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the Complete Review
the complete review - law / politics

Is Democracy Possible Here ?

Ronald Dworkin

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To purchase Is Democracy Possible Here ?

Title: Is Democracy Possible Here ?
Author: Ronald Dworkin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 164 pages
Availability: Is Democracy Possible Here ? - US
Is Democracy Possible Here ? - UK
Is Democracy Possible Here ? - Canada
Is Democracy Possible Here ? - India
  • Principles for a New Political Debate
  • Based on Dworkin's 2005 Scribner Lectures

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Our Assessment:

B : admirable ambition, but parts far from convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
First Things . 4/2007 Peter Berkowitz
The NY Observer . 18/9/2006 Glenn C. Altschuler

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is much to recommend in Dworkin's short book, which weaves together philosophical themes and political concerns that have preoccupied him for more than thirty years. His quest to discover the common ground he and his fellow citizens actually share is admirable. (...) Yet the structure and execution of Dworkin's argument call into question his success in restating a position in accord with the best in the liberal tradition." - Peter Berkowitz, First Things

  • "It’s a noble aspiration. And Is Democracy Possible Here? is a perceptive and penetrating book. Mr. Dworkin’s distinction between a tolerant religious community and a tolerant secular community, and his argument about balancing security against honor and not against rights, should be required reading for every American. (...) Most Americans may well assent to Mr. Dworkin’s two principles. But they will differ, often profoundly, about definitions, applications, and the relationship of one principle to the other." - Glenn C. Altschuler, The New York Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       "American politics are in an appalling state" is Ronald Dworkin's opening observation in Is Democracy Possible Here ?, and his book is an attempt to address what he sees as a fundamental failure -- essentially, that Americans have practically given up on actual substantive political debate, reducing politics to a sort of war dominated by emotion and sound bites, with a winner-take-all attitude prevailing. He accepts that the nation has been polarized, divided into two camps, 'red' and 'blue', Republican and Democrat, with both sides refusing to make much of an effort to find common ground.
       Dworkin believes there is a lot of common ground, and he proposes two "shared principles of sufficient substance to make a national political debate possible and profitable". It's a sensible enough idea: the current political divide, allowing for little compromise, is in many ways artificial -- and drawn to its extremes. Rather than blindly following a party line in all regards, it would be better to consider the implications and consequences of policies on a different basis -- such as fundamental, shared principles. And that's what Dworkin sets out to do, offering his arguments for how a variety of touchy subjects -- torture ! gay marriage ! taxes ! -- would be dealt with under his principled regime.
       The two principles of human dignity he offers are the foundation of his entire argument:

