Over this past week, a flurry of media attention has gathered around a quite provocative demonstration by College Republicans at the University of California-Berkley. In protest of SB 185—pending affirmative-action-like-legislation for public universities—the organization hosted an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale.” Baked goods were sold to students using a discriminatory price index—whites were charged the most, Native Americans the least, and women twenty-five cents less across the menu. As one might expect, a liberal counter-protest was quickly organized. A mob of students, all dressed in black, gathered together displaying signs that read “Don’t UC us now.” As everyone blended together, they demonstrated the loss of individual identities in the absence of protection for their individual rights.
Here are some links to news clips featuring both protests. You should check them out!
- Bake Sale Footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2fAakr7uM8
- Liberal Mob Footage:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lwhjSRAU4c&feature=related
As such a polarized issue today, all of this buzz about affirmative action got me to thinking about what its context might have been in the eyes of civic republicans and classic liberals. In particular, going back to the roots of these opposing political theories, would it be so obvious that republicans today would so strongly reject the idea of affirmative action, and democrats endorse it? Looking a little closer, I think it becomes much more ambiguous that one might expect.
To speak first to the obvious, there is a strong case to suggest that civic republicans might wholly reject affirmative action. By definition, as we know, the fundamental entity around which civic republicanism is centered is the community. It is a concern for the common good, for which everyone is expected to sacrifice, rather than the preservation of individual rights above all else. Civic republicans see individual rights, when distributed heavily, as an impediment to the overall good of society. They believe individuals with too many rights become so selfishly absorbed by the constraints of their own personal principles, that progress towards the betterment of the overall community becomes unachievable. The quintessential civic republican endorses policies that promote and preserve community togetherness.
In this context, affirmative action is an easily identifiable evil to the civic republican ideal of government. By assigning certain greater benefits to some over others, the solidarity of a community—like the black mob of students at USC—is destroyed by competition and factionalism. The fact that race is the basis on which these benefits are distributed, only further exacerbates the risk affirmative action poses to the preservation of “the community.” To a civic republican, such policies would counter-intuitively pull people out of their community and into their own corners of society. Distinguishing race not only isolates individuals in societies, but also promotes conflict between racial groups. It is impossible for racial classifications, especially those with significant applications, to sustain a unified society. Affirmative action threatens to destroy the fundamental centerpiece of civic republicanism. So, it’s a no brainer that the civic republican would be selling cupcakes right alongside the College Republicans at USC, right?
Well, as convincing as all of that might have sounded, one cannot be so sure. Yes, the fundamental unit in civic republicanism is the community. Yes, affirmative action is an undoubted threat to the harmony of that community. However, the fundamental objective of civic republicanism is a collective sacrifice for the greater good of society. In this context, depending on how the “greater good” is defined by the community, civic republicans might see affirmative action as a policy for which sacrifices—on behalf of those who benefit less—should be made. Affirmative action extends more opportunities for work and education to individuals of minority and low socio-economic status. As a result, income inequalities lessen, work places become more diverse (a factor that can yield a great deal more innovation) and government spending on benefits, like unemployment, is reduced. If these results qualify for how the “overall good” is defined, then is affirmative action not within this objective? If affirmative action is to modern America, as the barn raising was to Kemmis’ community, I think civic republican support of this modern, left wing policy isn’t a far fetch at all.
Looking now to classic liberalism, this same ambiguity persists. On the one hand, to most people, affirmative action is consistent with the classical liberal mentality. In contrast with all we’ve just discussed about the “community” and “togetherness” underscoring civic republicanism, classic liberalism is fundamentally concerned with preserving the individual’s rights and freedoms. They repudiate the broad sweeping community values idolized by civic republicans because they believe individual interests are too strong to be compromised. To the classic liberals, such “common good” laws are seen only as a limitation on the civil liberties of every individual—they are particularly discriminating to those outside of the affected majority. Further, it is the government’s duty to protect the individual rights of those who, as Sargent put it best, “cannot [alone] fulfill their individual potential” ( Sargent, pg. 42). Affirmative action is doing just that. It is integrating minorities into society that otherwise would not have the means—either fiscally or by virtue of societal discrimination—to capitalize on their individual rights to educating, working, and otherwise fully participating in their community. Affirmative action arguably epitomizes the mission of classic liberalism, or does it?
See this is the part where the big “BUT” comes in yet again. Classic liberalism is fundamentally centered on the preservation of individual freedoms. However, as the definition of “the common good” changed the civic republican opinion, so does one’s interpretation of “the individual” for classic liberals. Affirmative action grants benefits to groups of like individuals—minorities. Can it really be the case then that this policy is protecting “individual rights?” After all, it is not the individual’s identity that is relevant to affirmative action, but rather their possession of a group quality—race. Classic liberals fundamentally oppose the community identity endorsed by civic republicans because it stifles the individual. Therefore, wouldn’t they naturally oppose policies, like affirmative action, that create group identities with explicit advantages over other individuals? I believe it is possible.
My point here is that where our societies understanding of these competing ideologies is undoubtedly sound, our application to modern times—especially social issues—can never be absolutely certain. Sure, it is possible a civic republican today might have sold you your cupcake, but maybe a classic liberal would have too. I think that is certainly something worth considering.