Magazine December 31, 2019, Issue

Are Americans Overdoing Democracy?

A runner at sunrise in Washington, D.C., December 19, 2019 (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place, by Robert B. Talisse (Oxford University Press, 216 pp., $29.95)

For the past several years, there has been a flood of commentary about how politics is poisoning social life, from first-person stories about “surviving” holidays or breaking off romantic relationships to surveys about the precipitous drop in inter-partisan friendships on college campuses. There are many who think this is a reasonable state of affairs: that “the personal is political” and that it is therefore only natural that all of a person’s social perceptions and choices be suffused with the eerie light of political analysis. But there are also those who dissent. These dissenters say that Americans need to relearn how to disagree with one another productively; the strength of our public dialogue and of our democratic process itself may depend, this crowd says, on our having more and better political discussion and more interactions with those outside our bubbles.

In his new book, Robert Talisse, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, agrees with the dissenters that our politically polarized and politically saturated culture is not in good shape. But he disagrees about the solution. “Calls for bipartisanship and cooperation are insufficient,” Talisse writes, “and in a way misguided. More and better politics cannot be the solution . . . because politics is the problem.” Americans are “overdoing democracy in that politics has become practically inescapable,” and hence “we have to put politics in its place.”

To make his case, Talisse relies on a combination of philosophical argument and empirical research. He tries to demonstrate first that it is possible to overdo democracy and that overdoing democracy follows naturally from currently dominant lines of thinking in democratic theory, including the high value placed on political participation and political deliberation. One of the most interesting parts of this argument is a discussion of the notion that “everything is political.” In one sense, if this were true, then it would seem impossible, as a matter of definition, to put politics in its proper place: Its proper place would be everywhere. But the claim that everything is “political” equivocates on the meaning of the term, Talisse argues. While it’s no doubt true that a full history of most objects or situations we encounter would involve some reference to politics, it is also true, Talisse says, that such a history would involve nonpolitical elements. It makes no sense, then, to treat the “political” element as the defining one.

I think Talisse could have pressed this point even more insistently. Viewing all human activity through the lens of politics distorts our understanding of life and siphons much of the beauty and wonder out of human affairs. Witness the recent proposed innovations to Seattle’s mathematics curriculum, which entail changing it to include stories about how math marginalizes and oppresses, how it’s been the tool of this or that evil ideology throughout history. Art, science, and all sorts of hobbies and forms of entertainment are similarly distorted by a focus on politics. Politics ideally shouldn’t enter into such things. They should be like the Thanksgiving dinner table, which Talisse mentions as a space where political debate is generally improper.

Talisse focuses next on two recent sociological trends: political saturation and belief polarization. Both are explained in part by political sorting. This concept was made famous by The Big Sort, Bill Bishop’s 2008 book about the increasing tendency of Americans to live in communities of the like-minded. Talisse explains that as various technologies make it easier and easier to connect with other people, they also give us greater power to choose whom to associate with, and people usually choose to self-segregate based on homophily, the love of those most like us. This leads to a world in which news networks, zip codes, and even coffee shops are coded by politics. Such a world is ripe for saturation and “infiltration” by politics, and especially by what Talisse calls “lifestyle politics,” because “as our political identities have become who we are, politics has become everything that we do.” The idea that the personal is political, or that everything is political, turns out to be not only a mainstay of a certain kind of academic theory but a clever marketing ploy of which all sorts of companies take advantage. This helps explain the rise of the “woke” corporation, which caters to customers’ needs for conspicuously political consumption.

Polarization is a familiar phenomenon. But here too Talisse makes some useful comments, distinguishing among various kinds of polarization and then specifying just what belief polarization entails: arriving at more-extreme beliefs because of social homogeneity. One flaw of this section of the book is that Talisse seems to treat polarization as obviously irrational, as some sort of unavoidable tic of the tribal nature of human psychology. But some philosophers have begun taking the view that polarization may be rational — that it involves a reasonable response to the evidence available in one’s social group. Ultimately, though, the resolution of this debate is not as important for Talisse’s purposes as identifying the basic phenomenon.

Talisse’s proposed solution to these problems is that we “devise social venues of nonpolitical cooperative endeavor.” He develops a few ideas about how to do this. First, we have to cultivate what might be called civic virtues, of reasonableness, sympathy, and persistence. Second, we have to form “civic friendships,” in which we regard others as equals participating, despite our disagreements, in shared social enterprises directed to the same constructive ends. One step toward this goal is “turning on ourselves the diagnostic tools we are accustomed to deploying only against others.” We must see ourselves the way we see our enemies: as irrational, immune to evidence, and so on. Once we realize we are equally prone to error, civic friendship becomes possible.

One thought-provoking distinction Talisse makes is between the notion that democracy is being threatened by an outside force and the idea that it is being threatened by its own excesses. Many academics and other writers have, in recent years, advanced the former idea: Whether it is white nationalism, Trumpian populism, technocratic elitism, or left-wing identity politics, something that is itself anti-democratic and foreign to democratic politics is said to be corroding democracy. Talisse thinks this is the wrong way to look at things. Though democracy is, he writes, perhaps the single most important social good there is, it also has inherent in it certain dangerous tendencies. At least, these tendencies are inherent in current academic conceptions of what makes democracy good, which favor participation and deliberation as democratic ideals. The danger is that it may be precisely as political deliberation becomes more popular and political participation becomes more widespread that politics outgrows its rightful place. Our best theories about the value of democracy also seem like blueprints for outcomes such as polarization and saturation.

At a theoretical level, it’s not a Herculean task to distinguish Talisse’s solution to the problems of political saturation and political polarization — his idea of cordoning off spaces from politics — from the view that holds that people need to improve their skills at disagreeing. Talisse calls the latter idea the “Better Democracy” view and contrasts it with his view that we need less politics, not better politics. Unfortunately, he does not devote much space to comparing these two approaches, so it is sometimes difficult to evaluate which one is better, or even to understand what exactly the differences are supposed to be.

At a psychological level, the solutions both views call for are likely to be not only compatible, as Talisse sometimes acknowledges, but nearly identical. A recent study on intellectual humility and political perceptions from Duke University psychologists Matthew Stanley, Alyssa Sinclair, and Paul Seli, available so far only as a preprint, seems to show that low intellectual humility — that is, a lack of willingness to consider that one might be wrong — is correlated with unwillingness to make friends across the political aisle.

One can never be certain that such studies will hold up to scrutiny and attempts at replication, but the result is pretty intuitive: It is precisely the perception that one’s political opponents are unreasonable or misguided in a way that makes them bad, or even evil, that leads one to interrupt and even replace other social activities with political debate. After all, we can all think of views heinous enough to lead us to engage in such disruptions of social life: advocacy of genocide, perhaps, or genuine interest in the upcoming film Robin Hood 2. So intellectual humility about disagreements seems required if we are to avoid seeing every belief we don’t hold as tantamount to such awful views, which in turn is a requirement for maintaining spaces free from politics. We might think, therefore, that adopting such humility, which is a prescription of the Better Democracy view, is also a precondition for implementing Talisse’s vision.

This is ultimately a minor point, though. Overdoing Democracy is a rich introduction to both democratic theory and political sociology. It summarizes and engages with several different kinds of academic literature without inundating the reader with names and references. And its central claim, that Americans are overdoing democracy and that politics therefore must be put in its place, is demonstrated simply and convincingly, with great intellectual force. The book is sophisticated without being intimidating and current without being trendy. It should be a reference point in discussions about the scope and divisiveness of democratic politics in America for years to come.

This article appears as “Too Much Democracy?” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Oliver Traldi — Mr. Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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