Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through
Deep Difference

John D. Inazu. Chicago, 2016. 176 pages.


A long time ago—roughly between the 2014–2015 academic year and the spring of 2016, when Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy monopolized the public conversational agenda—there was a heated debate about whether our culture was experiencing a reprise of the 1990s and its struggles over “political correctness.” The debate was kicked off by an article in New York magazine, in which Jonathan Chait argued that recent campus controversies “would not have shocked anybody familiar with the campus scene from two decades earlier.”1 Subsequent events, such as protests at the University of Missouri and Yale, buttressed Chait’s claim that political correctness was back.2

Both the old and new debates over political correctness were roughly contemporaneous with another phenomenon, of which the “PC debate” is a subcategory: the so-called culture wars. This is the label given to heated arguments in the late 1980s and early 1990s over hot-button social issues such as school prayer, abortion, pornography, and so on, as well as the identity politics that roiled campuses.3

Around the time the political correctness debate returned, the broader culture wars heated up, particularly around religious issues. With some prescience, Professor Douglas Laycock wrote in 2011 that, “[f]or the first time in nearly 300 years, important forces in American society are questioning the free exercise of religion in principle—suggesting that free exercise of religion may be a bad idea, or at least, a right to be minimized.”4 He tied this development to broader social and demographic developments connected to the culture wars.5 Conversely, some religious groups were making what political progressives saw as aggressive arguments for legal autonomy or exemptions on such matters as whether religious entities must comply with nondiscrimination laws and whether commercial enterprises must subsidize employee insurance coverage for contraceptive services over the enterprises’ owners’ religious objections. The Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc,6 in the early summer of 2014, both exemplified these conflicts and presaged new ones, particularly with respect to LGBTQ rights.7

Just as the academy is said to be divided between “lumpers” and “splitters,”8 so there are those who tend to see the world in terms of new developments and those—call us “old folks” or, perhaps more generously, “Ecclesiasticians”—who insist that those developments are actually cyclical.9 Twenty years is a popular number for cycle spotters.10 Maybe it is the sweet spot for the cycling of ideas, permitting just the right combination of amnesia and nostalgia. Or maybe it is just an artifact of the human propensity to spot patterns in random data.11

Twenty years separate the political correctness controversy of the 1990s from its recent resurgence. Roughly the same span separates the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s from the more recent outbreak. Before that, there was another twenty-year cycle dating back to the social, cultural, and political revolutions of the late 1960s, which some accounts identify as the launching point for the subsequent cycles.12

There is a third twenty-year cycle, intimately connected to the other two but less remarked upon: a cycle of interest in pluralism. In this picture, pluralism serves as an alternative to the struggles between the polarized camps of left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious, or however else the contending sides are described.

“Pluralism” itself is a term susceptible of multiple understandings—and to one big distinction: between pluralism as purely descriptive and pluralism as a good in itself. What is important is that adherents of pluralism were interested in actively fostering pluralism. They saw smaller groups and institutions within the nation as having a value of their own, rather than wanting to set universal rules that would hand a final victory to one side or the other in the culture wars.13 Rather than advocating a single defining vision of justice for society as a whole—say, of equality over liberty or liberty over equality—they were concerned with “the reimagining of society as a bundle of smaller, more intensely bound communities.”14 This positive15 form of pluralism “morphed through many different formulations and took a multitude of names.”16 Its adherents came from both camps, “confound[ing] the simple divisions of the culture wars.”17 For this reason, pluralism was a “political wild card.”18

The story of cyclical interest in pluralism is harder to tell as a matter of neat twenty-year intervals, in part because it responds to and thus tends to lag behind the culture-war cycles. Like the culture wars themselves, it has earlier antecedents, which in turn were related to contemporary social developments.19 In the 1970s, the interest in pluralism and the structures that foster it was described in terms of the importance of “mediating structures,” a label popularized by Professor Peter Berger and Father Richard John Neuhaus.20 In the 1990s, it was more likely to be put in terms of multiculturalism or communitarianism, but sometimes it was phrased directly in terms of the importance of an active and positive pluralism itself. An example of this is the work of Professor William Galston, whose advocacy of “liberal pluralism”21 achieved some rhetorical prominence and occasional policy endorsement in the Clinton administration, in which Galston worked.22

Given the general inclination of Americans to divide along partisan lines, this kind of pluralism has always been a minority voice in public conversation. And as each cycle’s campus or culture war ebbs and the culture seems to return to the “center” or to a state of relative calm, interest in pluralism and its literature tends to fade as well.23

And now? If the current debate involves sharp conflict of the sort that characterized the earlier cycles of culture-war and PC debates, might we expect the same hunger for alternatives to emerge? Will more people become “eager to reengage with the value of pluralism [ ] as a distinctive approach of its own,”24 in contrast with those who seek a culture-war victory for either the left or the right?

