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The Democratic Dilemma
Ben Klutsey and Robert Talisse discuss democracy as an aspirational ideal and solutions to polarization
By Benjamin Klutsey
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: For our conversation today, we have with us Professor Robert Talisse, who is joining us as a guest for the second time. He is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in contemporary political philosophy with particular interest in democratic theory and political epistemology. He is the author of “Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place,” published in 2019, and “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side,” which was published late last year, 2021. Thank you, Bob, for joining us today.
ROBERT TALISSE: Thank you, Ben, for having me again. It’s really nice to be talking to you again.
Increased Polarization, Increased Conformity
KLUTSEY: Right. We’ll just delve right in. Over two years, you’ve authored two books, all related to democracy and how we might salvage this experiment. Now we will talk about the specific issues related to the problem of democratic dilemma, which you highlight as the core problem and the reason you’ve provided some solutions to how we might sustain our democracy.
I’ve been wondering, what did you see in the landscape of our democracy that nudged you to write not only one book but two books over two years? Was there something you saw after the first book?
TALISSE: [laughs] As I think I mentioned when we talked last, the first book was stimulated by a realization about how political affiliation had colonized, infiltrated the whole of social life such that everyday activities had taken on a political significance or were seen as ways of communicating and expressing one’s politics.
The “Overdoing Democracy” book argues that, as counterintuitive as it may seem, that that makes us worse as citizens. When politics is all we ever do together, where everything we do is colored by our political affiliation, we become less good at citizenship. If we want to be better citizens, we need to find—or better yet, create—venues for interactions with others, not where we’re suppressing our political divisions, but venues and interactions and modes of cooperation where our politics is just beside the point.
Now, when that book came out, I did a lot of talking about the book to all kinds of different audiences. That’s when I started getting the idea for the “Sustaining Democracy” book. Particularly, what struck me as interesting about the presentations I was giving about the “Overdoing Democracy” book was that when it came time for Q&A, even though I was giving talks around the country to all kinds of different audiences, there were a handful of questions that not only always got asked, but always got asked in almost an identical way.
It struck me as odd that the college student in Boston pressed the very same question that a person in a library in Portland asked, almost verbatim. We can talk about these questions and what their content was, if you like. The questions were perfectly sensible questions. It’s not that the questions were remarkable in some way; it was the uniformity with which they were asked that struck me as interesting.
That got me thinking that the “Overdoing Democracy” book is mainly about polarization. We talk a lot about polarization, and you hear a lot about polarization. When you hear about polarization, especially in the popular media, polarization is presented as this pulling apart of the two partisan tribes that the middle ground falls away. That might be problematic and lamentable and all the rest, I’m not denying that.
One of the things that is often overlooked about polarization is that it also involves escalating conformity pressure within an alliance. That is, as we retreat to our partisan tribes, pressures to be more like the others in the group start intensifying. I thought, that’s a dimension of polarization that is, I think, undertheorized.
It strikes me that that shows that polarization is a problem not only with respect to the relations between the two parties, or the relations between conservatives and liberals and progressives. Polarization is a problem within the alliances because it turns out that our polarized selves are more conformist. It struck me that conformity is a problem for democracy.
The “Sustaining Democracy” book emerges out of this realization that part of what goes on in polarization is a kind of homogenization of political allies. I started thinking that that’s a different kind of problem that emerges because we’re trying to do our job as citizens. That’s the kicker. This is not a problem that just comes in from somewhere else and fouls up our democracy. This is a problem that emerges because we’re trying to take democracy seriously. How’s that?
Democracy as Aspiration
KLUTSEY: Sounds good. Sounds good. I want to step back for a second and talk about democracy. There’s a story in the book that illustrates this very nicely. You’re talking to someone at a wedding. This person worked on Capitol Hill or worked in D.C., and you engaged in conversation with her. A lot of questions came up about democracy, generally.
It just made me wonder that we often take for granted that all of the conceptual issues in democracy have been resolved because we call our system a democracy. You note that democracy is not simply a form of government, but a social aspiration, and that no society satisfies the democratic ideal. Can you elaborate on this point? The cynical might say—and I’ve heard a version of this—that “We are delusional if we think we live in a democracy.” What do you say to them?
TALISSE: Firstly, we’re familiar in lots of other contexts with what we might very broadly call aspirational concepts, right?
TALISSE: Ask your next-door neighbor if his 13-year-old is a baseball player. Now, is the 13-year-old Babe Ruth? No.
