David Brooks

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.
I think I detest Donald Trump as much as the next guy, but Trumpian populism does represent some very legitimate values: the fear of imperial overreach; the need to preserve social cohesion amid mass migration; the need to protect working-class wages from the pressures of globalization.
The struggle against Trump the man is a good-versus-bad struggle between democracy and narcissistic authoritarianism, but the struggle between liberalism and Trumpian populism is a wrestling match over how to balance legitimate concerns.

Berlin had a word for people who think there is one right solution to our problems and that therefore we must do whatever is necessary in order to impose it: monists. Berlin was born in pre-revolutionary Russia and came of age in the 1930s, when two monist philosophies were on the march, Marxism and fascism. They claimed to be all-explaining ideologies that promised an ultimate end to political problems.
Today, monism takes the form of those on the left or right who see all political conflicts as good and evil fights between the oppressors and the oppressed. The left describes these conflicts as the colonizer versus the colonized. The Trumpian right describes these conflicts as the coastal elites, globalists or cultural Marxists. But both sides hold up the illusion that we can solve our problems if we just crush the bad people.
We pluralists resist that kind of Manichaean moralism. We begin with the premise that most political factions in a democratic society are trying to pursue some good end. The right question is not who is good or evil. The right question is what balance do we need to strike in these circumstances?
In the 1980s, I thought the chief worry was economic sclerosis and that Reagan/Thatcher policies, including tax cuts, were the right response. Now I think the chief worry is inequality and social fragmentation, and I think the Biden policies, including tax increases, are the right response.
We pluralists believe that conflict is an eternal part of public life — we’re always going to be struggling over how to balance competing goods — but it is conflict of a limited sort, a debate among patriots, not a death match between the children of light and the children of darkness. In our view, Congress is supposed to be the place where these kinds of balances are struck, the place where different sorts of representatives meet to weigh interests and strike compromises. It’s not supposed to be a place where representatives destroy compromises so they can go on TV taking some ideologically pure stance.
Pluralism is a creed that induces humility (even among us pundits, who are resistant to the virtue). A pluralist never believes that he is in possession of the truth, and that all others live in error. The pluralist is slow to assert certainty, knowing that even those people who strenuously denounce him are probably partially right. “I am bored by reading people who are allies,” Berlin once confessed.
Berlin went to strenuous lengths to argue that pluralism is not relativism. It’s not the belief that we all get to have our own truth. It’s the belief that objective truths exist, but unfortunately, in political life, they don’t fit into one frictionless whole.
He was more interesting when writing about specific people — like Machiavelli or Churchill — than when writing about abstract ideas. That captures something deeply humanistic about his worldview: that at the center there is always the searcher, struggling with ironies and incongruities, always trying empathetically to understand other minds, always trying to keep his head while others are losing theirs.
Berlin argued that if there were a final set of solutions, “a final pattern in which society could be arranged,” then “liberty would become a sin.” But there are no final right answers to political questions, so history remains a conversation that has no end.
Many American voters reward politicians who offer them a holy war. If there were more pluralists, we’d elect more people interested in gradually and steadily making life better.

The New York Times