“The fierceness of the tactical dispute over the best methods by which an activist federal government should solve all social ills may,” writes my man Julian Sanchez of the mutual loathing between contemporary liberals and today’s big government GOP, “more than anything else, reflect the narcissism of small differences.” As a former philosophy major just like Julian, let me suggest that what it actually reflects is something a philosophy major is likely to ignore — the relative unimportance of very abstract ideas to politics.
Actual American politics — as opposed to political theory — is structured around the competition of various organized interests to capture the power of the federal government and use it to advance their ends. These groups, in turn, are to some extent meta-organized into two somewhat enduring competing teams aligned with the two major political parties. That these teams sort of agree that, in the abstract, “seize control of the levers of government and use them to advance our interests” is a sound political program is really neither here nor there in terms of making the differences between the teams “small.” Both the gay rights movement and the gay-repression movement agree, for example, that the coercive authority of the state ought to be deployed on behalf of a given conception of homosexuality. Gay rights groups want, for example, not only to end the state’s discrimination against gays and lesbians, but also want the state to force private actors to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians (via, for example, employment- and housing-discrimination laws) in their capacity as private citizens.
It would be silly, however, to describe the disagreement about whether the state should be used to actively discriminate against gays and lesbians or should be used to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians as a “small differene” or some kind of trivial quarrel. Obviously, these are directly opposed agendas, and supporters of each agenda have eminently good reasons to fear and loath the advocates of the other agenda. Simply put, the practical stakes are rather high for most people even if the disagreements exist at a relatively low level of abstraction.