When Kate was growing up, her grandfather often told her that when he was serving on a Navy ship during WWII, there were two things he and his fellow sailors never talked about: religion and politics.
In the present age, we’re apt to think that leaving politics off the table like that is inauthentic, or worse, a sign of being an insufficiently engaged citizen. We’re apt to think that the more we do politics, the better the health of our politics.
My guest would say that the opposite is true. His name is Robert Talisse, and he’s a professor of political philosophy and the author of Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place. Today on the show, Bob and I discuss how democracy isn’t just a system of government but a moral ideal; how the fact that it’s an ideal gives it a tendency to extend its reach; and how the particular circumstances of modern times have extended that reach into all of our lifestyle choices, from the car we drive to where we shop. But, Bob argues, there can be too much of a good thing. He says the way politics has saturated everything in our lives creates some negative effects, turning politics into something that parties can market like toothpaste, and making each individual’s views more extreme, so that we ultimately get to the point that we can’t see our political opponents as people who have an equal say in our democracy. The solution, Bob says, is not to build bridges of dialogue with our political opponents, as is so often advised, but to engage with people in spaces, places, and activities where doing politics isn’t the point, and you don’t even know the political views of the people with whom you interact.
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. When Kay was growing up, her grandfather often told her that when he was serving on a Navy ship during World War II, there were two things he and his fellow sailors never talked about, religion and politics. In the present age, we’re apt to think that leaving politics off the table like that isn’t authentic, or worse, a sign of being an insufficiently engaged citizen. We’re apt to think the more we do politics, the better the health of our politics. My guest would say the opposite is true. His name is Robert Talisse and he’s a professor of political philosophy and the author of Overdoing Democracy, Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place. Today on the show, Bob and I discuss how democracy isn’t just a system of government, but a moral ideal. Now, the fact that it’s an ideal gives it a tendency to extend its reach and how the particular circumstances of modern times have extended that reach into all of our lifestyle choices, from the car we drive to where we shop. But, Bob argues, there can be too much of a good thing.
He says the way politics has saturated everything in our lives creates some negative effects, turning politics into something that parties can market like toothpaste and making each individual’s views more extreme so that we ultimately get to the point that we can’t see our political opponents as people who have an equal say in our democracy. The solution, Bob says, “Is not to build bridges of dialogue with our political opponents, as is so often advised, but to engage with people in spaces, places and activities where doing politics isn’t the point and you don’t even know the political views of the people with whom you interact”. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/overdoing democracy.
Alright, Robert Talisse, welcome to the show.
Robert Talisse: Thank you for having me, Brett. I’m really happy to be talking to you.
Brett McKay: So a few years ago, you published a book called Overdoing Democracy. And this book started from a conversation you had with a friend a few years ago about dreading Thanksgiving dinner with their family. So how did that conversation about dreading Thanksgiving led to a book called Overdoing Democracy?
Robert Talisse: Well, so, she was hosting her first Thanksgiving dinner at her home for her family. Her family is politically divided, and so she just mentioned that she was experiencing all of this anxiety about Thanksgiving because the various people who would be coming over, were likely to get into arguments about at the time, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and that kind of thing. And she was wondering how she was gonna navigate the sort of hostilities that were likely to emerge over Thanksgiving dinner. And she alerted me to this fact before this conversation, I just hadn’t realized that major news outlets and magazines regularly publish around this time of the year, October, early November, op-eds and columns about how to survive Thanksgiving, given that family members get into, political disagreements and that can often get pretty hostile.
And she described this general genre of advice giving to me. And she said, “You know, all of these columns, recommend all of this obvious stuff, like try to change the conversation topic, don’t yell, don’t be condescending, remain calm, [laughter] be pleasant”. And she said, “It’s so obvious. It just doesn’t seem to me like these strategies can really work”. And I recommended to her, I said, “Well, does any columnist in this, genre just recommend that, you know, maybe just send an email to everybody you’re inviting for Thanksgiving, telling them, reminding them even that Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends get together that may not see each other regularly to talk about, you know, reconnect after a year where they might not have even seen each other or interacted much and that that’s the purpose of the gathering.
And the purpose of the gathering is not to try to convince one another about who to vote for or about which politician is better than the other?” I said, “Why don’t you just send an email? Saying, you know, remember what Thanksgiving’s about, it’s not for politics. You don’t have to pretend that you don’t disagree, but you know, just remember that we’re getting together for something else”. And she said, “Oh, that’ll never work.” [laughter] And I thought to myself, you know, I said, “Wow, the idea that there could be a gathering of adults for the purpose, let’s face it, of just eating good food, that there couldn’t be a gathering of adults that wasn’t, if not organized around politics, at least inviting political interaction or interactions organized around politics.
