinate certain groups as a choice-sensitive issue makes it difficult for group members to engage in the normal activities of society due to fear and disrespect. The issue is not merely protecting a targeted group from insult; this is not about feelings. The issue is instead making sure that this group is not degraded and singled out to other members during the electoral process.

Following Waldron’s argument, we can say that hateful electoral speech is not just a speculation of what the group in question is like. Rather, these claims project the point that these people should “expect to be treated in a degrading manner if the person making the hateful claim and the fellow-travelers that he is appealing to have their way.” Kahane’s proclamations did not just disrespect Arabs; he made a point to say that a realizable political proposal for Israel is the forcible ejection of this undesirable group. In making this policy proposal, Kahane “specifically [targeted] the social sense of assurance” that Arabs in Israel might rely on to carry out basic activities, let alone political participation.

Donald Trump’s campaign had similar effects. In a 2015 campaign rally, Trump proposed to kick out all Syrian refugees of the United States, claiming that “they could be ISIS.” In doing so, Trump undermined the assurance of the Syrian refugee community and pushed forward a standard about how Americans ought to see them. Trump’s antagonism toward Arabs and Islam appear to have produced visible effects: the rate of assaults against Muslims more than doubled over the course of Trump’s campaign (2015 – 2016) relative to 2014.

There is precedent for regulating democratic activity on these grounds. Kirshner describes the example of regulating the British National Party (BNP). The BNP’s constitution did not permit non-white membership in their party. They were not a demonstrable danger to Britain’s democratic institutions, but nonetheless the British Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) threatened the BNP with legal sanction unless they stopped racial discrimination within their party, changed their constitution, and ensured that their potential racialized constituents would be treated equally. Their reasoning was that non-white constituents of the BNP could not depend on them to fulfill their duties towards them.[16] The EHRC blocked the attempted instantiation of a new permissibility fact. This shows that intervention need not take the form of a ban. If we locate the harm as limiting others’ ability to participate, as Kirshner does, there is a wide array of actions that we can take.

The grounds we stand on: justifying regulation

I have not denied the antidemocrat’s claim to participation qua citizen, but I have instead specified the boundaries of participation itself: namely, we cannot accept participation that subordinates others as democratic participants. The antidemocrat’s participation in an electoral race — regardless of his intent or ability to later implement policy — undermines others’ abilities to participate equally among citizens and is antidemocratic for that reason. Hence, it cannot be covered by his democratic participatory rights.

This is not as problematic as we may think. For instance, in a standard liberal democracy, I have a right to not be discriminated against on the basis of immutable characteristics, such as my gender or race. This means that if my workplace were to mistreat me on those grounds, my employers are not exercising their freedom of association, because racial discrimination does not fall within one’s free-association rights. How do we draw the boundaries of a right’s scope? The first and most obvious way is to limit it when its attempted exercise constitutes an illegal action, such as racial discrimination. The intervention against the BNP is a good example here.

The general principle does not seem all that controversial to a liberal democrat who accepts that a right is more than a freedom to act in a certain way. Rights are coherent because they also place duties and responsibilities on others. Participatory rights protect citizens against barriers to participation that other citizens may try to impose. For instance, my right to participate protects me from people in power who want to unjustifiably disenfranchise me or compromise my right to express my preferences. This constrains some forms of citizen expression during elections; a citizen must refrain from speech or actions that constitute voter intimidation in the United States or face imprisonment. This does not mean his right to participate in political deliberation is violated. Rather, it is the way he is trying to participate and express himself that is not within the scope of his participatory rights. Similarly, if an antidemocratic candidate makes it so that a citizen cannot participate on equal footing, he is engaging in an action beyond the scope of his own participation rights.

If the practice of a democratic right seriously undermines what we find desirable about that right, then prioritizing that practice for democracy’s sake is normatively incoherent.[17] Consequently, there is disharmony between what moves us toward democracy and democratic processes themselves if a democracy does not “protect and respect the values the process is intended to instantiate.”[18] In our case, that means that participatory rights end once they undermine others’ ability to fulfill their moral interests; both as persons and as democratic participants.


The inclusion-moderation hypothesis

It has been argued that antidemocratic parties can be expected to moderate once they achieve political power due to the need to attend to the mundane tasks of practical governance and holding together a political coalition.[19] This is the inclusion-moderation hypothesis. One could also fruitfully distinguish between “ripe” democracies with mature, stable institutions versus younger and more fragile “unripe” democracies, to use the terms of political philosopher Kristian Skagen Ekeli.[20] Ripe democracies may be more robust to antidemocratic candidacies than unripe democracies, so differing regulations may be justified.

Assuming that including an antidemocrat actually can moderate, we still do not know how exactly to generalize this principle. And the ripe/unripe distinction is not stable enough to be a rule. Unripe democracies have democratized their extremists, too. As an example, take Hezbollah, who began in Lebanon as an armed, Islamist resistance party. In their initial manifesto, Hezbollah expressed a desire to impose Islamic law on Lebanon, a state in which Muslims barely comprise a majority and where support for political Islam is the lowest among all Arab states. After becoming better established and politically mainstream, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that his party had dropped the mandate. The reason, Nasrallah claimed, is because Hezbollah decided as newly democratic participants that they wished to reflect popular sentiment in Lebanon.[21] While they opposed some structures of Lebanon’s democracy, such as its confessional system (the preference of Lebanon’s Christians), Hezbollah has democratized and accepted Lebanon’s political reality, claiming that because they have Christian constituents, they have to be receptive to their preferences.[39] Tunisia’s Ennahda is another party that became increasingly democratized after being allowed to democratically participate.[22]­ This was a shift in orientation considering Ennahda’s far more radical past.[23] In these cases, including antidemocrats democratized their parties, supporting the inclusion-moderation hypothesis.

