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Liberalism for Now

The years leading up to the 2008 election were not a promising time for a liberal politician or a liberal philosopher to seek common ground with conservatives. The country was split, according to the conventional image, between red and blue states, reflecting two hostile cultures and worldviews. In 2004, Karl Rove’s strategy of inflaming those divisions and thereby mobilizing the conservative base had succeeded in reelecting George Bush. It was also by stoking right-wing passions against liberalism that the most powerful voices in the conservative mass media—Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter—had built up their audiences. Constructive dialogue with liberals was the last thing on their minds.

Under the circumstances, most liberals weren’t interested in dialogue either. Impatient with the lofty aims and gracious defeats of so many Democrats, they were in a fighting mood, not a reflective one. A popular line of argument among Democratic strategists was that it was time to learn from the other side, get tough, and return fire. Ideas had their uses, to be sure, as weapons in the arsenal of partisan warfare, provided that they were packaged shrewdly—hence the interest in language, “framing,” and “narratives” by such writers as Drew Westen and George Lakoff—but serious debate was not in high demand. Like conservatives, liberals were preoccupied with one problem above all: how to win a majority, if only barely, in what was presumed to be a closely split and highly polarized electorate.

In fact, according to opinion surveys, the American public hadn’t actually become more deeply divided than in the previous several decades; issue by issue, most Americans continued to be bunched closer to the political center than the extremes.1 What had become polarized was the expression of political opinion. As a result of the defection of the white South from the Democrats and the conservative revolution inside the GOP, the two major parties were now more ideologically distinct and antagonistic. And with the rise of talk radio and cable television, partisan mass media had become more important in the news and in public controversy. But far from being happy with intensified partisanship, many voters were disgusted with it and yearned for leaders who could somehow rise above the daily crossfire.

It was part of the genius of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency that he was able to respond to this yearning without falling into a bland and muddled centrism, compromising the integrity and force of his own views. During the campaign, Obama blamed partisan quarreling for many of the nation’s troubles and said that neither of the major parties had faced up to its historic responsibilities; but it wasn’t as if his own positions lay somewhere vaguely between the two. His voting record and policy proposals were unmistakably liberal. Instead of adopting a combative position toward conservatives, however, he made a point of meeting with them, listening attentively without necessarily agreeing about what government ought to do. Appearing before large audiences at such venues as Reverend Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Obama tried to make it clear that he “got” their concerns, whether about race, religion, or welfare.

In his speeches Obama put much emphasis on the themes of personal responsibility and respect for tradition, as he did later in his inaugural address. But he could consistently hold both those views and also liberal positions on such matters as taxes, health care, civil liberties, and the environment. For years conservatives have attacked liberalism as culturally and morally alien from the world inhabited by most Americans; Obama was showing that he shared the moral concerns of a great many voters. Obama’s efforts to engage conservatives and to find common moral ground without sacrificing the integrity of his positions connect with the themes of a book written by a philosopher in a similar spirit, though at a more abstract level. Published in 2006 and recently available in paperback, Ronald Dworkin’s Is Democracy Possible Here? pursues two objectives that may seem inherently at odds with each other. The first is to establish a common ground in moral principles for American politics, broad enough to accommodate conservatives as well as liberals. Dworkin’s premise is that democracy may become unworkable if those on opposing sides cannot argue with each other, and that recognition of shared principles would promote productive debate. Yet in interpreting those principles, Dworkin doesn’t pretend to strike a balance between opposing perspectives. He observes at the outset that his own views are “a very deep shade of blue.” Accordingly, his second objective is to try to defend a liberal interpretation of Americans’ shared principles—or as he puts it, to present “a form of liberalism that is not simply negative but sets out a positive program firmly based in what I take to be common ground among Americans.”

Dworkin’s book is not a more general philosophical statement of Obama’s views, though they have some points of convergence on the importance of principles of equality and responsibility. What is most similar about their enterprises is the effort to plant liberalism on common moral ground together with conservatism and to take some of the bitterness out of the air of American public life. Both Obama and Dworkin pursue liberal aims within a vision of a wider democratic partnership that would include conservatives, even if conservatives refuse their overtures.