These principles hold, first, that each human life is intrinsically and equally valuable and, second, that each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realizing value in his or her own life.
       They are reasonable enough and certainly seem a good foundation for any political debate. And Dworkin immediately puts them to good use: Is Democracy Possible Here ? ostensibly shows that if we agree on these principles, certain conclusions follow. Dworkin acknowledges upfront where this leads (him) to:
the political opinions that I believe follow from our shared principles will strike readers as in fact a very deep shade of blue. I do not mean they are all traditional liberal opinions; indeed some of them will not seem familiar at all. (...) It is part of my purpose in this book to state 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. The liberalism I offer is what, in my view, liberalism means and requires now.
       So the question is, of course, how convincing is Dworkin ? Somewhat disappointingly: not so much.
       The first set of issues he addresses is 'Terrorism and Human Rights', where he argues that specifically torture but also other policies of the jr. Bush administration in response to the post-September 2001 situation are clearly at odds with the principles he proposes. Certainly, there seems no question that the treatment of a variety of classes of prisoners taken by the Americans in the so-called 'war on terror' violates Dworkin's principles; regardless of how tortured the official American government definition of 'torture' is, it's approach clearly falls outside anything that is (inter)nationally acceptable.
       Dworkin doesn't -- or shouldn't have much trouble making this case, but he undermines it with several odd examples and conclusions. He slips in a few paragraphs on a similarly controversial example, capital punishment, but, though personally opposed to it, finds and offers "two distinct sets of belief that might be thought to reconcile human dignity with death as punishment" -- essentially the arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent and that it is an acceptable form of retribution. He's not a big fan of either idea, but he thinks there's enough to them to make the question of whether or not capital punishment violates human rights "at best inconclusive as a baseline matter."
       We can't imagine any greater affront to human dignity than the taking of a life, and while there are circumstances when it is clearly acceptable (self-defense (though given how absurdly broadly-defined that term is now, one has to add: in certain circumstances)) it's hard to see how capital punishment can be considered justifiable on these grounds by anyone who believes in human dignity. (If, like the scum sentenced to die, you don't think human dignity is a foremost principle, then, of course, the death penalty is easily justifiable on these grounds -- but Dworkin's premise is that we agree on the fundamentals.)
       Worse yet, accepting that deterrence and retribution may be valid excuses for supporting capital punishment opens a nasty can of worms -- where, after all, do deterrence and retribution stop, and why shouldn't other forms of otherwise undignified actions slip in with the same excuses ? He finds torture the easier case than capital punishment, but the opening he's left for excuses is hard to overlook. In particular, he appears to base his claim against it on a balancing act between the affront to human dignity that torture obviously is and the possible reasons/benefits that might accrue from its use, arguing that we simply aren't at a stage where torture might be justified. The example of "the ticking nuclear bomb in Manhattan" which might justify torture if it would lead to information allowing it to be disarmed is simply dismissed because it's so extreme, and for Dworkin:
there is no reason yet to think that the danger approaches certainty or that our violations of human rights are well calculated to end or even significantly reduce that danger.
       He may well be right, but the fear-mongering jr. Bush administration sees (and tells) it completely differently -- and given both their authority and the limited amount of information they make available to the public, it's not surprising that many would agree with them (better safe than sorry, etc.). It is those in power that decide whether to torture or not, and they are at least correct in arguing that, being better informed, they are in a better position to make the judgement call. (Though the jr. Bush administration's horrific record of poor judgement suggests at the very least that they need some work in making those correctly .....)
       From terrorism Dworkin moves on to 'Religion and Dignity'. He notes that obviously religion plays a significant role in American society, and informs many attitudes on policy. His basic question is what that role should be, boiled down essentially to a choice between being a tolerant religious nation, or a tolerant secular nation that accommodates religion.
       Not surprisingly, he finds the tolerant secular model the obvious choice, given his proposed principles -- and it's a convincing argument. Where it gets more interesting is when he tries to apply it to some of the hot-button issues of the day, such as the teaching of 'creationism' (and variations thereof) in public schools. In fact, his short section on 'Science and Religion' doesn't even have to fall back on his principles or whether or not the state is secular or religious: as he notes, there's simply no place for 'creationism' (and variations thereof) in the science classroom (though he wouldn't mind seeing it taught elsewhere -- such as in a Political Controversy class he'd like to see in schools).
       He also tackles questions of 'Allegiance and Ceremony' (from the pledge of allegiance to displays on public property of everything from the ten commandments to Christmas trees), none of which he takes very seriously: they're so harmless, he suggests, that we can put up with them. This rather easy dismissal seems a bit too easy: just because symbols and actions aren't taken very seriously and don't achieve their ostensible purpose (Dworkin suggests that for kids the pledge of allegiance doesn't have "the authority even of the solemn vows they make in the playground") doesn't mean they are harmless. And it's unclear why that, if that can serve as an excuse in these (admittedly silly) cases it can't elsewhere.
       Dworkin also turns to 'Marriage' -- specifically "gay marriage" --, where he thinks there's no excuse for not permitting homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals. He acknowledges that marriage is "a unique and immensely valuable cultural resource", but it is also an evolving concept and one that can't be defined solely on a single (religious) basis. His case, as far as it goes, is solid enough -- but it hardly goes far enough. Unique and valuable it may be, but marriage is also a very odd institution -- a legal contract that comes with all sorts of rights and obligations, as well as (often) a religious union, among other things. Surely the marriage debate should be considered much more fundamentally -- starting with the question of what the state's role in it should be in the first (or last) place. (The state has an interest in, for example, fostering the creation and maintenance of family-units, so it arguably should have at least some role, but surely there's a lot that has to be questioned.) Marriage is very often still also a religious institution, with a variety of religions setting specific limitations (or permitting variations) that extend far beyond what civil law allows (from the Catholic ban on divorce to polygamy and child-brides) further complicating matters. It's not to say that Dworkin isn't on the right track, but he doesn't seem to go nearly far enough in a debate that is nowhere near as straightforward as he makes it out to be in these few pages.
       The next section tackles 'Taxes and Legitimacy', an interesting approach to questions of economic fairness. Relying on his two principles, he proposes even a tax theory, as well as a more general discussion of economic justice. It's basically a challenge to conservative policies; in some ways this may well be the most fruitful area of discussion of those he raises: as he notes the current system (and the current trend, under the jr. Bush administration) has a lot to answer for, and while 'fairness' is difficult to achieve (and it's very definition something that can be argued about) it's clear that, under Dworkin's principles, there is a fundamental unfairness that needs to be addressed.
       Finally, Dworkin addresses the political system as a whole, wondering 'Is Democracy Possible ?' A useful quick challenge to simple majority rule, and offering a sketch of 'partnership democracy', Dworkin describes what he believes democracy should be like, pointing also specifically to current American threats to it (or what is perceived as such -- which also tends to vary, depending on political leanings). He makes a few suggestions as well, from term limits for Supreme Court justices to political education and election reform -- suggestions which are, for the most part, legally problematic (i.e. would be very difficult to institute). Dworkin notes the legal objections to, for example, his election reform suggestions (which largely fall foul of freedom of speech guarantees) but his claim that as a matter of fundamental fairness and principle election reform along such lines is necessary is hard to disagree with (regardless of political orientation).

       Is Democracy Possible Here ? hopes to bring a common denominator to political debate, a basis from which it is possible to engage in actual political debate (as opposed to what one is generally confronted with now). Dworkin's two principles are sound enough as a starting point -- it's hard to argue with them, though some may believe additional ones are required. But if we can agree on these, then -- so Dworkin -- we should at least be on the same page in our political debate, and we can address issues from a common starting point. It sounds sensible enough, yet even (or especially ?) in the examples Dworkin provides proves problematic. On matters such as abortion (easily dismissed by Dworkin because of his views on foetal rights (which he has written about at greater length elsewhere)) his principles could well be differently applied (define foetus differently and suddenly it's a different problem). Elsewhere, from torture and capital punishment to the pledge of allegiance in schools, Dworkin seems to be willing to bend his principles -- in some cases quite far. And while it's hard to find fault with most of his political reform suggestion, it's also hard not to see them as utopian (meaning also unlikely to be put into practise) -- worthy of bringing into the discussion, but so far removed from what is currently possible that they make the whole endeavour feel even more like simply wishful thinking.
       Worthy of discussion, and with a fundamentally sound approach (of trying to find a basis from which honest (and hopefully productive) debate can emerge), Is Democracy Possible Here ? is of some use and interest, but not always convincing in its arguments. Still, any debate is better than none, and if it gets readers and critics to think about the issues he's raised and the approaches he takes it will have done its job (or at least all that one can ask from it).

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Is Democracy Possible Here ?: Reviews: Ronald Dworkin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ronald Dworkin taught law and wrote many books; he lived 1931 to 2013.

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