But we cannot categorically claim that unripe democracies are better off through inclusion. Ekeli’s perspective is exemplified during the Egyptian democratization in 2011. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood came into the spotlight after spending most of their existence being denied legal status.[24] During pro-democracy protests, the Muslim Brotherhood protected crowds from the police and sided with protesters in favour of democracy. When running in elections, the Brotherhood assured Egyptians that they would not dominate parliament or implement Islamic Law despite earlier stated goals in favour of doing so. After the election, however, Egypt’s largely Islamist parliament, though democratically elected, put forth a Salafist, undemocratic constitution.[25]

Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt are relatively unripe democracies. But the United States’ 2016 election demonstrates that even ripe democracies may succumb to antidemocratic parties. One may think that American institutions would have been able to curb President Trump’s ability to implement antidemocratic policies or moderate him into a practical leader. But he remained fixated on his antidemocratic goals, where the Muslim Ban was recently approved by the Supreme Court of the United States, allowing it to take effect. Other undemocratic behaviours from President Trump include attempts to discredit journalists, nepotism, and falsely claiming the elections were fraudulent. The Republican party, in tolerating Trump by permitting his nomination, has enabled him to shift basic norms of acceptable political behaviour and to entertain more antidemocratic policies, both proposed and executed. In fact, there is a history of such policies in the United States — a ripe democracy — with examples including the Chinese Exclusion Act as far back as 1882.

From these examples, we see the ripe/unripe distinction may not be a useful heuristic, and that while the inclusion-moderation hypothesis can be explanatory in some cases, it is difficult to generalize. Further, if we are concerned about harm, it is not assuring to the antidemocrat’s targets to say that the antidemocrat must be accommodated because it might make him more democratic. If we are concerned with treating democratic participants as equals and assuring citizens that democracies protect this equality, a purely instrumental consideration about long-term democratization falls apart. In other words, if democracy’s aim is to treat citizens indiscriminately, as equals, it should not permit the welfare of the antidemocrat’s targets to be used as a means to to deradicalize others.

Driving hate underground

A related problem with excluding antidemocrats is that it simply drives their hatred underground and exacerbates it. This means that its targets are still insecure and subject to danger. Ekeli makes this case by describing what he calls “enclave deliberation.” Enclave deliberation is when “exclusion can create isolated enclaves of like-minded political extremists who wall themselves off from alternative or competing perspectives.”[26] This allows the antidemocrat to become more radical because they cannot be properly opposed and criticized. As a result, antidemocrats can experience “group polarization,” where “like-minded people (e.g. members of a given social group or movement) who are engaged in deliberation with one another end up taking a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation views or tendencies.”[27]

This is a valid concern; however, part of my argument is that hate should be driven “underground.” I use quotation marks because I have not advocated for a shutdown of these groups’ existence. Rather, I have argued that they cannot participate in an electoral process in a way that undermines others’ ability to partake in democracy. This is because, I have argued, the democratic process specifically needs to permit citizens to partake in it as equals. Driving hatred underground signals to political society more broadly that these are not acceptable views.

Nonetheless, it is plausible that there could be a cost from political exclusion. That said, plenty of legal actions done for the sake of justice and equal treatment can have similar effects. Affirmative action, for instance, has produced a similar backlash of bitterness and resentment among white Americans, but that does not make it unnecessary.[27] In other words, we do not deny members of political societies protection from harms simply because it would radicalize their perpetrators. One could argue the inverse: including antidemocratic candidates can empower radicalization. Trump’s nudging encouragement of hate crimes is one such example, as was his ability to shift moderate Republican policy rightward. Thus, the response to this objection is similar to the prior objection. Specifically i) hatred should be delegitimized through some form of exclusion to protect antidemocrats’ targets and ii) we cannot generalize a claim about enclave deliberation and group polarization to inform our theory more broadly.

Epistemic losses

One fascinating extension of this argument is that preventing antidemocratic participation decreases social knowledge. That is, exclusion will make us unable to accurately track citizens’ preferences if not all of them can be expressed publicly. Political scientist Adam Przeworski argues that democracy is valuable because it mimics a war non-violently.[48] In this way, political participation allows us to know “who would mutiny and against what.”

This is a compelling view. After all, if I were in Israel, I might want to know how many people supported Kach out of personal concern. But I also would not prioritize my knowledge of this over my assurance. Permitting antidemocratic parties for the sake of obtaining knowledge wrongs its targets in a similar way as other instrumental arguments for inclusion do: that is, by treating their well-being as a means. Letting antidemocrats be a legally valid option for governance is not the only way to obtain knowledge about what sides citizens stand on — surveying and other methods from the social sciences are viable, if incomplete, alternatives.

Wrongful interference

The power to intervene against antidemocratic candidates could enable a government to silence political participation if it saw it as a threat to how a state perceives its character. Rosenblum makes this argument by claiming that sometimes an “antidemocrat” is not actually antidemocratic but merely antisystem.[29] States have attempted to ban candidates and parties that are not necessarily antidemocratic, but that threaten the state’s existential identity. For instance, the United States suppressed the Communist Party’s participation in the twentieth-century despite the fact that it did not pose a threat to American democracy or any citizens’ participation.[30]

This is one reason why Dworkin argues that democracies must permit any opinion to be expressed, no matter how hateful the opinions are.[31] Dworkin argues that laws that regulate what kind of speech is permissible “disfigure[s] democracy, because if a majority of citizens has the power to refuse a fellow citizen the right to speak whenever it deems his ideas dangerous or offensive, then he is not an equal in the argumentative competition for power.” He argues against the idea that hateful speech injures citizen equality because he rejects that the “free circulation” of opinions can do this kind of harm. More importantly, for Dworkin, it is impermissible to protect citizens by means of censorship in an “otherwise fair political contest” because we could not generalize this right to protection. He gives an example of a fundamentalist Christian: we could not protect him from offense because it would require us to ban too much. While Dworkin places importance on democratic discourse, he argues that we cannot attempt to engineer an ideal discourse that improves democracy, and to do so would encourage abuse. For instance, people may invoke the improvement of democratic discourse to justify totalitarian aims of silencing their critics.

