We picture the political spectrum as a line running from Left to Right, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican. For much of our history, the middle was inhabited by conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. By forging a compromise with centrists, one party or the other could muster enough support to legislate and govern. Achieving a political compromise was often slow and frustrating, but, until recently, it was not impossible.
Now, for a variety of reasons, the middle of the spectrum is depopulated. Compromise is seen as a betrayal of ideological principle.
Instead of searching in vain for policies that include some liberal elements (to mollify Democrats), and some conservative elements (to appease Republicans), we could look for a new synthesis of Right and Left that is fundamental enough to generate policies that satisfy deeper concerns they share.
Upon what human value could we build a synthesis of liberal and conservative principles? A brief detour into the history of the Left-Right dichotomy provides a clue as to what’s wrong and how to fix it.
Even as the French Revolution unfolded, there were signs that its rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was a flawed formula for change. Initially in France, and subsequently in a variety of settings, reforms achieved under this banner have often come at the price of misery, mayhem, and murder.
“Equality” has been the watchword for many Leftist political movements, but egalitarian values have also provided ideological cover for oppressive regimes. Though the ideal of Liberty has served as a midwife to democracy, it has also served Rightists intent on pursuing predatory forms of capitalism.
Political reformers who make either Liberty or Equality preeminent have usually been disappointed by the dividends for justice or chastened by blood spilled in what at the outset seemed a noble cause.
Given the dysfunctional state of American politics, the need for a path that Right and Left can travel together is urgent. If conservatives and liberals cannot subordinate their partisan agendas to the common good, world leadership will pass to nations that do manage to transcend this obsolete ideological dichotomy.
I shall suggest here that if a political party were built on the notion of Dignity, instead of on Liberty or Equality, we could forge a synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics that incorporates the truths that sustain each of these traditional ideologies.
There is broad consensus that dignity is a fundamental human right. I will suggest here that Dignity trumps Liberty and Equality.
What Is Dignity?
As with liberty, dignity is most readily defined in reverse. We know at once when we’ve been ”indignified.” To suffer an indignity carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources essential to well-being, even to life itself. The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy or respect. To be “nobodied” is an attack on one’s status in the tribe, and carries an implicit threat of exclusion that, not long ago, amounted to a death sentence.
In proclaiming a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founding Fathers came tantalizingly close to recognizing dignity as a fundamental right. By liberty they meant freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Thus, the right to liberty affords a large measure of protection to our dignity. Likewise, the right to pursue happiness is undermined by the indignities of second-class citizenship. It’s not much of a stretch to find in the Founders’ intentions an implicit right to dignity.
More than anything except life itself, people want dignity. They will compromise both their liberty and equality to get it. By identifying actions that insult our dignity, we can, step by step, protect and extend both liberty and equality. A vast edifice of law has evolved to protect human liberty by proscribing behaviors that limit it. Building a dignitarian society will require a comparable, generational effort to develop a body of law that, by setting limits to indignities, protects dignity.
Since indignity is caused not by differences in rank per se but rather by abuses of rank differences—what elsewhere I have called rankism—the task of building a dignitarian society can be understood in terms of disallowing rankism (much as the task of building a multicultural society is one of disallowing racism).
Once you have a name for it, you see rankism everywhere, and it’s revealed as the source of much of the dysfunction now plaguing American democracy. But this is no cause for despair. Time and again, we’ve proven that once we take aim at an ignoble ism (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexualism, or homophobia), we are capable of delegitimizing it.
What Would a Dignity Party Stand For
All abstract political ideals, pushed to extremes, can be dangerous, and Dignity is surely no exception. The Founding Fathers were too shrewd to entrust “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to good intentions. They realized that reliable governance must be grounded in the assumption that power-holders will inevitably be tempted to interpret any ambiguities in their writ to their own advantage. Accordingly, they drew up interlocking constitutional procedures to protect liberty by making political leaders accountable to each other and the citizenry.
Only as the powers inherent in rank are spelled out and circumscribed are abstractions like liberty, equality, and dignity rendered benign. Absent detailed procedures that come into play when things go wrong—which they invariably do—slogans, no matter how grandiloquent, are empty promises or worse—Orwellian doublespeak.
How would a society in which dignity is preeminent differ from ones shaped by ideologies in which the organizing principle is liberty or equality?
In contrast to a libertarian society, a dignitarian society is one in which economic power is not allowed to confer educational or political advantages on those who have it. For example, you wouldn’t have to be rich to go to college or command a fortune to stand for office.
Much as church and state are separated in modern democracies, economic and political power will be separated in a dignitarian society. This means that publicly funded elections would replace the current practice of corporate and union campaign financing.
In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into impermeable classes, is unacceptable. If you apply yourself and work hard, institutional obstacles must not be insuperable. Thus, in a dignitarian society everyone has access to decent healthcare and is paid enough to work themselves out of poverty in a generation. The American Dream is a beacon lighting the way to a dignitarian society.
Rank itself may be unequal in a dignitarian society, reflecting undeniable differences in our talents, skills, experience, and levels of authority, but equal dignity is accorded everyone, regardless of role or rank, both interpersonally and institutionally.
Historically, conservatives are defenders of the rights of rank. They have fought to see that rank-holders are not hamstrung, that individual initiative and enterprise are not discouraged, that entrepreneurial activity is not stifled, and that, as a society, we keep our competitive edge.
In contrast, liberals see themselves as watchdogs against abuses of rank, the ill-effects of which fall primarily on the weak. We’ll know we’re living in a dignitarian society when conservatives condemn the corruption of power and liberals are willing to entrust rank-holders with the authority needed to lead.
In a dignitarian society, rank may change, but you’re assured of having a place. If you break the law, that place may be a prison. But it is a prison in which your dignity is secure. (Recent experiments show that the best way to reduce recidivism is to treat inmates with dignity while they are paying the penalty for their crimes.)
The politics of dignity spans the conservative-liberal divide. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a place of honor in a dignitarian society—for giving us his dream of dignity for all. So does Patrick Henry—for his immortal “Give me liberty or give me death.” In the economic realm, no institution does more to curtail abuses of power than the free market. On those occasions when the market does appear to have betrayed us, we invariably discover that human beings have interfered with its freedom by rigging it to their advantage.
As a synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics, dignitarian politics offers the prospect of closing the ideological fissure that has paralyzed American democracy. Conflicts over liberty and equality do not disappear, but they are reframed and subjected to a higher standard: how do they impact dignity?
Our political history can be read as see-sawing between the ideological poles of Liberty and Equality. So long as the ideological spectrum had a middle, compromise was possible. But absent centrists, ideological polarization leads either to stagnation and decline or to unstable oscillations between the two ideological extremes.
The answer to the impotence and irrelevance of the old parties is a new party—the Dignity Party.
The Dignity Party would draw support from all segments of the Left-Right spectrum. It would attract those who, while insisting upon dignity for themselves, are willing, in return, to grant it to others.
There is good reason to believe that a majority of Americans are ready to sign up for that deal. In any case, running against dignity doesn’t look like a winning ticket. Standing up for both liberty and equality—insofar as each extends dignity—could well be.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.