That’s a strange thought that there couldn’t just be a family gathering where everybody understood that the point of the activity was something else”. And so I got the idea of, you know, I started thinking more seriously as a philosopher about this, that the, you know, the idea that politics and the wrangles of politics and the divisions of politics and differences among our partisan affiliations and identities, you know, it struck me, it started to strike me as I started thinking about it, sort of saturated the entirety of social life, such that nearly every social interaction is in some way coded with or expressive of partisan conflicts or allegiances or political friendships or opposition.
And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that although some might see the inescapability of the political dimension of our interactions, they might see that inescapability as sort of a sign of the health of democracy, to people taking to politics seriously after all. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me as like, “No, this is democratically very unhealthy that we see everything as implicated in our politics, that it’s bad for our politics to see everything as… Everything we do as an expression of our political commitments that makes us worse at democracy”. So that’s what the book is about. It’s called Overdoing Democracy, Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place. And it runs in opposition, the argument of the book is just that if we want to do democratic politics well, we can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a time and a place for politics. And there’s an error in thinking that the way to serve democratic politics, the way to be a responsible citizen is to see your political allegiance as expressed in everything that you do. How does that sound to you, by the way?
Brett McKay: That sounds great.
Robert Talisse: Some people find this very counterintuitive, actually.
Brett McKay: It is, it’s very counterintuitive. I think when people talk about, well, what’s causing the rancor and the divisiveness and the gridlock and the polarization in our politics, they never say, “Well, we’ve let democratic politics consume our life”, they never say that. What are the common reasons that people give for the issue? And why do you think those reasons fall short?
Robert Talisse: Most typically, and I think this is rather telling actually, and ultimately works in favor of my hypothesis, but on whatever end of the political spectrum or whatever region of the political spectrum you occupy, I’m willing to bet that your diagnosis of the toxicity of contemporary politics in America involves some claim about the depravity of your political foes. [laughter] Right?
So that we tend to… Well, let me put it this way, across the political spectrum, Americans seem to agree that politics has become too toxic and divisive and filled with animosity and anxiety and anger, so we all agree politics is too angry. [chuckle] But then in the polling, at least when you ask people, how has politics become so toxic? They almost always point to their political opponents as the perpetrators, as the causes of the toxicity. And so people will say, “Well, the reason why politics has gotten so toxic is because… ” Fill in the name of the party you oppose or the name of the coalition you oppose, “Because so and so, those people over there, those people on the other side, those people across the aisle have become so depraved”. And that’s the standard explanation. Now, it strikes me that garden variety, political disagreement, and even political rancor is not new to democratic politics, certainly not new to democratic politics in the United States. Something else is happening here, that the toxicity and the rancor is increasingly being driven, I argue, by something other than actual disagreements over policy.
Let me put it this way. The data show the following surprising thing. Well, it’s surprising to people when they first hear it, and then you think a little bit about it, and maybe it doesn’t seem so surprising anymore. Forgetting about for the moment, political leaders, major office holders, highly visible spokespersons for the two major parties in the US, holding aside party documents and agendas and all the rest, let’s put the elites to the side for a second. American citizens rank and file partisan affiliates, the Republican voter, or the Democratic voter across the country. We’re as a citizenry, no more divided over policy questions than we were in the 1990s. In fact, rank and file Republicans and Democrats have actually agreed more about policy than they did in the ’80s and ’90s. So a lot of the actual divisions over questions about what the government should be doing, those divides are no more severe than they were 30 years ago. And in fact, with respect to certain kinds of policy questions, the division among Democratic and Republican voters over certain kinds of policy questions has actually shrunk. What’s expanded though at the same time is the impression among rank and file voters that the divisions have gotten more severe. That’s the thing that needs explaining. It’s not the ranker. It’s the escalation of the ranker in the absence of any similar or commensurate escalation of the divisions over policy.
