The Ethics of Coalition-Building

tags: war on terror, international relations, militarism

Samuel Moyn’s new book is Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.


Progressives face a democracy on a knife’s edge. In a system of popular choice disfigured by the Electoral College, fewer than 80,000 votes, .06 of the total, swung the 2016 presidential election. The 2020 election that Joe Biden won was even closer. Fewer than 45,000 votes, or .02 percent, in three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin) decided the result.

Many have celebrated Biden’s ambitious early bills, and understandably so. But hopes that big spending alone, along with Biden’s competent management of the COVID-19 pandemic, will forge a new supermajority seem premature. Shockingly, four years of delegitimating Donald Trump in the strongest terms (whether as charlatan or fascist) failed to do the trick. Only arguing and organizing for policies that bridge current gaps between the Democrats and the disaffected could do so. This includes a variety of different kinds of voters and nonvoters. Some of Biden’s emergency and infrastructural generosity seems designed to reach them. But no one knows whether it will suffice. The meme that Biden is Franklin Roosevelt reincarnate anticipates a coalition that does not yet exist. (Roosevelt won in 1932 by nearly eighteen points in the national popular vote, with a whopping 472 Electoral College votes to 59.)

What are the ethics of coalition-building and outreach, which could someday evolve into national partisan realignment that might break the American impasse? Few have asked the question, though it is perhaps the most important one of the medium term for the United States in its Second Gilded Age. Political thinker Avishai Margalit’s neat distinction between compromises and “rotten compromises” furnishes some help.

Margalit argued that compromises are worthwhile if, on balance, they advance our goals. Rotten compromises, which entrench an indecent regime, are unjustifiable. The excellence of Margalit’s distinction is its acknowledgment of impurity, while trying to draw some kind of line between acceptable and unacceptable forms. We should therefore rule out compromises in two situations: when they give away too much, or they negotiate away the non-negotiable. Bad deals aren’t worthwhile—but good ones can be noxious, too, like agreeing to kill or enslave someone even for massive collective benefit, or bargaining with the devil, even when he offers a good price. (In Margalit’s framework, devised to think about peace processes, the line marking the intolerable is a concession to cruel and humiliating arrangements, but Margalit asks far too much, given the ubiquity of such arrangements.)

Read entire article at Dissent

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