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Book Discussion -- Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate

September 26, 2006 // 3:00pm5:00pm

Ronald Dworkin, Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, and Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College, London; Joseph R. Crapa, Executive Director, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Donald Wolfensberger, Director, The Congress Project, Woodrow Wilson Center.


Is political polarization in this country so severe today that there is no common ground on which to fashion a discussion or build an accord? Renowned legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin thinks such ground does exist and, in a discussion of his Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate, organized by the Division of U.S. Studies, expounded his belief that two principles widely shared among Americans on both sides of the political divide can bridge the gap.

The first principle that, in Dworkin's view, transcends political differences is the "principle of intrinsic value": that every human life is of great and intrinsic value, and that the success or failure of any human life is important. The second principle, that of "personal responsibility," holds that each human being bears a personal responsibility for making his or her life a successful one. If these principles are indeed universal, and Dworkin noted that they are present in all the major American religions, then a discussion can begin about how to apply them to specific policy issues. Dworkin acknowledged, however, that the principles may be too abstract to serve as a basis for argument, in part because they are rooted in the liberal tradition.

He went on to sketch the way the principles apply in four policy areas: terrorism, religion in the public sphere, taxation, and what he called the structure of democracy. Rejecting the idea that terrorism is about striking a balance between the liberty of suspected terrorists and our own security, Dworkin asserted that when we torture foreigners the balance struck is not between liberty and security but between our honor and our fear. "The abandonment of principles in the face of danger is a particularly obnoxious form of cowardice," he said, and the view that torturing suspects protects Americans is a corruption of the American belief in the sanctity of all human life. As we wrestle with the question of the correct relationship between religion and government, and issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the teaching of "intelligent design," Dworkin continued, we must decide whether the United States is a secular nation that tolerates religion or a religious nation that values monotheism but tolerates other religions as well as secularism. Dworkin emphasized his own preference for a tolerant secular nation because the principle of each individual's responsibility for his or her life is harmed when something as personal as religion is shaped by government.

The lesson for tax policy that Dworkin draws from his two principles is that government has a sovereign responsibility for the equal fate of all its citizens, and he criticized current tax policy as privileging the most comfortable in U.S. society. He proposed an economic model, based on the model of health insurance, that would distribute societal resources as if everyone had the option to buy insurance against poverty, ill health or unemployment. Finally, Dworkin denounced the failure of the current democratic structure to take minority views into account. A democracy that rules by a majority without any sense of what produces the vote is simply a coercion of the few by the many, Dworkin said. A more legitimate democracy would come from a political structure that favored a "culture of argument" and real debates. He advocated banning political commercials, allowing candidates equal and sufficient time on television, and including classes on and dynamic discussion of current political issues in the high school curriculum.

Commentator Joseph Crapa doubted that Dworkin's broad principles, although sound, are definitive. There are other personal and religious principles, such as social justice, family values, and a desire for security, that are just as important for many people. Crapa agreed with Dworkin that core American principles are being violated by the techniques currently being used in our interrogation of torture suspects. The question of the relationship between religion and the state is more complicated, however, and Crapa agreed as well that we can use a national debate about it. He differed with Dworkin on the subject of majority rule, pointing out that majority rule is an immutable element in American democracy. The problem, Crapa asserted, is not majority rule, but that the majority of members of Congress, beholden to districts that have become increasingly partisan as a result of redistricting designed to protect incumbents, have little incentive for compromising with others. Without consensus, Crapa said, there is no democracy.

Don Wolfensberger noted that Dworkin's two principles are those on which the country was founded, and that can be seen, for example, in the Declaration of Independence. Because Dworkin acknowledged that he was seeking not only to bridge the political divide with common principles but to restate the liberal position, Wolfensberger said, "He's trying to build a bridge across the cultural divide, but it's hard to do with both feet firmly planed on the left side." Dworkin does not note that the Constitution includes checks and balances to protect minority interests, Wolfensberger commented, and he wondered whether in addition Dworkin both blurred the lines between the role of government and economic structure and ignored existing policies that address poverty. The earned income tax credit, for example, is an attempt to close the income gap, and an expansion of it might serve better than Dworkin's insurance suggestion. Wolfensberger nonetheless praised Dworkin's effort to guide us beyond the current political stalemate by presenting a series of prescriptions certain to generate lively debate.


Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147

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