Militant Intolerant People: A Challenge to John Rawls' Political Liberalism

Political Studies 58 (3):556-571 (2010)
In this article, it is argued that a significant internal tension exists in John Rawls' political liberalism. He holds the following positions that might plausibly be considered incongruous: (1) a commitment to tolerating a broad right of freedom of political speech, including a right of subversive advocacy; (2) a commitment to restricting this broad right if it is intended to incite and likely to bring about imminent violence; and (3) a commitment to curbing this broad right only if there is a constitutional crisis. By supporting a broad right of freedom of political speech in Political Liberalism, he allows militant intolerant people such as Jihadists, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis to advocate publicly their dangerously intolerant beliefs. Public advocacy of dangerously intolerant beliefs can be construed as subversive advocacy. As demonstrated by the historical examples of the Weimar Republic and the Second Spanish Republic, militant intolerant groups could use a right of subversive advocacy to threaten the stability of liberal democracies. Hence, by allowing them to exercise a broad right of freedom of political speech, Rawls could jeopardize that which he intends to defend, namely the actual political stability of a liberal democratic order. Lastly, Rawls' conception of ideal constitutional interpretation, which privileges a broad right of freedom of political speech, might be insufficient to deal effectively with the threat posed by militant intolerant groups. Yet a tradition of American constitutional interpretation that balances freedom of speech with other important constitutional and/or political values has overcome a civil war, two world wars, the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks without abandoning democracy or permanently renouncing those values. Still, Rawls' ideal approach to constitutional interpretation might, in hindsight, help us to understand some of the excesses and deficiencies of American jurisprudence in times of emergency.

Keywords Political Philosophy
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