It is possible that the government could abuse the power to legislate antidemocratic participation as a means of silencing its critics — but it can do so with almost any other kind of regulation as well. Dworkin himself showed us a case in which the government used free speech law to facilitate social hierarchies and inequality by permitting campaign expenditures. Unsurprisingly, Dworkin has been criticized by philosophers such as Rae Langton who argues that Dworkin is “wrong even by his own lights.”[32] This is because Dworkin supports numerous government actions that restrict the intolerant — all of which can be, but are not necessarily, abused.[33] If there were to be a blanket ban on “antidemocratic parties,” I agree that this could easily invite abuse, and has. But it need not take this form. For instance, Kirshner’s example of the BNP did not entail banning the party. Instead, a human rights court merely stepped in and dealt with the specific problems that the BNP posed to democratic participants.

Further, protective action should be informed, sensitive to the society in question, and not merely about offense. Waldron helps us by distinguishing between offense and indignity. Offense refers to hurt feelings of the target, whereas indignity refers to the way in which the target is marked as someone “not worthy of being treated as members of society in good standing.”[34] Admittedly, this is a subtle distinction. Dworkin’s fundamentalist Christian, for instance, could claim that a pro-choice candidate is degrading Christian members of the community. But we also need not be so relativistic as to accept the Christian’s characterization as accurate. This is a case of offense rather than indignity because the candidate is not degrading the Christian, qua Christian, as a political participant.

Disrespect of citizens’ capacity to elect

This objection argues that if one’s options are limited, one is not making a truly democratic decision. In other words, limiting the effective choice set of voters limits their right to vote.[35] In doing so, it disrespects voters by assuming that they are not competent enough to reject unreasonable candidates. If we respect voters’ confidence, we must allow them the freedom to be exposed to all available options and have the freedom to “discriminate between alternatives.”[36]

My framework deals with this objection by prioritizing the welfare of democratic participants over choice. Even if citizens can reject antidemocrats, it does not mean that the antidemocrats cannot simultaneously marginalize their targets as democratic participants. Further, it does not seem accurate to characterize restrictions as an act of disrespect so much as a form of protection. We do not deprive others of assuring legal protections for this reason. For instance, an employer might feel offended by Affirmative Action laws by claiming that he is already inclusive and does not need to be coerced into being so. Yet, this should not be prioritized over assuring minorities that they will have equal access to employment. If he is already inclusive, he should not feel negatively affected by these laws. Similarly, intervening against antidemocrats does not insult tolerant citizens. Instead, it rejects certain moves made by intolerant ones. One may claim that this wrongs the intolerant candidate’s supporters by disrespecting them, but it does not disrespect them so much as their beliefs, a distinction worth making.[37]

Accommodating disagreement

Some justifications of democracy are rooted in the claim that citizens will always disagree about policy. In this way, we must all expect to sometimes be subject to policies we disagree with. Democracy is authoritative because it accommodates disagreement, including disagreement about what one’s rights should look like.[38] For scholars like Waldron, democracy requires us to have respect for others as rational individuals and respect for their judgment amidst even controversial disagreements.[39]

If we are concerned with political equality, this is an important objection. Liberal democratic institutions are obliged to treat all citizens as equals, meaning that such institutions ought to “show equal respect for persons or citizens as moral agents and their judgements.”[40] In this way, we disrespect the judgment of the antidemocrat and his supporters by claiming that their perspective about political rights is invalid and does not deserve equal weight.[41]

There are two problems with the disagreement stance I will highlight. First, as I pointed out in addressing the previous objection, respecting citizens as rational agents does not necessitate respecting their opinions. We ought to afford antidemocratic citizens free speech to express their opinions, but that does not mean that we must accommodate them institutionally. In fact, as I have argued, the content of antidemocratic beliefs must be actively disrespected through rejection in order to block a dangerous shift in permissibility facts during an election.

Further, as pointed out by philosopher Joshua Kassner, the argument that holds disagreement as a rock-bottom principle has its normative priorities confused.[42] What we ought to value about democratic decision-making is “the degree to which that process protects and maintains the values of democracy and the rights that instantiate such values.”[43] If what we value is equal respect for persons, we should be warranted in defending this principle against candidates that undermine it. On the other hand, the proponent of a disagreement-based theory argues that the process of participating is in itself democracy’s value.[44] Even if we accept participation as a core value of democracy, this value must be supplanted by the value of equal respect for persons in the case of antidemocratic participation. Otherwise, we affirm that it is permissible for some groups’ rights to be singled out as up for debate in the democratic process.


I have attempted to show that antidemocratic candidacy compromises its targets’ abilities to participate in democracy. Specifically, I claimed that an antidemocratic candidate, in advancing an antidemocratic platform, can subordinate members of the electorate and wrong them as democratic citizens.

First, I showed how the participation of antidemocrats places its targets in unequal standing as democratic participants in a way that is both disrespectful and damaging to their status as members of the demos. To do this, I showed how a political candidate has the power to shift permissibility facts in the realm of democratic deliberation. The antidemocrat ranks his target as inferior and adds to a background of assumptions about where his target stands in society. If the state fails to intervene, the antidemocrat’s proposals are added along with himself to the voters’ effective choice set. In turn, his targets lose their sense of security that they could otherwise reasonably expect from their society — such as the right to be seen and to participate in equal standing.

Second, I expanded on how regulation is aligned with goals of democratic equality, and how democratic rights obligate electoral participants to engage in reasonable behaviour that does not compromise participants’ welfare. Finally, I considered and rejected several potential objections.

