- The Need for Mutual Forbearance
- Liberalism Starts with the Individual
- Restoring Liberalism
- Be a Fox, Not a Hedgehog
- Too Much of a Good Thing
- A Matter of Trust
- What We Share
- Liberalism and Markets
- Social and Political Trust
- Shaking Hands and Building Relationships
- Confident Pluralism
- Defending the Constitution of Knowledge
- Reaching Our Potential as a Liberal Society
- Remixed Religion in America
- Speaking Freely in American Universities
- Human Beings, Together and Alone
- Humility, Empathy and Asking the Big Questions
- Myths of American Identity
- The Democratic Dilemma
- Empathy, Dialogue and Building Bridges
- Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Political Discourse
- The Psychology of Progress
- Classical Liberalism and Racial Justice
- Racial Classification in America
- Religion, Liberalism and Equality
- Toward Racelessness
- Having the Tough Conversations
- Cultivating an Ethos of Tempered Liberalism
- From High Conflict to Good Conflict
- Democracy and Liberalism
- Communication That Unites Us
- Affective Polarization and the Boundaries of Speech
- Our Brands, Our Selves
- Understanding Community Through Moral Science
In this fifth installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Robert Talisse about his 2019 book, Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place, and about the dysfunctions within democracy that result in increased polarization. Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and director of graduate studies at Vanderbilt University. His areas of specialization include contemporary political philosophy, ethics and pragmatism, with a particular interest in democratic theory.
This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Danielle Allen, Roger Berkowitz, Virgil Storr, Kevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.
BEN KLUTSEY: We continue our series on liberalism, investigating its foundational values such as toleration, individual autonomy, equality, pluralism, freedom of speech, mutual forbearance, and the like. We hope to advance a liberal tradition that strengthens these values. While we do that, we also want to explore how we may have fallen short of these ideals as we see some evidence of illiberalism across the ideological spectrum. One of the ways in which liberalism is challenged is through polarization. Today, we have someone who has the expertise to help us understand how we got here.
Our guest today is Professor Robert Talisse. He is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and director of graduate studies at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in contemporary political philosophy, with particular interest in democratic theory and political epistemology. He also pursues topics in pragmatism, analytical philosophy, argumentation theory, and ancient philosophy. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t want to be involved in an argument with Professor Talisse. He has written numerous books and articles, including his most recent book, Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place.
Pushing Goods to Excess
Let’s just delve right into it, Professor Talisse.
The title of your book is Overdoing Democracy. Democracy, the ideal of self-government among equals, sounds like a great thing. In fact, you have great things to say about it. You make a case that it’s not only instrumentally good but intrinsically good. How can we possibly overdo such an amazing thing like democracy?
ROBERT TALISSE: Firstly, thank you for inviting me on the program. It’s really great to talk to you, Ben. Let me say this: With respect to almost every other thing that we recognize as good, and even as good in some not merely instrumental way, we recognize that there’s such a thing as having too much of it or overdoing it.
Now, let’s use a very simple and simplistic example that’s not exactly analogous with democracy, but it’ll get our gears turning, I think, in a good direction. We recognize that you can overdo cheesecake. We recognize that cheesecakes are subject to what we in philosophy and in economics call diminishing utility, where that is with each bite of the cheesecake, the utility or the satisfyingness of the subsequent bite gets diminished a little bit, up to the point where the next bite is not at all pleasing and might even be positively displeasing.
We recognize that good things can be done in a way that undoes their value. Now, democracy, of course, is not cheesecake. If the overdoing democracy claim is going to be made sense of, we have to think of some other model for understanding how to overdo a good thing. Now, we have a concept like the workaholic, somebody who’s so devoted to her work, to her occupation, to her pursuits as a professional whatever she may be that she overdoes it or she focuses too narrowly on the work. That’s kind of what I want to get at. Let me give you just a different kind of example—true example, by the way—which I talk about in the book.
I once had a friend who decided one day that she was going to pursue optimal physical fitness, and she achieved great results in a short period of time. It was actually quite amazing, but the problem with her pursuit was that she spent so much time at the gym that she lost touch with all of her friends. None of us know what happened to her.
We might say she overdid fitness, not in the sense that she pulled a hamstring because she didn’t, but she overdid that particular good thing by pursuing it with such an intensity that other good things fell by the wayside and eventually withered. She no longer had time to hang out with her friends or to have lunch or to do any of the things that she used to do with people that she herself found of value because physical fitness became the sole orienting good of everything else in her life.
Now, that doesn’t make fitness not a good. Fitness might be a good, and it might even be an intrinsic good. It might even be that being fit is good for itself and not just because it’s a good way to stay out of the doctor’s office or the hospital. It might be good in some non-instrumental way. But when we pursue fitness with such a single-mindedness that our pursuit causes other goods to wither or dispels other goods from our lives, I think that it’s natural to say in the case of my friend, she’s overdone it.
In fact, I would want to suggest that if we filled in a little bit more of the details of this story, Ben, I think you too would start saying, “Oh, wait a minute now.” The right way to think about what this person is doing is to start introducing diagnostic language, pop psychological diagnostic language, because it looks like it’s the right thing to say about this. She’s spending so much time at the gym that nobody can maintain a friendship with her.
That looks like we want to start saying things like, “That’s an obsession. That’s not an exercise regimen; that’s a compulsion. That’s not an exercise regimen; that’s some kind of fixation.” She’s not any less physically fit by it, but it does look like a distorted ordering of the values because, we might say, whether we want to say that fitness is merely only instrumentally good or if it’s instrumentally good and good in this more non-instrumental or even intrinsic way, we still, I think, can ask ourselves the question of what being fit is good for?
And it strikes me in the account I defend in the Overdoing Democracy book is that part of the value of being physically fit is bound up with the other good things that fitness enables you to pursue and to realize in your life. The point of being fit cannot be that you’ll live to see the next workout. That can’t be the reason why fitness is good, that there’s more workouts to do. It has to be that fitness is good because it enables other good things—hikes with friends, rewarding experiences, other kinds of enrichment.
Now that’s what I want to say is analogous with democracy. I want to say democracy is like fitness in this sense. Democracy is like fitness in that part of what makes it good, or part of its good, is bound up with the other good things that it enables people to realize in their lives. When democracy, when our partisan politics become the organizing principle of everything that we do together, we become like my friend and her exercise regimen. These other goods that are not political in nature get expelled from our lives or in some way twisted into vehicles for realizing our partisan ends. In that sense, they become distorted.
