Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity

The forthcoming article “Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity” by Nathan Pippenger is summarized by the author below. 

Does democracy need solidarity? Increasingly, political theorists are skeptical. Encouraging citizens to think of themselves as a “We” may threaten both a polity’s internal diversity and its peaceful relations with outsiders—hardly an abstract concern with far-right populism in worldwide ascent. And even if solidarity isn’t dangerous, it might be arbitrary: Why should we show special concern for someone simply because they happen to be a fellow citizen? Accordingly, some theorists conclude that democracies should drop the aspiration of cultivating solidarity on the scale of the state—which, they argue, is both too vast to serve as a meaningful site of identification and too parochial to include outsiders with compelling claims on our concern. 

In response, solidarity’s defenders make two main arguments. One is egalitarian: it claims that the welfare state needs the support of solidarity. The other is republican: it maintains that solidarity among citizens advances the ideal of nondomination. Yet I argue that strictly speaking, neither the welfare state nor nondomination require solidarity, and so these defenses leave solidarity vulnerable to the charge that democracies would comfortably survive its disappearance.  

Yet this by no means indicates that democratic states can forgo solidarity. For as my article argues, solidarity is a necessary epistemic condition for democratic self-determination, understood as collective self-rule on terms of equality.  

What does it mean to say that solidarity is epistemically necessary for democracy? For a demos to collectively rule itself, its members must together define the group’s problems and design corresponding solutions. This means that political problems are not already out there in the world, awaiting discovery; rather, they emerge from the citizenry’s collective perspective, which can be generated only when citizens demonstrate mutual concern by gathering each other’s views and assigning them special weight. No institutional mechanism of democracy can force this process to occur; it requires a form of solidarity, one that establishes the epistemic conditions of democracy. 

Therefore, I argue that solidarity is valuable not for the contingent reason that it might support some particular goal (such as the welfare state or nondomination) which could be achieved in its absence. Rather, solidarity is necessary in order to sustain those processes of democratic self-rule through which a citizenry defines problems and pursues goals in the first place. This interpretation suggests that it is mistaken to search for solidarity in a shared culture, rather than in the disposition of citizens to listen and deliberate. It further indicates that solidarity’s enhancement is linked to the improvement of a given society’s deliberative practices—the way its citizens acquire information, discuss public affairs, and weigh each other’s concerns. 

This democratic interpretation of solidarity clarifies what it is for and how it might be encouraged. Without solidarity, citizens may ignore or disregard each other’s views, obstructing the processes which, by generating a collective perspective, give public actions a democratic character they would otherwise lack. For that reason, I contend, we cannot dismiss bounded solidarity without also jettisoning a prominent and appealing understanding of democracy. 

About the Author: Nathan Pippenger is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at United States Naval Academy. His research “Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: