'An Open System of Closed Enclaves': Tolerance, Past and Present, in America

Take a look at the NY Times op-ed page earlier this week. A piece by Bill Keller bemoans the various state ventures into controversial areas, usually social policy and specifically abortion restrictions. Keller's sympathies are NY Times liberal, but he uses the upsurge of state initiatives to muse about how state governments are becoming bastions of hard-edged, issue-oriented cliques that use their majorities to enforce their own view of the world. Where's the great tradition of tolerance and compromise, asks Keller? Whatever sympathies I might have with Kellers' concerns about particular outcomes, his argument requires the perpetuation of an historic myth, that of America the tolerant. In fact our history, early and late, evidences an important, if uncomfortable, historic truth: Thus It Never Was.

This was first brought to my attention almost 50 years ago, when I had the privilege of taking a freshman political theory course at Brandeis University taught by two extraordinary men, John Roche and Herbert Marcuse. Roche was a classic post-war liberal who eventually served Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Washington as an intellectual adviser. Marcuse was a German Hegelian/Marxist who remains a towering figure in 20th century philosophy. Dramatically different in appearance, style and ideology, their sessions together were, for an 18-year-old at least, breathtaking.

Marcuse argued that American tolerance was a myth, an intellectual cover for a system that left opinions and opinion-making in the hands of an oppressive moneyed elite. Marcuse supported repression of that elite in the name of true tolerance and diversity of opinion. (See A Critique of Pure Tolerance). Roche didn't quite respond, arguing instead that American colonial history never embraced tolerance of divergent opinions.

It was, in Roche's pungent phrase, "an open system of closed enclaves" a society where each community abhorred deviation from the group norm, and dissidents left, formed their own community, and in turn repressed contrary views. Roger Williams was thrown out of Massachusetts because he advocated a separation of church and state. He founded Rhode Island, which had little room for those who did not agree. The easiest example is the American treatment of the Mormons: They were thrown out of a lot of places until they reached a wilderness so remote they could finally set up their own autocracy. In the end the freedom they enjoyed was "the freedom to go elsewhere." (See Williams, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal). It's only much later, William asserts, after the close of the American frontier, that our current view of religious freedom emerged. "[W]hereas diversity happened to American religion in the first half of the nineteenth century, pluralism of the kind people now discuss did not arrive until the second half of the twentieth."

A open system of closed enclaves: not our mythology of tolerance by a long shot, but a pretty good description of our current condition. Left and right both want to believe that the myth is real, that the American tradition is a generalized tolerance, a willingness to put up with beliefs and people we don't agree with, even dislike. On the other hand neither side wants to compromise, once in power. Keller's nostalgia for an America that never was maybe a useful place to go, even if it's not in fact our tradition.

Keller's nostalgic tolerance model could address stalemate and commando-politics in Washington and in state capitols. The system won't work if legislators and executives insist on their exact positions. Well, the system isn't working, most often but not exclusively by the Tea Party right. Not much is happening to ease the conflict. It's cold comfort to realize that the North Dakota abortion laws or Rand Pauls' drone filibuster are well within our historic tradition of winner-take-all, get-out-if-you-don't-like-it politics. But it may also provide an opportunity to lead us out of our current stalemate.

There's a growing national consensus that fighting to the death doesn't meet the needs of modern America. Only a president can instruct the nation on the need for a re-thinking of our political values. Obama chose to make that case indirectly and by example, but no one really listened. There's a real political opportunity to be the Professor-In-Chief. Obama can and should confront the political consequences behind current stalemates over the budget and public spending, rather than focusing on the economic stakes. He has a better shot of rallying public sentiment behind a new, broad tolerance for compromise, almost any compromise, if he identifies the problem as not just bad policy, but destructive politics.

It's not as though he hasn't mentioned it, he has. But his opportunity here is to take a cue from Keller, and begin a national conversation about what democracy and tolerance and America really need: A willingness to set aside victory in the name of living together. Ideas matter, tolerance matters, and this idea needs a champion. Nothing else is working, to be sure.