In the case of democracy, perhaps in a way unlike the case of my friend and her fitness regimen, when we overdo democracy in this way, not only do we lose track of the point of the whole endeavor—which is to allow the social spaces where these other kinds of goods can flourish—not only does that get expelled, we also become less good at citizenship. When we pursue democracy single-mindedly, when that becomes the organizing principle around everything that we do together, we actually perform less well as citizens. How’s that sound?
KLUTSEY: It sounds great. As I was reading, I kept thinking— I just heard you mention partisan politics. I just kept thinking perhaps the title could have been Overdoing Partisan Politics or Overdoing Democratic Politics. Can’t we disentangle the mechanism for achieving some of the democratic goals from democracy in general because it seems to me that the real issue is politics?
TALISSE: Good. The vocabulary is not what I wanted. It’s not a hill I’m going to die on. Ben, you say, “Look, the thesis looks to me like it’s a thesis about overdoing partisan politics, not democracy. Let’s save the word democracy for something that is the sort of catchall for what’s really good and important. Let’s reserve that term for a kind of good that can only be more or less well-achieved but never overstepped or overdone.” That seems to me like a dispute about how we want to run the nomenclature here. And it’s fine, but here’s what I would say about why I would want to uphold the idea that it’s democracy that’s being overdone.
First move, the politics that are being overdone are democratic politics. It’s not some other politics that are being overdone; it’s democratic politics. It’s the political associations and affiliations and allegiances that are part of the structure of democratic politics. Now, of course, we can agree with John Dewey and Jane Addams and all kinds of other really important political, democratic theorists that democracy is not merely a form of government. It’s not merely a political process and political institutions.
I would agree with that. It’s not merely those things, but that’s to say that it is in part those things. The politics that are being overdone are democratic politics. That already looks to me like it’s tipping in favor of saying that, “Well, yeah, it is democracy that’s being overdone.” Let me just suggest one other reason why I think that it serves us well in thinking through the problems about polarization to think of the problem as a problem of overdoing democracy rather than politics or partisanship or some other term that captures only a little bit of what democracy is about.
And it’s this. What I try to stress in the book and in some subsequent work is that this problem, the problem of overdoing democracy, which is also the problem of not being able to keep politics in its right place in our collective lives, is endemic, is internal, to democracy. My thesis is not that, well, we’ve got this democratic society, and it’s organized in certain ways and around certain kinds of party structures and political affiliations and all the rest. Then, somehow some nondemocratic, some alien social force, infiltrates the democratic arena and starts fouling it in a way that leads us to see politics in everything that we do. That’s not the story I want to tell.
I do want to say that there’s a problem in that we see politics in everything that we do, but I want to say that it’s not a case of some nondemocratic force infiltrating democracy. This is a problem that is internal to democracy itself. That is, I want to suggest that activities, engagements, that are otherwise politically admirable—even creditable and laudable from the point of view of democracy—expose us as citizens to the forces that make us overdo it.
That is, I want to suggest that overdoing democracy is not so much a problem that democracy can solve by expelling those alien forces that are causing us to do it badly. I want to suggest rather, overdoing democracy is a problem that comes along. Part of the package of democracy is that there’s a problem to be managed because the acts of citizenship that otherwise are expected, virtuous, laudable are nonetheless the kinds of activities that, because of some cognitive forces that we’ll discuss in a minute, I’m sure, Ben, they expose us to forces that lead us to see politics in everything that we do, to organize the whole of our social lives around our political affiliations, and therefore, to overdo democracy.
Short answer then. I think we need to call it overdoing democracy if we want, as I do, to highlight the idea that the problem is not something from somewhere outside of democracy. It emerges from within the democratic ethos. Does that sound right?
KLUTSEY: Sounds good. Does that mean this is inevitable? We were going to go down this path anyway?
TALISSE: It’s inevitable in that democracies need citizens to be engaged, for citizens to form coalitions of like-minded fellow citizens, to engage within those coalitions in ways that are aimed at coordinating activities designed to further certain political aims. Democracy needs all that; it needs like-minded coalitions. The trouble, of course, and we can get into this more specifically, is that when there are like-minded coalitions, the exposure to a certain kind of cognitive phenomenon that’s called belief polarization, that we can discuss in more detail, that we heighten our exposure to this cognitive phenomenon that starts initiating the dysfunctions of overdoing democracy.
So it’s inevitable in that the activities of democratic citizenship that can’t be expelled from democracy expose citizens to the forces that create this problem. In that sense, it’s inevitable. I don’t think it’s inevitable in this other sense, that is I don’t think that democracy is doomed. I think that if left unmanaged, we get real political dysfunction, but there might be ways to manage these cognitive forces that lead us to overdo democracy. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some polarization. What’s not inevitable is the extent and depth and intensity of the kind of polarization that currently has beset especially American democracy, democracy in the United States—but not only democracy in the United States.
Sorting and Political Saturation
KLUTSEY: Interesting. Now, before we get into the distinction between belief polarization and political polarization, can you talk a little bit about political saturation, the notion that our social spaces have been overtaken by politics? You also advanced the view that this has been possible because of another concept called sorting. Can you unpack that for us, how sorting leads to saturation?
TALISSE: Sure. Good question. What I call political saturation and partisan sorting is really what makes polarization in both of the senses that you just identified, belief and political, democratically degenerative. Let’s start. Here’s one way to encapsulate the idea in a sort of academic sentence: In the United States, as our society has become increasingly diverse along all kinds of metrics that are encouraging, the local spaces we inhabit in our day-to-day lives have become increasingly homogeneous.
Just to put that again, the country has become more diverse, but the environments you and I inhabit in our day-to-day goings-about in the world have become more homogeneous. And the principle of the homogeneity—the respect in which those spaces are homogeneous—has become increasingly partisan identification. The country has become more diverse in the aggregate; the local spaces you and I inhabit have become more intensely segregated into liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, spaces.
Now, when you look at the data about this, in some ways it’s shocking. In other ways, it’s merely surprising because we don’t always think in these terms. But once these things are pointed out, people are like, “Oh yeah, of course.” Here’s just some stock cases or examples of the ways in which partisan affiliation, partisan identity, is built into ordinary aspects of everyday life in ways that are not always obvious to us, but once they’re pointed out, they do seem obvious.
We know ownership of pickup trucks skews heavily conservative. We know that. In fact, I’m sure you’re driving down the road and you see some guy in a huge pickup truck, and I said, “Look, I’ll give you $5 if you can guess how that guy votes.” I guess you’d be very, very likely to say that’s a conservative voter, and in the overwhelming number of cases you’d be right.