A democratic society must protect the values it instantiates. If what we value about democracy is equality, we must not compromise this value through fear of regulation. I hope to have shown that our value of democratic procedures does not override legal protections we are owed in a democratic society. In fact, these very values are what should encourage it.

This essay was adapted for Liberal Currents. The original, with more discussion and references, can be found here.


[1] Jan-Werner Müller, “Militant Democracy and Constitutional Identity,” Comparative Constitutional Theory, ed. Gary Jacobsohn & Miguel Schor, (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018), 418; Nancy Rosenblum, “Banning Parties,” Law & Ethics of Human Rights, 1, no. 1, (2007), 20.

[2] Karl Loewenstein, “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights, I,” The American Political Science Review, Vol 31, No. 3 (June 1937): 432.

[3] Alexander S. Kirshner, “Self-Limiting Theory of Militant Democracy, A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combatting Political Extremism, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2014), 27.

[4] Rosenblum, 53

[5] Maitra, 111. Maitra’s italics.

[6] Christiano, “Waldron on Disagreement,” 538; Jeremy Waldron, “The Constitutional Conception of Democracy: ‘Is Everything Up for Grabs?’” Law and Disagreement, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). One objection is that we have institutions like judicial review to make sure that people like Kahane could not enact antidemocratic legislation. But this is not reassuring given, e.g., the recent SCOTUS acceptance of Trump’s Muslim ban.

[7] Claudio López-Guerra, “Disenfranchisement and the Limits of Democratic Theory,” Democracy and Disenfranchisement: The Morality of Electoral Exclusions, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 152.

[8] ibid, 158. My italics.

[9] ibid, 127.

[10] ibid, 134.

[11] Jennifer Saul, “Racial Figleaves, the Shifting Boundaries of the Permissible, and the Rise of Donald Trump,” Philosophical Topics Vol.  45, No. 2 (Fall 2017): 113.

[12] Not all theorists hold this view; see Jeremy Waldron, “The Constitutional Conception of Democracy: ‘Is Everything Up for Grabs?’” Law and Disagreement, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

[13] Dworkin, “What is Equality 4,” 25.

[14] Waldron, “The Appearance of Hate,” The Harm in Hate Speech, (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 2012), 83.

[15] Ibid., 86.

[16] Kirshner, “Political Regulation in Defense of Democracy,” 61.

[17] This argument is indebted to Thomas Christiano, “The Limits to Democratic Authority,” The Constitution of Equality Democratic Authority and its Limits, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 266-267.

[18] Joshua Kassner, “Debate: Is Everything Really Up for Grabs? The Relationship between Democratic Values and a Democratic Process,” The Journal of Political Philosophy Vol. 14, No. 4, (2006), 492.

[19] Janine Clark, “Islamist Movements and Democratic Politics,” Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World ed. Rex Brynen et. al. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012). 130.

[20] Kristian Skagen Ekeli, “The Political Rights of Anti-Liberal-Democratic Groups,” Law and Philosophy 31 (2012): 290.

[21] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, “Hezbollah is Not an Iranian Community in Lebanon,” Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ed. Nicholas Noe & trans. Ellen Khouri (London & New York: Verso Books, 2007), 90.

[22] Ibid., 98.

[23] Anne Wolf, “An Islamist ‘renaissance’? Religion and politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia,” The Journal of North African Studies, 18:4 (2013): 564.

[24] Carrie Rosefsky Wickham “Conceptualizing Islamist Movement Change,” The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, (Princeton University Press, 2013), 1.

[25] Clark, 119.

[26] Ekeli, 293.

[26] Ekeli, 294.

[27] Scott Jaschik, “White Perceptions of Affirmative Action,” Inside Higher Ed, (30 October 2017).

[28] Adam Przeworski, “Minimalist Conception of Democracy: A Defense,” Democracy’s Value. Eds. I. Shapiro and C. Hacker-Cordón. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 48.

[29] Rosenblum, 23.

[30] Kirshner, “Political Regulation…” 82.

[31] Dworkin, “Free Speech…” 365.

[32] Rae Langton, “Hate Speech and the Epistemology of Justice (Book Review of Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech)” Criminal Law and Philosophy (2014): 867. Langton’s emphasis.

[33] Ibid., 868.

[34] Waldron, “Protection from Dignity or Protection from Offense?” The Harm in Hate Speech, 106.

[35] López-Guerra, 153.

[36] Ibid., 156.

[37] Raz, Joseph. “Disagreement in Politics.” American Journal of Jurisprudence (1998): 31-32, 43.

[38] Waldron, “Participation: The Right of Rights,” Law and Disagreement, 246. Note: I do not claim that Waldron himself would be against restricting who could run for office, only that his framework could contribute to an argument that could suggest it. His writing in The Harm in Hate Speech, as I have shown, could possibly mean he is against it.

[39] Ibid., 251-252.

[40] Ekeli, 276.

[41] Ibid., 277.

[42] Kassner, 492.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 294.


Featured image is The Fire of Rome , by Hubert Robert.

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Typing your password is like serving in tennis. The first attempt you try to smash it with fuck-off-record-breaker speed. If that doesn't work you go again more carefully, but it's still fast to the casual observer.

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The Illiberalism of Prenatal Selection

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The American eugenics movement aimed to improve our national destiny by gatekeeping the gene pool out of which would be forged future great Americans. Eugenics’ proponents successfully erected pseudo-intellectual justifications and legal barriers that prevented people with traits they deemed undesirable from having children. They implemented immigration restrictions for disabled people and “less fit” (i.e., non-Northern European) ethnic groups. They forcibly sterilized and institutionalized disabled people. Weakness and disability and failure would, they argued, be a thing of the past. Without these genes dragging us down, the nation would flourish, strong and productive.

