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Once upon a time, Americans prided ourselves on our tolerance of difference. According to the story we told ourselves, we forged “one” people out of “many.” E pluribus unum. Unlike European nations with traditions of a single established religion, the United States separated church and state at the outset. As a result, we (eventually) became more willing to welcome different religious groups and tolerate a wider range of religions. Unlike European nations that rooted citizenship in blood or soil, we (eventually) became more willing to accept birthright citizenship, which means that anyone born in the United States is a citizen.

In recent years, however, that familiar story has come under sustained, even violent pressure. Now it is in danger of unraveling. Since the mid-1990s, Evangelical Christians and many conservative Catholics have mobilized over a variety of issues, including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Some have insisted vociferously that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” They aim to restore school prayer, and they want their version of biology and American history taught in schools. Many white Americans, and many men, have begun to challenge the wisdom of allowing nonwhites and women equal access to the privileges they once enjoyed exclusively. Opposition to affirmative action and support for forms of white nationalism, patriarchalism, and immigration restriction have become increasingly popular. These conflicts simmered after the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965), and Loving v. Virginia (1967) opened the door for desegregation, increased immigration, and interracial marriage. Since the decisions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the conflicts have threatened to boil over.

President Donald Trump has become the symbol of the latest battles in these culture wars. He first rose to national prominence by spearheading the stupefying “birtherism” movement, yet another reminder of the continuing vitality of American racism. On the basis of exactly no evidence, and in spite of the readily available birth certificate confirming that Obama was born in Honolulu’s Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital on August 4, 1961, Trump denied that the president was born in the United States. Evidently invigorated by the realization that bluster now provides a serviceable substitute for proof, candidate Trump launched an unlikely campaign for president premised on exaggerated claims and outright lies. He insisted that illegal immigration from Mexico constituted a crisis, even though it was declining. He insisted that The Wall was the solution, even though the stretches of the border with a wall have proven no less permeable than those without one. He branded Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists, even though the percentage of crimes committed by illegal immigrants is lower than that of native-born citizens. He conjured up an epidemic of late-term abortions, a problem to be solved by new legislation and new judges, even though, again, there was no evidence to sustain the claim. He trumpeted a familiar Republican charge that millions of people were voting illegally in U.S. elections, even though neither he nor anyone else could find examples.

Although it was well known that Trump’s own businesses had employed illegal immigrants and that he had supported abortion rights for decades, his hypocrisy seemed not to matter to the adoring crowds who flocked to his rallies to chant “build the wall” and “lock her up.” Those two vacuous mantras not only expressed his supporters’ fury but they also, and conveniently, sidestepped substantive issues of domestic and foreign policy about which Trump knew little and appeared to care less. His election to the presidency in 2016 was made possible by the mobilization of traditional Republican voters and the fact that many of those who had twice voted for Obama chose not to vote at all. Through his speeches and his tweets denigrating nonwhites, women, the press, and the ominous “elites” he held responsible for the nation’s ills, Trump signaled to many culturally and politically conservative Americans, both during the campaign and since, that they now had a friend in the White House. Neither Trump’s proud vulgarity, his notorious record as a swindler, his boasts that he had cheated on all three of his wives, nor his obvious disregard for the longstanding norms of political behavior mattered as much to those who voted for him as his empty promise to “make America great again.” Somehow.

A flurry of books has appeared since the 2016 election to demonstrate what the campaign had already made self-evident: the United States is more divided than ever. First off the mark were E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Their One Nation After Trump captured the outrage of many liberals and moderate conservatives in its subtitle, A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (2017). Greg Sargent of the Washington Post followed fast with An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of  Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics (2018), which detailed the strategies by which Republicans seized control of state legislatures, gerrymandered Congressional voting districts, and deployed various counter-majoritarian strategies that enabled them to seize control even when they lost the popular vote—as George W. Bush did in 2000 and Trump did in 2016. Michael Tomasky, editor of the journal Democracy, contributed If  You Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved (2019), which provides a wealth of evidence to explain the puzzling decline of comity and the rise, since the mid-1990s, of unprecedentedly bitter partisan rancor—unprecedented even in a nation in which partisan rancor has been the rule rather than the exception. That list could be expanded considerably, especially if one were to add the dozens of books that have poured from the presses of conservative publishers ever since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and of Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In short, it is well established that Americans are more divided over political and cultural issues today than they have been since the 1850s, the decade that culminated in the Civil War. Those of us unwilling to consider even the possibility that we might be replaying that script were taken aback when Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney turned chief accuser, predicted before the Congressional oversight committee on February 27, 2019, that the president would never accede to a peaceful transition of power were he to lose the 2020 election. Coming near the end of an eight-hour-long denunciation of his former boss as a racist, misogynist, lying conman who behaves more like a Mafia boss than a corporate executive, let alone President of the United States, that observation nevertheless provoked shudders. Have we, at long last, reached the point at which our divisions are so deep that one of the most crucial of all qualities in a democracy, the respect for the results of an election, can no longer be considered sacrosanct?