Contrast that with the hybrid car, a little economy electric hybrid car. Ownership of that kind of vehicle skews heavily liberal. Again, people are like, “Oh yeah, of course.” Let’s just start going through other kinds of examples: Wearing camouflage attire versus yoga pants—which one’s the liberal? Ben, you know who the liberal is, right? You know who the liberal is.
I live in Nashville, Tennessee—the South. We’ve got a major grocery store chain called Kroger. Now I’ve got a Kroger in town; I’ve got a Whole Foods in town. Where do you expect you’re going to find the people wearing yoga pants? Whole Foods. Clearly, it’s Whole Foods, right? Clearly, it’s Whole Foods.
We joke about these things. “Attention Walmart shoppers” is the beginning of a joke about conservatives. And as it turns out, Walmart skews heavily conservative; Target skews liberal. Starbucks skews liberal; Dunkin’ Donuts skews conservative.
Now, again, this is not some story according to which there’s a puppet master who’s forcing liberals into certain patterns of behavior and conservatives into other patterns of behavior. These are just natural upshots of certain kinds of lifestyle choices, certain kinds of understandings of what’s valuable in life.
I’ll just give you one explanation. The fact that Starbucks’ clientele skews heavily liberal— You walk into a Starbucks, it’s very clear from the internal space that they’re catering to— Starbucks understands its clientele as a certain kind of individual, somebody who imagines him- or herself to be cosmopolitan because the decorations, the photos, are of faraway places. You’re sitting there drinking coffee, and you’re looking at a picture of some place in Kenya.
It’s catering to a clientele that is not uncomfortable ordering their drink in a way that requires them to speak words that sound like they’re not English, foreign words. Now, in the Starbucks language, a lot of them are just made-up words that are supposed to sound like vaguely Italian or vaguely Spanish. They’re supposed to sound vaguely like these things. But, it’s serving a clientele that doesn’t bristle against the idea of talking about cappuccino or Frappuccino and knows what a frappé is throughout Europe.
Turns out that liberals are far more likely to have passports in the United States than conservatives. It turns out that liberals are far more likely to vacation in ways that require them to get on an airplane than conservatives. And by the way, those differences remain steady even when you correct for financial or economic differences. That is, liberals and conservatives that are in the same economic circumstance, it’s such that the liberals are more likely to get on planes to go on vacation than the conservatives. So it’s not that liberals that take these vacations have more money than the conservatives. If you talk about people who are economically similarly circumstanced, you get the same kinds of divisions.
Now, contrast Starbucks with Dunkin’ Donuts, which is the other major coffee chain in the country. There are other coffee chains, but that’s the other major one. Clearly, Dunkin’ Donuts is not trying to give you the momentary illusion of being in Europe. Starbucks is. Starbucks is trying to convince you. Part of what they’re selling is the momentary escape to a fantasy where you are a cosmopolitan person sitting in another country drinking a drink that has got a name that is a foreign language, so on and so forth.
Dunkin’ Donuts tells you what it’s about in its national slogan that’s been in place for over a decade now. America runs on Dunkin’. Dunkin’ Donuts is selling coffee to people who are on their way to work, who want coffee, caffeine, and carbohydrates to just be alert at their job—or after they get home, when they’re on their way home from their job.
Now, just think. Those are two different ways of appealing to people’s understanding of who they are, which is tightly tied to how they live. Tightly tied to how they live.
KLUTSEY: Has this kind of sorting always been around or is this quite new?
TALISSE: It’s relatively new. Social spaces have been segregated according to all kinds of categories for a long, long time. We know this, especially very overtly in the case of segregation. But what’s happened in the United States, particularly over the last 30 or so years, is that more and more of the social spaces are being sorted according to partisan identity because partisan identity, our political sense of who we are, has come to overwhelm all of the other social markers of our identity such that we are now, as a citizenry, more likely than we were 20 years ago to think of ourselves as progressives or conservatives, instead of as Christians, for example.
Let me put it this way because this is really interesting stuff. Religious identity used to be a pretty solid marker of lifestyle. It used to be pretty central. Let me put it this way. Religious identity used to be at the center of our overall sense of who we are socially. That’s shifted such that now our partisan identity is now taken to be more central to who we are than our religious identity. Let me give you one way we can see that that’s true.
There’s a story in America about religious congregations becoming politicized. That story is very intuitive, but it turns out to not be true. But let me just give you the intuitive story. It runs like this. Somewhere in the ‘80s, probably in the late ‘70s, cultural upheavals that were happening in the ‘60s had percolated up and permeated the whole of society, and particularly evangelical Christian leaders, pastors, ministers had started to feel as if their traditional values were under assault in the popular culture.
According to this very intuitive story, those ministers, the preachers began politicizing, began introducing into their sermons and into their worship more broadly political messaging in defense of those traditional values that they felt were being attacked in the broader society. That is a common and very, very intuitive story.
But there’s research that suggests it’s got it backwards, that here’s what’s happened since the ‘80s. What’s happened since the ‘80s is that Christian congregants have started showing up for worship with the expectation, the more intense expectation, that political convictions and commitments would be explicitly part of their worship. That is, the congregation started showing up demanding more overtly political messaging from the pastor. The pastors who didn’t comply, didn’t respond to that market signal, lost their flock.
There’s a wonderful book by a political scientist named Michele Margolis that lays out this data. It’s—I don’t want to say shocking—it’s deeply, deeply intriguing. And so it looks as if something happened. What was that? Partisan identity came to occupy the center of our self-understanding and then swallowed everything up with it, so that now it’s very clear in the United States, political affiliation and religious conviction, in most cases, go hand in hand. We know. In fact, it’s very clear. Again, I live in Nashville so there are churches all around. Various Christian— I’m sorry. Go ahead.
KLUTSEY: Is this mostly due to the success of political marketing, that the parties have been very successful in targeting, segmenting, the population in ways that have been very, very effective?
TALISSE: I think that that’s right, but let me just fill in one little stepping stone to get there because the part in between is that we culturally, as individuals, have gained over the past 30 years unbelievable latitude over the circumstances, the environments, within which we live, unbelievable latitude. In Nashville— I moved here in 2001. I’m a fan of Mediterranean food, for whatever reason. My grandparents were Syrian, so I grew up on Arab food. Not a lot of Arab food in Nashville in 2001.
Now there is, and I could Doordash it. I could Doordash it. Before there were restaurants that were offering that kind of cuisine, every once in a while, my wife and I would find a way over the Internet to go and order the ingredients to make certain things. “Let’s order the Armenian cheese. You can get that overnight.” They’ll ship it overnight. It costs a lot, but you could do it.