TALISSE: We’ve got this idea. A teenager playing Little League is a baseball player in the sense of the aspirations that guide his activities when he’s playing. I’m a very amateur musician. I’m a guitar player. I’m not Eddie Van Halen, I’m not Wes Montgomery, but I’m a guitar player.
If I were in the right company, I might hesitate to call myself a guitar player, right? But if someone says, “Do you play guitar?” My answer is always, “Yes.” I’m pretty middling at best at it. We’ve got the idea—and by the way, what makes me a guitar player is not that I can pick the thing up and play you a song. What I think is closer to the idea of what makes me a guitar player is, I have a certain aspiration; it’s a hobby; I work at it. I try. It’s not the whole of my life, but it’s a thing that I work at.
I think that political concepts have a similar character to them, or at least some of them do. And I think democracy is one of them, that what it means for a society to be a democracy is for it to embody a certain aspiration that it works at. So, like me and the guitar, right?
If we think of a textbook definition of democracy: Democracy is a self-governing community of political equals. That’s the textbook definition; that’s my textbook definition of democracy. There are other ways of thinking about democracy in that textbook-definition sense that we can talk about if you like. But it strikes me that what’s most important or what’s core to the idea of democracy is the idea of a self-governing community or society of political equals.
Okay, is there a society that manifests that description? No. Has there ever been a society that manifests that description? No. Do we have a final and fully formulated conception of what the aspiration even means? By the way, just think for a moment—this gets to the little story in the “Sustaining Democracy” book. We like to think that we know what democracy is, and we just see that every society fails to live up to it.
I want to say, “Yes, every society fails to live up to it, but we are still trying to figure out what the ideal means, even.” If you want to see this, just think, it’s a tricky question that when you pose it to people, it’s very easy to get them wondering in a philosophical way about why children don’t get a vote. [chuckles] They have interests; they’re affected. [laugh] You might say generally they have a longer life left, [laugh] so more of their life is going to be impacted by a decision that’s made today.
You can give all of these reasons that really all of a sudden make it very puzzling why we don’t allow children to vote, or even just say people who are younger than 18. [chuckles] Why not lower the voting age? Maybe we don’t have to let infants vote, but maybe by the time you’re 12, voting is okay. It’s very easy to say, “Well, can we be a society of self-governing political equals if anybody under 18, who has identifiable avowable interests, is precluded from voting, is denied the franchise?”
You’d say, “Well, wait a minute now.” Maybe that is just one of those areas where we think of full suffrage now as full suffrage of the adult population or something like that. You might say, “Okay, why?” I think that we’re still trying to figure out what the on-the-ground facts are about the details of the aspiration, kind of in the way that as a guitar player, what does it really mean? What is Wes Montgomery doing?
As you develop your own skills, you hear new skills in other people’s playing. You say, “Oh, that’s what a guitar player is now. Now I’m seeing something.” You get the analogy. I want to say, we’re familiar with the idea of aspirational concepts, that the predicate is properly applied to you of guitar player or baseball player, insofar as there is an orienting aspiration that drives your activity when you pick up the guitar or the baseball bat.
I want to say, democracy is similarly aspirational. It is the aspiration for a self-governing society of equals. We’re still figuring out exactly what the parameters and contours are of that ideal, but an existing society counts as a democracy even when it fails to live up to its own understanding of that ideal, in so far as the aspiration to live up to that ideal drives it.
Now, one last point on this. This is how social criticism of a particular kind, and I would say a historically particularly effective kind, is possible. Look, the social critic, the social activist, the leaders of social movements who proceed as follows. They say, “You say this is a democracy, you say you’re committed to equality, you say you’re committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But look at what’s actually going on. Here are definable, obvious ways in which we’re falling short.”
I want to say, a society manifests the aspiration for being a democracy insofar as arguments of the kind I just put in the mouth of a fictitious activist—so far as those kinds of arguments get traction, that’s what it is to embody the aspiration. When somebody points to something and says, “There’s a place where whatever you think equality really is, [laugh] here’s a place where we’re falling short.” That kind of argument has to have purchase, has to get traction. If we just say, “Well, we don’t care about equality,” we’ve given up on the aspiration. That’s how I would respond. Does that sound right?
The Democrat’s Dilemma: Responsibility and Equality
KLUTSEY: That sounds right. Now, there’s a problem. There’s a problem that you have identified in the book, and that’s the reason why you’ve conceived of a solution in “Sustaining Democracy,” and that problem is the democratic dilemma.