Eugenics is now rightly seen as a dark point in U.S. history. It wrought devastation in the United States, enabling legal and extra-legal racism as well as decades of unspeakable cruelty to disabled people. It notoriously caused even greater devastation in Europe. Nazis were so inspired by the American eugenics movement that German politicians and scientists traveled to the U.S. to deepen their understanding of how to weed marginalized people out of existence.

Even as eugenics is discredited, though, some of its ideas survive. It is still perfectly acceptable to discuss questions such as: should we employ our knowledge and technology to prefer the birth of non-disabled people, or people more likely to be happy, or people more likely to strengthen communities? Among ethicists, there has been an explicit revival of eugenics, now termed “liberal eugenics” to distinguish it from its shameful predecessor. Proponents of liberal eugenics firmly distance themselves from the bad old days. Gone is the explicit racism and classism from the movement’s heyday. They also decry state-sponsored enforcement mechanisms for ensuring the births of only preferred kinds of people.

What they argue, in general, is that it’s morally acceptable for parents to have total reproductive freedom, including the freedom to choose one kind of child over another. Some argue that it’s morally acceptable to choose to have a non-disabled child. Others argue that parents not only can prefer to have a non-disabled child, they should prefer it — if they’re going to do right by their child. After all, non-disabled people’s lives are generally easier than disabled people’s. Some note the expectant parents’ lives could be easier with a non-disabled child, and that parents are entitled to choose such an easier life for themselves. Still others argue that we can make the world relatively a better place by having a healthier or more capable person in it.

Liberal eugenics in practice

At the height of the recent Zika virus threat, the topic eugenics of bubbled up from potential parents’ private conversations and ethicists’ arguments into public debate. When a pregnant woman becomes ill with the Zika virus, her fetus has a chance of developing microcephaly or other neurological atypicalities. Abortion is outlawed in Brazil, where the Zika virus was prevalent. People discussing that crisis argued that a fetus exhibiting a disability is one of the most compelling reasons to ensure women have access to abortions, that access to abortion is necessary to ensure that people can choose not to have disabled children. This is liberal eugenics in practice.

On the contrary, while I believe access to abortion is indeed necessary, I also believe eugenics, even modern liberal eugenics, is one of the most morally fraught bases for reproductive decisions. My objection to eugenics is rooted in respect for the moral equality of all humans — a firm belief that though all people are equally valuable, though they may differ in race, gender, sexual orientation, education, talents, intelligence, economic productivity, community benefit, and so on. (In the case of a prenatal screening that reveals anomalies that will result in painful, early death, my objection does not apply. In cases of non-terminal congenital disability, however, it does.)

Liberal eugenicists are worthy defenders of women’s autonomy on several relevant issues. I believe that any woman should have legal access to abortion services for any reason, including eugenic reasons. Even as I believe eugenics is morally troubling, I still firmly believe a woman’s autonomy trumps any state interference in her decision-making. Also, it’s important to bear in mind that eugenics is not necessarily an abortion issue. There are other actual and potential ways to detect prenatal anomalies and choose a preferred child, including selecting certain IVF embryos and using gene-editing techniques. Such decisions are also morally fraught.

I understand intimately the difficulties facing parents who have a child who has disabilities of the sort caused by Zika. My 9-year-old son Edmund has microcephaly, though caused by a genetic syndrome, not a virus. Edmund is non-ambulatory, non-verbal, fed solely via g-tube, and has other health challenges. It is unquestionably easier for me to raise Edmund in suburban Washington, D.C. than it would be for an impoverished mother in Brazil — a point I’ll discuss further below.

Disability and social context

“Disability,” like so many value-laden topics, is difficult to define precisely. Most people have a vague sense that to be disabled is to be different. LeBron James, however, is quite different from most other humans in his height and athletic talent, and no one would consider him disabled for that reason. More specifically, people are considered disabled if they deviate from the norm of the human species in some way that tends to hinder their well-being.

If it’s true that disability is intimately connected with human well-being, though, then it is a mistake to assume that a person’s disability is simply a matter of their physical or cognitive deviation from the species norm. It is impossible to understand disability without taking into account social, cultural, and technological factors that may impede or enhance well-being.

Those of us who wear glasses or contacts rarely consider ourselves significantly disabled for that reason alone. Yet we do deviate from the species norm in a way that potentially hinders our well-being. Most of us would have a tough time flourishing in a hunter-gatherer society with no access to vision correction. In that social, cultural, and technological context, we would certainly be significantly disabled. In our society, though, we have readily available technology that allows us to achieve our ends, and there is little-to-no social stigma for using that technology.

Someone who is paralyzed from the waist down is considered disabled in any culture with which I’m familiar. Yet two paraplegic people with the exact same physical manifestations could have wildly different levels of well-being, depending on cultural context. In some cultures, a paraplegic person may lack access to mobility aids and experience severe social isolation or hostility. Imagine in contrast, though, a person with the very same bodily difference in another environment, one with high quality wheelchairs and freely accessible buildings, transportation, and events; an environment in which there were no social stigma for paraplegia. Those two people have vastly different levels of well-being.

This is the core of the argument against liberal eugenics: we should not eliminate people who have trouble flourishing in our society, in the shared environment we’ve created. If some people do have trouble flourishing, it’s preferable — indeed, a matter of urgent social justice — to help forge a society in which people who differ physically or cognitively from the species norm can thrive.