How can we expand the “circle of the we” to include those deemed unworthy of the mutual accountability that democratic citizens owe each other?

In the midst of all this chaos, with charges and countercharges flying furiously every day of every week, Jason A. Springs gives us a scholarly study of potentially constructive conflict. Many of us wring our hands over the findings of the Mueller report and tempers on all sides continue to rise as we await the next indictment, revelation, or outrage, Springs proposes that we reevaluate our longing for the resolution of our problems and consider instead the positive role that persistent conflict can play in democracy. Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society is a serious, provocative analysis of the roots of our divisions and an ambitious proposal for how such conflicts might productively be reframed. Skillfully marshaling materials from the academic disciplines of religion, moral philosophy, and studies of peace and reconciliation, Springs contends, in the words of his subtitle, that we should reconceptualize our “enemy” as our “adversary.” Is his imaginative, intriguing analysis worth wrestling with? Yes. Does he make good on his promise to show how our democracy can move forward through “healthy conflict”? I’m not so sure.

Springs begins with the tradition of American pragmatism. Why does democracy work, when it does work? John Dewey argued, according to Springs, that “democracy can be a form of government only because it is more basically a mode of spiritual and moral association among particular persons and groups.” If democracy is “first a tradition of mutual accountability, nondomination, and shared deliberation through discursive exchange,” problems arise when individuals or members of particular groups are understood to exist outside what Richard Rorty called “the circle of the we.” When some people, whether because of their race or ethnicity, their religion, or their sexual orientation, are considered unworthy of the respect accorded those within the community, what is to be done? How can we expand the “circle of the we” to include those deemed unworthy of the mutual accountability that democratic citizens owe each other?

Springs first considers two familiar examples from U.S. history: the antebellum contest over slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Although racism was widespread among white Americans, antislavery sentiment eventually spread to the point that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments extended the rights of citizens to former slaves. Even though the coming of Jim Crow restored white supremacy for almost a century, the equal rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s again raised the crucial question: Were African Americans at last to be included in the “circle of the we”? How did deeply ingrained racial attitudes change sufficiently in both cases? Generations of historians have lavished attention on both questions, but rather than drawing on that literature, Springs turns instead to different discourses in philosophy and literary studies.

Legend has it that Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe as the “little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Ever since the Civil War, commentators have emphasized the role of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in changing the attitudes of northern whites. Rorty argued that imaginative literature contributes more powerfully to changing hearts and minds than arguments from moral philosophy. Whereas universal, abstract principles fail to shake long-cherished cultural predilections, fiction can evoke affective responses strong enough to uproot even the most deeply ingrained prejudices. The literary critic Elaine Scarry took issue with that assessment. Drawing on a tradition that extends back to Aristotle, she argued instead that reading novels or attending plays merely invites us to see ourselves in another person’s shoes. Such an experience neither contributes to a lasting change in individual attitudes nor challenges social norms. The danger, in Springs’s words, is that literature and art encourage only “therapeutic voyeurism,” which might inspire a momentary emotional response but leaves intact whatever form of social injustice the novelist or playwright might have identified. If Rorty occasionally suggested that his “Enlightenment utopia” would be secure if only cruelty could give way to “niceness,” he failed to reckon with the prevailing norms of a culture in which “greed is good.” So pervasive is the twenty-first-century American orientation toward self-interest, Springs argues, that most individuals see no reason to worry about any other people, let alone other people who have long been considered unworthy of equal treatment. Even John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice has been lionized for decades because he made a convincing case for greater equality, envisioned individuals making judgments in “the original position” based entirely on calculations of their own self-interest. Only more potent weapons than those from literature or philosophy will level the walls of prejudice.

