John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism is a helpful text that provides readers with both a legal explanation of how a pluralistic society would function politically and a clear statement about the sort of character needed to make a pluralistic society work. It is no surprise, then, that the book has received such enthusiastic praise from so many. Though it came out before books like The Benedict Option and Out of the Ashes, one of the things many have taken from the book is that it is a response to the pessimism of Dreher, Esolen, and others of similar mind. Inazu’s book is quite good. But to construe it as a rebuttal to Dreher and others is to misrepresent what he is doing.
Over-Stating the Accomplishment of Confident Pluralism
To its most enthusiastic readers and endorsers, Inazu’s book charts a way forward through the polarization of American politics and the failure of trust that exists between American neighbors.
The problem here, unfortunately, is that the book does nothing of the sort. What it does it does extremely well, well enough that anyone can and should read the book profitably. But the actual victory it achieves is far more modest than many of its endorsements would suggest.
Here is what Inazu’s book achieves: First, it provides a plausible case for the sorts of rights required to make a pluralistic social order possible and reasons through difficult objections people might raise to those rights. Second, it describes the public virtues that citizens of such a regime would need to cultivate in order to realize such an order on a day-to-day basis in our neighborhoods, politics, churches, schools, and so on.
This is a significant point. However, it is primarily a narrow point about politics proper and about how citizens should relate to one another within a society that is built on such a political foundation.
The Limits of Confident Pluralism
However, the chief problem that stands behind the problems Inazu is addressing still remains unaddressed—and unable to resolved through purely political action. Inazu himself hints at this problem. At several points in the book he concedes that the prevailing trends in the American legal system generally militate against the sort of principled pluralism he is describing. He cites specific cases where rulings have been particularly bad, such as the 1990 Smith case, but also cites a broader tendency to under-appreciate the pivotal role that right to assembly plays within an American-style liberal order.
We should note these problems and then do what Inazu mostly does not, perhaps because it would take him too far from his primary topic: Ask why we have come to such a place in our social order.
Here, again, I will cite the older critics that are so instructive on this point: In his Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot argues that liberal democratic societies essentially punt on all questions concerning the telos of a society. All questions related to the ultimate reasons for which we would do a thing or the proper end toward which a thing should tend are bracketed in a liberal order and left to be answered by individuals on a case-by-case basis. This agnosticism about proper ends means that each individual person is free to choose their own destination, as it were, and to work with all their might to realize their own personalized goals. Quite naturally this will lead to the unleashing of much energy and the creation of much financial wealth.
Anyone who has left small children alone for any length of time knows how the removal of restraint can unleash energy in a place and anyone who has spent much time observing the occupants of Wall Street, themselves quite similar to small children in many ways, knows about the wealth that particularly gifted children can generate (for themselves) when restraints are removed.
The problem, of course, is that we are not by nature the isolated, self-contained individuals that late liberalism presupposes us to be. Rather, we are political creatures, creates made to exist in relationships of mutual dependence and aid with one another. And so when each of us set loose to run in our own directions with no regard for how we are made, the result can only be chaos, confusion, and breakdown.
The Winners and Losers in a Decadent Society
The losers in such a regime will be easily forgotten and pushed to the edges of society until they hit a large enough critical mass that they can no longer be ignored, as happened in 2014 with the success of Black Lives Matter, which raised awareness of how our order transgresses against non-white people, and in 2016 with the popularity of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, more pointed, the election of Donald Trump, buoyed by the support of a forgotten white voting bloc in rapidly deteriorating rural America.
The winners, meanwhile, will store up a great amount of personal wealth, and yet also become increasingly isolated as their success comes at the cost of ties to family and will require routine uprooting from community to be sustained. Thus the spiritually malformed winners are left with no means and often no desire to repair the damages to the body politic inflicted by such an order, if they are even aware of it at all.
This is the world Inazu is addressing when he writes Confident Pluralism. Inazu rightly calls on the citizens of that world to give themselves to the civic virtues of tolerance, humility, and patience. But these virtues are not formed by reading books or even by thinking about how pleasant a world in which such virtues are practiced might be. They are formed through practice within communities in which such virtues are both intellectually plausible and emotionally compelling—and these are precisely the communities that we have spent much of the past 200 years dismantling.
None of this is Inazu’s fault, of course. And none of it is necessarily his task to address. He is a law professor, not a pastor or politician. So I don’t fault him for how he wrote his book. If anything, I am more inclined to fault the reviewers who, perhaps like the reviewers of Vance’s book, did not fully represent what the book actually was, which in turn informed the response to it.
If one assumes that the chief problem of our moment is political then an improved understanding of America’s traditional political norms alongside a call to renewed civic virtue will address the issue. But the problem is not chiefly political, or at least not in the narrow sense which refers to the body of people endowed with the ability to pass, interpret, and enforce laws which are backed by the threat of coercive force.
Rather, the problem is social, which refers to the totality of how people relate to one another, and imaginative, which refers to how we see ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves, and religious, which refers to the objects of our love and worship. Certainly, anyone who wants to imagine what the best sort of liberal legal system might look like within a healthy society would do well to read Inazu’s helpful book. But we must be clear about the problem before us. Inazu’s concept of a confident pluralism is helpful, but it does not strike at the root of our social crisis.