published on September 10, 2021
William A. Edmundson
"In Such Ways as Promise Some Success"
This year is the centenary of the birth of philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) and the semi-centenary of his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971). This essay explores the differences between political opposition and political resistance as reflected in his work. Rawls is remembered for the careful conditions he imposed in the Vietnam-War era upon justifiable civil disobedience in “nearly just” societies. It is less well known that he came to regard the United States as a fundamentally unjust society. The nation has shown itself not merely unserious about political equality—the cornerstone of Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness—but hostile to it. The Supreme Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence sanctifies spending as speech and denies Congress the power to try to level the electoral playing field. In the Supreme Court’s Constitution, substantive political equality is of no value. The upshot is that civil disobedience, conceived as an appeal to a just constitution, is no longer possible in the United States. Political resistance may be permissible, however, within the bounds of right, “in such ways as promise some success.” This essay ekes out Rawls’s suggestive remarks about the justification of political resistance and attempts to extend them to current conditions.