The Cure for What Ails Our Democracy

America is economically thriving but politically dysfunctional. We have the material, technological and military resources to remain the world’s leading superpower, but the current Congress is unable to make decisions about basic issues, like how to fix the immigration system or what role we should play in the world.

What do we have to do to rectify this situation? Well, a lot of things, but one of them is this: More of us have to embrace an idea, a way of thinking that is fundamental to being a citizen in a democracy.

That idea is known as value pluralism. It’s most associated with the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and is based on the premise that the world doesn’t fit neatly together. We all want to pursue a variety of goods, but unfortunately, these goods can be in tension with one another. For example, we may want to use government to make society more equal, but if we do, we’ll have to expand state power so much that it will impinge on some people’s freedom, which is a good we also believe in.

As Damon Linker, who teaches a course on Berlin and others at the University of Pennsylvania, noted recently, these kinds of tensions are common in our political lives: loyalty to a particular community versus universal solidarity with all humankind; respect for authority versus individual autonomy; social progress versus social stability. I’d add that these kinds of tensions are rife within individuals as well: the desire to be enmeshed in community versus the desire to have the personal space to do what you want; the desire to stand out versus the desire to fit in; the cry for justice versus the cry for mercy.

If we choose one good, we are sacrificing a piece of another. The tragic fact about the human condition is that many choices involve loss. Day after day, the trick is figuring out what you are willing to sacrifice for the more important good.

Sure, there are some occasions when the struggle really is good versus evil: World War II, the civil rights movement, the Civil War. As Lincoln argued, if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong. But these occasions are rarer than we might think.

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