KLUTSEY: Can you spell that out for us?
TALISSE: Yes, sure. Again, part of the argument of “Sustaining Democracy,” as well as of the prior book, “Overdoing Democracy,” is that we tend to think of failures of democracy, or democratic dysfunctions, always in terms of institutions or officials or office holders or citizens as falling short, as not doing the job of democracy. Both of the books are committed to the possibility—which I think is more than merely a possibility—that some democratic failings come to be because we’re trying to do the job of democracy.
Now, the democrat’s dilemma runs like this. It looks as if, as participants, as citizens in a community of self-governing equals, we’re under two moral—I would say, but if you don’t like the word moral, just say we’re under two obligations. Maybe they’re purely political and not moral. Anyway, we’re under two kinds of obligation.
As members of a self-governing society of equals, we have to take responsibility for our politics. That is, when the government does stuff, it’s in our name. Governments can do bad things, they can do good things, they can do things that are less good than other things they could have done, and so on and so forth. As a citizen of a democratic society, I have a responsibility to use the sliver of political power I have—mainly at the voting booth, but there are other kinds of political power, but it’s still pretty middling—the sliver of political power I have to try to advance justice in my society, to try to get the government to do the right thing, or at least avoid doing the worst things.
That’s why we think that we have a duty to vote and to be participants and to get informed and to hear people from different sides of an issue with—all of the standard-issue conception of our civic duties comes from this. That ultimately government acts in our name, so we’ve got to exercise our democratic voice in ways that are responsive to information and thinking and all the rest. Okay.
But in a democracy, not only are we equal participants that must take responsibility for the political world that we control collectively, but we’re equal citizens. We have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to treat them as equals. The democrat’s dilemma is that these two kinds of political obligation can sometimes conflict.
When we’re in the throes, Ben—you and I—when we’re arguing about a political issue that really matters to us both, and we’re on two different sides of a question that we think is really important, I don’t only see you as wrong about the question. I see you as in the wrong. Not only are you mistaken and you might not realize it, but you’re on the side of injustice all of a sudden. Now, there’s where the conflict comes up.
Democracy involves a directive, a normative requirement to treat your fellow citizens as your equals, even when you think—perhaps even with good reason, even when you think—even when you see them as on the side of injustice. The directive to take responsibility for your politics, which means do what you can to try to realize or advance justice in the political world, looks like it comes into conflict with the directive to treat your fellow citizens as your equals. When the chips are down and the stakes are high, treating you as an equal looks like it sets back or detracts from, or might even run contrary to, the directive to try to advance justice in the world.
Last point on this. Lest this seem some guy sitting in an academic office, obviously somewhere in a college, this is a real thing. Our political discourse within our political coalitions is filled with this. You don’t have to look very hard at all to find cases where your allies are going to say something like this: “Ben, if you keep talking to those people on the other side, we’re going to start thinking that you’re not really down. You’re not really one of us.”
To see the other side as something that deserves an equal say, that you have to engage with as your equals rather than as just an obstacle to be surmounted or a dysfunction to be shut down—to see the other side as anything but an obstacle is to call into question the authenticity of your membership in our coalition. As I tell a story in the book about this, where somebody actually says, “If you think there’s another side to this question, you’re probably on it.”
Cancel Culture Within Coalitions
KLUTSEY: It’s interesting, though, because in the book you don’t talk about social media necessarily, but you see a lot of this on social media where we have deplatforming, canceling and all these things. I wonder if that contributes to this, to a certain extent.
TALISSE: Well, it does. Social media is a good place, I think, and there’s some people who think social media causes this. And I don’t know if that’s the right account. I just want to say, social media is a good place to see the dysfunctions really clearly, but I don’t think that this is unique to social media. I think that this happens in coalitions all the time. Just think about what happened to Liz Cheney not too long ago.
Again, if you’re not on board—and this speaks to the conformity pressures. The more the coalition hives together, the more conformist it becomes. As the coalition becomes conformist, it becomes more insistent, not only on doctrinal homogeneity but homogeneity across a long and expanding range of behaviors. Once the group gets really into its homogeneity, once the group really gets into its alikeness, it gets really interested in policing the boundaries between the in-group and the out-group, which means, being an authentic member of the group now starts becoming a matter of what clothes you wear, where you shop, what color tie you have on, this kind of thing. It becomes very cliquey and almost cultish.
