In 2009, as we were working on the first issue of this magazine, Barack Obama delivered his inauguration speech in Washington, D.C. A graduate student in Chicago at the time, I had followed the campaign closely, and the soaring vision of America he presented that day was familiar—but no less satisfying for that. I was glad to hear, especially after two decades of Bushes debating with Clintons, that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” I was inspired by the idea that America was “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” I nodded hopefully when it was prophesied that “the old hatreds” were on the verge of passing.
Eight years later, Donald Trump delivered what, at first glance, seemed like a very different kind of inauguration speech. To be sure, there was little in his evocation of “American carnage” that made me nod or feel hopeful. But Trump, as he made perfectly clear, was not talking to me. He was talking to “the forgotten men and women of our country” who would be “forgotten no longer.” And if you felt yourself to be one of those men and women, that speech was every bit as messianic as Obama’s. Rather than in the hoped-for future, the prototype for Trump’s utopia lay in the barely remembered past. But that past was recoverable. “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams,” Trump intoned. And when we did, a “new national pride” would “stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.”
The dramatic circumstances surrounding Joe Biden’s address this January—we were in the middle of a pandemic, and only two weeks removed from a riot in the Capitol building—doubtless contributed to its comparative sobriety. But those circumstances have perhaps made it hard for some of us to appreciate how profound Biden’s divergence from his predecessors really was. Biden did not speak at all of healing divisions or overcoming hatreds, to say nothing of ending arguments. Indeed, in Biden’s words, American history was “a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart.” The italics, which are mine, are meant to underscore the difference between this formulation and any story predicated on the idea that American history moves in only one direction, whether up or downhill. Biden mentioned times—the Civil War, the Great Depression—when our “better angels” had prevailed, but he offered no assurance that they always would. “The battle is perennial,” he said. “Victory is never assured.”
Grounded by this recognition of perennial battle, Biden called for unity—he did not assume it. He did not promise, like Trump, to turn back the clock to a more prideful time; he did not say, like Obama, that America was “greater” than its differences. He merely allowed for the possibility that it might be able to keep those differences from devolving into “disunion.” “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect.” We can. But we might not. It will depend on whether we can learn to treat each other with “a little tolerance and humility.”
The point is not only, or not mainly, about Biden. Like all inaugural speeches, Biden’s was calculated to reflect the sensibility of his moment. And it is in that spirit that we may regard it as revealing. The words he chose doubtless emerged out of the major events of the years since he served as vice president, including the Trump presidency, a global plague, a nationwide protest movement for racial justice and the consolidation of a powerful progressive constituency during Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns to lead the Democratic Party. But I think they also registered a change in mood, or taste, which the listing of these events can only hint at. As I nodded twelve years ago for Obama, I nodded again on January 20th—though more in relief than in expectation. Biden, unlike Obama, did not promise an end to ideology. But perhaps he signaled the end—or the beginning of the end or, even more likely, a brief cessation—of the “ideology,” as some have called it, of “ideal theory.”
An “ideal theory” is any theory that uses an “ideal” model of society to help figure out how to address political problems in an existing one. In a basic sense, it might seem that such an activity is fundamental to political philosophy, which can be said to have begun when Socrates proposed constructing a “city in words” to help him and his interlocutors envision a better version of their own society in ancient Greece. But the thinker with whom the term “ideal theory” is most closely associated is the modern liberal political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, born in Baltimore in 1921, was the author of the most influential work of political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, A Theory of Justice (1971). At the center of A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s famous proposal that we bracket questions of religion, ethnicity and race in order to imagine a hypothetical social contract guided by the value of “justice as fairness.” Only once we have donned a “veil of ignorance,” obscuring our identity even from ourselves, can we begin to imagine a society that would be as fair as possible, no matter who we turned out to be once we removed the veil.
The society that Rawls lays out in A Theory of Justice is “ideal” not only in the everyday sense that it is a product of the theoretical imagination, but also because it contained what Rawls himself acknowledged were “idealizing” assumptions: for instance that all citizens would comply with its rules, and that the society would not be hobbled by a scarcity of basic resources. Rawls knew such a society—like Socrates’s city in words—would never exist in reality. A notion of the ideal society was nevertheless crucial, he believed, for knowing how to deal with actually existing injustice. How could we determine how to grapple with economic or social injustice if we did not have some idea of what an ideal system—a system that was truly just—would look like?
Although there have been many challenges to the efficacy of ideal theory from both the left and the right—in the first case for being insufficiently materialist, in the second for failing to account for the heterogeneity of ideals (why should a society be organized only toward the ideal of justice as fairness?)—the most sophisticated contemporary criticism of Rawls’s use of it has come from the Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills. Mills, drawing on a tradition of Marxist and feminist thought that provides the resources for “non-idealizing approaches to ethical theory,” goes a step further than merely accusing ideal theorists of being unrealistic or naïve. In his essay “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” first published in 2005 and later collected in Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), Mills argues that ideal theory is, as his title implies, an “ideology.” By this he means that the reliance on ideal theory among philosophers like Rawls is evidence of an “obfuscatory” project—a project that, far from accidentally, reflects the perspective of the overwhelmingly white and culturally dominant class of political philosophers who have advanced it.