Many of us, including liberal eugenicists, recognize that certain forms of eugenics are potentially unsettling. That someone might choose not to have a child because a sonogram reveals that that individual is female. Or because (as may well eventually happen) a test reveals a gene for homosexuality. Some parents might demand gene-editing to ensure that their future child is lighter-skinned and had more typically Caucasian features. These choices arise from unjust social structures, not something inherently undesirable about that child. If many parents make such choices, the presence of certain marginalized groups in the population might be diminished — and thus further marginalized. To paraphrase the ethicist Adrienne Asch, it’s one thing, morally speaking, if a person chooses not to have any child. But it’s something else if a person doesn’t want a particular child — all the more so if the desire not to have that particular child stems from social injustices.

In the cases of gender, homosexuality, or skin color, a parent who desired to choose otherwise could correctly argue that a child who is male, straight, or light-skinned would have an easier life. Due to social injustices, that’s certainly that’s true. But it doesn’t mean that a male, straight, light-skinned life is more worth living, or that having such a child ought to be preferred to having a female, LGBTQ, or dark-skinned child. Rather than ensuring such people aren’t born, it’s clearly better to change our culture so that women or LGBTQ folks or dark-skinned folks can thrive.

Disability is by no means the same as gender, sexual orientation, or race and skin color. Here’s what a disabled individual has in common, though, with those other individuals: their life will likely be harder due in large part to social injustices such as inaccessibility and bias. Their life could go much better in an environment that accepts, respects, and accommodates disability. As in the cases of other marginalized groups, a life that is more difficult does not automatically mean that life is less worth living. Rather than eliminating disabled people, we could create a culture where disabled folks can thrive. The fact that it is indeed easier to raise a disabled child in suburban Maryland than in many places in Brazil is an urgent demonstration that a disabled person’s environment is unalterably linked to their well-being.

When non-disabled people imagine what it’s like to be disabled, or what it’s like to parent a child with a disability, it seems overwhelmingly difficult and terrifying. They are focused on what the difference in their life would be. But disabled people who are living their lives are not always focused on their disability. They are thinking about what to make for dinner, or how to avoid the traffic on I-95, or on savoring a great song, or how to deal with a child who is being a pain in the butt. A surprising (to non-disabled folks) number of people who become disabled report after a period of adjustment that their lives are going as well as they did before. That they’re as happy. Some experience their disability as more of a nuisance than a burden. Some, to be sure, experience more burden than nuisance. Many disabled people see their disability as an essential element of their identity, one they wouldn’t change if they could.

When my child was diagnosed, I wept for what I perceived as his “lost” future, and how difficult all our lives would be. Over time, Edmund has experienced his own future, which isn’t “lost” just because it is atypical. His disability makes his life harder for him than it would otherwise be, no question. But he has a lot going for him that does make his life go well. He is easy-going, friendly, affectionate. He loves animals and his friends, and he has a way of winning people over. He is incredibly persistent (I only wish I had his grit!). He was born in an era and location where he lives with his family, goes to school, where technology can greatly augment his mobility and communication.

As for the difficulty involved in raising a disabled child, our lives are more difficult in some ways. It’s impossible to get a babysitter. We don’t do some activities as a family we otherwise would, say, hiking or camping or travel. Carrying him upstairs is an unmitigated back-killer. And yet. I couldn’t imagine life now without my sweet boy. He’s not perfect or an angel — a persistent child can be an (ahem!) occasionally annoying child.  But just as with my two non-disabled children, I don’t love him for what he can do, I just love him. I couldn’t imagine my life without any of them, I couldn’t imagine any other children in any of their steads. And this is a bond I share with some Brazilian parents of microcephalic children.

In the end, liberal eugenics retains a fatal flaw. You can disavow racism and classism. But you can’t avoid the fact that in endorsing eugenics, you are saying it’s okay to believe that some kinds of people are better than others. As our troubled times have demonstrated again and again, there is, in the end, no moral precept more urgent than that no kind of person is more valuable than any other.


Featured image is Parental Joy , by Karl Lemoch.

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Incoming Calls

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I wonder if that friendly lady ever fixed the problem she was having with her headset.
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Real life, again.
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Hey! I am that one friend!
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I wonder if that friendly lady ever fixed the problem she was having with her headset.
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I wonder if that friendly lady ever fixed the problem she was having with her headset.

A Nationalism Untethered to History

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With a breezy preface that approvingly references recent political developments in America and Britain, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism offers a defense of the nation state. Now, there is a case to be made; indeed, there is a liberal and cosmopolitan case to be made. The nation state has been the most successful vehicle of liberalism yet achieved and there are good, liberal reasons to be suspicious of the rise of supra-national institutions such as the European Union. A book making that case could have been a very important contribution to our current impoverished debates on the matter.

The Virtue of Nationalism does not set out to be that book. The book’s self-declared aim is state the case for nationalism and for a distinct kind of national state. It defends nationalism in opposition to liberalism, globalism, imperialism, or cosmopolitanism. The nation state Hazony champions is the nationalist’s state and, as we shall see, inevitably the ethno-nationalist’s state. Troubling as this might be on its face, the main weaknesses of The Virtue of Nationalism are less in its aim and more in its incoherent methodology, the brazenness with which ill-fitting examples are forced into too-clean categories, and its utter lack of familiarity with the scholarship associated with its subject matter.

What, then, is the case for nationalism?  And what are the virtues of nationalism?  There are several points that Hazony makes which are fairly standard, and with which one can concur. The competitive European state system did play an important role in the economic and political successes of the West in the last half-millennium. Attempts to build states in the Middle East that ignore ethnic, linguistic or religious difference do seem doomed to fail. And there is a strong Burkean and Hayekian case for relying on a form of political organization that has served us well historically. These arguments are well and good but are not novel, nor are they central to Hazony’s case.

The novelty of The Virtue of Nationalism is twofold. First, Hazony’s positive vision of a national state is based on the biblical account for the early Israelite kingdom. He elevates ancient Israel into a model for how to think about nation states. He sees this Old Testament model as informing the rise of Protestant states in the early modern period. And, on this basis, attempts to delineate a virtuous Protestant trajectory of national development and a sharp distinction between national and imperialist states.