Leaving that stuff aside, look at Liz Cheney. There’s somebody who deviated. Voting record: totally in line with stated Republican, even Trump administration Republican, legislative agendas. She’s not an outlier when it comes to the voting and the legislating. In fact, she votes more reliably for the Trump-style legislation among the Republicans than her replacement, Elise Stefanik.
She’s really, legislatively, what the group should look like, but a critic of Trump and somebody who’s committed to carrying out the investigation into what went on on January 6 at the Capitol. That got her removed from leadership.
You want to see it on the other side, here’s a different example. Go back to your social media feeds the night of the Met Gala. And look at the comment threads for your progressive and liberal-leaning friends where—very interesting dynamic, what you see there. There is some question about what AOC’s “tax the rich” dress means where people who vote the same, exhibit roughly the same voting patterns—they all consider themselves an alliance even if they’re not in uniform politically.
There’s quick discussions about what “tax the rich” means. Note: This is a discursive space where the liberal progressives are not talking about how much they hate the other side. They’re now talking about what a slogan that they’re all attracted to means. Some of them say, “Billionaires should be illegal.” Some of them say, “No, we just need to close tax loopholes to make sure that Jeff Bezos pays a fair share in taxes.” Other people say, “No, ‘tax the rich’ means we need a much more progressive, Scandinavian-style taxation system.” You get a range of views about what this slogan on the back of her dress means.
Almost instantly the argument—over which of these different interpretations of the slogan is right—almost instantly the discussion turns to who’s the real liberal or who’s the real progressive, and who’s merely a neoliberal. You just see people saying, “Well, you might as well be Ronald Reagan if you think that.”
Now, again, note what’s happened there. It’s very, very interesting from the point of view of just sort of the group dynamics. What’s happened there is, once the discussion is not focused on what we sometimes call the negative partisanship—that once the discussion is not about how much they hate the Republicans or Trump or the people who voted for him, and is actually about formulating in some practical detail an agenda item, tax reform—the discussion very quickly gets diverted away from the substance, what is the view on taxes, to the group dynamic—who is really an ally and who is a poser?
Then it’s just about who’s on whose team, and how are we going to take this team that we thought was this big team of liberal progressives, and now we’re going to whittle it away so that all there’s left is little silos of people who are committed to some particular interpretation of this (broadly speaking) liberal progressive slogan about taxation. That’s what you see.
Bridging Efforts and Their Limitations
KLUTSEY: It’s interesting, I guess you would say that belief polarization plays a huge role in this, the in-group/out-group thing. Before we get to that, there is a movement now known as the “bridging movement,” which involves a number of organizations within society that help citizens to foster civil discourse and figure out ways in which we can build bridges with our fellow citizens.
I think you’d consider this as part of the facilitated democracy that you described. Your take on this is that it’s perhaps necessary but not sufficient because it doesn’t effectively engage those who have already gone through this belief polarization and are already exhibiting this kind of behavior that you have just described, and so we have to get to the solutions that you highlight in terms of sustaining democracy. Can you expand on that?
TALISSE: Sure. Sometimes people listen to me talk or read my books and write to me that I’m an opponent of the kinds of interventions that you were just mentioning then, and I’m not. I think, yes, the deliberative polls, citizen juries, citizens’ assemblies, these large-scale experiments in democracy—and even the smaller-scale, the Braver Angels protocols and all the rest—these all seem to me to be really good. [chuckles] Who would oppose them?
The argument is rather that these are really great interventions when you’ve got groups of people who are interested, who are already committed to depolarizing. A lot of the experiments that are done on these things do have this self-selection thing. The people who are really into hating the other side don’t want to—a free cup of coffee and $50 isn’t going to get them to a weekend with a facilitator to hash out their differences. They don’t want to hash out their differences; they like their differences. [chuckles] They like that stuff.
I suspect that part of our problem is that a large portion of the citizenry fits that description. They like hating the other side. They like the political divisiveness. They also like complaining about it. Complaining about the political divisiveness is a way of signaling how much you dislike the people on the other side, because if it weren’t for them there wouldn’t be divisiveness.
It strikes me that one thing that we have to guard against in our thinking about depolarization—well, maybe two things, but let me start with the first. It’s not always a good guide, when we’re trying to figure out what to do to fix a problem, to try to think about what we should have done if we wanted to prevent it. Preventing something bad from happening is just a different kind of task from fixing it once it’s happened.
