Questions to Consider
Dr. Shearmur begins with questions that you have probably asked at one time or another, questions such as:
What is meant by ideology? Is it something I have, or only something that those who disagree with me happen to harbor?
Is political debate a series of disputes over how best to realize ideals that we all hold in common, or are those who support differing programs and policies truly striving for quite different and distinct ideals?
Is politics really driven purely by subrational motives such as material interests, or can ideas make a difference? And if ideas do matter, what precisely are the schools of thought that inform our political discourse today? Where do they come from? How have they changed over time? And how do they interact with one another to form our public sphere?
Dr. Shearmur shows that most of our current public controversies—from tax and welfare policy to issues touching on feminism, free speech, or the public status of homosexuality— can be understood as arguments within a larger liberal tradition.
As he sees it, four related but seriously differing schools of thought contend over questions such as "What motivates us?" "What is true human flourishing?" and "What should our ideals be, and what kinds of institutions and programs best realize them?"
How Ideas Affect Issues
Dr. Shearmur invites you to consider how ideas flowing from principles held by these schools of thought apply to real issues such as taxes, welfare, the environment, feminism, free speech, Americans’ declining civic and political participation, and more.
As regards participation, a striking discussion has been opened up by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. In an essay and later a book titled Bowling Alone, he has argued that Americans are increasingly less likely to belong to voluntary groups and associations of all kinds, and that this will have serious consequences for everything from personal health to our whole political system.
Putnam’s evidence, his proposed solutions, what they say about where we are now and where we are going, and the responses of his critics from across the spectrum—all will come in for your consideration.
Socialism, Ecology, and Feminisms
Both Marxian and non-Marxian socialists offer moral critiques of the existing social order. Some of the latter, along with certain liberal theorists, have recently argued that welfare liberalism and socialism share much ground, that the former even perhaps points to the latter. What is the basis of such arguments, and what do critics of various stripes make of it all?
Should ecological concerns prompt us to embrace extensive regulation or the international redistribution of resources? Are there market-based solutions to environmental problems? And what of "deep ecology," the view that ecological systems should be considered valuable in themselves, and should impose moral constraints upon human action?
Three lectures on feminism begin by exploring the work of John Stuart Mill on the social situation of women in the mid 19th-century, and his ideas for improving it. The American feminist Betty Friedan critically appraised those improvements from the standpoint of the early 1960s, thereby launching the feminist movement as we know it today.
Is feminism essentially an offshoot of liberalism, exposed to the same questions? What of variants such as the socialist and "radical" feminisms of the 1970s or the "difference feminism" that flows from the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan, and which has influenced the outcome of actual court cases?
Finally, we look at responses of liberal feminists to criticisms of liberalism by other feminists, and at conservative responses to feminism. From feminism, we turn to other political ideas that bring issues of identity into the heart of politics.
Who Belongs? Nationalism and Multiculturalism
The next phase of your reflection focuses on nationalism and multiculturalism as they affect politics both globally and locally. Again, you’ll get to the root of current controversies by looking at how the politics of identity developed, and at the arguments that go on between supporters and critics.
This, in turn, leads us to issues relating to homosexuality, not least because some homosexuals have taken multiculturalism as a model for their own politics. Also worth considering are the ideas of journalist and commentator Andrew Sullivan, who makes a distinctively non-multicultural and even conservative case for gay marriage. The ideas of Sullivan’s critics, both religious conservatives and homosexuals influenced by "queer theory," also come into focus in Dr. Shearmur’s evenhanded treatment.
The debate over gay marriage raises vital questions of a more general character, concerning the relationship between religious and secular authority, and, more generally, religion and politics in Western societies.
Hence the need for lectures on the questions of free expression and pornography. Disagreements over these issues, Dr. Shearmur suggests, shed much light on how both liberalism and conservatism see the world.
Do Political Ideas Have a Future?
Finally, your survey of today’s political discourse closes with a question raised by the collapse of the Soviet Union: Is there really any room left for serious arguments about ideas in politics, or has history shown decisively that liberal democracy is the only answer to political questions?
Such a viewwhich echoes the liberal theme that liberalism is the fate of everyonewas explored by Francis Fukuyama. He made his case strikingly in his famous 1989 essay "The End of History?" and later in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man.
Is Fukuyama (assuming his own views have remained consistent!) correct? Are we all liberals (or soon-to-be liberals) now?
Dr. Shearmur caps your intellectual tour of the modern political landscape by asking how people who hold the various ideas studied in the lectures might best respond to Fukuyama’s argument.
Will history go on, or has the scope of political ideas narrowed, for better or worse, in some final way? Not easy questions to answer, but you’ll be able to make an informed try after absorbing these 24 revealing talks from an exceptionally lucid and levelheaded student of politics today.
Lecture 1: Setting the Table
Lecture 2: Liberalism Introduced
Lecture 3: Liberalism
Lecture 4: Liberalism in Dispute
Lecture 5: Libertarianism
Lecture 6: Conservatism, Part I
Lecture 7: Conservatism, Part II
Lecture 8: How Society Works
Lecture 9: Social Capital, Part I
Lecture 10: Social Capital, Part II
Lecture 11: Socialism
Lecture 12: Non-Marxist Socialism
Lecture 13: Socialism—Problems & Objections
Lecture 14: Ecological Ideas, Part I
Lecture 15: Ecological Ideas, Part II
Lecture 16: Feminism
Lecture 17: Problems of Liberal Feminism
Lecture 18: Feminism Concluded
Lecture 19: Nationalism
Lecture 20: Multiculturalism
Lecture 21: Gay & Lesbian Politics
Lecture 22: Religion & Politics in the West
Lecture 23: Toleration, Censorship & Pornography
Lecture 24: The End of History