Brett McKay: Okay. I wanna flesh that out, what’s going on, the process is going on. But before we do, like you said, that this idea that we’re overdoing democracy is counterintuitive because people think, “Well, democracy is a good thing. How can you overdo a good thing?” But before we get to that argument, I think it’s important to note how you’re defining democracy, ’cause you make the case that when most people think of democracy, they’re thinking of things like elections, campaigns, rules, offices, institutions, like the mechanics of government. But you’re talking about democracy as an ideal. And you make the case that we emphasize the mechanisms of government, like elections, as an attempt to realize this moral ideal. And I think what the argument you make is because democratic politics isn’t just institutions or voting, it’s instead an ideal because it’s this ideal that leads to democratic politics to sort of expanding its reach, ’cause we think it’s an ideal. It’s like a good.
Robert Talisse: Right, right, right, right, right. So, yeah. And I’m a proponent of the idea, that democracy isn’t just elections and democracy isn’t just a form of government. It’s a mode of society, it’s an ideal for a certain kind of community among our fellow citizens. And as you put it, it seems to me that you put it well, there’s a hazard, we might say, a tendency once you adopt that more expanded view of what democracy is, not just a form of government, but a kind of ideal for a mode of society, a way of organizing society. Then once you adopt that ideal, then it looks like democracy is going to be not just the thing that happens on Election Day, but democracy is a way of life, right? It’s the ethos of the society is that we are perpetually 24/7 citizens. And so the tendency is to think that, because we’re co-equal citizens of a self-governing community and because self-government is a real important good. Again, I accept that, that therefore everything we do together is an act of citizenship, is an expression of our commitment to self-government, is itself, to put it this way, that everything we do together is itself politics.
That’s what I think is a dangerous thought for democracy. The thought that everything is politics is, I think, a thought that might be promoted by the idea that democracy is a way of life and not merely a form of government. But I think that ultimately the idea that everything is politics is dangerous for democracy, I think it’s degenerative for democracy.
Brett McKay: Well, you do a good job of fleshing this out, how democracy can expand in scope, sight and reach in our lives. And so I think like the scope is, it’s beyond institutions, it’s beyond voting, right? The scope can also be like you’re doing democracy when you’re reading the news, ’cause like, well, I gotta be… In order for me to be a good voter, I gotta know what’s going on in the news and that you pay attention to that, the sight of democracy can expand. It used to be, well, it’s just like if you hold elected office or you go to the voting booth, that’s where democracy happens. But now it’s like, “Well, I can also express or take part in democracy at work”. And there’s a period where like, “No, that wasn’t good. You couldn’t do that as sort of like a faux pas”. But now you’re saying that that expansion is continuing to take over. Yeah.
Robert Talisse: Yeah. So, one of the things that we’ve seen occur in the US, but not only in the US, this is, it’s prevalent, perhaps most prevalent in the US, but other democracies as well is… What I say in the book is expanding the reach, right? So I think that we can think of views about democracy or theories of democracy as composed of a sort of a view about the scope of democracy, which is a view about the duties of the citizen. What kinds of things are citizens required to do as citizens? And Brett, you just said, you know, they have to be informed, they have to follow the news, they’ve got to pay attention. They have to, you know, read newspapers or, think a little bit about foreign policy, these kinds of things. In addition, a theory of democracy establishes views about where the office of citizen is exercised, right? Where we as citizens are acting as citizens. And I think that you’re right, that the voting booth on election day or the town hall when there’s a meeting of the city council, these are sort of stock and trade places of where democracy happens.
And I think that, you can categorize different conceptions of democracy by thinking of democracy’s reach as the kind of combination of that, right? The more extensive a view of democracy’s reach is, the more stuff gets built into the duties of citizenship, right? And the more places count as sites for enacting democratic citizenship. Now what we’ve seen happen since the ’90s, late ’80s, ’90s, is that in the United States and elsewhere, the reach of democracy has been expanding, which is to say we today see more and more of what we do as an act of citizenship. And we see more and more of the spaces we inhabit in our day-to-day lives as places for political activity. One way this manifests is with what I call in the book, Political Saturation. Here’s a staggering statistic, since the late ’80s, the United States demographically has become a much more diverse society along a range of demographic metrics, ethnicity, languages spoken at home, religious, racial diversity. We’ve become a much more diverse society in the past 40 and 50 years. However, the spaces, the environments, the atmospheres that we inhabit in our day-to-day lives have become more politically homogeneous in that same period.
