Which kinds of group engagements make us into more extreme partisan versions of ourselves? Which engagements with our political rivals could have (and perhaps should have) nothing to do with politics? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Robert B. Talisse. This present conversation focuses on Talisse’s book Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place. Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His central research area is democratic theory, where he pursues issues concerning legitimacy, justice, and public political argumentation. His most recent books include Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Nature of Philosophy (with Scott Aikin, 2018), Engaging Political Philosophy (2015), and Why We Argue (And How We Should) (with Scott Aikin, 2014).
ANDY FITCH: Before we focus on problematic aspects of today’s democratic politics, as well as on stresses perhaps inherent to democratic politics, could you sketch a consensus-building conception of the broader civilizational practices (or ends, or point) for which democratic politics serves as a particularly useful means? Could we maybe start, in fact, on your book’s final page, with its assertion that: “Although the term is freighted with certain associations that I would disavow, it can be said that the point of politics, and therefore the point of democracy, is human flourishing”? Which most crucial components of human flourishing do get overlooked, undervalued, atrophied when we focus too much on democratic politics?
ROBERT B. TALISSE: The question of how we should live as human beings, of what makes a human life good, goes back at least to Plato. This is because as human creatures, we face a peculiar predicament. We need one another to live well. We cannot live well in isolation. However, because of our rational faculties, we also tend to disagree with one another about how we ought to live together, what rules we all ought to live by. We find ourselves stuck with one another, and unable to live well in the absence of certain kinds of relationships of support and care and shared ambition and cooperation and love. But we also inevitably argue with one another about the precise contours and terms those relationships should take. The inevitable disagreements get in the way of the kind of relationships we need.
Given the complexities of these various relationships, politics is inevitable. Since we cannot live well without the company of fellow human beings, we also cannot live well outside of a political system of processes, institutions, and rules that helps us to manage our disputes over how to live together.
Some, including Aristotle, have claimed that the aim of politics, and of our political institutions, is to make us flourish. I reject that strong view, because I don’t think the government should take on the project of cultivating a particular comprehensive morality. After all, we disagree about what makes a life good! I do think, however, that we need politics if we hope to live worthwhile lives — because cultivating relationships of shared ambition, love, care, support, and creativity does require a relatively stable and just social and political order. Although it’s not the state’s job to make us good, it is the state’s job to sustain the social conditions under which we can live according to our own vision of what makes life worthwhile. And the political arrangement that most reliably supplies those conditions is democracy.
Along these lines, and again before we take up your diagnostic account of contemporary political dysfunction, what could a robustly democratic US look like today — if we could put politics in its proper place? What would we (as individuals and as a society) do more of, were an all-encompassing politicization not distorting and smothering our social spaces? And what most dynamic reach might democratic citizenship still have?
Some of the data here are illuminating. As our country has become more diverse at the macro level, the local spaces we inhabit in our day-to-day lives have become more homogeneous. In the past few decades, that homogeneity has come to be rooted in our partisan political identities. This trend applies to our families, workplaces, places of leisure, preferred commercial spaces, our schools, our churches, and all the rest. Liberals and conservatives largely occupy different physical spaces. Now, we don’t have to look too far back in the nation’s history to find social venues for cooperative interaction that were not so thoroughly sorted according to political allegiance. Back in the late-80s and early-90s, the sociologist Robert Putnam observed the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Bowling leagues traditionally had been sites where citizens from different backgrounds, economic circumstances, ethnicities, and faiths would engage together in a common activity that was not itself an expression of their politics. In the 1990s, bowling leagues in the US were in sharp decline, yet bowling remained a popular activity. People were opting to bowl alone, or at least not with people they didn’t already know.
Like bowling leagues, workplaces, churches, community organizations, and many other kinds of public venues used to offer contexts where people could engage cooperatively in various kinds of projects and activities — endeavors in which their political differences just didn’t matter very much and might not even come up. Those sites have either receded or been infiltrated by partisan sorting. Accordingly, our everyday social interactions are likely to put us in touch only with others whose political profiles are much like our own.
