Keith Whittington on how to recover the American university as a place of free inquiry and intellectual rigor.
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. The motto, emblazoned on one side of the Great Seal of the United States, succinctly captures the dual nature of the American founding. With just thirteen letters, it invokes both the revolutionary act by which thirteen separate colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and the subsequent decision of the new states to join together to form one nation. Foreshadowing the unprecedented success of the American experiment in self-government, Novus Ordo Seclorum (new order of the ages), is inscribed on the seal’s opposite side. The two inscriptions serve as a reminder that in the United States, for the first time in human history, free citizens call the shots instead of their rulers.
Cracking the Code of Freedom
Of course, Americans are not the first people to establish a government on the idea of political equality. That distinction belongs to Athenians who, in the fifth century BCE, used the terms isonomia (equality of law) and isegoria (equality of speech) to distinguish their unique form of self-government from neighboring Greek tyrannies, as well as from Persian despotism. Among the Athenians, isokratia (equality of power) prevailed when no citizen was considered to be above the law, and all took part in making it.
Yet the idea of political equality proved challenging to sustain in practice. The Athenians soon realized that they could not secure sufficient space for politics on a permanent basis amidst the frustrations and uncertainty inherent in collective decision-making under conditions of equality. For that reason, their experiment in self-government ended in failure, as would all those that came after until the American founding.
What makes America exceptional is that its people alone broke free of the destructive cycle in which a people seeking freedom would overthrow their tyrant and establish self-government, only to find themselves inevitably succumbing to a new tyranny. Americans were able to do so because they grasped the relationship between freedom and equality on the one hand and space and diversity on the other. The genius of the Constitution should thus be understood as creating a space in which a diverse multitude could rule as one; where free citizens (or their representatives) could gather to resolve their differences based on equality. In contrast to the Athenians’ direct democracy, the Constitution secured that space against encroachments by would-be tyrants by harnessing the conflict in a diverse republic and infusing it into institutional structures like bicameralism, separation of powers, and federalism.
The Triumph of Ideology
Regrettably, this understanding of American exceptionalism is overlooked in today’s political discourse. On both the left and the right, there is a worrisome tendency to gloss over the vital role played by diversity and the conflict it generates. Both have a tendency to subsume individual difference to demographic categories, in the case of liberals, or abstract ideas, in the case of conservatives.
Yet individual difference, regardless of its source, is the very basis of equality and freedom. Whereas the founders understood politics as an activity in which citizens participate alongside their peers to make collective decisions, today’s liberals and conservatives think of it primarily as the process by which one group can impose its particular standard of truth on those with whom its members disagree. When that happens, citizens are neither equal nor free. That is, they are not allowed to participate in the debate over what particular standard of truth is imposed on the public sphere. Political discourse is transformed into a process whereby combatants delegitimize their opponents on the grounds that they disagree with their standard of the truth.
For example, consider the debate over multiculturalism, or identity politics. The president of the Claremont Institute, Ryan Williams, recently proclaimed multiculturalism to be an “existential threat to the American political order.” According to Williams, the concept is incompatible with political equality and that, if left unchecked, will lead ultimately to the balkanization of America, thus reversing the motto—E uno plura. Out of one, many.
However, to the extent that multiculturalism threatens the American political order, it is only because it destroys the space needed for American self-government to work. It declares entire groups of citizens unfit for politics based on the color of their skin or the nature of their beliefs. Williams rightly points out that so-called multiculturalists are more concerned with denying people with different views or backgrounds that ability to participate in politics than they are with genuine diversity. With its universalizing tendencies, multiculturalism thus ironically eradicates the diversity that makes political equality possible in the first place. In other words, the threat to equality arises out of the “ism” part of multiculturalism, not the “multicultural” part. In that way, multiculturalism is un-American because it is a rigid ideology that does not tolerate dissent from its worldview.
It is the universal and abstract nature of multiculturalism that makes it inconsistent with the very idea of political equality. Free citizens (the many) need a shared space in which they can make decisions affecting the community (the one) because they are all equal. They are equal because they are all different. No two citizens can be considered to be identical in any respect other than the fact that they are both unique individuals who possess distinct abilities, characteristics, interests, and passions, and, in the United States, they both possess the same right to participate in politics. This is what makes self-government possible: the equal participation of different individuals in politics inevitably generates conflict between them in the space where politics occurs. That conflict, in turn, prevents any one person or group of people from amassing the power needed to destroy that space and rule others.
Given this, the case against multiculturalism rests entirely on the ideological threat it poses to American diversity. If the critics of multiculturalism fail to make this point explicit, they leave open the possibility that their opposition to the ideology is due not to the fact that it lacks a standard against which the American regime can be evaluated but because it proposes the wrong standard. In doing so, they wind up declaring entire groups of citizens unfit for politics based on their particular conception of what it means to be an American.
Replacing one ideology with another does nothing to mitigate the threat of ideology. It makes no difference whether the ideology is based on an appeal to overcome a racist past, in the case of some multiculturalists, or to abstract natural rights, in the case of some conservatives. What matters is that the standard of truth that these multiculturalists and conservatives claim to be self-evident is derived by them from a space outside of the actual experience of politics. Its applications to activity inside the public sphere transforms free citizens into cogs in a production process geared towards the realization of a master design. In the process, both freedom and equality are destroyed.
Understanding Politics in Terms of Conflict
This does not mean that there is no truth. The point is that, in America, the standards against which political action is measured can only be defined by a process that is itself characterized by political equality. When politics is no longer understood in these terms, it is no longer an activity in which free citizens call the shots instead of their rulers. The unambiguous lesson of the past is that freedom and equality cannot last long in the absence of diversity and conflict. Unity grounded in anything other than difference is tyranny.
To sustain the idea of political equality, we must understand American exceptionalism not in universal and abstract terms but rather as something that arises out of a particular kind of practice. In other words, it is the essential activity of being an American that defines who Americans are as a people. It is that which allows them to deliberate on and fight over the truths that they hold to be self-evident. That is the only way we can ensure that E pluribus unum will last long enough to constitute a novus ordo seclorum.