So with the technology, the spaces— the respects in which we have to adapt to what our environments are like, that’s shrunk. That’s eased. Now we’re in greater control over the conditions that we live in—where we live, how we get to work, what our consumer habits are. The idea that there are certain kinds of stores or certain kinds of products that can be purchased only in the Northeast, that’s no longer— In some cases, it is, but now everything’s national. It’s like, is there a Starbucks in Nashville? Yeah. Is there a Starbucks in Huntsville, Alabama? I’m sure there is. There’s a Starbucks on almost every intersection in Manhattan.
I left New York. I’m like, “Well, I don’t know, what’s the coffee going to be like? Are there going to be foreign films in Nashville?” Turns out, yeah, there are. That’s a change. By the way, I’m not lamenting it. It’s a positive change, but here’s what it means. What it means is that, because we’ve got this expanded latitude over the circumstances, the environments, within which we work, we live, we’ve made our social worlds in our own image.
That’s the stepping stone now because now you say, “Well, wait a minute now.” The circumstances of your life are now all reflective of your choices, your preferences, your ideas about what’s important and what’s valuable. That is, your little slice of the world, your little social environment, is now an expression of your lifestyle rather than something that you’ve had to adapt to—not entirely, just in a way that was unconceivable by my parents, for example.
What that means is that we’re each living in a little environment that is expressive of and reflective of our lifestyle, and that creates, just as it does for marketers of all kinds of other products, that creates a clear strategy for the marketers of political candidates and political platforms. They now say, “Wait a minute, let’s tap in. Let’s try to associate our brand, our agenda, with individuals’ understanding of that lifestyle because then we can say, ‘Well, look, if you’re a conservative, there’s a kind of car you drive. There’s a kind of house you live in. There’s a kind of neighborhood you prefer. There’s a kind of cuisine you eat. There’s a kind of television show you watch. There’s a kind of movie that you do not watch. There’s a kind of music that you do not listen to, but therefore, there’s a kind of music that you do listen to.’”
We can package all of this into a coherent set of lifestyle choices and affirmations. Just like the people who are selling us peanut butter and everything else, we now can tap into the wellsprings of political behavior. That’s what I think has happened. It’s just been good marketing because conditions have shrunk out so that we have this latitude. Our little worlds are all expressions of our lifestyle. Somebody saw an opportunity there, and it wasn’t just the corporations that advertised to us. The political, the people who manage and sell us candidates and political agendas, do the very same thing as the people who are selling us cars.
KLUTSEY: That’s very interesting. I just saw a show on Netflix, it’s a documentary called The Social Dilemma that basically highlights the issues related to having social media that is very in tune with the algorithms that’s able to detect our behaviors and tries to get our attention on a consistent basis.
TALISSE: That’s right. Let me just add one thing to that because we’re familiar with this general line of thought in that context. The person on the street these days is familiar with a line of thought that says, “Well, the social media feeds, the 24/7 cable news networks, the algorithms, these are all forces that are shaping in ways that we don’t have control of—and if they’re doing their job, we’re not really aware of— they’re shaping our entertainment and informational environments. And that’s a bad thing.”
I think the person on the street in America these days has heard some version of that and probably finds it compelling, as they should. It is compelling. The argument here is that—and this is the saturation point—if you’re compelled by that argument about social media feeds and online internet spaces, the bad news is that the same is true, as the philosophers say a fortiori, with greater reason. The same is true with stronger reason about our physical spaces.
The guy standing behind you in line at Whole Foods when you’re buying your groceries is likely also a liberal. The person that you’re talking to, chitchatting with, when you’re deciding what kind of muffin to buy at Starbucks is also likely a liberal, which means that your everyday interactions with people are in ways that aren’t always visible. In fact, if they’re doing their job, they’re not visible to you. Everyday interactions with people are more and more putting you in touch only with people who are just like you.
KLUTSEY: This is fascinating.
TALISSE: That’s problematic. That’s problematic.
KLUTSEY: It’s fascinating. The sorting leads to this kind of polarization, and you distinguish between political polarization and belief polarization. Can you elaborate on that for us?
What Is Polarization?
TALISSE: Sure. People talk about polarization all the time now. You turn on your news channel at night, somebody’s going to utter the word, often to lament it, to complain about how polarized the country is. And it is generally lamentable; it is a fact about our politics that it’s polarized. What do we mean by the word? What does it mean? Part of what I try to do in the Overdoing Democracy book is just try to sort out.
There are different phenomena here that are plausibly called polarization, and in fact, are called polarization, and it’s important to keep them distinct because if you want to really get a handle on what’s problematic about polarization, you have to see how these two different kinds of phenomena interact. Polarization, if you just mean the parties are at odds with each other, that might be frustrating. In some ways, that might be an unfortunate thing in democracy.
I, myself, don’t think that a condition where the parties are not allied, where there’s a real difference between the parties about policy, that doesn’t seem to me to yet be obviously a bad thing. Well, maybe some degree of polarization in that sense is a good thing. Citizens have to have clear signals about what party is allied with what, and if they are clearly opposed on certain things, that’s good for the citizens, and maybe that’s good for our politics.
I might even say some degree of partisan animosity, some degree of hostility for the members of the other party on the other side of the aisle, I might even be willing to say that may not be such a bad thing. You are disagreeing over important stuff when you’re a lawmaker. When you’re thinking about what justice requires that the government do, it might be a good thing to get angry at the people who are trying to stand in the way of justice as you see it. That might not be such a terrible thing.
We want to make sense of what’s problematic and dangerous about polarization. I just think we need some nuance. Now, here’s the nuance. Let’s talk about political polarization first because it is the more familiar sense of the term. Political polarization as I use it is a metric of what we might call the doctrinal or ideological distance between two opposed political groups. Let’s just call them parties because we think in terms of two-party systems in the United States. Let’s just call them parties.
The United States is politically polarized to the extent that the two major parties are at odds. When they’re at odds, what that means is that the middle ground between them drops out or dissolves. There are no longer people who can reach across the aisle or bridge the gap, and so it’s harder for party members to cooperate productively with the people on the other side of the aisle. Now, as I say, that can be frustrating. It can make the job of actual government harder because government is about dirty hands; it’s not about clean hands. Government is about making deals, compromising, giving a little, and getting something back in return. That’s just a fact about politics.