A second novel feature of this book, is that the nationalism Hazony defends is essentially an ethnic nationalism, though he doesn’t use that term. He bases his claims for the virtues of nationalism on an argument that human sociability, trust, and sympathy is closest among family members and then extends out to members of one’s “tribe” or even nation but cannot be sustained among human beings as a species. Hazony’s national state is based around a core set of tribes who share common culture, language and religion; outsiders can be adopted into it; but it hard to see how their culture, traditions or language can have anything but a secondary role in such a society.

In the current political environment, these views should not be ignored.

A narrow categorization

Hazony begins by describing a dichotomy between two types of political order: the tribe and the imperial state. In a tribal order, authority is personal, familial and reciprocal. The most serious downside of the tribal order is that there is frequent conflict. The polar opposite to the tribal order is an empire. Empires promise to unify all peoples; hence they can bring peace and prosperity. But authority under imperial rule is distant and abstract. According to Hazony, cosmopolitan empires cannot command genuine loyalty, for “in the absence of a common threat to provide a genuine basis for unified action, the call to unite all mankind appears worse than vacuous” (p. 79).

Having laid out these two extremes, Hazony argues that the national state provides a happy median, avoiding both the chaos of tribal anarchy and the despotism inherent in an imperial state:

When the tribes of a nation unite to establish a national state”, he writes, “they bring to this state the familiar and distinctive character of the nation, its language, laws, and religious traditions, its past history of anguish and triumph” (p. 101).

Note that here, what Hazony calls a national state emerges where there already is a “nation.” We can set aside, for now, the fact that in this argument, the problem of “nation-building” or creating national identity is conveniently skirted.[1]

Hazony notes that a national state can overcome the endemic violence of the tribal order while harnessing shared loyalties and cultural values. Here Hazony waxes lyrically about the collective endeavors made possible by an independent national state. But, as the argument progresses, one realizes that Hazony has no stable criterion for designating which characteristics adhere to a national state and which belong to either the imperial state or the tribal order. The ideal types Hazony establishes in order to build his argument collapse upon examination.

Consider one of the key virtues Hazony attributes to a national state: that it renounces the bellicose ambitions of the imperial state. National states, we are told, fight limited wars to obtain limited ends. By contrast, imperial states are committed to an ideology of continual conquest. How does this argument fair empirically? By Hazony’s own account, the Athenians, English, and Dutch — all exemplars of the national state model — hardly refrained from creating empires.[2]  Historically the only factor limiting the ambitions of most of the national states he cites has been weakness or lack of opportunity.

The lack of any coherent methodology for assessing his own claims leads to incoherence. National states frequently develop imperial ambitions. Moreover, actual imperial states, we are told, tend to be based on core ruling nations which “[form] a tightly bonded core of individuals who will defend one another at all costs against peoples whom they have conquered” (p 98). In a single chapter Hazony simultaneously claims that a virtue of nation states is that they recognize “the boundaries of the nation and its defensive needs as placing natural limits upon its extension” (p 111) while also denouncing “the imperialism that had come to dominate the policies of Britain, France, Russia, and Germany” and claiming that World War 1 was “the fruit of European national states’ infatuation with imperialism” (118). If by Hazony’s own account, this key virtue of the national state is frequently violated by actual national states, why should we place much faith on it?[3]

This problem is pervasive throughout The Virtue of Nationalism. In the parlance of my native discipline, economics, the author continuously selects on the dependent variable. Take any historical state or event. If something turns out to be good, attribute it to nationalism. If something is bad attribute it to the opposite of nationalism. Thus, we are told that Nazism and Japanese imperialism had little to do with nationalism. According to Hazony, these states were “imperialist.”

What is just and what just is

Another fundamental problem is that what is just and what just is are frequently conflated. Hazony’s vision is of nation state that emerges indigenously from a group of tribes that share a common culture, language, and religion. He argues that this ethno-nationalism is good because it is realistic, it builds on the sympathy that we naturally feel from those who are similar to us and which we don’t feel towards foreigners. For Hazony, this empirical observation somehow implies an ought. The fact that we sympathize more with victims of, say, natural disasters in our own country than in others is not just true, but somehow good.

He contrasts this to the liberal political order which he views as synonymous with the contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Rawls. For Hazony this liberal order is a “dream world” (p 34). He supposes that Hobbes and Locke and indeed modern liberals view the social contract as a relevant historical account of the origins of societies, states, and government. This of course would be fantastical. But, of course, I’ve never encountered anyone who holds this position. For liberals who built on the writings Locke, such as Rawls, the state of nature is a theoretical construct to probe our intuitions concerning justice and political authority.

The fact that successful nation states have harnessed the sympathy we feel for members of our family and extended kinship group and transplanted them to the nation is indeed valid. But this tells us little about what type of political order is just.

Even if we judge a theory purely on its realism, Hazony’s argument falls short. His account is inspired by the Biblical account of the origins of the Kingdom of Israel. Setting aside issues of the biblical literalism, Hazony’s account of other instances of state formation carries with it the air of a fairytale and are almost entirely divorced from historical reality. There is no recognition that, in the examples he cites, the formation of states required the erosion or outright destruction of tribal authority.

The Athenian state, we are told, was created based on the “unification of tribes” (p 80). The Greek cities “were tribal states that failed to unite under a single national state” (p 257). But what Hazony does not tell the reader is that Athenian democracy was based on the abolition of the original tribes of Athens. Cleisthenes and the founders of Athenian democracy understood that tribal loyalty undercut and undermined loyalty to the city. Hence the electoral “tribes” that formed the basis of Athenian democracy were artificial, with no connection to extended family groups. The claim that Athens functioned as free state because of loyalty to “nation and tribe, which contributed the necessary cohesion to the state” is a fantasy.

