modus vivendi theory

I am preparing for a weekend conference on modus vivendi–on how people can coexist peacefully even if they do not like each other one bit. The conference was planned a long time ago and has a global scope. Nevertheless, it feels timely to an American after the 2020 election.

Some of the papers are works of abstract political theory, with references to Hobbes and modern liberal or communitarian philosophers. Some are empirical, discussing the possibilities of trust and agreement when people differ. Some of them are about consociational and polycentric governance arrangements–when there isn’t one centralized state or one big market but several heterogeneous entities govern simultaneously. And some of the readings are about concrete situations. For instance, I highly recommend Informal Order and State in Afghanistan, by Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili.

I think one of the unresolved issues is whether to reduce interaction in order to preserve peace and liberty or to encourage interaction by decentralizing power so that people who dislike each other can still negotiate intensively without feeling that one group might use the state to dominate the others.

Murtazashvili depicts local governance in Afghanistan as a complex network of local leaders who have overlapping and limited powers and who collaborate quite often and compete for public support. This implies a lot of negotiation and communication. The overall system is adaptive, not rigidly traditionalist. One of the advantages of polycentrism, Paul Dragos Aligica emphasizes, is its openness to local experiments that others can observe and imitate (pp. 66-69). In short, polycentrism is helpful for learning, and we might expect people in a polycentric order to converge about what they learn over time. They would become more similar.

A different model is a classic consosiational arrangement, such Belgium, which allows different religious and linguistic communities to manage their own affairs independently and without much interaction. Shadi Hamid is convinced that religions are divided by fundamental normative assumptions, and when such divisions arise, it can be wisest to reduce interaction–to send the parties into their respective corners. “Sometimes, reducing contact between opposing sides and allowing for autonomous communities are ways of accepting that some differences cannot be bridged” (p. 36).

In the US context, it seems plausible that reducing the imprint of the national government might lower the temperature of partisan division. The problem with that solution is that some of us have strong commitments to federal intervention, whether on climate change, racial equity, or responses to COVID-19. Telling everyone to disengage at the national level so that the states and localities can do their own thing is biased toward some of the states and localities–the ones that vote for less rather than more social welfare. And it leaves minorities in each state exposed. I don’t think you can predict that progressives will stop demanding national policies, and I am not sure that we should stop.

But we could think about ways to address genuine common problems with a minimal footprint on the values that divide us most deeply. And you can think about that even when the values (e.g., racial or gender equity) are very worthy. I have long favored emphasizing cash transfers over behavioral interventions for this reason. I think that trying to change people’s behavior threatens liberty. It also provokes distrust that undermines the capacity of the national government. This is true even when the goal of an intervention is most worthy, such as educating against racism.

A strategy of lowering partisan polarization by reducing the explicit footprint of the national government may or may not work. And it doesn’t necessarily tell us clearly what we should actually do. For instance, you could argue that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade and allows states to ban abortion, the partisan temperature will fall as more people become satisfied by the policy in their own state. (This is the decentralized-democracy argument.) But you could also argue that if the government (at any level) is forbidden to ban abortion, the choice becomes personal, which is much more decentralized and prevents battles over state laws. (This is the liberal argument.) So far, we can see that Roe had worsened polarization, but we don’t know whether repealing it would reduce polarization or take it up another notch.

Another example: Tufts is going through an intense conversation about anti-Black racism. Very few people in our campus community evidently supported Donald Trump. Trump voters appear as an out-group, characterized either as complicit with racism or as people to be understood better–but not as part of the community. If people who voted for Trump were better represented at Tufts, the temperature might rise through the roof. I do not believe that the already complex conversations would survive that extra dimension of plurality.

Modus vivendi theory might say: It’s good that we have a heterogeneous, voluntary system of higher education. Let Tufts people go to their corner and have their own hard, important conversations, while Trump voters assemble in other places if they want to. Or modus vivendi theory might say: We need pluralism within institutions devoted to learning. Places like Tufts are relatively homogeneous ideologically. That is bad, and the solution is for the institution to say less in its own name so that a wider variety of views feel fully welcome. (Or maybe there are other ways of addressing this issue that don’t require modus vivendi at all.)

The idea of modus vivendi theory can be opposed to democratic, liberal, social-welfarist, and deliberative theories, but it’s also possible that negotiating a modus vivendi is the best way to advance those values when antipathies run high. In any case, I think there is much to be learned from this body of thought.

Cited sources: Paul Dragos Aligica, Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond (Oxford, 2014); Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, Informal Order and State in Afghanistan (Cambridge, 2016); and Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Shaping the World (St Martin’s, 2016). See also: polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); racial pluralism in schools reduces discussion of politics, and what to do about that;  why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.