Fourth Way to Do What, Exactly?

Since I asked for it, I intend to reply to Reihan’s long immigration post. I’m totally not stalling! It’s just so long. In the mean time, let me ask a question about Reihan’s ideas on the “Fourth Way.”

I do actually have broader thoughts on the Fourth Way, but I need time to organize them. Let me just say that the Fourth Way won’t be just a phenomenon of the center-right. It is a reaction to the Third Way that will take Soho and Easterhouse forms, liberal and dirigiste forms. Broadly speaking, it will emphasize authority and security over cultural laissez-faire. It will be market-friendly, but in the sense that the market is strenuous, serious, and growth-enhancing, not emancipatory. It will be an awkward and problematic mix, but effective. 

Naturally, I think this sounds lousy—even slightly fascist. The obvious question: Effective for what? Who wants this?

And what’s this?

… merely declaring this or that violation of economic or even civic freedom unconstitutional can’t stop a determined democratic majority — our shared conception of political legitimacy, for better or for worse, is rooted in this majoritarian understanding. Movement towards juristocracy hasn’t altered this fundamental dynamic. This represents a serious problem for the partisans of limited government — they must keep most of the public with them most of the time to achieve their objectives.

This is smudging the line between a fact and a seemingely related non-fact. True: there’s no stopping the mob when it gets up a head of steam. False: our shared conception of political legitimacy is not majoritarian, as far as I can see. All but a few Americans just shrug and accept it when courts overturn popular laws as unconstitutional. And there is a firm sense that certain ideals—especially those embodied in the Constitution—rightly trump majoritarian will. So I don’t buy this description of the broadly shared American sense of political legitimacy. Moreover, just about every American is a partisan of limited government; we just differ on what we’d like limited. Liberals don’t need majorities hyped on the whole package of limitations on political threats to liberty. We need some group of people or other to be very jealous of each form of liberty, and the rest of the population to be not very strongly motivated to undermine them.

When I try to figure out what’s going on with Reihan, my first guess is that he thinks he’s doing a kind of non-ideal theory that takes the constraints of status quo public opinion seriously. He’s trying to formulate an ideological position that can bring together standing constituencies in American politics to effect real political change to best approximate his (obscure to me) set of ideals. But then his comments on democratic legitimacy and the alleged related problems for defenders of liberty make me think this isn’t exactly what he’s doing. Maybe I don’t grasp what it is that Reihan really wants politically — what he thinks a “fourth way” would be effective for — just because he changes his mind a lot. But I sort of suspect that his first-best ideal theory is obscure not because he doesn’t really have one, but because it wouldn’t actually be very attractive to Americans if described plainly, and what he’s doing is looking for marketing angles to get the package of policies (each one of which may indeed be attractive to some group of Americans or other) that together are supposed to roughly add up to his ideal  to 51 percent. At which point, I guess, we just have to accept it, even it turns out to be a gross violation of core American ideals of substantive liberty, since our shared sense of political legitimacy is allegedly majoritarian?

Maybe that’s not right. Let’s see… I guess I keep getting stuck on this: Does Reihan really think that an awkward and problematic politics of authority, security and cultural control aligned with strenuous, serious, growth-enhancing but not liberating markets (I swear that’s what I just read!) is actually in high in demand among real American voters? Because if he does, then that’s just plain weird. Or does Reihan think that given the right leader with the right rhetoric behind the right policies, it would be possible to get Americans behind that kind of politics? That might be true, but if so, it’s sort of terrifying. Which raises the question: Why would you want to do this? Which leads to the deeper question: what reasons do we have to favor the values such a politics would serve. But I’m not clear on what those values are, much less the reasons we might have to favor them.   

No doubt I’m getting Reihan’s intentions and opinions all wrong here, and I welcome his correction and illumination. But I do puzzle over why it’s so hard to get a good bead on what he really thinks about what a good society looks like. Maybe it’s all in the book!

Also, the new, less editorially coherent American Scene looks great and is a lot of fun to read. Congrats!