Is it possible to overdo democracy?
As we enter the holiday season, Robert Talisse thinks it’s a good idea to take a break from politics. In fact, he might go so far as to say democracy is better off if you do.
Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of a new book called Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place. The book combines philosophical analysis with real-world examples to examine the infiltration of politics into all social spaces, and the phenomenon of political polarization.
In the middle of an impeachment inquiry and with a presidential election looming on the horizon, this might seem like precisely the wrong time to try to balance your political engagement with other things. But Talisse argues developing that sense of “civic friendship” through a sports league, book club, cooking class, or just about any other type of activity that’s not political, can help you see past the partisan identity that’s so prevalent these days.
If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, this episode might be a good place to start. We also discuss deliberative democracy and efforts to bring people from across the political spectrum together to find that sense of common ground.
This is our last new episode for 2019. We are going to do a few weeks of rebroadcasts and return in mid-January with a look ahead at what 2020 will have in store for democracy — we have a feeling there will be no shortage of things to discuss.
As we head toward the end of the year, we are conducting a listener survey to find out how we can make the show even better in 2020.
Complete the survey for a chance to win a Democracy Works mug. We’ve already sent one batch of mugs to our listeners around the country and will do another one after the holidays.
Talisse’s TED talk on putting politics in its place
[7:17] In the book, you seem to use politics and democracy interchangeably. How do you define each term?
I think of democracy as a series of institutional, procedural, constitutional norms that are all underwritten by a more fundamental moral principal. That is, I think that democracy is, at its core, the moral proposition that a relatively stable and relatively just social order is possible in the absence of rulers, and bosses, and kings, and the like. Democracy is also a broader social ideal. It’s the ideal of living together as equals in a political and social context, and what I think that means is that democracy is a moral solution, or proposes a moral solution, to a problem. The problem that democracy proposes a solution to is the problem of severe, sometimes heated, disagreement about politics.
[9:55] How did you arrive at the notion of “overdoing” democracy?
I think democracy is a capital social good. However and because it’s a capital social good, we in our roles as democratic citizens have to do some hard work. Democracy requires a lot of us. It’s a demanding social ideal. Don’t want to deny any of that. What I want to push back on the idea that the best strategy that we have for pursuing those lofty social ideals by means of democracy is to perpetually be enacting democracy, perpetually be acting in the role of democratic citizen. I think that if we want to perform well as democratic citizens, and do well by or do right by our goals, our moral goals for a better society, we have to find or as the case may be try to construct venues where we can interact with one another in contexts where our politics is simply beside the point.
[17:46 ] How has politics become a bigger part of our identities?
As the country at the macro level has become more diverse, the local spaces we inhabit in our walkabout daily activities have become increasingly homogenous, so in the aggregate it’s a more diverse country, but in our day to day social environment, the atmosphere within which casual, non-planned social interactions occur, this has all become increasingly homogenous and politically homogenous, such that the person sitting next to you on the bus, the person standing behind you on line in the grocery store or in the coffee shop, is increasingly likely to have a political profile that’s just like your own. 25 years ago, workplaces, schools, local parks, beaches, these sort of public venues, these places where people would get together were far more politically heterogeneous than they are today.
[25:49 ] What do you make of efforts to bring people from opposing political perspectives together for dialogue and deliberation?
I count myself as a democratic theorist, as a deliberate democrat, so I’m on board with deliberative democracy as a theoretical approach to thinking about democratic legitimacy and political authority, and also to thinking about good democratic practice, so I’m sort of an omnivorous kind of deliberative democrat. I’m on board with the project in the broadest sense, and also I’ve theorized it in some of its particulars in some other work. The dinner table conversations initiatives, initiatives about deliberative polling, and citizen assemblies, and citizen juries, and all the rest, those are all incredibly promising initiatives and the data that come out of those experiments and those endeavors strike me as really, really promising. I am skeptical, though, about the prospects for these kinds of interventions, which I would say are good, necessary steps towards repairing democracy.
[30:24] How do you recommend people “put politics in its place?”
What I think the first step is to putting politics in its place is sort of recognizing that your conception of what the people, the rank and file citizens on the other side, are like. That’s the product of these phenomena. Maybe you need to recognize that. It’s part of the profile of this cognitive phenomenon, belief polarization, that not only do you become a more extreme version of yourself, you start to adopt more negative attitudes towards the people who you perceive to be different from yourself, and here’s the crucial part: you also start to adopt an unreasonably monolithic and un-nuanced conception of what the other side is like, and you could even hear this in pronouncements among citizens and politicians. We’re lead to think that there’s just one kind of person on the opposite side of the aisle that is our political rival, and that’s an unduly homogenized conception of how politics works.