Beyond eliciting emotional responses, Springs argues that art and literature can contribute to social change only if they reveal the structural sources of injustice or violence and point toward the steps necessary to effect lasting change. He invokes William James’s classic Principles of Psychology to establish that changing habits requires conscious attention, deliberate choices, and recurring behavior. Combining “the sentimental encounter of moral imagination with the rigors of self-reflexive, habit-cultivating action” is hard work for an individual, even harder work for a culture. Where can we find the power we need to change our collective habits? Turning to the tradition of religious prophecy, Springs examines in detail the increasingly strident critiques issued in recent years by Cornel West, a self-styled radical Christian prophet. Like the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, West has argued that existing American democracy serves only to anesthetize the public and inhibit direct political engagement. To celebrate small-scale, spontaneous uprisings such as Occupy as more attractive alternatives to the uselessness of conventional politics, Springs concedes, runs the risk of romanticizing what can easily become directionless, routinized, and ineffective. No-holds-barred critiques of political leaders, such as West’s notorious characterizations of Barack Obama as a “house slave”—when what was needed was the unbowed defiance of the “field slave”—risks descending from responsible criticism toward “unhinged hatred.” It also shows little understanding of how politics actually works.

After showing the dangers courted by prophets who indulge their anger but fail to combine it with love and self-reflection, Springs discusses the ideas of an unlikely trio: Michel Foucault, Charles Taylor, and Rorty’s former student and colleague Robert Brandom, now the best-known American pragmatist philosopher. Despite Foucault’s decades-long campaign to expose the ways in which the disciplinary regimes of modernity structure individuals’ autonomy, at the end of his life he cleared out a space for limited “self-creation” within the constraints he had identified. A better alternative, Springs argues, can be found by combining Brandom’s concept of  “expressive freedom” with Charles Taylor’s communitarian critique of the hyper-individualism of Foucault’s final writings. Brandom offers as the normative standard whether a culture enables all individuals to innovate, i.e., to transform existing vocabularies through their creative action. To escape Rorty’s telling critique of Brandom’s “pseudo-aristocratic condescension and ivory-tower aestheticism,” Springs invokes (as Taylor and Brandom do) the venerable Hegelian idea of  “mutual recognition.” Only within communities, Springs insists, can freedom operate as anything more than self-indulgence.


Those who refuse to compromise, who refuse to be satisfied when their challenge to the status quo is “tolerated,” are often those who shift the gears of history.

In Part Two of Healthy Conflict, Springs moves beyond the analysis of competing philosophical ideas to the heart of his argument: How can we convert our contemporaries to an ideal of nondomination? How do we eradicate our culture’s willingness to condone and perpetuate injustice and violence? His answer takes him beyond the familiar arguments advanced by pluralists for decades. Thinkers ranging from Anglo-American liberals such as Rawls to Hegelians such as Dewey, Taylor, and Jürgen Habermas have offered variations on a common theme, which Springs labels “accommodationist.” From this perspective, the members of diverse cultures can make peace with each other if everybody accepts the norm of an open, tolerant, pluralist society, a society that makes room for—accommodates—many different ideas and forms of belief and behavior. In the formula preferred by liberals ever since John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we must tolerate everything except that which is intolerant. Because there are no eternal truths, we should be willing to submit all of our beliefs to scrutiny and defend them, with reasons, before the court of public opinion.

The problem with liberal pluralism, as Springs points out, is that it is premised on the assumption that if everyone accepts its conditions, as they should, then all disagreements are, in principle at least, capable of resolution. Once we sit down, face to face, and talk through any controversy, we will find our way toward reconciliation, or at the very least an arrangement that all of us can accept. Springs challenges that assumption. Following the Belgian-born political theorist Chantal Mouffe, he suggests that an attractive alternative to liberal pluralism or deliberative democracy can be found in the ancient idea of “agonistic politics.” To be in society, from this perspective, is to be locked inescapably in conflict. Thus it is futile to look toward resolving disagreements or reconciling opponents. But even Mouffe takes refuge in Wittgenstein’s notion of a “form of life”; she contends that democracy requires acceptance of provisional “rules of the game” that stipulate allowing one’s antagonist to survive if she loses an argument or an election. Such an approach, Springs insists, still restrains contestation with certain boundaries that implicitly privilege the status quo.

