INSIDE Chico State
0 May 1, 2003
Volume 33 Number 15
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Theorists Smith and Zuckert Argue Nature of Liberal Tradition

Photo: Michael Zuckert

Michael Zuckert

Despite raising the possibility of “drawing some blood,” renowned political theorists Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania, and Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame, appeared to argue in agreement for most of their April 10 talk, “Living Up to the Declaration of Independence: Liberalism and the American Experience.”

Both agreed that the American political tradition is one of liberal democracy, which affirms some basic principles of political rights:

• All human beings are created equal.

• Governments exist to secure the rights that all possess equally.

• Legitimate government rests on consent.

• Governors must be responsible in some way to the governed.

Both are, according to Zuckert, “apologists for liberalism” and “multiple traditions kinds of guys,” agreeing that the American experience has been shaped by multiple political traditions, including liberal democracy. It was about the nature of the American liberal tradition that the two disagreed.

Photo: Rogers Smith

Rogers Smith

Smith introduced his concept of “ascriptive hierarchy,” stating, “For over 80 percent of U.S. history, its laws declared most of the world’s population to be ineligible for full American citizenship,” solely because of their race, original nationality, gender, or other “ascribed characteristics.”

“This is indeed a striking claim,” Zuckert declared, “taking the wind out of the sails of traditional American claims to openness and universalism.” Denial of female suffrage, slavery, virtual extermination of a native population, and other “warts and blemishes” of the American political experience, he agreed, are incongruities in a liberal democratic society.

However, he did not entirely agree with the way Smith wanted to speak of them, calling Smith’s “multiple traditions” definition a “jumble version” or “grab-bag tradition.” The exclusion of women from voting rights is quite a different matter, he said, from race-based slavery or from religion-based discrimination.

Liberal democracy, both agreed, requires or implies that there be no ascriptive treatment of persons at all. Whether it then follows that genuine liberal societies are in principal open to all persons was another point of contention. Zuckert claimed that ascriptively based communities, especially nation-states with common language, culture, religion, cuisine, etc.—“precisely the sort of preexisting ascriptive community that Smith declares illegitimate”— can perfectly well satisfy the liberal criteria of legitimacy. “Different nations have a right to form their own liberal democracies,” he said, as long as they do not violate the basic human rights beyond their boundaries.

Smith favored moving toward world confederations without independent nation-states. “I could see, for example, a United States of North America,” he said, but he thought that Zuckert “wouldn’t go that far.” Zuckert claimed that he was not in principle opposed to a U.S.N.A., but objected to the cosmopolitan state being the “default setting.” “Ultracosmopolitanism is not the only legitimate liberal state model,” he asserted.

The question-and-answer session united the two in agreement again, especially on the dangers of the Patriot Act. “Clear principles of Anglo-American law are being violated,” Zuckert said, “and we are not being loud enough about it.” Smith declared, “It is a myth and shell game that the Patriot Act applies only to aliens. I feel we are in an historical moment when the U.S. government has the sovereign right to disregard the rights of aliens and citizens alike, in the name of national security.”

Photo: Rogers Smith with Alan Gibson, who brought Smith and Zuckert to campus.

Rogers Smith with Alan Gibson, who brought Smith and Zuckert to campus.

Smith has written more than 70 academic articles and four books, including Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in United States History, which received five “best book” awards and was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history. Zuckert has published three books in the last five years, including Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. He is currently working on Completing the Constitution: The Post-Civil War Amendments and is co-authoring a book about Machiavelli and Shakespeare. The two constitutional scholars also spoke at a Friday forum titled “The American Political Tradition and America in the World Today.”

Smith and Zuckert’s visit was sponsored by the Associated Students, the political science department, the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, the Office of the Provost, Pi Sigma Alpha national political science honor society, and the Notre Dame Club of Chico. Alan Gibson, political science and a Notre Dame alumnus, was instrumental in bringing the scholars to Chico. “To have only one of them would be an honor,” Gibson said. “To have both is a triumph.”

Francine Gair

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