Monday, November 15, 2010

The clash of rights - Paul Sniderman (1996)

Sniderman, Paul M. 1996. The clash of rights : liberty, equality, and legitimacy in pluralist democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

I do not know why I started to read this book (I just picked it up by chance while looking at the shelf in library), but I finished reading it from the first page to the last one. The final thought is good, as I read his other books – Reaching beyond race (with Edward Carmines) and Scar of race (with Thomas Piazza).

The title of the book really well summarizes the whole messages in the book. The main problem in modern politics (if plural liberalism is the right summary of modern politics) is the conflict between two (or more) political rights or principles. The potential ambivalence due to the coexistence of conflicting political rights or different understandings of contestable concept (he mentioned equality as such example by calling it chameleon value) is the core of modern politics, and thus modern political process or institution has to be dynamic and changeable.

Most of his mobilized examples came from Canada. In the first chapter, he argues that findings in Canadian contexts can be generalizeable. In the second chapter, he summarizes previous academic arguments, i.e., democratic elitism. The agreement or consensus between competing elites is the backbone of modern politics, according to the thesis of democratic elitism. However, the author criticized its possibility because the agreement between conflicting elites cannot be justified. Instead, there is a huge gap between different elites, which causes the clash of rights. Figure 2-13 summarizes how the elites are divided and how mass politics mediate the clash of rights triggered by elites’ conflicts.

Other chapters are examples that show clash of rights with different topics and different formats. Equality, symbolic politics (race, Canadian residents, and language) are the examples that show how different rights or principles are conflicting and why the political system should be understood as dynamic.

The final chapter concludes that value pluralism is the key to understand modern politics and its dynamics.

Clearly written, based on strong message and nice examples. The writing style, I assume, is the model of well trained social behavioralist.

While good, some are disappointing. This is not about the criticism of his book, but just my reflection or subjective feelings after finishing his book.

First, too much space is given to justify that Canadian politics is also observed in the politics of the US. It is not bad, by itself, but I simply doubts that this thought shows – implicitly and unconsciously - the American Academic Imperialism (not implusive meaning, please). Frequently, the US situation is assumed as a standard (whether it is a good or bad standard), and other national politics is approached via particularized or localized theory, rather than generalized or universal theory.

Second, rights (or principles) are frequently assumed as norms that are a priori. However, they are mobilized to justify the things post hoc. For example, rule of equal chance could be a principle, but it becomes a ruling device if its proponent is the person who can enjoy his/her privilege in a society. Of course, the second dissatisfaction is nothing but my interpretation (while I assume that many others in a society can agree with me).

By the way, (and again) good and well-written book, I believe.

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