Home > Faculty, Political Theory, Scholarship, University of the Pacific > Pacific@MPSA: Ambition, belonging, and the moral community

Pacific@MPSA: Ambition, belonging, and the moral community

Late 19th century view, the Puritan stereotype...

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Ed. note: This is the fourth in our series on papers presented at the Midwestern Political Science Association meeting. Today is Prof. Jeffrey Becker’s paper, “The Ambition of Moral Citizens: Belonging and the Limits of the Moral Community.”

This essay argues that democracies face an elementary challenge of building a sense of belonging out of a diverse and heterogeneous population. Socially, people inevitably separate one another into exclusive categories of “us” and “them.”  Yet, politically, when democratic citizens seek political power by claiming the mantle of moral righteousness, and in turn demonize their political opponents as immoral, they undermine the capacity of democratic institutions to build political unity and consensus.  Political ambitions to build a community of moral purpose by dividing “us” from “them”, when adopted as a strategy for ambitious citizens seeking political power, end up demanding that citizens who have no immediate reasons to despise one another-sort themselves into coalitions defined by increasingly polarized worldviews. By connecting a case study of the American Puritans with contemporary political debates I show how claims to political power which center on determining the moral purity of citizens end up expanding and entrenching an authoritarian politics hostile to democratic practices. Left undeterred, this polarizing of citizens undermines democratic practices essential to forming a collective responsibility for public life.

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