For reasons I go into in the book, this circumstance contributes massively to the polarization and vitriol of or current politics. To be sure, partisan hostility is not new. For example, back when I was a kid in the 70s, my father despised the Democrats and Jimmy Carter. But he didn’t hate the guy across the street who voted for Carter. In fact, he liked that guy, and he felt no need to interrupt an otherwise friendly neighborly relation by allowing their political differences (which were pretty significant) to pollute the neighborly activities they would do together. And that doesn’t mean he had to suppress the inclination, either. They simply had other things to attend to and talk about. Looking back 25 or 30 years, there were greater opportunities for social interactions not filtered through, and not organized around, our partisan allegiances. You could still have strong political opinions, but, thanks to these other sites of social engagement, you also could come to recognize your political rivals or even enemies as responsible parents, good neighbors, reliable co-workers, conscientious spouses, and so on — people living lives according to their own best judgments about what’s really worthwhile. Why? Because you didn’t have to engage with them always by way of one’s partisan identity, and against the explicit backdrop of the day’s political travails.
So now pivoting to some of this book’s central diagnostic claims, particularly its assertions that many of today’s most divisive and dysfunctional civic tendencies stem from a combined demographic sorting of the American electorate and a political saturation of our social spaces, could you place Overdoing Democracy alongside recent accounts of Americans’ increasingly hyper-polarized mega-identities (fusing, for instance, racial, religious, regional, class-based, and political-partisan characteristics)? What changes when we focus, as your book does, a bit less on identity and its affects, and a bit more on behavior and its social spaces — a bit less on who we are, and a bit more (perhaps in Humean terms) on how we get shaped?
It’s important to recognize how all-consuming our partisan identities have become. I very much appreciate recent studies that focus on the interiority of these dynamics, and on how we now feel that conservatism or progressivism captures wholly who we are, deep down inside so to speak. I explore how our self-understandings, our conceptions of our own identities, have changed, and I have a hunch (which I defend by way of some social-scientific considerations in the book) that the external, behavioral cues and habits formed under the material conditions in which we live as social beings shape our inner lives as well. I embrace this kind of empiricist view that the inside emerges from the outside.
This prompts me to think about how technology has provided certain advantages that were unimaginable to our grandparents. We live today in increasingly personalizable, customized social worlds. Our social environments have gotten more homogeneous, and this is partly because our everyday experiences have become largely up to us. We have more and more choice over who we interact with, on what terms, at what time, from where, and for how long. We can preselect our exposure to ideas, messages, art, music, news, and much else. We can block, mute, silence, and expel what we don’t like. And again, as the kind of social creature that we are, having this vast latitude over our surroundings causes us to develop preferences for certain environments. In turn, we come to behave in ways that reinforce and solidify those preferences. We live in made-to-order social worlds, and we generally choose to make those worlds in our own image. But this image we have of ourselves is the product of an environment that permits us such latitude.
That points us towards Overdoing Democracy’s concerns about belief polarization. We might tend to think of polarization in binary terms. But your book’s examination of belief polarization focuses more on unitary scenes, on how homogenous social spaces make groups increasingly uniform in their beliefs, make individuals increasingly extreme in their beliefs, prompt increasingly confident assertions of such beliefs, and prompt increasingly dismissive, distrusting, and/or fearful projections of apparent enemies — all leading today to what we all can recognize (at least when “the other side” does it) as absurd social-media outcomes, epitomized by ill-informed, poorly argued ad hominem rants which one’s rivals never will hear anyway. Here could you start to parse your ongoing advocacy for political coalition-building, for sustained mobilization on social-justice causes, alongside your concern with politicized social spaces becoming breeding grounds for this kind of corrosive belief polarization?
Right. The overall argument in Overdoing Democracy has the following structure: rather than claiming that some non-democratic or counter-democratic force has infiltrated the political sphere and is undermining democracy, I instead contend that overdoing democracy is a tendency inherent within the democratic ideal itself. It is a characteristic vulnerability of even a well-functioning democracy. You just put it well in terms of the need to balance the perfectly acceptable (indeed, commendable) democratic tradition of coalition-building, consciousness-raising, and participatory activism with this looming vulnerability to belief polarization. But let’s first say what belief polarization is.