So we’ve got this macro level diversity, but in our day-to-day lives, the chances of us having a chance unplanned interaction with somebody who’s politically unlike ourselves has been dwindling. So one way to think about this is just to note the following kinds of trends, which again, when I talk about this stuff, people initially say, “Wow, is that true?” And then the more you think about it, the more it seems like, “Oh yeah, that is true.” So grocery stores are heavily partisan segregated. If you live in a place where there’s Whole Foods, if you shop at a Whole Foods store, if that’s where you get your groceries, the chance that the person standing behind you to check out on the grocery line at Whole Foods, the chance of that person being conservative or voting conservative is vanishingly small, it’s tiny, liberals get groceries at Whole Foods. If you buy coffee, if you’re a coffee drinker as I am, and if you have the choice between buying your coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, if you go to Dunkin’ Donuts for your coffee, the chances that the other people in the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop are liberal, they’re really slight.
Dunkin’ Donuts skews are heavily conservative. Starbucks, on the other hand, skews heavily liberal. And by the way, you could see this even in the construction of the interior of the shops. Starbucks is selling coffee to people who think of themselves as cosmopolitan world traveling folks who like to imagine themselves being able to speak in many different foreign languages, and that’s why the names of the drinks sound like they’re Italian and French. [laughter] Whereas Dunkin’ Donuts is not trying to give you the momentary illusion of being somewhere else in the world. The Dunkin’ Donuts about… Maybe Brett, you know, what’s the Dunkin’ Donuts advertising slogan?
Brett McKay: It’s America drives on Dunkin’ or something like that? America runs on Dukin’, yeah.
Robert Talisse: America runs on Dunkin’. Now, note, just think about the difference in that just sort of marketing strategy, right? Starbucks is a world thing, it’s a cosmopolitan thing. Dunkin’ Donuts is… They’re not selling the illusion of cosmopolitanism, they’re selling coffee and carbohydrates to people who are on their way to work. So I can go on like this, but what’s happened in the US over the past 30 or 40 years is that ordinary spaces that we inhabit have become more politically homogeneous. And because of that, what happens in those spaces, buying organic rather than just going to other shop right, and just buying the vegetables that happen to be on the shelf, going to a place that specializes in organic vegetables, is not only a way of enacting your values, that maybe your liberal values or your environmental values, environmentalist values. It’s become a way of signaling to others what your values are. And this is also one trend in the US at least is the number of tote bags you own positively correlates with how liberal your politics are. The more tote bags, the more likely you vote liberal.
And note, tote bags often have political messaging on them. Tote bags are a way of showing to others who might be strangers where your political allegiances lie. Roughly in the same way, I live in Tennessee, maybe things aren’t different where you live, Brett, wearing camouflage attire is also a way of signaling to others where your political allegiances lie. Driving a hybrid car is a signal to others of what your politics are like. Driving a Ford F-150, it highly correlates with being a conservative voter, we can go on like this. The point is that, we’re living in a social context now in which everything that we do, the products that we buy, the way we dress, the kinds of activities we engage in on the weekends, how we vacation, turns out that our social spaces are segregated according to our partisan allegiances.
Now, that means two things. One is that more and more of what we do has become a way of expressing and communicating and signaling our partisan allegiances. But secondly, and I think this is more obviously where the problem lies, more and more of our conception of the reliable coworker, the responsible parent, the decent neighbor, the considerate person in the parking lot, more and more of our conception of strangers and their virtues have become tethered to contexts where we can be sure that the strangers we interact with are co-partisans.
So we start thinking that conscientious, sincere, friendly, responsible, considerate people are always our political allies and that our political foes are always the opposite, have the opposite traits. That’s the problem.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So how did it happen? Okay, so like in the 1950s, I imagine democracy was an idea, like a social good, but people didn’t… Like their consumer choices, I don’t think, I mean, at least how I understand it didn’t… Like if you hunted, it didn’t say you were Democrat or Republican, a lot of people hunted back in the ’50s. I know my grandfather would hunt with people just from all… It was just like there’s something you did if you were a guy in the 1950s. So how did it go from that to where now, even our consumer choices reflect our politics? What process were going on there?
Robert Talisse: Well, it’s… So, this is a… I guess it’s no longer a hundred thousand dollar question, that’s pretty cheap, [chuckle] right? This is a central question, right? Now, one thing I’ll just say to start is that, when we’re talking about complex social phenomena and especially when we’re talking about relatively recent, although not instantaneous processes of social change, we’re not gonna be able, easily to point to a single factor that explains the shift. So let me just talk about one factor that I think is close to the center of the explanatory story we ultimately wanna tell about how things became segregated, how social space became saturated with politics and then segregated according to partisan allegiance, part of that story I think is a story about technology. Now there’s a certain bit of the story that the explanatory account that I think is true, that will probably be familiar and intuitive to a lot of our listeners, social media, right? That is that one thing that happens, in the past 20 years or so is, we get this expansion due to some certain kinds of technological advancement that now we are as citizens, more and more able to access and choose how we access and what we access by way of political information or just information about the world.