At least in most cases—maybe there are some other cases where this is not such a clear distinction—but it seems to me that in the kinds of cases we’re thinking about, proceeding or creating spaces where people can interact how they would be interacting had polarization not happened might not be the best guide to figuring out how to fix polarization now that it’s happened. That’s one thing. Keeping in mind that there’s a distinction between preventing something and fixing it is important. I will say, it’s not difficult to find in the academic work about facilitated democracy experiments and all the rest a failure to appreciate that distinction. That’s one.
I think the other thing we have to guard against is, we become aware of the dysfunctions of polarization when we think about or reflect on or confront the other side. That is, the way that we become aware of these problems is by thinking about the depth and the animosity and the hostility that is attached to our political interactions with partisan opponents. But here’s another philosopher’s thought: The way we become aware of a problem is not always the best guide to thinking about where the problem really lies. That we become aware of it in a particular way doesn’t always tell us what the problem is, fundamentally.
I want to suggest, a lot of our thinking about polarization and including our thinking about depolarization really is, I think, too singularly focused on the repairing-the-divides part of the task, the fixing, deescalating the hostility, unifying (as Joe Biden put it), reaching across the aisle, hearing the other side, seeing each other. Again, all this stuff is central in Biden’s inauguration speech, which takes the divisiveness, the political disputes and their depth and their temperature, their heat as the problem.
Now, I want to say this, and this is the view I would defend philosophically: I think that democracy needs divisions and heat and real disagreements and real hostility at times. I don’t think that when people are disagreeing about justice, disagreements about justice shouldn’t be heated disagreements. Of course they should be. Justice is really important. If we disagree and you get your way, the world becomes a little bit less just. That should anger me. [chuckles]
I think that conflict, and even some degree of heat and tone and spice, is part of what democracy is all about. In the language of democratic theory, I’m an agonist. I think that democracy is about the conflicts between different democratic positions. I think that it’s a mistake, in thinking about depolarization, to think about it as the project of finding common ground and reconciling competing positions. Those things are nice. I’m not saying we shouldn’t reconcile or find common ground. I’m just saying that can’t be the sole aim.
Moreover, it strikes me that what gets lost when we’re fixated on the conflicts and deescalating the conflict between opposing sides is the interior dynamic that I mentioned earlier. Polarization also is about what goes on in us and what goes on with our allies. Polarization is a force that has a cognitive effect on us. It leads us to embrace distorted images of who our opponents are, what views they have, what kinds of lives they live. But more importantly, given that polarization also involves the escalation of conformity pressure, polarization also distorts our conception of our allies.
As polarization escalates, we start thinking—it starts looking to us like, “I can’t be a political ally with anyone who’s not just like me.” That is a profoundly anti-democratic attitude, that my only political allies are just other guys who are me, just my clones. That’s a profoundly anti-democratic attitude, but that’s part of the profile of the syndrome. The thought is that, Ben, in depolarizing, we have to give a little bit more attention—I would say a lot more attention—but at least a little bit more attention to the interior dynamics.
What I say is that depolarization isn’t all about them. It isn’t all about the other side and how I’m going to interact better with them or play well with them, play nicely with them. It’s about that, but it’s not only about that. It’s also about, how am I going to take steps to counteract these cognitive and social dynamics that artificially constrain my idea of who can be my ally politically because they constrain my idea of what a reasonable democratic citizen can think? We’ve got to attend to that, that polarization also shrinks our conception of the breadth of democratic disagreement. And I think that’s the more threatening aspect of the syndrome, of the phenomenon, than the escalating tensions and animosity between partisan opponents.
Solutions to Polarization
KLUTSEY: That’s solution number one: understanding reasonable criticisms of one’s views. Like [John Stuart] Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
TALISSE: It’s my favorite quote in all of philosophy.
KLUTSEY: I love it. I love it. It’s great.
Then there is the second one, which is distance. Now, in your previous book you talk about how we have to do things with other people that have nothing to do with our politics. That our politics will become almost irrelevant in those things that we do with them. Where does that rank in the solutions that you have now? You talk about the internal work that one has to do within, seeking and understanding reasonable criticisms of one’s views. And then there’s the distance part. You can talk about the distance part, and you can talk about where the solution you outlined in “Overdoing Democracy” fits within this.
