A Conflict of Visions

Political tactics matter, and we should discuss them, but we should also be aware of conflicting visions of the good behind liberalism and illiberalism.

Georgetown history professor Thomas Zimmer makes the following point about how to engage with the arguments of bad faith culture warriors.

I don't want to get into the details of Chris Rufo's particular brand of culture warring here. I had a long conversation on my show about it with Sam Hoadley-Brill. Rather, Zimmer's remark calls to mind a distinction liberals need to be careful to keep in mind when entering into politically charged questions.

It is possible to oppose many DEI programs because you believe state mandates in this area exceed constitutional limits, and that, even when done to achieve worthwhile ends, allowing the state to step outside those limits is unwise and dangerous. Or, you might reasonably oppose DEI programs because you believe the evidence shows that they don't achieve their goals, or have counterproductive results. In other words, you can hold to a vision of a world where minorities and women are no longer discriminated against because they are minorities or women, while also having reason to believe that many DEI programs don't achieve that vision.

But another motivation for opposing DEI programs could be that your vision of an ideal world is one where minorities and women—and, particularly, minority women—will not be in positions of power and prestige above whites and men—and, particularly, above white men.

In general, I think the best way to have a fruitful political debate is to assume that you and your interlocutor share a vision of the best, most just world (at least in broad brush strokes) and then treat the disagreement as one about which strategies, tactics, and policies are most likely to get us there, or are least likely to have unacceptable costs and unintended consequences.

But the fact is that, for many on the reactionary far-right, their illiberalism isn't grounded in believing liberalism won't achieve a just world, at least not as we should properly understand justice. Rather, they reject liberalism because they aim at a fundamentally unjust world. The ideal society this radical, and revolutionary, right invisions and seeks to achieve is corrupt. Their preferred world is a profoundly immoral and ugly place.

When all we talk about is tactics—whether a particular strategy violates liberal norms or fails to fit within the rules of liberal institutions—we fail to highlight that divergence of incompatible visions. The effect is to normalize the immoral preferences by making it appear that what's wrong with the illiberal vision is how it goes about achieving its ends, but not the vision itself. Liberals should insist that liberalism is better not just because it sticks to generally applicable rules, but because liberalism helps us achieve a society worth wanting. And it also undercuts one of our best critiques of the reactionary right: That their aim, no matter how they revise their tactics, is a world we shouldn't want—and that most of us, fortunately, don't.

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