Belief polarization is a pathology that can emerge when we effectively build coalitions around our political objectives. In short, when we interact only with like-minded others, we transform into more extreme versions of ourselves — we come to adopt more radical and strident versions of our prior commitments, and we hold these new views with exaggerated levels of confidence. At the same time, we come to see opposing views and the people who espouse them as increasingly alien, unintelligible, radical, naive, depraved, and corrupt. Thus belief polarization undermines our ability to interact cooperatively with others who do not share our political views. It is, as you say, democratically corrosive. Yet it is a byproduct of inexorably democratic modes of political participation and social action.
People might glance at the book’s title and think I’m launching some kind of anti-democracy argument. But Overdoing Democracy is in no way opposed to democracy. It is an attempt to save robustly participatory democracy from a problem that emerges from within itself. When democratic politics unduly expands its reach, when we allow the travails and categories of democratic life to penetrate the whole of our social experience, we actually impede crucial and essential kinds of social activity, and this leads to democracy’s unraveling. To be clear: democracy involves ongoing and vigorous struggles for justice, autonomy, freedom, and equality. We have to work at democracy vigilantly. But when this becomes all that we ever do together, we render ourselves more vulnerable to belief polarization, and democracy comes undone. In the book, I describe this as a political auto-immune disorder that lies within the democratic ideal.
Well, given that certain forms of potentially constructive political unity in fact tend towards corrosive and/or combative belief polarization, I also do wonder when political divisions within an especially powerful nation like ours helpfully constrain us from self-destructive hubristic acts. For instance, have we, in the 21st century, experienced our most unified political sentiments immediately following the September 11th attacks, immediately followed by our biggest geopolitical blunder of invading Iraq?
That sounds exactly right to me. Nothing in this book’s account of overdoing democracy involves the recommendation that we just chill out about politics or withdraw wholesale from democratic participation. As citizens, we need to do the kinds of things we are presently inclined to do. We need to keep building impassioned coalitions. We need to keep making persuasive arguments and engaging in acts of critique, dissent, and resistance. Democracy needs antagonism and friction. All of that still seems to me the lifeblood of democracy, the sign of a healthy democracy. But democracy also needs engagements of other kinds — not because we must learn to resign from politics, but rather so that our political engagements (as heated and loud as they often have to be) can remain engagements among persons who nonetheless regard one another as political equals.
So let’s say a well-intentioned person seeks to embrace a Tocquevillian sense of participatory citizenship, but swiftly finds his/her efforts channeled towards embodying and further exacerbating hyper-partisanship. Let’s say this citizen then responds by proactively launching some new bipartisan initiative. Why, in your account, might these admirable pursuits just continue making social divisions worse at present?
Sure, one intuitive response to this observation that our politics has become too adversarial, too rancorous, too uncooperative, would recommend finding avenues for bipartisan cooperation. I don’t consider that a terrible idea. I don’t oppose bipartisan softball games [Laughter]. Diversifying your informational intake, listening to the other side, joining a bipartisan softball team and things like that turn out to be good ways of preventing belief polarization. But we’re past the point of needing to prevent polarization. Rather, we need to reverse belief polarization. That’s simply a different task. Some research suggests that once we have become so belief-polarized that we see the other side as alien and untrustworthy, exposure to this other side’s views only exacerbates or intensifies our attitudes. Thus “reaching across the aisle” can backfire, and it is likely to backfire in the absence of other kinds of initiatives.
Then for a slightly different angle on this question of whether or not one already has succumbed to belief polarization: of course even as Overdoing Democracy calls on us to put politics in its place, your book acknowledges that many fellow citizens might prefer to adopt a “the personal is political” approach, might argue that some of us have no choice but to dwell in divisive social categorizations imposed upon us every moment of our lives, might declare that only excessively privileged individuals ever would have the luxury of calling for “less” politics, or of believing that “nonpolitical” identities and social spaces exist for any of us. Here could you start addressing why you consider persistent reference to political context a necessary but not sufficient means of explaining our personal and social lives?
First, we do live in a political world that, to put it bluntly, is not adequately just. Serious forms of social exclusion still pervade democratic states, perhaps especially (at least along certain metrics) the US. Second, as you anticipate, some have responded to ideas from this book by describing their very existence as political. The claim is that when one’s very existence is political, there could be no putting politics in its place. This is a valuable line of critique. How to respond? To begin with, I think it’s important to note that those who press this criticism typically present the inescapable politicization of their existence as itself a manifestation of the injustice they suffer. That strikes me as correct — the coding of certain bodies and lives as irrevocably political is a kind of oppression. I’d add that this is itself a product of overdoing democracy.
