Winds of Change: Public Reason, the Containment of Unreasonable Views and the Role of Parties
Over the past few years, right-wing populist parties have been attracting more and more supporters across Europe (and beyond). In this paper, we show that John Rawls’s political liberalism - arguably one of the most influential frameworks to deal with pluralism within political theory – contains underappreciated resources that, once properly developed, offer compelling answers to how liberal democracies can address the increasing support for right-wing populism and its relation with socioeconomic inequalities.
To do so, we bring together and contribute to three distinct debates about political liberalism – about the containment of so-called unreasonable views (e.g., Badano and Nuti, 2018), the role of political parties (Bonotti 2017), and the mutability of public reason (Flanders, 2012) – and argue for a specific responsibility that parties that are loyal to liberal democratic tenets must discharge under specific circumstances. Existing work builds on Rawls’ notion of unreasonable views, which is meant to encompass all positions that are fundamentally inconsistent with liberal democracy, and on Rawls’ mention of the importance of containing them. However, it has mainly focused on the responsibilities of common citizens in engaging unreasonable persons for the sake of containment (Clayton and Stevens, 2014; Badano and Nuti, 2018).
No normative model of containment can be complete until it explores the key responsibilities of political parties and their leaders. The important role that parties can play in giving substance to public reason by providing competing interpretations of public reason’s basic political ideas has already been highlighted (Bonotti, 2017). However, the literature on this topic has so far worked on the simplifying assumption that the parties loyal to liberal democratic values are not facing any threat from parties or movements that are built around unreasonable messages.
We aim to argue that reasonable parties are required to refashion their political message, although staying within the limits of public reason, so as to try and lure back the supporters of unreasonable groups. This argument goes beyond the response provided by political liberals to the traditional objection that given its commitment to widely-shared political ideas, a society’s public reason is so conservative as to be effectively immutable (Flanders, 2012). Our argument is not just that public reason can change; it is about identifying conditions under which there must be change within a society’s public reason. In particular, in our current times, political parties are required to change public reason in order to tackle socioeconomic inequalities and, thus, introduce redistributive principles that are much more robustly egalitarian than a social minimum. To illustrate our argument, we draw on the current different reactions to the rise of right-wing populism that parties like the Italian Democratic Party, the Dutch People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Labour Party in the UK.