How many refuseniks can a liberal democracy handle?

There’s a saying that goes “if someone owes you $500, that’s their problem; if someone owes you $500 million, that’s your problem.”

Lately I’ve been thinking that if one citizen of a liberal democracy rejects its philosophy, one person has a problem; if one million citizens of a liberal democracy reject its philosophy, society has a problem.

Mostly, this is just me putting a familiar theme into a new bottle, so I won’t dwell on it all that long here.

But it continues to seem like something which we need to confront, and I’m not sure that I have seen anyone doing so:

Even in an impossible scenario of sweeping new political rules to take away all of Republicans’ (currently generous) options for exercising tyranny of the minority, what does liberalism propose to offer them other than the steamrolling of what they value, forever?

You could say this is mainly an academic question. I have zero or less sympathy for Republicans at this point. What they value is increasingly abhorrent. But I don’t feel like it works just to dismiss this. Predictions that this will pass, that “the fever will break,” have proved absurdly wrong.

“Well, Americans aren’t really that divided,” people still like to say, which seems mostly like a variation on arguing that Republicans are wrong. Yes, I think so too, and facts and reality support this assessment, but none of this is convincing Republicans that they’re really just misguided Democrats who want liberal policies but simply don’t understand that.

I think one thing difficult for liberalism to confront is that a lot of people very genuinely, in a very meaningful sense, want illiberal society. They want a hierarchical caste society, white supremacy, rigid gender binaries, entwined church and state, etc., and they want a society in which these things are enforced rules not just a personal lifestyle choice.

I disagree with that, and I believe that liberal democratic states have an obligation to be assertive in preventing such outcomes. But in addition to the practical difficulty, at a certain scale, I think that there is also a valid question about what we even want to do.

In a sense I suppose this is a variation on the dilemma of intervention. When national borders are involved, it’s easy to see the questions about when whether and how liberal states should intervene to try to defend its definition of vulnerable populations’ rights from their oppressive local authorities. But I think that at a certain scale, similar questions occur even within what we regard formally as a single nation.

In the mid-19th century, James L. Petigru remarked that “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” In the early 21st century, “Trump country” seems far too large for confinement and considerably more than populous enough for nationhood. It would be an abhorrent nation, obviously. But what, really, do we envision the alternative being like?

Even if America’s liberal democratic state had the strength to contain indefinitely this nation-sized population of refuseniks (which does not seem to be the case), what should we think about that? Cheering schadenfreude? Grim self-righteous acceptance? Ignoring the question might be possible, though ignoring the resultant problems is increasingly untenable.

Again, I think that the ossification of so many borders over the past several decades (or more) is damming up pressures which recur throughout history. There is no more “frontier” for refusenik populations to go settle. There wasn’t before really, either—there was just other societies’ land—which is really the point. Yes, we should learn to live together and be good and fair to one another, but irreconcilable differences on that score do occur.

Upon how many refuseniks can one state impose its will, and for how long?

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