Dworkin rests his analysis on the claim that there is a broad moral consensus in the United States in favor of two principles of human dignity. According to the principle of the “intrinsic value of human life,” when a life has begun, it matters objectively whether it goes well. “It is good when that life succeeds and its potential is realized and bad when it fails and its potential is wasted.” And according to the principle of “personal responsibility,” each of us has special responsibility for making a success of our lives; we are responsible for finding value in life and deciding what kind of life to lead.

Many people would guess a philosopher to be a conservative if all they knew about him was that his two fundamental tenets concern the intrinsic value of human life and the importance of personal responsibility. But Dworkin has long maintained that these principles underlie his own egalitarian liberalism; at the beginning of his 2000 book Sovereign Virtue, which incorporates more than two decades of his work on the moral foundations of politics, he presents the two principles in almost identical language.2 But although that book and his new one share the same point of departure, they proceed in different directions. Dworkin’s central purpose in Sovereign Virtue is to develop his theory of equality, uphold it against liberal alternatives, and show that, when understood as he proposes, equality is consistent with liberty and other democratic values.

He particularly distinguishes his version of liberal theory from those of Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls. Berlin claims that choices between competing values are inescapable in politics and that equality, in particular, inevitably clashes with liberty, whereas Dworkin argues that equality and liberty should each be conceived in a way that takes the other into account, so that anybody who is committed to one would cherish the other no less. And whereas Rawls, in his formulation of “political liberalism,” seeks to establish a basis for government that does not depend on any comprehensive moral agreement, Dworkin roots his political theory in fundamental moral principles that he claims are widely shared.

Of the three, Dworkin’s approach is, in some respects, the most ambitious. Berlin says that liberal values such as equality and liberty cannot be harmonized, while Rawls says politics and comprehensive moral theories must be insulated from one another. Dworkin, in contrast, puts forward a unified theory of political morality as a plausible goal. And this promise of intellectual and moral coherence has been one of the principal attractions of his work.

While Sovereign Virtue is a densely argued contribution to philosophical debate, Is Democracy Possible Here? is a shorter, more accessible book addressed to conservative challenges in public life. The perspective that Dworkin is defending is the same, but the arguments he wants to overcome are different. From the outset, however, he stipulates that the two principles of human dignity are shared by conservatives and liberals alike.

To be sure, others might frame those principles differently or hold other moral principles equally important, but while Dworkin challenges his readers to come up with alternatives, he doesn’t consider any. For example, the only form of responsibility he considers is individual; there is no discussion here of environmental issues such as global warming or of collective responsibility to future generations. Taking up a series of contentious public issues—terrorism and human rights, the public role of religion, taxation and legitimacy, and the corrosion of democracy—he uses the twin principles of human dignity as his criteria, asking how, for each issue, they should be interpreted and applied. He aims to show what liberalism now stands for and requires.

To some readers, life’s intrinsic value and personal responsibility may seem too abstract to yield definitive conclusions or to claim a moral consensus of any significance, especially since liberals and conservatives differ sharply about their meaning. But just as it matters for law and politics that Americans share a constitution even though they disagree about how to interpret it, so the recognition of common moral principles may help in clarifying and even resolving political disagreements. Rights, Dworkin argues, have a foundation beneath the law, in the conditions of human dignity, and to find the basis of public values in personal dignity rather than, say, in utilitarian principles of collective welfare is a choice of some consequence. For Dworkin, each principle of human dignity implies a group of rights whose meaning depends on considering the two principles of life’s intrinsic value and personal responsibility together. To say that every life is intrinsically valuable is to say that each life is equally valuable and, therefore, that every person living under a government has a right to be treated by that government as an equal. This is the basis of the right to equal concern that many have regarded as the sole ruling imperative in Dworkin’s political philosophy. But here he gives personal responsibility coequal status, and argues that it too gives rise to rights. To say that each of us is personally responsible for defining and realizing value in our lives implies respect for the individual liberties that make fulfillment of that responsibility possible, among them freedom of conscience and expression and personal freedoms including the right to choose our occupation and spouse. The principles qualify each other. The obligations that the right to equal concern imposes on government depend on the principle of personal responsibility. Although people are not responsible for circumstances beyond their control, they are responsible for their choices, and respect for personal responsibility therefore sets limits on how far government ought to go in pursuing equality. Dworkin’s conception of personal responsibility rules out efforts to compensate people for choices that turn out badly.

  1. 1

    See Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America (Pearson Longman, 2005; second edition, 2006).

  2. 2

    Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 8.

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