If a new literature of pluralism emerges in this culture-war cycle, Professor John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference is likely to be one of its key texts. Inazu’s book is blissfully short, clearly written, aimed at educated general readers rather than academic specialists, and underwritten by personal experiences that cross standard culture-war lines.25 Confident Pluralism is necessary reading for anyone who is frustrated by the belligerence and inflexibility of the current discussion and looking for ways for different deeply held perspectives and tightly knit communities to survive and thrive.

But is it enough? There is reason to doubt it. There is much to admire in Inazu’s book, not least the simple fact of its existence. Although this Review takes a mostly critical perspective, that is not a final judgment on the merits of Inazu’s book or of an active, “confident” pluralism. On a substantive level, however, pluralism as a positive approach—as a good in itself, rather than a descriptive fact or a “technical problem . . . to be managed26—faces serious questions and difficulties.27 After providing a critical summary of the book in Part I, I argue in Part II that these questions remain largely unanswered in Confident Pluralism because of Inazu’s strategic refusal to stake out a more distinctive and forceful theoretical position on pluralism itself.

Confident Pluralism faces problems of timing, as well; the question of timing is the focus of Part III of the Review. Inazu’s book comes along at an awkward moment for two reasons. First, the current culture-war cycle may have crested. Second, the rise—and ultimately the electoral triumph—of Trump has interrupted that cycle, in ways that disrupt and explode the standard culture wars even more than they exemplify or exacerbate them. For almost a year, and no doubt well into the foreseeable future, cultural and political commentators have shifted their attention abruptly from the usual divisions of left and right over cultural issues to the more immediate issue of the election and its aftermath. Cultural groups themselves have been torn over where they stand on the election and on establishment versus populist politics. Inazu’s book thus comes along at a moment when it is simultaneously most needed and least likely to make new converts to the pluralist cause.

That is cause for regret. There is value in a forceful, positive pluralism, even if it remains a minority approach that cannot stave off the cycles of culture wars. I hope Confident Pluralism is one of the first examples of a new round of pluralist literature.28 Especially when our social, cultural, and political dialogue seems so polarized and zero-sum, there is some value even in imperfect alternatives to that dialogue. Still, I spend more of this Review discussing the problems of positive pluralism than proselytizing for it.

