Michael Wear on Confident Pluralism

This is a guest post by Michael Wear, author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, which will be published in January 2017. Michael is the Founder of Public Square Strategies LLC.

These are not confident times. The stridency of today’s rhetoric, the desperate certitude, and the emotional tribalism of our politics and public square betray a deep lack of confidence, and threaten to turn the strength of America’s diversity into a weakness.

It is for this reason that John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism is right on time. The book is a reminder that the culture of our democracy, how we reach our decisions, is as important as the decisions themselves. The way we advocate for what we believe is central to the character of the goal we have in mind.

This understanding is helpfully reflected in the book itself. Confident Pluralism is refreshingly non-manipulative. In the examples he provides, Inazu sometimes seems to go out of his way to make the implications of his arguments clear to the reader. The kind of difference that makes confident pluralism necessary is not valueless, but value-laden. This is most vivid in Inazu’s highlighting of both Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt, a “conservative moralist” and a “liberal progressive” with “loose sexual norms.” The vast majority of Americans likely disagree deeply with at least one of these men, who are in many ways ideological opposites (Inazu stresses that their common skin color and gender shows that difference can be even greater in America than among Falwell and Flynt).

Inazu’s intent to not manipulate the reader seems to inform the structure of his book as well. In the first half of the book, Inazu lays out several constitutional commitments that need to be revitalized in light of twenty-first century realities, the right of association, the ability to protest in public, and access to public funding. However, Inazu recognizes that legal solutions without a civic culture that supports them will only serve to mask the true health of our society. So it is in the second half of the book that he turns to our “civic practices.” Here, he identifies our “civic aspirations” of tolerance, humility and patience.

Given how much Inazu’s vision of constitutional commitments demands from each reader and citizen, it might seem to be most effective to provide the generally embraced aspirations tolerance, humility, and patience in the first half of the book, as a sort of set up to manipulate the reader into embracing his constitutional vision. Instead, Inazu gives the reader the “hard news” first, and then offers as “good news” the three civic aspirations as resources that can support and motivate such a legal framework.

There is a powerful truth in Inazu’s positioning of confidence alongside aspirations like tolerance, humility and patience. These aspirations are suggested by some in our public life as weakness, a sign of a lack of conviction. But as Inazu writes in his conclusion, “the argument for confident pluralism is an argument about the future of the American experiment . . . confident pluralism is also a confidence in the political arrangement that we call the United States of America.”

What is needed is not the mere right to exist, for to exist alone can hardly be called existing at all. If America’s diversity is going to continue to be a national strength, we need structures and laws that respect and facilitate diversity. In Confident Pluralism, Inazu offers a difficult, but worthwhile vision for how to ensure the American family has room for all—even Jerry and Larry.