Of course, that does not address the critical upshot you mention, according to which the inescapability of politics for some renders the prescription that we should “put politics in its place” a project that can be attempted only by the privileged (or at least those unburdened by the inevitable politicization of their existence). OK. But not every endeavor made possible by such unjust privilege is therefore an objectionable exercise of privilege. Indeed, it strikes me that those who are unjustly privileged ought to find themselves with additional obligations.
In fact, I would say something slightly stronger. Let’s grant that for those whose bodies and lives are inescapably politicized, there could be no putting politics in its place (I’m not sure that this is correct, but let’s just assume it is). It still seems to me that those of us privileged in the relevant respects, who can enact the recommendation to put politics in its place, are obligated to do so. Privilege sometimes obligates us not to sit by passively, but to act decisively. And our current political culture presents an especially clear example. If we don’t change our mode of democratic engagement, if we don’t figure out more constructive ways to pursue rigorous and vigilant democratic commitments, we will in fact create a political context in which the most socially vulnerable among us become even more vulnerable. If we don’t shift our politics away from what I call a cold civil war, if we keep acting as though being right on a particular political question entitles us to get our way — well, the other side can play that game too. And when everyone plays that game, the most socially vulnerable among us suffer the consequences, with those of us privileged in the relevant sense poised to contribute to this injustice.
Here your book makes clear that part of political engagement, particularly in a highly partisan society, involves losing, perhaps 50 percent of the time. Part of political loss, even in a democratic context, involves finding oneself obligated and if necessary coerced to abide by and even to facilitate (say through one’s tax contribution) policies one might consider foolish and even fundamentally wrong. So here could you describe the three central capacities that both we and our rivals need to possess (though not necessarily to exemplify every single instant) in order for our society as a whole to sustain its democratic commitments in the face of these constant bitter losses and outcomes for somebody or other: democratic sympathy, democratic reasonableness, and democratic persistence?
John Dewey and Jane Addams describe democracy as not merely a form of government, but as a way of life, as a mode of interaction among human beings. I accept a certain version of that thought. But that idea shouldn’t obscure for us the fact that democracy is also a mode of politics. We must not lose sight of the fact that even when it functions impeccably, when democracy decides, somebody loses, and they will have to live with the loss. This of course doesn’t mean that losers must simply acquiesce. Democratic legitimacy rests largely in the fact that, even after the votes are counted in a perfectly conducted election, citizens can still go out in public and rail against the prevailing decision. They can make the case for revisiting this decision. We have constitutional procedures and institutions in place that basically guarantee you get another shot. Democracy starts from this premise that a just, egalitarian, and free society constantly remains a work in progress.
We work at democracy through channels of political engagement premised on the claim that our fellow citizens, even when they’re wrong, nonetheless remain our equals, people entitled to an equal political say. We need to engage with them in ways that manifest our recognition of their political equality. To perform well as democratic citizens, then, we need to embody certain character traits — certain civic virtues, one might say. We need to persist within democratic channels even in the face of political loss (and in our persistence, we again need to address our political enemies as nevertheless our equals). This persistence, I argue, calls for a kind of sympathy that enables us to see our political rivals as, despite their errors, engaged in an attempt, much like our own, to realize in the political world their best judgment about what justice requires. But belief polarization undermines these capacities, because it causes us to lose sight of the difference between being wrong and being depraved. Belief polarization causes us to let democracy devolve into a competition for political domination.
So let’s say that I embrace Overdoing Democracy’s rigorous tests of individual democratic commitment (along the lines of: “democracy involves the contention that…a citizen may be rightfully forced to live according to rules favored by a demonstrably irrational and ignorant majority even if she is able to show that were the majority slightly less irrational and ignorant, they would fervently support wholly different rules”), and that I respond: “Everything you say persuasively points to my own democratic failings when George W. Bush was president. I probably exaggerated a bit what I called our ‘crisis of democracy’ back then. Donald Trump, however, presents a qualitatively different case. If we ever hope to fulfill our duties as democratic citizens, then we must fight (if necessary) for the removal of this president intellectually, morally, and psychologically unfit for the office — whether or not he won an Electoral College majority in its most recent election, and whether or not a substantial portion of the electorate still ignorantly or unconscionably tolerates his corrupt and destructive administration.” How do we, in such a high-stakes scenario, and given our own lived track record of less-than-optimal democratic capacities, get the best possible handle on whether we’re now succumbing to ever greater depths of belief polarization, or whether this moment truly is different?