Resurrecting an argument advanced by Walt Whitman in his “Democratic Vistas,” made familiar in the late 1960s by Herbert Marcuse (at the time the darling of many members of the New Left on both sides of the Atlantic), and later elaborated by Alasdair MacIntyre, Springs observes that the ideal of liberal pluralism aims to suppress conflict rather than resolve it. In After Virtue, MacIntyre wrote that tolerance “imposes a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus.” When one of the parties in a conflict conceives of her convictions not as opinion or prejudice but Truth, she will not be content to be tolerated. She will want fundamental changes that make her way of seeing the world not one option among many but the only acceptable option. MacIntyre even suggested a step that we might want to reconsider in the wake of the abomination at Mother Emanuel in Charleston and the ugliness of the alt-right’s demonstration in Charlottesville. Perhaps the time has come to adopt a policy toward racism akin to that instituted in Germany toward Nazism and Holocaust deniers after World War II, a policy not of free speech but of zero tolerance. But that is not Springs’s prescription.

Healthy Conflict addresses several of the issues currently roiling American culture, including racial equality, economic redistribution, civics and school prayer, Islamophobia, and abortion. Springs devotes a chapter to the strategy adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King was correct to target white moderates who called for patience and condemned civil disobedience as unnecessarily disruptive. Police Chief Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses elicited outrage, but the quiet disapproval of right-thinking southerners was much more insidious, and harder to overcome, because it implicitly legitimated the regime of Jim Crow that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was determined to upset. If King had been willing to accept the offer of “tolerance” for his righteous anger, nothing would have happened. Only by demanding fundamental change and refusing to accept less was the SCLC able to get anything done. Springs holds out King’s approach as exemplary. What he calls “healthy conflict” is “(1) oriented by the pursuit of justice; (2) marked by a practical, goal-oriented sensibility about the dimensions of power inscribed in conflict; and (3) motivated by respect for the humanity of one’s opponents (thus grounding hope for eventual reconciliation), even when their actions must be denounced and resisted because they produce, or sustain, evil conditions.” Forcing confrontation can be healthy when it forces “into the light of day the irreconcilability of the opposition at stake, and the unjust, and ultimately intolerable, character of the status quo.”

Springs suggests that considering other points of view concerning deep disagreements might help us see the limitations of our conventional arguments for toleration. Opponents of economic redistribution, like critics of inequality, frame the issue in terms of injustice. According to economists such as Milton Friedman and activists in the Tea Party, having one’s hard-earned money extracted in taxes to pay for programs that benefit people who have not earned it constitutes forced labor. They believe such injustice is an unmitigated evil that must be stopped. Those who have mobilized to make sure the textbooks used in public schools provide what they consider a properly balanced view of God’s creation, American history, public life, and human sexuality do not simply want their voices to be heard. They are unwilling to accept anything other than a change in the way certain subjects are taught. Champions of school prayer likewise are content with nothing less than reinstatement of the Truth of Christianity in public schools.

On the issue of Islam, Springs advances a more complex argument. Characterizing all criticism of Muslims as “Islamophobia,” he contends, risks intensifying tensions because it masks the history of cultural violence against Muslims in which almost all Americans—and almost all Europeans—have participated. Praising the rhetoric of pluralism, like automatically rejecting all criticism of Islam, can prevent us from acknowledging the hegemony of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the pervasiveness of intolerance directed against Muslims. Instead we should welcome confrontations, such as those over the caricatures of the Prophet in Denmark or the controversy over head scarves in France, as opportunities to move from a “lazy,” unthinking profession of tolerance to a “strenuous pluralism” that forces us to deal head-on with discrimination, exclusion, and structural inequalities.

It is on the question of abortion, though, that Springs raises what I consider the most problematic of his claims for healthy conflict. Barack Obama’s invitation to give the 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame provoked an uproar. His qualified defense of abortion outraged anti-abortion activists. Catholic legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon noisily withdrew from the event. Crowds descended on South Bend. In his address, President Obama pushed all the buttons of liberal tolerance. He recalled his work as a community organizer working with Catholic parishes on Chicago’s Far South Side. He narrated his own conversion to Christianity. He observed that regardless of one’s position on its legality, a woman’s decision to abort is always agonizing. “When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.” But some of those at the ceremony screamed “Abortion is murder!” and “Stop killing our children!” A few minutes into the speech, a barely audible scratching, which at first resembled crickets chirping, continued to increase in volume. Eventually it became clear that multiple recordings of a chorus of high-pitched babies’ cries were being piped in from sources encircling the ceremony. According to Springs, who as a professor at Notre Dame was present at the event, “The sound of crying inserted itself viscerally into Obama’s measured rhetoric,” effectively disrupting the “elegant case for tolerance.”

