We Cannot Live Well by Politics Alone

To overcome polarization and extreme partisanship, Americans need to find and create nonpolitical spaces

Pierre-August Renoir, French (1841-1919), Luncheon of the Boating Party/Phillips Collection, Wikimedia Commons

When defining democracy, we typically think of elections, voting and campaigns. Though central to democracy, these mechanisms are not important as ends in themselves but because they secure the basic democratic good of accountable government. In turn, accountable government serves the democratic ideal of political equality. In a democracy, citizens are not the government’s subjects. Rather, a democratic government serves its citizens. Moreover, political equality means that government must acknowledge its citizens’ equality by refraining from behavior that is discriminatory, biased or unfair.

The democratic commitment to political equality is partly a vertical thesis about the proper relationship between the government and its citizens. Yet political equality also has a horizontal dimension. In addition to being equals in the eyes of government, democratic citizens are one another’s equals. From the perspective of politics, no citizen is another’s subordinate, superior or boss. Instead, citizens are required to recognize one another as partners in self-government, each with an equal political say. But this perspective is noticeably lacking in today’s political environment, which is increasingly acrimonious and polarized. To fix the political discourse in American society, it is paradoxically less democracy that is needed. Instead, we need more spaces where we can interact not as political allies or enemies, but as human beings.

Political Enemies, Civic Friends

The horizontal aspect of political equality entails that citizenship involves a civic ethos. As citizens are required to recognize one another’s political equality, they owe to one another a certain kind of regard. They needn’t always be congenial or even polite, but they must not treat their fellow citizens as subordinates, underlings or mere obstacles to be surmounted. Amidst the heat of their political disagreements, citizens must treat one another as equals. Though they may regard one another as political adversaries, they must remain civic friends. That is, they must recognize that their opposition, even when severe, resides within a broader commitment to self-government among political equals.

Political equality makes democracy both ennobling and frustrating. The idea that a decent social order can be achieved in the absence of monarchs and hierarchies is dignifying. The flip side is that having correct political views does not entitle people to get their way. Democracy is fallible. Sometimes our political opponents will get their way, despite the fact that we are correct to view them as wrongheaded. Indeed, the frustration runs deeper. In a democracy, when our opponents win the election, they are entitled to get their way.

This feature of democracy explains the intensity of our political disagreements. They tend to invoke our view of justice, so when democracy produces a result that we oppose, we regard that outcome as flawed, perhaps unacceptably wrong. So we get to work. We organize, critique, object and lobby. It’s no surprise, then, that politics rouses a determined urgency. We see democratic citizenship as a full-time endeavor, an ongoing struggle for greater justice.

This conception of citizenship is compelling. If democracy is to flourish, it needs an engaged, active citizenry. However, this view is often mistaken for the different idea that politics is all-consuming, that everything we do is rightly regarded as an exercise of citizenship. This idea is toxic for a democracy.

Politics as Lifestyle

 In the U.S. today, nearly everything we do marks our political affiliations. Our occupations, where we buy groceries, how we spend weekends, the way we decorate our homes, the cars we drive, the sports teams we follow, the movies we like and the clothing we wear are all indicative of our political identities. Importantly, these features of our day-to-day lives are not only indicative of our politics, they’re also expressive of them. That is, we wear camo T-shirts or yoga pants as a way of signaling our partisan loyalties to others. We carry reusable tote bags or drive pickup trucks as a way of communicating our politics.

In short, our partisan affiliations function today more like lifestyles than political commitments. As a consequence, the social spaces we routinely inhabit have become increasingly politically homogeneous. It is no exaggeration to say that our social environments are saturated with politics. Accordingly, we constantly enact our politics, but only within social environments that are politically segregated. Such environments are not authentically democratic.

Add to this our vulnerability to belief polarization. When surrounded by like-minded others, we transform into more extreme versions of ourselves. In the process we also come to see those who are different as forming a benighted, dishonest and ominous monolith. This leads to further disassociation, fortifying partisan segregation and thus intensifying belief polarization. Ultimately, we lose the capacity to regard political rivals as fellow citizens entitled to an equal say. We come to view them instead as threats to be neutralized.

The combination of belief polarization with political saturation means that everyday activities undermine our democratic capacities. We enact our politics more and more frequently under conditions that provoke belief polarization. This in turn dissolves our ability to see our political rivals as our equals. Civic friendship is hence dissolved, and democratic politics devolves into a cold civil war.

A Surprising Remedy

 A popular idea among political theorists is that the cure for democracy’s ills is always better democracy—more participation, deeper involvement, fuller engagement. But the problem just described cannot be addressed like this. It has the structure of an autoimmune disorder—as the disease grows, it attacks the body’s healthy cells. Similarly, belief polarization and political saturation emerge from our otherwise laudable passion for justice and our determination to take citizenship seriously. This leads us to allow politics to infiltrate all aspects of our lives, which in turn intensifies our exposure to belief polarization and undermines our ability to treat fellow citizens as our equals. Better democracy cannot solve this problem because democracy itself gives rise to the problem. As I put it in a recent book, our problem is that we’re overdoing democracy.

The challenge is to remember that after the votes are counted, both the winners and losers remain equals who must work together in the business of democracy. We can sustain this view of our rivals only when, in addition to the political battlefield, there is also a rich environment of nonpolitical relations, sites of cooperative endeavor within which political differences are not suppressed but irrelevant. If we want to perform well as democratic citizens, we must occasionally do things together in which politics has no place.

I realize that the very idea of a nonpolitical cooperative endeavor strikes us as strange. But that’s a symptom. That we struggle to even imagine a social activity in which politics is irrelevant indicates the depth of our partisan identities.

What can be done? Given that our social environments are politically saturated, I cannot provide a list of such activities. They must be built; sites for nonpolitical endeavors must be reclaimed. Importantly, the point of such engagements is not to come to love one’s political enemies or to meet them halfway. These measures place politics firmly at the center of the enterprise. Instead, the idea is to construct venues for interactions in which participants are unaware of the others’ political affiliations, not because they’ve agreed to suppress them, but because they’re engaged in something other than politics.

The point is to create activities where we can view one another’s merits and virtues in a context that does not invoke our partisan lenses. It is to arrive at a conception of others as good parents, dependable co-workers, caring family members and responsible neighbors, irrespective of our assessment of their political leanings. That way, when we discover that they are our political rivals, we will struggle to view them as failed or depraved human beings. We will more easily see them as simply wrong about politics. We may then proceed to clash over politics, but we will find it easier to treat them as our equals.

Importantly, the need for nonpolitical cooperative endeavors is not a matter simply of de-escalating partisan divides or turning down the temperature of our disputes. Sustaining the conditions under which we can cultivate civic friendship is part of our civic duty. We need sometimes to do things together that are nonpolitical so that we can live up to the democratic civic ethos. As odd as it might sound, part of what it takes to contribute to democracy’s flourishing is to secure space within our lives for other things.

To be clear, none of this is to say that we must disengage from democracy. The view I have sketched demands that we participate in nonpolitical collective endeavors in addition to our usual modes of democratic engagement. In this way, it is a more demanding proposal than what is typically promoted by democratic theorists. The view I have sketched recognizes that part of what makes democracy so precious is that it promises a social order in which we can devote our lives to collective goods beyond politics—to love, creativity, attachment and care.

When politics saturates everything we do, we undermine our democratic capacities. But we also smother the broader collective goods that democracy is meant to deliver. Although democracy is necessary for a flourishing society, we cannot live well by politics alone.


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