I would accept, almost to a T, that whole formulation. I think the House so far has handled its impeachment process in a pretty commendable fashion. We have to remain faithful to the Constitution. We can’t get rid of a president simply because we dislike him or think he’s dumb. I mean, I see no shortage of sites of warranted criticism for this current president and the administration around him. But we have to maintain (and the House has been maintaining) strict constitutional and institutional standards throughout this process.
Your question of whether our current political discourse has become so degraded that we no longer operate in a properly democratic fashion interests me, but takes us beyond the scope of Overdoing Democracy. This book takes as a basic premise that democracy, in the United States and in similar modern societies (the UK in particular, and certain Western European countries), faces serious trouble, but still is salvageable. If it is true that our democracy is too degraded to be repaired, well then, yeah, all bets are off — we already have fallen too far, and the argument of Overdoing Democracy doesn’t apply. There is an intriguing question about how we could determine whether or not we’ve crossed the point of no return, but again it’s not addressed in the book.
Your reference to George W. Bush also makes me want to articulate more clearly my view of how we got here. When you consider the rhetoric, the strategizing, the kind of turnout that Trump both stifled among certain voters, and encouraged among other voters — all of that recognized, exploited, capitalized on the degree to which the citizenry already was belief polarized. So, to step back a bit: both major US parties face slightly different versions of the same electoral problem. Who wins at the national level has become a matter of turnout. Democrats have a problem because their most enthusiastic and energized affiliates sit far to the left of their most reliable voters. And then the Republicans have a reliable voter base, but that base doesn’t share a lot in common when it comes to policy interests. Given these constraints, one good strategy for both parties is to galvanize their portion of the electorate by appealing to animosity, resentment, fear, and distrustfulness of the other side.
So here again, when somebody says “Wow, I thought George W. Bush was bad, but now look,” I would take us back to this book’s basic thesis that overdoing democracy means not doing enough of the other stuff. Of course we need to continue objecting, criticizing, protesting, and resisting on behalf of our political values. A healthy democracy runs on that. But if we also could develop other types of social relationships, contexts outside of the travails of partisan politics, where we could interact on some other basis, strategic politicians and their clever handlers couldn’t manipulate us so easily in the first place. We wouldn’t so readily believe that half the nation wants to destroy America, or that our political opponents are running a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop, or that the president secretly was born in a foreign country, or that a recent vice-presidential candidate once declared that Africa is a country. The easiest way to keep ourselves from that sort of gullibility is to occasionally recharge our political perspectives, our political identities, and our democratic ambitions, by doing something else together. We know how much this helps in our professional lives, and in our personal lives — so why not in our politics?
By extension, could we here start tracing your book’s pivot from diagnosing large-scale problems, to prescribing not large-scale interventions, but in fact “small measures” — such as turning pathologizing accounts of partisan rivals back on ourselves, and probing our own susceptibilities to belief polarization? And in case some readers respond by saying “Nobody can operate in this saintly way,” could you offer your model of religious Americans who practice religious tolerance: respecting and even facilitating their fellow Americans’ freedom to get wrong (on an individual and even a civilizational level) perhaps the most fundamental questions ever asked of human beings?
In a recent Pew Research Center study, US citizens described themselves as fed up with the rancor and divisiveness of our democratic politics. They said they want more conciliatory governance, more cooperation. They want less bombast from their politicians. But when you ask them who’s responsible for the objectionable tone of our politics, the conservatives blame Democrats, and the liberals blame Republicans. And when you then ask what a more cooperative political climate would look like, most people basically say that they want the opposing side to give way [Laughter]. In calling for cooperation, we want something more like resignation. The bombast seems to always come from the other side. Now, belief polarization would predict this outcome, right?
So one small yet crucial step we can take to help repair our democracy starts from recognizing our own vulnerability to these phenomena. And recognizing our own individual vulnerability to belief polarization doesn’t require us to moderate our political judgments. We don’t have to say: “Hey, those Republicans aren’t so bad after all” or “Hey, maybe they’re right on this.” You might end up finding yourself saying that. But recognizing your own vulnerability to belief polarization might just mean reconceiving of your political rivals as ordinary people like yourself, with their own lives, aspirations, commitments, and values. In short, we need to rehabilitate our conception of what kind of people our political rivals are, and this begins with recognizing that our conception of them is likely at least in part the product of belief polarization.
One might object that it’s simply not possible to regard one’s political opponents as nonetheless decent folks. After all, we oppose them because they are devoted to a false view of justice. This puts them on the side of injustice. Doesn’t that make them despicable people? This strikes me as a really interesting objection. I think that the analogy with religious toleration is helpful. We’ve grown so familiar with religious toleration that we’ve lost our sense of how puzzling that commitment is. The religiously tolerant person might very well consider salvation the most important aim of life, and she might additionally acknowledge a stringent obligation to guide others towards attaining salvation. However, religious toleration is the moral commitment to allowing others to live according to their own conscience, even when it leads them to severe theological error that may result in their damnation. When you examine it, religious toleration looks impossibly demanding, even self-contradictory. And yet we’ve largely embraced it as a nation. Democratic citizenship requires a similar kind of commitment. Again, we must be able to regard those who we consider deeply mistaken about justice as nonetheless our equals, who on some occasions will legitimately get their way.
Here it’s also important to stress the limits of our democratic ethos. Some people who occupy the role of citizen in a democracy are indeed beyond the pale — they free ride on the freedoms of a democratic society, while repudiating its fundamental norms. What to do about persons committed to the denial of the social equality of all citizens is an important question. But it’s distinct from the question of how we sustain our commitment to the equality of political opponents whose views remain within the spectrum of democracy. The idea that one’s status as a political equal can overlap with being profoundly mistaken about justice is demanding, but not saintly.
I very much value this book’s depiction of civic friendship, in which we don’t even need to like the person, but just to regard each other as playing an equal role in shaping and perhaps even directing some shared enterprise. Could you describe one or two of the most satisfying civic friendships in your own life?
The book spells out in some detail a kind of ethos required for proper democratic citizenship. But the general formulation I offer ultimately has its source in John Rawls. “Civic friendship” simply suggests a collection of attitudes and dispositions and habits that enable a citizen to manifest (and not merely to endorse) the commitment to treating one’s political opponents as nonetheless one’s political equals. Civic friendship basically comes down to that — though of course it gets further complicated by conditions of belief polarization and political saturation and a contravening set of attitudes that I call civic enmity. But proper democracy requires civic friendship, which can only be cultivated when citizens occasionally engage together in cooperative activities where politics has no place.
How has civic friendship manifest in my own life? Well, I have colleagues and family members who are conservative. I don’t despise them. I simply think they’re wrong. Sometimes we argue about politics, but we also do other stuff. But here’s a different kind of example. I live in Nashville, and while writing this book, I decided I needed to conduct an experiment in putting politics in its place. I started regularly going to a bluegrass venue. I didn’t start off with any passionate appreciation for bluegrass music. I simply thought: Why don’t I just go someplace new? I went to hear the music, and I assumed much of the audience had political views quite different from mine. I mean, who knows? Yet the point wasn’t to “reach across the aisle” or anything like that, but simply to listen to the music in the company of others.
Over time, I found myself talking about the music with people who regularly attend the venue. And of course some nights, particularly with one person, I’d think to myself: Well, I don’t know this guy’s politics in detail, but I’m pretty sure he’s pretty far to my right. But so what? In sharing observations about the performances, I came to acknowledge that he thinks deep thoughts, has a subtle aesthetic sense, knows a great deal about the genre, and cares a lot about songwriting. I still don’t know this particular guy’s political views. But I do know that if we ever do engage that topic, though I may come to regard him as deeply mistaken about politics, I won’t be able to regard him as a failed or depraved human being. And given that he possesses these other reflective and expressive capacities, if we ever get to arguing about politics, I have to believe that I might be able to correct him — or maybe he can correct me. Given the right context, and with our background of cooperative discussion, we perhaps could make progress politically. That kind of background is crucial for democracy, and, sadly, we’re losing it.