Now, what lesson does Springs want his readers to draw from that incident? He admits that the protests, clearly intended to “unexpectedly alter the deliberative frame” of the president’s well-considered remarks, left him “uncertain how to respond at the time.” But that is all he says about the event. Because it comes in the middle of his exploration of forms of healthy and unhealthy conflict, I am unsure into which category he would place the protests against Obama’s speech. To use his own criteria, surely anti-abortion activists believed they (1) were seeking justice; (2) had a strategy that challenged powerful defenders of abortion with the voices of the powerless unborn; and (3) admitted the humanity of their foes and very much hoped to reconcile with them after ending what they regard as a grave injustice. Just as surely they had made plain the “irreconcilability of the opposition at stake, and the unjust, and ultimately intolerable, character of the status quo.” Were they not, to sharpen the point, forcing just the sort of “healthy conflict” that King modeled in Birmingham? They did not want to deliberate with defenders of abortion. They wanted to embarrass them, to make clear that the status quo after Roe is intolerable to those who consider abortion just as evil as abolitionists came to consider slavery.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sympathetic with the point of Springs’s book. In my own recent book Toward Democracy, a history of ideas of self-rule from ancient Greece through the eradication of slavery and the consolidation of democratic government throughout the Atlantic world, I argue that democracy inevitably generates tensions that threaten its survival. Because democracy requires commitments to deliberation, pluralism, and an ethic of reciprocity, it encourages struggles among citizens with fierce and irreconcilable commitments. Those struggles, necessary as they are, can undermine the cultural predispositions that democracy depends on, the rules of the game itself. I had hoped that Springs’s conception of  “healthy conflict” would show how we can make progress dealing with the disagreements that paralyze us today. Instead, I think his book shows just how deep and persistent those conflicts are, whether the issues have to do with race, religion, civic responsibility, economics—or abortion. By demonstrating just how inadequate the promise of tolerance has been for those committed to fundamental, systemic change, Springs has performed a valuable service, for which we are in his debt. But I’m still not sure, after all his careful analysis of many important thinkers and ideas, that we have a sufficiently clear understanding of how to distinguish healthy from unhealthy conflict—or, if we do, how to deal productively with the conflicts that, even if they are “healthy” in the abstract, nevertheless threaten to tear us apart.

I will close with reflections on one of the most arresting passages in Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, which suggests why the problems Springs addresses are so intractable. Obama thinks historically. After ruminating on the controversies concerning interpretations of the Constitution between Originalists and legal realists, between champions of dogmatic rigidity and pragmatist flexibility, he came down where he usually did, in the latter camp. And yet, he writes, “I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable—in other words, the absolutists—that have fought for a new order.” For that reason he could not “summarily dismiss those possessed of similar certainty today,” absolutists such as “the antiabortion activist who pickets my town hall meeting” (or interrupts his commencement speech at Notre Dame?), “or the animal-rights activist who raids a laboratory.” Even though Obama disagreed with those who took such steps, he understood that they were playing an essential role in a democracy. Those who refuse to compromise, who refuse to be satisfied when their challenge to the status quo is “tolerated,” are often those who shift the gears of history. With the passage of time, they are sometimes proven right, as were the most fanatical abolitionists. So, Obama concluded, “I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty—for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute.” The best we can do, he suggested, is to weigh the value of deliberation against its costs, as Lincoln did during his presidency. Lincoln’s humility led him to work for his principles using democratic processes. It also led him to realize that when he had to act decisively, to end slavery or propose the framework for reuniting the nation when the war ended, he had to “resist the temptation to demonize the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side, or to diminish the horror of war, no matter how just it might be. The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice.” But the carnage of war should also remind us that “there may be a terrible price to pay” when we “pursue our own absolute truths.”

James T. Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, is author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton) and Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford).

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Published in the September 2019 issue: View Contents
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