Response to Sarah Conly on Chapter 2 of When the State Speaks, What Should It Say? How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality

I’d like to thank Sarah Conly and our commentators for raising an important set of questions about the book. In this post, I focus on Conly’s worry that reflective revision cannot include citizens who reject the core democratic values of freedom and equality. She suggests that reflective revision is largely relevant to people who already endorse the ideal of free and equal citizenship. But what about those people who simply reject these values? Moreover, what might democratic persuasion say to them?

An initial reply to this worry is that the number of people who reject the values altogether might be fewer than it first appears, and they may not be completely opposed to the values. Even groups that endorse hateful viewpoints might have at least some surface devotion to democratic values. Consider David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People. The organization purports to endorse an ideal of equality in claiming that they are not for the unequal treatment of African Americans but rather only support the equality of Caucasians.

Of course genuine reflective revision is not likely in Duke’s case or for people like him. But the fact that there is a thin embrace of the values might serve as a hook for democratic persuasion. The act of persuasion might consist in pointing to the contradiction between the rejection of basic civil rights for African Americans and the supposed endorsement of an ideal of equality.

Of course in some instances at least some people and groups might reject the values outright. Reflective revision will be less likely in such cases. What might democratic persuasion aim to accomplish then?

I have two responses. The first is that I think some democratic persuasion might need to given an explanation of why these values are important in a liberal democracy. One form of democratic persuasion might be a national discussion about the reasons to endorse democratic values.

Second, democratic persuasion can still have value in convincing third parties. Democratic persuasion, although often formally addressed to those who reject the values of free and equal citizenship, might work to promote reflective revision for those who already endorse the values but might be tempted to abandon them.

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