May 18, 2017

Three Ways to Lower the Stakes of Political Disagreement

Kevin Vallier’s recent post in this space nicely characterized John Rawls’s conception of the burdens of judgment and the nature of reasonable disagreements. I want to take that as a starting point and ask what we might do politically in light of our many reasonable disagreements.

In our private lives and in public forums, we may choose to continue to debate our differences. But for many important questions about which we have reasonable disagreements, a political choice is required. For instance, we can’t merely suspend judgment about what our immigration policy ought to be. We need fixed rules to govern immigration, just as we need a defined tax system, a climate policy, and so on.

So we have a bit of a problem: there are many areas where we know we are going to disagree with each other, but we can’t simply agree to disagree and remain politically silent on what to do. We have to make choices. And because some of our disagreements are deep ones, we can find ourselves embroiled in rather ugly politics. The stakes are that high.  

I’ve argued before that diversity and disagreement are in general beneficial. But the high stakes of politics can burn through the civic norms that hold our formal institutions in place. So here I want to talk about what we could do to lower the stakes. Cooler heads might be able to prevail if not every vote is seen as an existential crisis.

There are three distinct ways in which we might think about lowering stakes.  I’ll discuss them roughly in order of feasibility. First, we might rely on our federalist structure to devolve more political authority to states, and perhaps, given rural/urban divides within states, we might consider further devolving some authority to the municipal level. Second, we might consider having time limits on some decisions, so we can have a built-in process for reassessing our large political choices. Third and finally, we might find ways to step away from winner-take-all decision-making, at least at the legislative level.

Reinvigorating the Laboratories of Democracy

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” –Louis Brandeis, 285 U.S. 262, 311

While the United States does not have a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions reduction, the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States do. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has been in operation since 2009, and participating states have seen a significant reduction in carbon output. These states lean Democratic and have populations that tend to be more concerned about climate change. So these states took it upon themselves to develop an interstate agreement for a broad carbon market, which they made mandatory within their states. They did not have to convince Texans or Alaskans that greenhouse gases are a problem.  Instead, they just implemented a program for themselves. Other states can join if they so wish. (And New Jersey withdrew in 2011.)

Likewise, states fashion different versions of the social contract on a wide variety of issues. Massachusetts famously enacted Romneycare, which became a model for Obamacare. There are high-tax, high-service states such as  Massachusetts and New York, and low-tax, low-service states like Oklahoma and Texas. Vermont is relatively free to pursue rather left-leaning policies, while New Hampshire can be more libertarian in outlook. Brandeis’s point was that thanks to the federalist structure of the Constitution, the States are free to try out different social arrangements. Presumably if they are good ideas, and circumstances are similar enough, other states can adopt them. Just as importantly, if they are ideas that might appeal to, say, those on the right but not the left, then states that are more conservative can take on proposals that liberal states would oppose.

A good first step for lowering the stakes in politics would be to re-embrace this federalism by de-emphasizing national politics. Since states can, by themselves or in broader coalitions, choose to tweak their own social contracts without having to convince other disagreeing states to go along with it, the people in different states can simply agree to disagree on some fronts, and allow citizens to vote with their feet. In this way, we can engage in many different experiments in how to live with one another, rather than just have one. This model of invigorated federalism allows more states to implement the kinds of policies that they find appealing, and grants citizens at least some ability to move away from social arrangements that they reject, and choose social arrangements that better comport with their moral and political views.  

Simple federalism might not be a sufficient answer, however. Often there are sharp differences in views within states, not merely between them. This may give us reason to grant municipalities greater local authority. While states might like increased federalism, they tend to have the opposite view of increasing municipal authority. For example, nearly half of the states have passed laws restricting cities from increasing the minimum wage. Since we know from voting patterns that urban citizens frequently have different views than their rural counterparts, we may have good reason to allow each locality to formulate rules that its residents think will better suit their conditions and interests.  

The core of this idea is that the social and political problems that people face can vary dramatically between places, and political interests vary by at least as much.  The problems and opportunities caused by dense urban living are quite distinct from small town life.  Some parts of the country are prone to floods, others to earthquakes, still others to hurricanes.  Some places are just full of liberals and some places are full of conservatives.  These different situations create very different political pressures and incentives for action.  In the town where I grew up, we built tunnels for salamanders to cross the road during mating season, and declared itself a nuclear-free zone.  I doubt these initiatives would garner much national support, but they are things the town takes pride in.  Steps like this encourage some people to move to Amherst, as they are symbols of the town’s value system.  Undoubtedly, this also works to encourage other people to look for a different place to call home.

Unsurprisingly, it is not hard to find support amongst liberal, libertarian, or conservative thinkers that local control is desirable.  Whether it is because local communities are more like actual communities than nations are, or because local knowledge trumps centralized control, or because local traditions and practices have the stored wisdom of our forbears, there are plenty of ways of justifying an interest in increased local control.

