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Political Liberalism vs. “The Great Game of Politics”: The Politics of Political Liberalism

  • Russell Muirhead (a1) and Nancy L. Rosenblum (a2)

How political is Rawls's political liberalism? By calling his theory “political liberalism,” he means something, as he says, “quite different … from what the reader is likely to suppose.” In particular, he distances his theory from the hurly-burly of electoral contests and the deal-making of legislative log-rolling. By “political”, Rawls mainly intends to contrast his theory with those that rely on metaphysical foundations. But Rawls's theory is political in at least one ordinary sense: it is not meant to be only a theory. He does not intend to offer the kind of utopian account that stands across an unbridgeable gap from the sentiments, opinions, and institutions of everyday politics. On the contrary, as a “realistic utopia” his theory is a blueprint for a building that can in fact be built. What part does politics play in this picture? How much distance does Rawls put between political liberalism and “what the reader is likely to suppose”? Does politics as it is normally understood both popularly and in much democratic theory recede into the far distance? Does it disappear altogether?Russell Muirhead is Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University (; Nancy L Rosenblum is Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University ( The authors would like to thank Corey Brettschneider and Erin Kelly for helpful comments.

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