TALISSE: Good. Perfect. “Overdoing Democracy” argued that if we want to be good citizens, we sometimes have to do things together that are nonpolitical. I still hold that. The question then comes up: “Well, okay. Sometimes I got to do things with other people that are nonpolitical. Great, but when I am doing politics, what am I supposed to do, given how depraved the other side is?” In fact, this was one of the things that got me actually thinking about when I was beginning to write the book. It’s like, well, yes, but politics still has to happen even though the “Overdoing Democracy” book is correct, we still need to do politics together. How are we going to do that?
Whereas “Overdoing Democracy” said we sometimes need to do things together that are not political, “Sustaining Democracy” argues that, yes, and we also sometimes need to do political things all by ourselves. [laughs] Now, that’s the distance thing. Go and Google the phrase, “This is what democracy looks like.” Do a Google images search. You will get instantly a couple hundred thousand pictures that are not all the same picture, but they’re all depicting the same thing: masses of people gathered in a legibly public space, communicating a political sentiment. Maybe not always the same message, but a sentiment.
They are complaining or pressing a concern or raising awareness of some issue, making a demand, protesting, objecting, resisting, all around the world. I want to say, thinking again about—yes, okay. We need to take responsibility for politics in a democracy. Democracy does look like that. It looks like a bunch of people gathered on Capitol Hill with signs. It does look like that, but—and one other thought: Democracy needs active citizens, for sure, not denying that.
The polarization research shows us that certain prominent modes of democratic activity expose us to forces—cognitive and social dynamical forces—that distort our political thinking. They give us unreasonably exaggerated, in a negative way, conceptions of our political opponents. They make us more insistent on uniformity among our allies. Political activity has a distorting effect or can have a distorting effect on our thinking, and democracy doesn’t need us merely to be active. It needs our activity to be reflective.
The thought is that certain modes of political activity—like what’s going on in those pictures, as core as those pictures are to what is central to democracy—some modes of democratic activity undermine our capacities for political reflection. Part of what it is to sustain democracy is to see that there’s a task within us to try to restore and cultivate and exercise those reflective capacities.
What I want to argue is that, given the infiltration into our social lives of political stuff and calls to partisan allegiance, the stuff that’s in “Overdoing Democracy”—in “Sustaining Democracy” I say, given the saturation of the political, if we really want to restore our reflective capacities, we need to get out of one another’s faces, including we need to get out of the presence of our political allies. These are people who are imposing expectations and pressures on us to homogenize. We need to get distance from our allies and foes alike so that we can exercise and restore our reflective capacities.
You thought that was hard to swallow, here’s the other thing that’s hard to swallow. Part of getting distance also involves not just getting distance from our partisan allies and foes. We need to start thinking political thoughts that are not indexed to our own political context. Part of getting distance is getting distance from the politics of the right here and right now. That part of what it means to restore our reflective capacities is to expose ourselves to political ideas and thinking and problems that don’t translate into the political fissures of February 2022 United States politics.
That is, I’m a philosophy professor, quelle surprise, sitting at home and reading Aristotle, puzzling over Aristotle’s eight different definitions of democracy and wondering where we fit in it. That, I want to argue, is not only an important thing to do. I’m a philosopher; of course I think that’s important. I want to say that that’s an important civic act, is taking the step back and confronting political ideas about or relevant to democracy that aren’t about us, and reminding ourselves, we’re just one little time slice in a democratic experiment. We’ve got to be mindful of that if we want it to continue. How’s that sound?
How To Step Back
KLUTSEY: It sounds good. Now, the point is avoiding hot takes, avoiding the instant verdicts about issues and current affairs, and stepping back. In fact, I recall Nassim Taleb’s book “The Black Swan,” and in that book, he writes that the best way to consume the news is not to follow by-the-minute coverage, but to look at journals or periodicals. If it’s covering something that happened a week ago or two weeks ago, three weeks ago, it’s much better because the information is richer, the context is better placed and it helps one to understand issues much better. Do you have a sense of how one might receive information or consume information in these days?
TALISSE: Well, I think that that’s right, and we do have some pretty robust results that show that reading is just a better medium for getting political information in a way that is more easily retainable. This was a study done, by the way, in the ’90s that looked like if watching TV is the main source of your news, that was the way to be most misinformed. Listening to radio was a lot better, but reading was the best way to get your information if you wanted to avoid particular kinds of misperceptions and all the rest. I’m guessing that there’s got to be more current data on that, but I’m not sure what it is. But something like that seems to me right.
