The rise of anti-pluralism is the challenge of our time

Will our differences be our destruction?

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, -slav-/iStock, IMOGI/iStock)

Since Donald Trump won the GOP nomination and then the presidency in 2016, the political tendency he represents has been called many things. At first many labeled it populism. Then, with the blessing of the president and his advisers, commentators fastened onto nationalism. Meanwhile, his political opponents have insisted all along on describing it as an expression of white supremacy and perhaps even the leading edge of fascism.

There's some truth in all of these terms, but I think New York Times columnist David Brooks does better when he describes the political mood of the moment as "anti-pluralism," which he defines as a reaction against "the diversity, fluidity, and interdependent nature of modern life." As Brooks goes on to explain, "Anti-pluralists yearn for a return to clear borders, settled truths, and stable identities."

That definition is useful because it captures one important aspect of what has driven people into Trump's arms and helped to transform the Republican Party during his presidency. It also helps to explain parallel trends around the country and the world — antiliberal authoritarianism in Europe and Latin America, the ideology of Islamic jihadists, and even the core insights of Catholic critics of liberal modernity, including philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, historian Brad Gregory, and Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, as well as their admirers at First Things and American Affairs.

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These disparate movements and thinkers are united in finding the social pluralism fostered by liberal political and economic arrangements to be inimical to human flourishing.

How should pluralists respond to the allegation that their commitments produce a society in which large numbers of people feel spiritually homeless, economically disadvantaged, culturally marginalized, underemployed and unfulfilled in their work, and so consumed by loneliness that they can find momentary solace only in drugs, pornography, video games, or the dopamine hit that comes from engaging with social media on their phones?

Here Brooks offers little guidance. Following the lead of many other members of a centrist establishment that finds itself increasingly under siege, Brooks seems to recognize that he needs to provide a normative argument in defense of his pluralism and yet ends up claiming only that anti-pluralists are guilty of living in "a fantasy, a world that shines in their imaginations but never existed in real life."

That may well be true, but political fantasies can be potent — and sometimes those in their grip reach political power. That means that pluralists need to do more than simply redescribe in positive, smiley-faced terms the very aspects of modern life that the anti-pluralists decry.

What should the pluralists say instead? It depends on who the anti-pluralist is. If he's an Islamist terrorist hellbent on committing mass murder in order to advance his political aims, the pluralist should say nothing and simply do everything possible to thwart his plans. The same is true for lone wolf white supremacist sociopaths like, apparently, the El Paso shooter. Once the line of political violence has been crossed, the time for talking has passed.

But thankfully, such extremism remains quite rare. It's far more common for anti-pluralists to show up at a Trump rally and enjoy a fleeting sense of solidarity with the president and other members of the crowd — and far more common than that for them to succumb to hopelessness and depression, with many giving in to the fleeting pleasures promised by technology and chemicals. At the high end of the socioeconomic scale, anti-pluralists might read or write essays decrying the spiritual desolation of life in a pluralistic society lacking any overarching orientation to the highest good.

Frustration and even anger about certain aspects of our pluralistic lives need not issue in acts of violent insurrection.

To those willing to talk and capable of engaging in an argument, the first thing pluralists can offer is a series of concessions grounded in empathy: It is not always entirely unreasonable to be unhappy with the consequences of pluralism. It may well be that, for some, human flourishing is incompatible with the "diversity, fluidity, and interdependent nature of modern life."

It shouldn't be considered unacceptable or illegitimate for people to want to live out their lives in stable and even relatively homogeneous communities. To find and keep work with a decent wage in the towns and villages where they were raised and wish to remain. To be free of the need to get retrained in new technologies and skills several times in the space of a lifetime just to put food on the table. To be free of the expectation that they will have to fundamentally reconceive how they think about gender just a few short years after they had to fundamentally reconceive how they thought about marriage, just a few short years after they had to fundamentally reconceive how they thought about ethnicity and race and relations between the sexes.

The public policy correlate to these empathetic concessions might involve the fashioning of an industrial policy designed to protect industries on which communities rely. That would amount to a deliberate decision on the part of policymakers to trade some aggregate growth for a modicum of ground-level socioeconomic stability in places far from the wealthiest (but also highly stratified) regions of the country. A productive response to the anti-pluralists might also involve backing off on the progressive insistence that every corner of the United States must affirm the moral outlook of its most liberal cities under penalty of social and economic censure.

This second item is especially important because it would demonstrate that progressives are willing to put their proudly proclaimed pluralism where their mouths are. Ask a progressive why she cheers on a lawsuit seeking to bankrupt an evangelical Protestant baker for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding, and she'll likely talk about the scourge of bigotry and discrimination and explain that pluralism demands that they be stamped out everywhere they exist.

But, as paradoxical as it may seem, that conviction is itself another form of anti-pluralism, albeit one that believes itself to be acting in the name of pluralism.

A better and more genuinely liberal way of affirming pluralism is to recognize that a diverse society several hundred million strong will be marked by serious, sometimes deep, disagreements about the highest goods of human life. Progressives have no problem acknowledging and accepting this, and pronouncing the dignity of these differences, when it concerns people who are non-white, especially when they are non-Christian, and even when their metaphysical convictions entail a rejection of pluralism. But when it comes to the distinctive outlook of, say, conservative white Christians, that acceptance and even affirmation of difference vanishes in an instant. Now the power of the state must be marshaled to force these anti-pluralists to embrace the comprehensive moral outlook of progressivism, with those who resist shamed and penalized into submission.

If pluralism really is our ineradicable reality and a social and moral good worth defending (it is both), then it needs to be applied equally to all — to those who substantively affirm pluralism as well as to those who do not (as long as they refrain from incitement to, and acts of, political violence).

Among its other benefits, extending pluralism equally to all just might have the effect of giving parts of the country more resistant to pluralism the time to catch up to changes in the broader culture (though there's no guarantee that they will). Pluralists may wish the anti-pluralists would get with the program sooner, but pushing too hard and too fast has a way of generating a backlash — precisely the kind of backlash that is roiling the nation (and much of the world) at this very moment.

It may well be smarter, not to mention more consistent with pluralist principles, to back off and stop giving the anti-pluralists fuel for their fires. Doing so just might help to de-escalate the conflicts that threaten to politically empower the anti-pluralists, not just to defend themselves, but to impose their holistic and exclusionary vision on the country as a whole.

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