Political polarization in that sense might not be so terrible. But here’s the thing. What’s happened in the past 30 years, let’s say, is that our partisan differences, including our partisan animosity, has come home to roost. In the ‘70s and in part of the ‘80s, it was natural for people who affiliated with the Democratic Party to have negative feelings towards Ronald Reagan, towards the Republican Party. That was normal; that was to be expected.
Again, I’ll just say I don’t know that it’s so bad. But what’s happened since the ‘80s is that rank-and-file citizens, the guy who votes Democrat across the street from me, the person down the block who’s got the Trump sign on her lawn, they now hate each other. Their negative feelings, their animosity, is not just directed towards the party leaders, the candidates, the spokespersons. The woman with the Trump sign on her lawn doesn’t simply dislike Nancy Pelosi intensely; she dislikes the guy three houses away with the Biden sign on his lawn.
That is, partisan animosity has become an organizing principle that colors our interactions among citizens and our feelings towards citizens. We’re politically polarized, but not simply in the sense that the parties are opposed and the people on the one side of the aisle are different from the people on the other side of the aisle. No, no. All that talk about the aisle has come home.
Now the guy across the street is like the guy on the other side of the aisle to you. Negative feelings are now impacting our interpersonal relations as citizens. As partisan identity has come to occupy the center of our overall sense of who we are, our animosity for the people on the other side—for the people, not the party people, not the politicians, the fellow citizens—has also intensified. We as a citizenry are now divided at the level of affect, at the level of our emotions. We’re not as divided as we think we are, let me put it this way, at the level of actual policies. Let me put that in a slightly different way.
Again, here’s where things start becoming more obviously problematic, let me put it this way, with political polarization. As that negative affect towards your fellow citizens who are differently affiliated from you has intensified, that intensification has far outstripped any actual policy division. That is, we hate each other more than we did 20 years ago, but we’re not really all that more divided over actual policies than we were 20 years ago or so. So it looks as if the negative feelings towards the other guy have skyrocketed in a way that is incommensurate with actual rubber-meets-the-road political differences about what the laws should be and what government should be doing.
In fact, with respect to a lot of public political policy, divisions between— Forget about the parties and the candidates and the spokespersons; they’re playing a different game now. For the citizens, when it comes to what were at one point real, hot button issues, differences have actually moderated. They’ve eased rather than intensified. However, because we dislike the other side more, we project onto them more radical distance on the policy. We think we are ever more divided than we are at the policy level.
That is to say, we’re divided in this level of political polarization. It comes to citizens as negative affect for differently affiliated citizens, and that negative affect leads us to project on them very stark political divisions at the level of policy that are all inaccurate. Now we can already see that is part of a problem because what that means is that citizens are more confident about who they like and who they don’t like, but they’re also more inclined to hold distorted images of what the people on the other side of politics actually believe.
So we hate each other more despite the fact that we understand less. Now that just looks like a problem on any view of democracy.
KLUTSEY: The level of intensification is interesting. One of the data points you use is marriage.
TALISSE: That’s right. Negative feelings in the United States, disapproving attitudes about interpartisan marriage now are more intense than disapproving attitudes of interracial or interfaith marriages. By the way, look, there’s something encouraging in that. It’s like our negative attitudes about interfaith and interracial marriages have kind of moderated, and they have, but what’s intensified—
It used to be far more likely, by the way, in the states to find cross-partisan families. Families and kids with spouses that didn’t have the same party alignment, spouses with the same party alignment having kids— This is what made All in the Family a funny Americana program. At least one of the parents had a political alignment that the daughter didn’t have and the son-in-law didn’t have, and that was part of the American story—the politically mixed family.
Over the past 30 years, families have become increasingly politically homogeneous, such that it’s now, in some cases under certain kinds of conditions, finding out who your parents voted for is usually a pretty good indicator, one of the stronger indicators, of how you vote—finding out how your parents vote. And that’s changed.
KLUTSEY: Instinctively, in response, one might say that the way to deal with this is—we’ve heard this before—you go across the aisle, so to speak; you find ways to unify. But you would say that that is ineffective. Why is that?
TALISSE: Yes. Let me spell out what belief polarization is as a way to draw the contrast, and that’s how we get to what some people find a hard-to-accept conclusion—but I think it’s nonetheless true—of the book. Political polarization is this metric of distance between opposed groups. Belief polarization is a cognitive phenomenon. It’s the ‘Yes man’ phenomenon. Belief polarization is the psychological or cognitive tendency for interactions with like-minded people to cause us to shift into more extreme versions of ourselves.
When we surround ourselves with people who are more or less just like us politically, we become more fervent advocates of our political view. And so not only do we become more confident as progressives, we also have become more extreme in our progressive views. A group of people who support some kind of progressive agenda, some kind of environmental policy, for example, you get them interacting, all talking about the environmental policy that they all agree on, and the whole group starts shifting to a more radical formulation of that shared commitment.
By the way, it’s almost like a magic trick in a way because people often don’t feel it happening to them. They don’t recognize that they walked into the room to have a conversation with like-minded people thinking one thing, and they emerged thinking a slightly more extreme version of that thing. They don’t recognize it happening. By the way, this is how cognitive phenomena often work. When you’re in the grip of it, you don’t recognize it. That’s how it does its job.
It’s hard to find a more robustly documented, surprising social cognitive phenomenon. This is as solid a finding about social and political cognition that we’ve got. It’s been studied since the 1950s, studied all over the world. The effect doesn’t seem to vary with any of the demographic markers like education, religious belief, various signals of gullibility. It doesn’t vary in any of the ways that you think it should.
It affects groups regardless of whether they’re like-minded with respect to some value judgment or some factual judgment. Here’s something that’s going to tickle you, Ben. You get a bunch of people together who all agree that Denver is notable for being especially high above sea level, and they start talking about Denver. They emerge from that conversation believing Denver is higher above sea level than what they estimated it to be before they started talking. But that’s not even a value judgment. It’s just a pure, banal fact. It’s just an empirical fact. It’s a brute fact about the world.
In fact, you get a bunch of people together, and before you have them talking about Denver, you ask each one of them, “How high above sea level is Denver?” They give you a number, and then you say, “Do you think Denver could be 5,000 miles higher? You think Denver could be 50 miles higher?”
They say, “No, can’t be that high.”
“Or 10 miles higher?”
“Can’t be that high. I say it’s this high; it’s not that much higher.”
You get them talking, not only does each one start coming to believe that Denver is of a higher elevation, most of them will exceed the cap that they put on before they started talking. They’ll be like, “Oh, gee, I— ”
Or with the attractiveness of faces. You get a bunch of people together who think a particular celebrity’s face is attractive. You ask them before they start talking, “Okay, how attractive is the face?”