The more general thought, I think, is what you were just describing. The current media environment, our current mode of politics even, is so driven by the thought that judgment needs to be instantaneous if it’s going to be authentic. I go through this a little bit in the “Sustaining Democracy” book, the idea that once you’ve got the facts, you should know what to think about them.
KLUTSEY: Silence is violence.
TALISSE: Right. Good. Right. The very idea that it might take a day, a couple of hours to make up your mind about what to think about the thing that just happened is regarded within our mode of democratic politics as something very strange and suspicious. If you need to think, you don’t know where you stand, and not knowing where you stand means you can’t be an ally. That’s how the thinking goes.
Again, that strikes me profoundly anti-democratic as an attitude that—again, maybe this is a philosopher talking. Wait a minute, facts don’t speak for themselves. We need to figure out what the facts are so that we can then reflect on them and make up our minds about what the judgment should be about the facts. But, no, media—social media, particularly, but media in general, is always, “This thing just happened. Let’s get four people on with Anderson Cooper who are all just going to give you the judgment.”
Well, wait a minute. Even if you’re telling me what your judgment is, I want to hear why that judgment is the right judgment, the right assessment of the facts, and that’s gotten lost. The Hannah Arendt idea of judging, of thinking, takes time, takes reflection. That’s gotten lost somewhere in all of the drive for political participation, for action, for being an ally, for getting involved, for speaking out. Speaking out and being involved and being a participant is really great. I’m not denying that. It’s just that to do any of those things responsibly takes the exercise of judgment. That takes reflection, and reflection takes time. I think we’ve lost that.
I think that that conceptual point, the losing of that conceptual point, is really at the core of a lot of the dysfunctions that we talk about in terms of misinformation and fake news. And conspiracy theorizing is the giving up of the thought that it takes time to think.
Hope and Optimism
KLUTSEY: Right, right. Now, as we conclude this conversation. I want you to reflect on whether you’d seen anything in between writing the two books that gives you some hope or some optimism about the future of our democracy.
TALISSE: I think hope and optimism are different things.
KLUTSEY: Responded like a true philosopher.
TALISSE: [laughs] What can I say? Optimism is not one of my things. This is just my way of being in the world, so to speak. With William James, I’m a meliorist. I think that it’s possible that things can get better; there’s just no reason to think that they will, or that they’re guaranteed to get better.
Here are a couple of things. I think that the past year and a half, year and a couple of months have shown us that some of our core institutions are more resilient than we might have thought, so there’s something in that. There are some reasons to think that some of the more brazen violations and overt denials of democratic norms, of civility and respectful disagreement and all the rest—some reason to think that some of the more brazen departures from that have lost their purchase with a large number of citizens.
They happen to not be the same citizens who are very loud on social media. [laughs] There’s some reason to think that what were successful campaign strategies when Trump was running against Hillary probably aren’t going to be—people are not going to be able to just repurpose those and expect the same kind of electoral uptake, which I think is good.
Because it strikes me—and here’s the real hopeful thought. It’s going to sound very peculiar, Ben, as a hopeful thought—but it seems to me that resentment, indignation, anger, fear and the like are finite emotional resources. They’re not inexhaustible. Insofar as the country has seen a political movement or many movements that have been focused on the power of those emotional forces—which I think ultimately are destructive democratically—so far as those emotions are exhaustible, my hope is that the American citizenry is running out [laughs] of resentment and indignation and ready to think more substantively about what to do about the social conditions that are the source of that resentment and indignation.
The fact that in the 2020 election the Republicans announced no platform . . . there was a lot to be worried about. There was a lot going on in the country that gave reason for concern, but the democratic theorist in me thought that that was a remarkable signal of something that’s very disconcerting, that a major party has no legislative agenda. The idea is either that you the voters already know what it is, so we’re not going to announce it because you already know, or that you don’t need any other reason than just you hate Joe Biden and the people on the other side. You so much don’t want them that you don’t care what the other side is offering.
I guess there’s some sense in me that might verge on optimism that voters, the part of the electorate that has interests and values and priorities aligned with a conservative political program, are going to recognize that that’s not going to cut it. That the conservatives need an agenda and need to govern in ways that go beyond the negative partisanship.
KLUTSEY: On that meliorist note, thank you very much, Bob—
TALISSE: Thank you, Ben.
KLUTSEY: —for taking the time to speak with us. I really appreciate it.
TALISSE: I really appreciate talking to you. Thanks.