From Hazony’s account one would not learn that tribal identity and familial loyalty are usually a major barrier to the formation of effective nation states. In his study of Arab society, The Closed Circle, David Pryce-Jones discussed how tribalism does not just mean frequent recourse to violence, as Hazony acknowledges, but deep cleavages and distrust which impeded any attempts to organize at the societal level.[4] Pryce-Jones quotes Pierre Bourdieu to the effect that among traditional Arab society:

The family is the alpha and omega of the whole system: the primary group and structural model for any possible grouping, it is the indissoluble atom of society which assigns and assures to each of its members his place, his function, his very reason for existence” (Pryce-Jones Loc. 410).

Having provided a stylized model of how a nation might emerge out of separate tribes,

Hazony applies the ancient Israelite template to early modern Europe. References like “the coming together of the Netherlandish tribes as a national state under the Dutch Republic” (p 80) are ahistorical. A careful reviewer would have noted that clans, tribes, or powerful extended family networks ceased to be important centuries prior to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

Hazony appears unaware of the fact that scholars attribute the success of European nation states precisely to the weakness or absence of clans and tribes.[5] An extensive literature documents how the Catholic Church eroded tribal and clan based loyalties by prohibiting cousin marriage, encouraging widows to remain unmarried, and advocating for marriage as institution for consenting adults. These developments, the practice of deferring marriage into one’s mid-20s (known as the European Marriage Pattern), and precocious urbanization meant that Dutch society consisted of small nuclear families, not tribes.[6]

Though he notes that families and tribes can adopt genetically unrelated individuals, his notion of a national state is unmistakably rooted in a sense of shared tribal identity. But what is the nature of this identity? How is it formed? How did individuals extend notions of local or tribal identity to the level of the modern nation?

These are questions that historians of nationalism have wrestled with for decades. Rather than addressing these concerns, we are offered breezy statements such as “Thus the English adopted the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish into a broader British Nation” (p 128). This statement simply elides centuries of conflict, negotiation and investment in a constructed, fragile, recent identity and entirely ignores the imperial character of English (and Scottish) intrusions into Ireland.

Ignoring the literature

A charitable reading of The Virtue of Nationalism is that the author has extrapolated a political theory from the biblical accounts of his own homeland. Thus, his preferred story is one in which different tribes, unified by language, religion and a shared culture (and perhaps ethnicity) strike an alliance to meet outside threats and form a national state. This theme is repeated throughout the book[8]. But very few national states conform to this creation myth. As a result, Hazony is forced into a series of ahistorical assessments about which past societies embodied the virtues of nationalism (or the sins of imperialism).

Non-specialist readers might miss the fact that there is an extensive literature on the origins of nationalism. A common theme in it is that nationalism is a recent, 19th century invention. Hazony mentions this in an endnote but he does not actually engage these arguments at any point in the text. This is a revealing omission. You can believe, as I do, that the claims of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and others about the invention of nationalism are overblown while still acknowledging the basic point that national identity is often the product of a national state rather than its precursor.

Curiously, Hazony also does not touch on the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism emphasized by historian Liah Greenfield.[9] “Civic nationalism” does not appear in the index. And, for the most part, he writes in terms of a shared religion and culture. But how should we think about “tribes” except in ethnic terms? It is troubling that, rather than confronting this topic directly, Hazony’s cites Johann Herder as follows:

The most natural state is, therefore, one nation, an extended family with one national character . . . Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter. A human scepter is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it. Such states are but patched up contraptions, fragile machines . . . (p 112)

Rather than wrestling with the exclusionary implications of Herder’s nationalism, Hazony simply approves of Herder’s assessment, leaving the reader to wonder whether the modern, multi-racial, United States is one of Herder’s “lifeless monstrosities.”

A frank conversation about national loyalty, and especially the history of the nation state and its role in the advances of the modern world, are needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism has very little to offer to such a conversation. The topic of the book has a natural appeal to those who feel defensive when national sentiments are attacked by liberals and progressives, and indeed it has been taken up in the conservative media and elsewhere on that basis. But these outlets would be better suited to careful scholars such as Greenfield, Azar Gat, or Michael Ignatieff. What Harzony offers readers is a far cry from these authors in both scholarship and in the logic of his arguments.

[1] Indeed, the definition of a nation for Hazony is “a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies” (p 100).

[2] Hazony acknowledges this on page 120 but doesn’t seem to realize the damage this does to his argument earlier.

[3] The claim that there is a stark dichotomy between limited wars between national states and “ideological wars” does not survive scrutiny.  One ruler’s legitimate national interest is another’s overwhelming hubris.  Louis XIV claimed that he was securing the natural boundaries of France; his opponents that he aimed at dominion over all of Europe.  Similarly, it should be recalled that the French Revolutionary armies were defending their own borders in 1792 at the onset of what history has labelled the Napoleonic Wars.

[4] David Pryce-Jones (1989). The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. Harper & Row. London.

[5] Alan MacFarlane, (1978). The Origins of English Individualism. Wiley Blackwell. Larry Siedentrop, (2014). Inventing the Individual. Belnap Press. Cambridge, MA.  Francis Fukuyama, (2011) The Origins of Political Order. Profile Books.  Jack Goody (1983). The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Note also that the Dutch Republic was not a national state but a fairly loose federation of city-states.

[7] He cites Herder positively that “Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter” (p 112).

[8] Thus on page 123: “The national state takes advantage of the basis for a genuine mutual loyalty that already exists among these warring tribes — a common language or religion, in addition to a past history of defending one another as allies in the face of common enemies — to establish a unified national government”.

[9] For instance in, Liah Greenfeld (1992) Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Havard University Press, Cambridge MA

Featured image is The Black Stain , by Albert Bettannier

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