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Talking Policy: Olivia Newman on Liberalism

In countries around the world, liberalism is increasingly under threat from the growing trend toward authoritarianism and deep social polarization. World Policy Journal spoke with Olivia Newman about her book, Liberalism in Practice: The Psychology and Pedagogy of Public Reason, and her prescription to fortify pluralistic liberal democracies. Drawing from recent psychological research about the multiplicity of individual characters, Newman discusses the psychological feature that allows us to hold different moral stances in the private to public domain—and how it can be used teach the important value of political compromise.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You’ve stated that a citizen’s acceptance of majority rule is not sufficient for establishing a legitimate polity. Can you elaborate on this?

OLIVIA NEWMAN: I think a lot of people assume that majority rule will suffice; that even if they lost in this election cycle, there is always another chance; and that as long as the institutions are robust and strong, they will have another opportunity to try to win over others. But a lot of people in the U.S. and elsewhere feel as though they won’t have an equal chance at an opportunity to get their way—that they are permanent minorities. They're being marginalized and minimized in the political process, either because the media is not presenting them fairly or accurately, or because there is something blocking them from being effective politically. So from their perspective, the deck is always stacked against them. When more and more people start to feel like this, it destabilizes the legitimacy of the system, because legitimacy is just a function of whether or not people believe their governing institutions are fair. If enough people start to question that, the legitimacy itself is at stake and that can be very damaging.

WPJ: Could you explain the role of the unique feature of human psychology you describe, the pluralistic character of individuals, in establishing a liberal democracy?

ON: We are all inclined to think of ourselves as coherent and consistent personalities who are more or less the same from one day to the next and across experiences. We have a lot of psychological biases that help form this general sense that we're coherent. But I think more and more psychological evidence and research in cognitive neuroscience suggest that we are much more differentiated and fragmented than we like to admit. We weave together a narrative that tries to pull all of these pieces together into something that makes sense. That is an ongoing project in our minds, and we tend to focus on that narrative rather than on all the parts we have to pull together or the things we have to ignore in order to achieve that coherence. I would suggest that we ought to look at the fragmentation in our character as a source of strength, rather than a weakness we need to overcome, because it suggests that we are flexible, we are adaptable, and we can operate under different circumstances with different groups of people in ways that might be uniquely adapted to that particular situation. That doesn't mean we're  hypocritical or we go whichever way the wind blows us. We have the power to adapt to and engage in different kinds of circumstances. It’s something we can exploit and encourage in the political sphere as a way to work with other people who seem very different from us initially, but maybe if we dig deep enough we can find a way to identify with or relate to them.

WPJ: You argue in your book that we can be good liberal citizens in the public domain while also committing to different personal beliefs in the private domain. What if an individual or a group doesn’t see a divide between public and private life, but rather sees public life as an extension of private beliefs?

ON: In pragmatic terms, there will always be a subset of the population that thinks in exactly the way you described—that there is no differentiation. To whatever degree they have to suffer that differentiation now, it is only because they are losing politically. But if they could win politically, they could totally erase that distinction by ensuring their private beliefs become public. My view is that we should try to do what we can to minimize the number of people who think this way in the least invasive way we can—by trying to win them over to the idea of public reason. At some point, the hard truth is that there is not much more that can be said to whoever is left, because if the tables were turned they would have no concern for how their private views affect other people. I'm not comfortable saying we can dismiss them out of hand—I think we should try to engage those people as much as we can and show them the benefits of productive engagement. But in some cases, we have to move on.

WPJ: Could you expand on your interpretation of public reason and how you imagine it could be employed or taught?

ON: When I think about public reason I'm working off the conception from John Rawls [the political philosopher], although I try to bring it down to a level that is easier to implement. It begins with willingness to compromise. It goes beyond that, but even that first step is important. In politics today, willingness to compromise is seen more and more as a weakness than as a source of strength and political productivity. But at the very least we need willingness to compromise, not just because it is the only way to get things done, but also because in substantive terms there usually is some common ground that can be found. Beyond that, there is a principled reason to work with other people even when you disagree with them and try to find solutions that can be mutually satisfying: a simple recognition that they are people worthy of respect and dignity, and we all have one life to live together. It is important to come up with solutions that satisfy everyone. 