“Oh, definitely a 7. That’s really attractive.”
“Okay, do you think this person could be a 9?”
“No, definitely not a 9.”
You get them talking to one another, and the person who said they couldn’t be as high as a 9 all of a sudden now is saying that they’re a 10. Then after the conversation happens, you ask the subjects, “Wait a minute, now you’re assessing the face as a 10 out of 10? That’s really attractive.”
“Yeah, yeah, well, you know, as I started thinking about it, yeah, the person’s really much more attractive to me now.”
Then you say, “But before you walked into the conversation, you said that the person couldn’t be more than a 9?”
Most often, they say, “I don’t remember that.” They don’t remember that they established a cap that they had then exceeded, so it’s a very interesting cognitive phenomenon.
Now, here’s why all this matters politically. Because given that our spaces are sorted and that politics has saturated everything that we do, the world around us now functions like the online echo chamber. We surround ourselves with like-minded people. That means that we expose ourselves in our everyday goings-about in the world to the conditions that make us more fervent and more extreme versions of ourselves.
When we extremify in this way, when we shift towards the more extreme version of our commitments around our politics, but not only around our politics, but because politics is infused with everything we do— When we shift into our more extreme political selves, we become more inclined to see those with whom we disagree as irrational, as depraved, as untrustworthy, as devious, as lazy, as unpatriotic. We become more likely to interrupt them when they speak. We become less able to anticipate. We become less able to give a report of what their views are. We become less able to hear nuance in their views. We become less able to recognize differences of opinion among them.
Let me spell that point out because it’s interesting. As we shift into our more extreme selves, we become more inclined to see those who we perceive as our political opponents, they start looking to us as an extreme monolith. We don’t hear differences in their opinions. We see them as all saying the same thing all the time. And it also sounds to us like irrational nonsense.
Now you see, this belief polarization phenomenon is tied in with that affective polarization. It’s tied in with the political phenomenon by which we come to dislike each other more and understand each other less. That’s what belief polarization is. Now you see that once you disambiguate these different senses of polarization, there’s a version of political polarization that’s really about rank-and-file citizens disliking one another, and that feeds into and then is reinforced by belief polarization, which itself is fueled by the fact that our spaces are sorted and politics has saturated everything.
KLUTSEY: But before we get into the solutions, is this what’s generating current phenomena like cancel culture, ostracization, and things like that?
TALISSE: Clearly, in some cases, yes. There are lots of different things that people mean by canceling and cancel culture. It’s interesting because I happen to think that the fact that a lot of these terms that get used, newly minted terms that get introduced into the political vernacular, the fact that we lose sense of what we’re talking about is one of the byproducts of the polarization dynamic.
Let me just give you one very quick example of this because there’s been a lot of data about this. It looks as if there’s reason to think that not only do our partisan divisions, not only are they reflected in and expressive of—infused with—lifestyles, not only are they connected to negative affect and the inability to understand the people on the other side, it looks as if partisan identity also impacts our perceptions of things. Let me just give an example that’s kind of intuitive, and then we can start talking about ways in which maybe things are a little bit more dramatic than they may seem.
Here’s an intuitive, kind of like, “Yeah, everybody would think this is the case.” In experimental context, when you give somebody who identifies as liberal a little scenario where they discover that the Republicans in town have been going around stealing liberal campaign signs—they’re stealing the Biden signs off of front lawns. The liberal says, “That just goes to show how uninterested in democracy they are. They can’t win unless they cheat. This is a terrible infraction, a violation of norms. This is more norm erosion. This is what the GOP is nowadays.” They say all those things.
You give that same person a scenario where it’s the liberal stealing the Trump signs. Then they say things like, “Well, this is how the game is played. This is mischief. This is not exactly a good thing, but this is politics. You can’t take it? Don’t be a snowflake. This is real politics now.”
It’s intuitive to say, “Well, that’s just straight-up political hypocrisy. Are you for campaign sign-stealing or aren’t you? Do you think it’s okay, or do you think it’s not okay?” But there are all kinds of reasons to think, “Well, wait a minute. No, no, that’s not exactly the right way to see it.” The right way to see it is that when the liberal is given the scenario of the liberal campaign signs being stolen, they see that as people acting against the interest of justice. When the liberal hears about people stealing the Trump signs, that’s an act that furthers justice. They see the act in a different light because—
Here’s a philosophical point. It’s just not clear to me that it’s so easy in these cases to separate out the perception of just the fact from our assessment of its moral valence. It seems to me that, yeah, when my side’s stealing the signs of the other guy, that looks different to me because it seems to me a different act because it’s morally a different act. It is the act of helping justice prevail by way of stealing the sign. It’s not just like, “Well, there’s sign-stealing. Now what do you think about it?” That seems to me to just be an overly simplistic conception of even how perception works.
Now, it turns out that this kind of result can be found in all kinds of other examples. You show people some video of a group acting in concert, in public, in a street somewhere. You prime them to think the group is acting on behalf of Black Lives Matter. The conservatives then call that group a riot. They say what is happening in that video is a riot. Liberal people watching that call it a protest because they see it differently. By the way, it switches. You’re like, “Well, this is a Trump rally. That’s a protest.”
The liberals say, “That’s a riot or that’s unlawful. What’s going on there is unlawful.” You can see this even in popular commentary about how some of the protests that we’ve been witnessing in this country are going. Part of it is opportunistic when you have pundits calling Black Lives Matter protests, the overwhelming majority of which are peaceful, riots. I don’t think that it’s right to say that it’s always merely opportunistic rhetoric.
I think that the partisan division has infiltrated the way in which it’s so deep in how we see things and how we understand events that are coded as politically significant. I think that it’s actually people see different things when they look at political events. We say that they’re looking at the same thing. I don’t know that they’re looking at the same thing. I think that partisanship is that deep.
Is De-politicization Possible?
KLUTSEY: Going to solutions, I picked my pen and paper, and I was waiting to make a list of all the things that people can do together. Because you say that we have to put politics in its place, and we have to do things together that do not involve politics at all. But then you go into an area that seems very introspective. The way in which we ourselves engage and how we think about things should be a little bit different. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
TALISSE: Yeah, sure. The upshot of the argument that we’ve been laying out here, which is the argument of the Overdoing Democracy book, is that we’ve got a problem in democracy. It’s the combination of this polarization dynamic with political saturation that creates conditions under which we lose our capacity to see our political opponents as nonetheless our fellow citizens.