So it’s up to us now where to get at the news. We don’t have to rely on Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite, right? Now we can get all of our news from Rachel Maddow if we want, or Amy Goodman if we want, or Breitbart if we want, right? So part of the story is the story of how social media and communications and internet technology has made it possible for us to be more selective and choosy about how we consume, when we consume political information and what kinds of information we consume. But that’s just, I think, the tight end of the wedge. I think there’s a much broader story to be told along those same lines, I think that the thing that’s happened over the past 30 years, maybe the past 40 years, maybe since the mid ’80s or so, is that particularly Americans, but not only Americans, and particularly because of technology, but not only computer technology, we have a lot more latitude over the conditions under which we live in our day-to-day lives than our grandparents could ever have dreamed of. More and more of how we live is up to us, it’s a matter of our selection and our choice.
I’ll just give one very quick example, listeners might be able to tell that although I live in Nashville, Tennessee, I am not originally from Tennessee, I’m originally from New Jersey, I grew up in Northern Jersey, right by the Lincoln Tunnel. And so, when my wife and I moved from New Jersey to Nashville in 2001, we expected Nashville to be different in all kinds of respects, and it was different in a lot of the respects we expected, it wasn’t as different in many cases, and some of the differences were a lot more pleasant than we realized they would be. However, just the difference between the year 2001 and the year 2022, in Nashville, which is a growing city, there are four Ethiopian restaurants in Nashville now. When we moved to Nashville in 2001, there weren’t Ethiopian restaurants in Nashville, if we wanted Ethiopian food, we were out of luck, we had to wait until we visited Manhattan to get Ethiopian food again. There’s a foreign cinema, independent cinema that shows foreign films in Nashville, my wife’s a film buff. We first moved to Nashville, our view was that we weren’t going to be able to see foreign movies any longer, now we can.
And so it looks as if one of the sociological changes due to various kinds of technology is that we’re no longer quite as constrained by contingent features of the environment in our life choices. Amazon can get you the ingredients to make a Ethiopian food almost anywhere you live, Amazon can deliver you the ingredients in a day, right? [chuckle] And so, as more and more of the conditions under which we live have become matters of choice for us. And by the way, I’m not saying this is a bad thing just yet, in fact, this so far is all good, it seems to me. More and more of the conditions under which we live have become up to us. Well, one predictable and again, not yet problematic, it seems to me, upshot of that expanded latitude is that we each get to make our local environment in our own image, right? We get to choose the goods that we consume, the part of the city in which we live, the way we spend our weekends, more and more is up to us and we get to choose it. And so, more and more of those choices reflect the kinds of preferences that we have. This is all natural and should be expected.
Here’s what’s happened though, that makes this politically a site of dysfunction for democracy. Perhaps seizing on this cultural and technological shift, political parties have come to understand their objectives more in terms of capturing lifestyles, representing lifestyles than changing anybody’s mind about what the government should be doing. Remember, as I mentioned earlier, the US electorate is no more divided over the questions of what the government should be doing than it was in the late ’80s. In fact, it’s moderated. Partisan divisions have become all the more toxic and hostile. Why? Because politics has become as part of this cultural shift, politics and partisan affiliation in particular has become more and more intertwined with, tethered to lifestyle choices such that now, here’s another feature that is sound surprising at first, but might not be surprising upon reflection, Brett. The average conservative in Maryland has a lot more in common lifestyle wise with the conservative voter in Wyoming than the conservative voter in Maryland has in common with the person who lives three miles away who’s a liberal, think about that for a second. So geographical differences have given way to lifestyle differences. And now our politics are at the center of our conception of our lifestyles.
Partisan affiliation has become the center of our understanding of who we are, that’s what’s changed. I think technology is part of that, I think that the idea that politics in a democracy and especially in a technologically advanced democracy, politics becomes a lot like, if not identical to marketing in the same way that you might sell peanut butter or toothpaste or a car, we sell candidates and often the same firms that sell us toothpaste and cars, sell us the candidates. The merging of the commercial and the political has let there to be a political advantage to parties and political candidates in trying to brand the politics in the way that they might brand a model of a kind of a car or a brand of some commercial product.