Ideal theory “as ideology,” in other words, designates not merely the recourse professional philosophers have had to idealized models of societies, but specifically the tendency of those models, in the liberal, Rawlsian tradition, to “abstract away from relations of structural domination, exploitation, coercion, and oppression” that are integral to any actually existing society. The problem is not just that liberal ideal theorists use categories or abstractions—something all philosophers are bound to do at some point—but that they use categories (the deracinated individual) and abstractions (the veil of ignorance) that have the effect of making us view what are in fact intrinsic features of any society as mere aberrations. For no society, and certainly not any society as profoundly marked by legacies of oppression as are the U.K. and U.S., exists ex nihilo, with no prior history. Ideological ideal theorists are then not only idealistic in the sense that they believe we can move toward their idealized society; they also idealize what a society is in the first place.
At first glance, methodological debates between political philosophers might seem to take us very far from our current political “conversation”—if that is not too dignified a word for it. Yet this criticism of ideal theory as ideology, transposed from political philosophy into ordinary politics, may be helpful for seeing fault lines and shifts in mood that our usual vocabulary for talking about politics can make it difficult to perceive. Although their clash is often described in terms of left and right, neither Trump nor Obama can be said to have built their appeal on an especially strong ideological commitment, in the more familiar meaning of that term. But if they were ideologically weak in the sense of not adhering to a coherent political agenda or party platform, both Obama and Trump were extremely strong ideal theorists about America. As such, both encouraged a robust and in many cases inflexible worldview among their followers. One involved the inevitable march to the promised land of American progress, the other a retreat back to the true and only heaven of America’s past. Both, in their own way, worked to encourage a fantasy of America in which the historical sources of disunity could be—since they were only aberrations, or inconvenient leftovers—not merely moderated or tempered, but finally overcome or defeated.
In so doing, both contributed—one, to be sure, with far more malice and malignancy than the other—to the unleashing of the “uncivil war” that Biden referenced in his inaugural, and that rages all around us, from Congress to cable TV to Twitter to our school-board meetings and dinner tables. This war is often described in terms of red versus blue, or liberal versus conservative, but we resort to such labels mostly out of habit. The intensity of the war is attributable not to disagreements over policies, or values, that long predate Obama and Trump, but to the fervency with which each side embraces their ideal theory of the country. There is much to suggest that this fervency will overwhelm whatever attempts Biden and his administration make to “turn down the temperature.” It is easy to believe that it is too late, or that Biden himself is too weak of a figure, to contain forces that have by now formed their own self-sustaining ecosystems, largely insensible to what goes on outside them. There may still be some value in being able to recognize the potential virtue in what I myself, back in 2009, would have been sure was a limitation: Biden has not endeavored, thank goodness, to articulate a “vision” of America.
At the end of our introduction to The Opening of the American Mind, a collection of the magazine’s political essays published this past fall and reaching back to the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Anastasia Berg and I quoted the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s famous pronouncement that, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the forthcoming age promised to be “very boring.” We quoted it in order to point out the unsuitability of that descriptor for the remarkably dramatic decade we had just lived through, the one that followed Obama’s inaugural speech eulogizing our “stale” political arguments. The decade might have begun with a president promising that America was on the cusp of becoming the country many have always hoped it could be, but it is fair to say that the way it ended, on January 6th of this year, said more about how America has invariably appeared to those who exist, either by force or by choice—to borrow from W. E. B. Du Bois—outside its many veils.
I don’t expect the Biden years to be boring or uncontentious; probably the opposite. But I can sense today in myself, and in many people around me, a powerful feeling of disillusionment, sometimes expressing itself in boredom, sometimes in disgust, with the stories the country has grown used to telling about itself. This disillusionment does not feel, to me at least, like a product of despair or even of pessimism; and it should not be conflated with a lack of political ambition. Society as it is revealed by non-ideal theory, Mills believes, necessitates many “radical” interventions, including reparations to redress injustices traceable to a history too often treated as ancient by more “idealistic” politicians. For those of us who are not politicians, or political philosophers, the lesson may be merely to hold onto our wariness of rhetoric—political or otherwise—that seeks either to make us forget, or to exploit for melodramatic purposes, the “realities” that have demanded our attention this past decade. This includes the realities of our history, which will mean recognizing the ways in which our society remains divided and unequal in fact; and the reality of our pluralism, which will mean acknowledging—“with a little humility,” if we can—that no one theory of America will ever stand unopposed for long.