Viewpoint

How political intolerance is destroying our country – and how we can fix it

As Donald Trump promises to restrict freedom of the press as president, liberals justify restricting free speech.
As Donald Trump promises to restrict freedom of the press as president, liberals justify restricting free speech. The Washington Post

If there is any unifying theme in our degraded political discourse, it is the belief that the other ideological side is mainly responsible for degrading the discourse. We are seeing a perfectly symmetrical belief that the provocations of politics are asymmetrical.

This might be humorous if it did not undermine democracy. Donald Trump supporters found a candidate willing to speak the language of conservative talk radio, even though he is no conservative. No more of that politically correct rubbish about civility, mutual respect, reasoned argument, honesty, policy sophistication, ethical rectitude and decency. What we need is strength. The presumptive Republican nominee is running on a promise to restrict the press’s ability to criticize him.

On some progressive college campuses, restricting the speech and associational rights of people you don’t like is a school-sanctioned sport. It is hard to throw a dead hedgehog without hitting an academic who argues morality is a linguistic game, or a neural epiphenomenon, or a strategy of class privilege, and that politics and everything else is a matter of power.

There seem to be a lot of people nowadays who view the purpose of politics as stigmatizing and silencing your enemies.

Into this polluted political atmosphere comes a different sort of academic. John Inazu, a Washington University professor and constitutional scholar, has written a book titled “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.” Inazu is proposing a cleanup effort to make public life more pleasant and productive.

This involves, first, a legal order that is genuinely pluralistic – a liberal society willing to accommodate non-liberal communities within it. People have a right, in Inazu’s view, to associate in groups, and those groups – even the ones we don’t like very much – should (generally) be treated the same in public forums, except when they plot mayhem. Inazu defines “public forums” as everything from access to the sidewalk for protests to tax breaks for nonprofits.

This is easy to accept in theory. In practice, Inazu says, it means we must “endure strange and even offensive ways of life.” For some, this may be a Catholic or Muslim religious institution that bars women from certain offices, or a transgender advocacy organization at a conservative public university.

What is frightening about Inazu’s account is how weak the foundations are in current legal interpretation for this type of generous pluralism. The Supreme Court has delivered contradictory guidance. Inazu would prefer to see pluralism protected by the forgotten right of peaceful assembly. But, as it stands, some of the most important theories and practices of our democracy, argues the author, have “almost no constitutional protection under current doctrine.”

The second part of Inazu’s book advocates for a cultural order that upholds pluralism through the practice of democratic virtues such as tolerance, humility and patience. Here the charge has come that the author is being naive.

Inazu answers, calmly, that we should not overestimate the bitterness of our cultural conflict. People with strong differences still manage to find a “modest unity” in pursuit of local, concrete goals – building a park – as well as to model friendship across ideological divisions.

On the other hand, we should not downplay the stakes. Tolerance, humility and patience are not the ornaments of a democracy; they are its essence. They allow us to live at peace amid deep disagreement. Those on the right or the left who undermine pluralism and dismiss democratic values are bullies. And there is no real freedom lived at their mercy.

Email: michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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