  • 1. Jonathan Chait, Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How the Language Police Are Perverting Liberalism. (New York Magazine, Jan 27, 2015), archived at
  • 2. See Jonathan Chait, Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now? (New York Magazine, Nov 10, 2015), archived at For criticisms of Chait’s January 2015 piece and broader defenses of on- and off-campus activism on these issues, see Jonathan Chait, Secret Confessions of the Anti-Anti-P.C. Movement (New York Magazine, Jan 30, 2015), archived at (providing links to many critical responses); John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness, 20 Years Later (Academe Blog, Feb 3, 2015), archived at (arguing that the supposed threat of “political correctness” was a “myth,” then and now); Roxane Gay, Student Activism Is Serious Business (New Republic, Nov 11, 2015), archived at
  • 3. See generally James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books 1991).
  • 4. Douglas Laycock, Sex, Atheism, and the Free Exercise of Religion, 88 U Detroit Mercy L Rev 407, 407 (2011) (emphasis omitted).
  • 5. See id at 412–23.
  • 6. 134 S Ct 2751 (2014).
  • 7. See Paul Horwitz, The Hobby Lobby Moment, 128 Harv L Rev 154, 166–77 (2014); Douglas Laycock, Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars, 2014 U Ill L Rev 839, 848–55.
  • 8. See Bradley C. Karkkainen, “New Governance” in Legal Thought and in the World: Some Splitting as Antidote to Overzealous Lumping, 89 Minn L Rev 471, 479 (2004).
  • 9. For examples of this perspective within constitutional law and theory, see Barry Friedman, The Cycles of Constitutional Theory, 67 L & Contemp Probs 149, 149 (Summer 2004) (“Seen through the lens of history, it is apparent that arguments about the Constitution have a way of coming around again.”); Paul W. Kahn, Community in Contemporary Constitutional Theory, 99 Yale L J 1, 1 (1989) (“American constitutional theory has been cyclical, understanding the Constitution sometimes as a product of will and sometimes as a product of reason.”).
  • 10. In the legal literature alone, it has been spotted in police corruption, see Harold Baer Jr and Joseph P. Armao, The Mollen Commission Report: An Overview, 40 NY L Sch L Rev 73, 73 (1995), abortion law, see Sara L. Walsh, Liquid Lives and Liquid Laws: The Evolution of Abortion Law in Japan and the United States, 7 Intl Legal Persp 187, 189 (1995), and third-party politics, see Bradley A. Smith, Note, Judicial Protection of Ballot-Access Rights: Third Parties Need Not Apply, 28 Harv J Legis 167, 169–71 (1991), among other areas.
  • 11. See Apophenia (Wikipedia), archived at; Michael Shermer, Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise (Scientific American, Dec 1, 2008), archived at
  • 12. See, for example, Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars 1–7 (Chicago 2015). Other accounts see the culture wars as extending throughout American history. See generally, for example, Stephen Prothero, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne 2016).
  • 13. See Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture 191–94 (Belknap 2011).
  • 14. Id at 191.
  • 15. I use “positive” in this Review in the colloquial sense of viewing something as a good thing, not in the academic sense of a descriptive rather than a normative account.
  • 16. Rodgers, Age of Fracture at 191 (cited in note 13).
  • 17. Id at 181, 194–98.
  • 18. Id at 191.
  • 19. See Mark Bevir, A History of Modern Pluralism, in Mark Bevir, ed, Modern Pluralism: Anglo-American Debates since 1880 1, 12–16 (Cambridge 2012).
  • 20. See Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy 1–8 (American Enterprise Institute 1977) (“[M]ediating structures are defined as those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.”) (emphasis omitted).
  • 21. See generally William A. Galston, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge 2002).
  • 22. See William A. Galston, The View from the White House—Individual and Community Empowerment, in Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society 58, 61 (AEI 2d ed 1996) (Michael Novak, ed). For a brief overview of pluralism’s occasional and partial political implementation, see generally James P. Pinkerton, Mediating Structures, 1977–1995, in Berger and Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society 51 (cited in note 22).
  • 23. See Paul Horwitz, Against Martyrdom: A Liberal Argument for Accommodation of Religion, 91 Notre Dame L Rev 1301, 1302–03 (2016).
  • 24. Id at 1304.
  • 25. See, for example, pp 26–28 (discussing his family’s experience as Japanese American internees during World War II).
  • 26. Horwitz, 91 Notre Dame L Rev at 1303 (cited in note 23) (emphasis added).
  • 27. Given that I identify with “positive pluralism,” any criticisms here are certainly also self-criticisms.
  • 28. Professor Jacob T. Levy’s recent book, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (Oxford 2015), is another important foundation for a new round of pluralism literature. Levy’s book distinguishes between two strands of liberalism. “[R]ationalist” liberalism is “committed to intellectual progress, universalism, and equality before a unified law, opposed to arbitrary and irrational distinctions and inequalities, and determined to disrupt local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, closed associations, [and] families.” Id at 2. “[P]luralist” liberalism is “skeptical of the central state and friendly toward local, customary, voluntary, or intermediate bodies, communities, and associations.” Id. In Professor Abner S. Greene’s words, the latter form argues for “recognizing a plurality of norms regarding how best to live, especially considering the tenuous grounding the state has to insist on its position at all times.” Abner S. Greene, Religious Freedom and (Other) Civil Liberties: Is There a Middle Ground?, 9 Harv L & Pol Rev 161, 192–93 (2015). Levy’s book acknowledges the limits of both strands but makes clear his sympathies for the pluralist strand, in part because of the relative neglect it has suffered in comparison to rationalist liberalism. See Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom at 27–28 (cited in note 28). Greene’s own book is another helpful text. See generally Abner S. Greene, Against Obligation: The Multiple Sources of Authority in a Liberal Democracy (Harvard 2012).