WPJ: In your book you state, "we are either free or we agree, but we simply cannot expect free people to agree." Could you explain your reasoning behind this statement?

ON: That's me trying to recapitulate what I believe to be the two defining features of liberalism as a body of political thought: the primacy of individual liberty and the centrality of the principle of consent of the governed. A government is legitimate when we can establish a government that is worthy of consent of its citizens. If we are genuinely free to live our lives the way we want, and have true freedom of thought and expression and religion, then we have to expect that we will also find different paths and views of the world as a result of that freedom. And so it will be hard, as I said before, to find total common ground. There is typically more of it than we admit, but we are never going to reach consensus if we have had the liberty, ability, and opportunity to each experience life in our own way. We will be different and diverse, sometimes in ways that run pretty deep, but we still need to figure out how to come up with laws that will govern all of us. As much as we can, we should establish the legitimacy of those rules by appealing to as many people as possible. It's a difficult task to set up a liberal society that satisfies both of those principles, and that's why I lean so heavily on the idea of character differentiation and the ways in which we can accept certain kinds of rules and principles in public that we might not be willing to embrace in private. That may be the only way to come close to both of those ideals.

WPJ: Looking toward current events, where in some cases countries are becoming more illiberal through democratic means, how do you reconcile a group of people consenting to illiberal government?

ON: This is a very difficult question that many different societies are grappling with right now, to different extents. To what degree do we have to respect democratic decision making if the outcome of those decisions is chipping away at democratic and liberal principles? Once a society has gotten to the point where there are real numbers behind illiberal or undemocratic principles, the solution may sometimes be institutional, in terms of hoping that the courts can bolster values and institutions until the democratic will can be built back up. But I think a lot of that labor has to happen in political culture to rebuild the will to mend those relationships. 

Looking at the American example, we've reached a moment in our political culture when it seems that partisanship and polarization themselves have become more important to many citizens than the ideological content of those differences. It's often not the policy differences that matter—it's the very principle of refusing to bend or compromise with some “other.” I don't see an easy fix to that. It would have to involve rebuilding those norms in society, in schools, and in various kinds of institutions to make people aware again that those with whom they disagree are still worthy of their respect. I've seen data from Pew Research suggesting that over 60 percent of Americans believe that the political party someone belongs to is an important indicator of their character. That to me is a very alarming prospect—that over half of the population is judging whether someone is a good person solely based on partisanship.

WPJ: When you talk of methods—through institutions and education—to return to this more accepting and pluralistic society, what exactly do you have in mind?

ON: The job is somewhat easier in schools because we are dealing with a relatively captive audience of students, and educators can be more heavy-handed in designing curricula and pedagogies that will help establish these norms. It can involve open classroom discussion, which is challenging for teachers who may not want to invite controversy in the classroom or offend anyone, and they might not have training to manage those kinds of discussions. One thing to do is support teacher development and help them become more comfortable and capable facilitating productive conversations across different groups. Another method can be more explicit civic programs where students work in their local city governments, work on solving problems in the community, work with different groups of students, or become involved in the decision-making processes in their schools. While I recognize there are real limits to how far that can go, in most cases these programs can go beyond what we see today, and that can provide an opportunity for students to practice solving problems with people they disagree with. I think the most important feature of politics in general is the process of solving collective problems for the benefit of the group. Any kind of opportunity to practice and to see those skills modeled in an effective, productive way is an important part of developing the ability and willingness to solve difficult political problems with people who are different from us. 

For adults, I think it is more challenging to find those opportunities, although we see some examples in civil society. One of my favorite examples is from 2010. There was a project called America Speaks Our Budget, Our Economy, and they held a town hall event all around the country on the same day. They invited volunteer participants to come and talk about potential changes in the national budget and how to prioritize items in the budget. Over half of the people who participated reported changing their minds on partisan issues as a result of having a sustained conversation with a politically diverse group of fellow citizens. Those kinds of opportunities can be really transformative, but they are expensive and time-consuming. Still, that is where you can plant seeds to get people past political labels and assumptions about members of the other party, and instead encourage them to start talking about how to solve problems together—because I think that is something that everyone wants.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Nicholas Cappetta]

[Photo courtesy of Olivia Newman]

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