Not everything can be done at the local level. Local decisions can impose costs or harms beyond the communities that make them. However, this fact invites a more systematic approach to lowering the stakes. Here we would look for the spatial extent of the externalities produced by the rules we consider, and use that as a basis for determining the appropriate political unit. For example, we might think that minimum wage rules might work best at the municipal level, whereas states might be a better unit for questions of social insurance, and regions might be a reasonable unit for air and water regulations.  Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York share an interest in preserving the Great Lakes watershed, whereas Arizona does not.  

Even questions of immigration policy might be made more regional. As Matthew Yglesias has suggested, there’s no reason why we can’t introduce place-based visas rather than employment-based visas. My home city of Buffalo actively welcomes more immigrants and refugees than do most places. Rust Belt cities like Buffalo have bled population for decades, and new neighbors bring new small businesses, help revitalize our housing stock, and contribute to the tax base. If voters in, say, North Dakota don’t want more immigrants, that’s no reason to stop Buffalo and Detroit from taking them in.  

A reasonable objection to this proposal would be that a version of the original problem of reasonable disagreement would simply manifest itself at a smaller scale – rather than a heavily disputed national politics, we would have 50 different disputes over state politics.  After all, people can’t always vote with their feet.  Impoverished people may have a harder time than the wealthy moving between different social contracts. Indeed, there has been a general decline in mobility in the United States over the past several decades. To counter this, we might pair this more robust federalism with a positive right of movement. The federal government could assist people’s movement choices. We have tried this on a smaller scale with the Moving to Opportunity experiment, which generated significant economic gains for the children of the participants.  

Limiting Legacies

One of the bigger political battles in the past year has been over the Supreme Court.  Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died while President Obama was in office. In an unprecedented and historic series of events, Republicans refused to meet with or vote on Obama’s nominee to the Court, and then, once President Trump took office, they were eliminated the filibuster as it applies to Court nominees to sidestep Democratic opposition. This was high-stakes politics: the Court’s conservative tilt hung in the balance, and so Republicans were willing to go to extreme measures to maintain the Court’s ideological composition. Supreme Court seats are one of the main enduring legacies of a Presidency.

The Supreme Court always looms as a major issue for both parties every election cycle.  A Supreme Court Justice has his or her position for life. As such, we have a strong interest in picking ideologically reliable (but hard to pin down) jurists who are rather young, so as to shape the Court for decades. Some Presidents pick multiple Justices, some don’t pick any. Each pick is precious because it’s not clear when another is coming along.

This is a silly system. It’s practically tailor-made for high-stakes conflict. A far more reasonable approach would be to make Supreme Court choices both regular and far more limited. We could simply appoint a new Justice every two years to a limited term. Doing this would significantly lower the stakes of the Supreme Court. While each new Justice would still matter, they would not matter nearly so much. The same principle could be extended to the rest of the federal judicial system. Rather than fighting for a 40- or 50-year legacy, we can instead worry only about 12- or 18- or 20-year legacies.

Requiring Compromise, or Interparty Logrolling

Perhaps most damaging to our politics is that we have a winner-take-all system. When one party has control of both Houses of Congress, even if by a slim majority, it can (in theory if not always in practice) pass a great deal of legislation that the other side vehemently opposes.

Though we are generally used to this system, it should seem a little weird. Essentially, it allows the two parties to take turns imposing their will on each other. As a result, majority parties try to cram as much as they can through the legislative process, while minority parties do what they can to gum up the works. This is dysfunctional.

If a group of five friends regularly go out to dinner together, and three really like Italian food while two hate Italian food but love Chinese food, it would be dysfunctional for the group to decide that each time they go out, they should just choose the restaurant by majority vote. The two Chinese food lovers would just stop going out to dinner with the other three. The better solution would be to trade off, so that  where everyone goes to eat, such that the group would get Italian food about 60 percent of the time and Chinese food about 40 percent of the time.

While recent Congresses are probably not best described as a group of friends, we can still learn from the thought experiment.  Rather than require majorities on single pieces of legislation, we could require much larger supermajorities (perhaps requiring 75 percent support) on larger packages of legislation. Thus, instead of considering one issue at a time, we could bundle multiple issues together, and with the supermajority requirement, force parties to work out compromises. We could likewise do this with Cabinet positions, federal judges, and other important decisions.  Using this approach, neither party gets quite what it wants, but both get something. The majority party still has greater bargaining advantage, but it can’t leverage that into domination. This system would try to force engagement and compromise.


Despite our deep disagreements, we can’t simply agree to disagree. On many issues, we have to be able to make a political decision. So even if we might be able to accept reasonable disagreements in a coffee-house debate, we have reason to worry about them when it comes to politics. Contemporary institutions make these concerns even more acute. But institutions are changeable. We can decide to lower the stakes, making the burdens of judgment easier to bear.

Ryan Muldoon is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo and author of Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance.