Book Review: Are We Overdoing Democracy?

Politics is saturating our lives and tearing us apart, but there’s a way out

Image Credit: Wellcome Library

If you’ve noticed that some of your friendships and relationships have soured over politics, you won’t be surprised that we’ve become severely polarized along political lines in most areas of our lives. For many single Americans political differences have even become a dealbreaker when deciding who to date.

Politics is now crowding out everything else in our social and commercial spheres, says Robert Talisse, a philosopher at Vanderbilt University who specializes in democratic theory. In his book Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place, Talisse argues that politics—our mechanism for deliberating, organizing and communicating agendas to generate policy changes—is saturating so much of our day-to-day lives that we’re, in effect, “overdoing democracy.” Combined with another phenomenon, belief polarization, this limits our ability to develop civic friendships. As a result, dialogue across political divides becomes nearly impossible.

The Big Sort

The political divisions we see among people have been growing wider as we’ve sorted ourselves in ways that track these political divides. From restaurants and shopping malls to places of worship, we align with politically homogeneous camps. And there has been a steady sorting of news, entertainment and information along political lines. Consequently, our day-to-day conversations and interactions occur among like-minded people who share similar spaces, comparable experiences and broad political allegiances. In these spaces, we conduct the deliberative process of democracy via political communication, and the abundance of this communication generates political saturation.

We’re now unable to escape politics. Political saturation is the “combination of widespread social sorting and the infiltration of the categories and allegiances of politics into all aspects of social life,” says Talisse. This is the natural result of our choices, our innocent desire to feel at home and be in places where we feel we belong. He deftly explains how our commercial spaces have also become more socially sorted and politically homogeneous. Hence, we’re able to predict the political affiliations of our fellow citizens just by knowing the shops they patronize, the restaurants where they eat and the cars they drive. (Listen to my conversation with him for more insights on this.)

Intensifying Our Beliefs

The second phenomenon, belief polarization, helps explain how we’re overdoing democracy. Talisse defines polarization as “a condition where political officials and others are so deeply divided that there is no basis for compromise, coordination or even productive communication.” Our polarization goes beyond political parties, politicians and public officials to encompass much of the citizenry. He notes a Pew Research Center study that shows Americans are now more likely to regard the views of their political opponents as not only misguided, “but as a significant threat to the well-being of the nation.” We’re likely to see others who are affiliated with an opposing party as “unintelligent, dishonest, and immoral.”

But there’s a deeper kind of polarization at play in our current discourse: belief polarization. It is our tendency to move toward more extreme versions of our views and beliefs as we talk with like-minded people. It is an intensification of our beliefs that affirms group identity.

The point of democracy, according to Talisse, is to allow us to engage in relationships involving love, care, respect, support, sympathy, appreciation and understanding. When we are politically saturated and intensely polarized, these pursuits become difficult.

The Path to Depolarization

When every sphere of our lives is politically saturated and we are highly polarized along political lines, the result is civic enmity. How do we reverse this?

We first need a wholesale change in view of our political rivals. The remedy is not to take a Republican (or Democrat) to lunch or to get to know your political rivals. The solution lies in us as individuals. We tend to see the problem of sorting ourselves into echo chambers and bubbles in others but not in ourselves. Talisse observes that “we transform into more extreme versions of ourselves because of forces that are largely imperceptible to us at the time they are taking effect.” So, while we see the impact of polarization on others, we don’t see how it is transforming us. Hence, the first step to depolarize is to acknowledge that we, too, are vulnerable to the polarization dynamic.

Can we recognize that our own views may be products of belief polarization? If so, we can then begin to recognize that our view of our political opponents is likely a product of our own group’s perceptions and depictions. Those are likely driven by distortions instead of by the nuanced and sophisticated picture of who they actually are and what they really believe. Our political opponents aren’t a monolithic group comprised solely of extremists “whose views threaten the very core of democracy,” as is often heard.

It is only after we rehabilitate our view of our political rivals that we can participate in nonpolitical endeavors, ones in which politics is irrelevant and out of place. Whether you volunteer to pick up litter, teach someone to read at the public library or audition for a local choir, the activity must be something you don’t consider to be an expression of your political identity. Political lines are unimportant in such contexts.

The thrust is that “if we can multiply social encounters where citizens collaborate to produce what they regard as a valuable outcome, but in collaborating are unaware of one another’s political allegiances, we will be on our way to breaking the polarization dynamic as well as cultivating civic friendships,” says Talisse. Civic friendship can therefore take root and thrive when we pursue and share nonpolitical activities. And when we’ve developed robust civic friendships, we can contemplate alternative solutions to policy problems, potentially revise our views based on fair critiques (particularly in the wake of a political loss), and trust our fellow citizens to consider our objections.

Talisse’s antidote to polarization seems obvious but not easy. The hard work to depolarize, build trust and restore civic friendships must come from the bottom up and must start with us. It requires humility about what we think we know about other people and how our opinions of them have been shaped by our own bubbles.

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