I try to defend this in the book. As a democratic theorist, I could defend this in more academic terms, but it seems to me that’s what democracy is. Democracy is self-government among political equals. We often, I think, tend to emphasize, rightfully so, that self-government among political equals means that the government owes us a kind of regard. The government has to treat us as equals rather than as some the subordinates to others who are their superiors. That’s part of the democratic story, too. It’s the way the government and its policies regard us.
But then I want to say, democracy is not just a moral principle that impacts the way governments regard their citizens. If we are a community of self-governing political equals, we have to recognize ourselves as equals. We are one another’s equals, not merely equal before the law, not merely equal in the eyes of the government, but equal in one another’s eyes.
What that means is that democracy sets for us a difficult moral task. We have to as citizens cultivate, develop, and preserve within ourselves the ability to regard those whose political commitments we regard as misguided, problematic, and within a certain spectrum even out of step with justice as nonetheless our political equals.
When we recognize our political opposition and our political rivals and even our political foes as our political equals, part of what we are doing is not merely recognizing that they get an equal say because it’s a democracy and everybody gets an equal say. That’s not sufficient. In order to perform well as a democratic citizen, you have to be able to recognize that your political foes are entitled to an equal say, which means that when they get their way by way of democratic processes, even though you think that their political opinions are obviously wrong, mistaken, and out of step with justice, it would nonetheless be illegitimate for the government to not enact their will.
Now, that is a heavy burden for the democratic citizen because as democratic citizens, we’re supposed to care about justice. We’re supposed to care about acting in ways that take responsibility for our shared political order, such that we’re supposed to be working so that justice can be pursued, so that we can enact justice, so that we can avoid injustice and banish it insofar as possible from our society. Yet, we also have to recognize that within a certain spectrum, there are certain people who are our fellow citizens who advocate positions that we regard as unjust. Nonetheless, when they get their way, it’s right for them to get their way.
That sounds like moral complicity, but it’s what democratic citizenship is all about. Democracy requires a certain kind of ethic of us, a certain kind of moral capacity of us. The polarization dynamic combined with the saturation and sorting points erode that capacity. We come to see anyone who’s not just like us as incapable of democracy, and that’s a problem.
Now what that means is that the solution to that political problem can’t be more politics. Can’t be more politics. The problem with democracy that we’ve just put our finger on, Ben, is democracy. It seems to me that—and this is what I argue for in the Overdoing Democracy book—what we need to do is find ways, build ways, construct ways to desaturate the social environment.
That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to withdraw from politics or adopt the attitude that politics is small potatoes and who cares? No, you are still a citizen with all the responsibilities and duties that go along with citizenship. It’s just that in addition to all of that political democratic citizenship stuff, we have to make space in our lives for cooperative activities in which politics plays no role whatsoever.
Those wouldn’t be activities in which we suppress politics. These aren’t activities in which we reach across the aisle. No. An activity that’s organized around the objective of reaching across the aisle still has something in the middle of it—politics. We’ve got to find some way, some sphere, some little slice of our lives, where politics is just not part of the picture when we’re engaged in that kind of activity. Now, I’m sure listeners, and maybe even you, Ben, are wondering, what in the world is that?
TALISSE: I’m going to say one quick thing and then I’m going to try to give you a response. One quick thing to say is that it strains the imagination of us as contemporary US citizens to conceive of something we can do with others in which politics is not part of the story. That’s a symptom of the problem. If we are as caught in this polarization dynamic as I say, this is exactly what you should expect. Our partisan identities have taken over our imaginations. We can’t even imagine something that’s not political. That strikes me as a symptom, not as a counterexample.
Here’s the thing. If the diagnostic part of the story about the saturation and the sorting and the polarization stuff is right, we’re not going to be able to go out and find these activities. They’ve already been colonized, infiltrated, by the forces of partisan identification, and sorted according to partisan identification. We have to build them. What I say in the book is the way that we build them is first—it’s almost like a recovery program—first recognize the problem.
KLUTSEY: Right. That’s why I said introspection.
TALISSE: Yeah, that’s right. Good. We’re really good by the way— This is something I’ve learned in the little more than a year I’ve been giving academic talks about these issues. We’re really good at spotting belief polarization in our enemies. We’re really good at seeing like, “Yeah, those people on the other side, they just all get together and before you know it, they’re off and they’re saying even crazier things and more extreme things and more— And they start radicalizing one another.” We’re really good at seeing it in others.
It’s hard to see in ourselves. In fact, that’s how it’s such a successful phenomenon. As I said before, it’s hard to detect in ourselves. First, you have to say, look, there’s a little bit of philosophical reasoning that one has to do. This is a cognitive phenomenon. Maybe it doesn’t impact everybody equally, but everyone is to some degree vulnerable to it. Recognize that. And—this is an important point—I’m not asking you to say, “Hey, don’t get so excited about politics. Don’t be such a committed progressive or don’t be such a committed conservative.” No, no. Be as committed to your political objectives and commitments and beliefs as you are.
The thing I want to suggest we need to recognize as citizens is this little, much more tiny acknowledgment. Recognize that your conception of what the people on the other side are like, and what they believe and who they are and how they live, is likely to some nonnegligible extent the product of the forces of belief polarization and political polarization. Recognize that you have far less a handle on what the opposition really thinks and who they are than it seems to you. Recognize that. That’s step one.
Step two then is once you’ve recognized that you can’t judge a book by the partisan cover—you think you can, but that’s the polarization stuff working on you—the next step is to try to find something to do where you are engaged with other people whose political affiliation is unknown to you. This is not the proposal. By the way, and it’s interesting. Almost everybody when I say that sentence, almost everybody hears it as go invite the Republican over for lunch. Or go have breakfast, go invite your progressive enemy over for coffee. That’s not the proposal. Because remember, those kinds of—
KLUTSEY: That would be more politics, right?
TALISSE: Yeah, that would be more politics. That’s more like putting politics still at the center. I want to say no, no, go find something to do in which you sincerely believe you are not signaling your partisan identification and you don’t know what the partisan identification of the other people are. They might be just like you; they might not be just like you. The point is not to go mix with your political opponents. The point rather is to interact with people in which you don’t know what their politics are. Their politics are unknown. They could be allies; they could be enemies.
The point is rather to build some stock of social experiences where you find a basis for evaluating others as responsible human beings, intelligent people, reliable co-workers, trustworthy neighbors, and you don’t know how they vote. You’ve got to find context where you can build that sense of positive evaluation of others in the absence of any political information about them, only because it seems to me the way out of the polarization dynamic isn’t more civility among partisan opponents. We have to learn how to think of people as having merits and virtues beyond what their political identities are all about.
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, how convinced are you—we’re nearing the end here—how convinced are you that this will actually work, this will improve our civil discourse and strengthen the values of liberalism that we hold so dearly?
TALISSE: I’m not sure whether I’m optimistic about whether we can do this, but that wasn’t your question. Your question, if we could do it, how likely is it to succeed? The data about depolarizing, the data about relieving negative affect among cross-partisans, there’s not a lot of it, by the way, which is interesting. Because a lot of the social sciences have been interested in trying to figure out how to stop the progress of this or how to arrest these forces, rather than how to reverse them.
Let me just put it this way. When we think about what’s changed over the last 30 years, 40 years in the country, where politics was still something we did. It was still an engaged enterprise. It’s just the animosity wasn’t as intense. What was different? What was different was that neighborhoods, schools, families, households, bowling leagues, parent-teacher organizations, occupations were not so overtly sorted and segregated according to partisan affiliation. Got to try to build that back up again. Just got to try to build that again.
Now, I think that it is fundamental to the liberal tradition that we develop within ourselves the attitudes and dispositions to listen to one another, to hear one another, to consider the other’s perspective, to think about politics from some broader, more enlightened standpoint than just what we and the people just like us see as obvious. I’m a million in that regard.
The move I just want to make here is just that we can’t further those liberal ideals by pursuing them directly. We can’t just say, “Start reaching across the aisle, and that’s the way to make a more million liberal society.” That might be a good way to build a liberal society, but once we’re already polarized, these kinds of activities, these sort of million, like “hear the other side out” kinds of ideas actually wind up intensifying the polarization. What I’m saying is the way that we further, and this is not from a philosophical point of view. It is not such an odd point. Just give me one second to give you another example.
The surest way to go about failing to make friends is to set out to make friends. Friendship is a good thing. Friendship is an important thing. When friendship becomes the objective, the explicit, direct, immediate objective of your interactions, people think you’re creepy. The way to make friends is to share experiences, to engage on things that have some other point than making friends. I want to say we’re at the same point politically. The way to repair democracy, the way to enrich it, the way to pursue the ideals of an open and free liberal democratic society, is to sometimes engage in interactions that have something else entirely as their point.
KLUTSEY: It’s a bottom-up thing. It’s a community, family-oriented type of thing, but not a top-down thing.
Looking to the Future
KLUTSEY: In the moments that we have, two questions I want to make sure that I cover. One, what’s your next project?
TALISSE: Well, good. I’m glad you asked about that because I’m very excited about it. Even more excited than you might have gathered from the discussion we’ve just had. I just finished the follow-up to Overdoing Democracy, which was stimulated by some philosophical pushback I got on the book.
Some philosophers when the book came out said, “Well, look, let’s just say I buy the story. In order to do democracy well, we sometimes need to do something else together. Okay, sounds a little weird, but you convinced me. Now, how do we do politics, though? I’m going to do something other than politics—that’s fine—but you’re saying that we still have to do politics?” I say, “Yes, you still have to be a democratic citizen. You still have to engage politically.”
Then the philosophers who prompted me in these ways said, “Okay, how to do it? Given all the phenomena you laid out, haven’t you really sort of indicted democracy in a much broader sense? Now, we can’t do politics without ruining politics. That sounds like the broader upshot of the view. So how are we supposed to do politics in light of the polarization that exists? In light of the degree to which politics has saturated the social world?”
The new book is called Sustaining Democracy—What We Owe to the Other Side? It addresses that question. Given that we know all of these facts about polarization and saturation, how do you engage? What reason do you have to try to uphold democratic norms with your political opponents, given that they so often seem to you to be depraved? So it’s a defense of upholding democratic norms even when you think the people on the other side are merely playing at being democrats.
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. I’m hoping that once the book comes out, you’ll be back here to talk about it.
TALISSE: Happy to do so. Yeah, that would be great.
KLUTSEY: Now, the one question I’ve asked all our guests is about optimism. Given where we are now with polarization, how optimistic are you that we will emerge in a better place in terms of a liberal tradition where we have mutual forbearance, we have toleration, we have civil discourse that’s robust. What are your thoughts?
TALISSE: I ordinarily would say something like, I don’t do optimism. Let me say this because there are places where W. E. B. Du Bois makes the distinction between optimism and hopefulness. I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful for a couple of reasons. I think that there are things that can be done. As I say in the Overdoing Democracy book, not every mammoth problem requires a mammoth intervention. Sometimes big problems are solved with little steps. I think that there are some little steps that we can take. Some of it’s laid out in Overdoing Democracy; some of it is laid out in the new book, Sustaining Democracy.
These are little steps that really do have to do with, as you put it before so nicely, adopting a more self-reflective attitude about our own political thinking and commitments. In fact, in Sustaining Democracy, I make the case. I say, look, when we think of engaged democratic citizenship, we are often thinking of people with signs out in streets and parading and marching. All that stuff is what democratic citizens need to do sometimes.
But then I say, but democratic citizenship also can happen in a library. Reading Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, that can be democratic citizenship too. Becoming a more reflective political thinker is part of what democratic citizenship is about. There’s a defense of the idea that democratic citizenship sometimes needs seclusion, sometimes needs distance from the political fray of the day. That’s a small step, but I think that it’s significant.
Now, let me say one other thing in a slightly different register about why I’m hopeful. It has to do with this: our emotional economy as creatures is not infinite. Emotions are limited resources, it seems to me. If my diagnostic story is right, that a lot of this is driven by powerful affect being primed in certain ways and channeled in certain directions, there’s a part of me that might spill over from hopefulness into optimism to say, eventually, people are going to get sick of living this way.
Eventually, people are going to get sick of all the combat. Eventually, people are going to grow tired and wearisome. They don’t have that much room inside of them for hating people. That’s an optimistic thought that eventually people are going to get sick and tired of hating the guys on the other side. Eventually, people are just going to come to their senses and say, it’s too taxing. It’s too taxing to hate people. That’s an optimistic thought.
KLUTSEY: All right. Well, on that very hopeful and optimistic note, we are at the end of this conversation. Thank you so much, Professor Robert Talisse, for talking to us.
TALISSE: Thank you, Ben.
KLUTSEY: Your book, Overdoing Democracy, really interesting. I’d encourage listeners to check it out.
TALISSE: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it, too. Thank you.
KLUTSEY: Sure thing.