Brett McKay: Okay. So let me just make sure I’m clear, I’m on the same page. So what you’re saying is that the reason this expansion is a hindrance to democracy, the reason why Overdoing Democracy is bad for democracy, democracy subsumes all of our life, is that instead of taking part in this, I think, democratic ideal we have in our heads that we learned in civics class, when you’re in elementary school, where you go to a place and you have these logical debates, they’re impassioned, et cetera, et cetera, and then the goal is to change people’s minds. Instead of that, we’re just like, “Well, if you drive this truck or shop at this thing, that’s your politics”. Like there’s no more deliberation, there’s no more of that deliberative democracy going on?
Robert Talisse: Yeah. And let me add one little… Let me add one detail, it’s not little. A huge part of the book and a large section of my work is devoted to exploring the political and philosophical implications of a certain cognitive phenomenon, that’s not restricted to politics, it’s just baked into our cognitive makeup as the kinds of creatures that we are. This is what’s called, Belief Polarization. Now we talk about polarization often as a certain kind of metric of the divide between opposed political groups. So, when people talk about polarization, they’re often talking about how Republicans and Democrats are so far apart, they can’t cooperate or communicate. That might be a… Polarization understood in that way might be a problem for democracy. I’m talking about something slightly different.
Belief Polarization is a cognitive phenomenon. It’s the phenomenon and the regularity with which when we surround ourselves with people who think like us, when we surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, we turn into more extreme versions of ourselves. That is interaction among like-minded people turns those people into more radical versions of themselves, they come to believe more radical versions of their commitments. They come to be more confident in the truth of their view and crucially, they become more dismissive and distrustful of anybody who doesn’t share the views of their like-minded group, that’s where you start seeing the real democratic dysfunction. It’s not simply that because politics is a lifestyle, I now see people who don’t drive the same kind of car as I do or don’t shop at the same kind of grocery store as I do as aliens. It’s not only that, although that’s part of it, Brett.
It’s also that the more and more our political worlds are isolated and segregated into like-minded enclaves, the less able we are to see those who are not members of our group as deserving of an equal political say. That’s the problem of belief polarization. As we become more extreme because we’re hived together, we’re siloed together with our like-minded group, we thereby become more and more distrustful, less and less able to see those outside the group as reasonable, rational, intelligent people, they come to look to us as incompetent, irrational, benighted, and dangerous. Democracy is… Again, as the ideal we talked about a little while ago, democracy is this fundamental commitment to political equality. The commitment to political equality is in part the commitment to seeing our fellow citizens, not merely as people who get an equal say, we have to see them as people who are entitled to an equal say, that’s the equality part. Belief polarization erodes our capacity to treat those with whom we politically disagree as nonetheless our political equals, that’s the problem for democracy. That’s the fundamental anti-democratic upshot of this combination of partisan sorting and the centering of politics in our lives and belief polarization.
It erodes our capacity to regard our political opponents as nonetheless our fellow democratic citizens. So the idea… And note, I’m a political philosopher, so maybe this irked me a little bit more than it would have otherwise. Maybe it irked me more than it should have, I’ll even grant that. But that in the last election, the two major candidates, Biden and Trump, had nearly identical campaign slogans, was very troubling to me. Do you remember the two slogans?
Brett McKay: I can’t remember. I’ve had cultural amnesia.
Robert Talisse: Yeah, you’ve mentally blocked them for good reason perhaps, right? Here are the two slogans, right? Save America and We’re In A Battle for The Soul of America. [laughter] The first was Trump’s, the second was Biden’s. Now think for a moment about why I might say that those are nearly identical? They’re not semantically identical, they’re different words, maybe not entirely different words, they both have the word America in it. But they’re identical in the message. The message of both parties’ main candidates campaign slogan is, the other guy wins, America’s over. [laughter] Now again, wait a minute. Can that be a democratic message? If the other guy wins, democracy’s done?
Brett McKay: Okay. So what you’re saying is whenever democracy becomes saturated in our lives, politics basically just becomes about a competition of lifestyle choices rather than debate over policy issues. And that whenever we start separating ourselves into these isolated political lifestyle groups, we start to become more extreme versions of ourselves. And then we start to see other people on the other side of the aisle as not being worthy of our political equals. We don’t see them as political equals anymore and not worthy of having an equal say in our democracy. And one of the results of this that you talk about in the book is that our politics just becomes divisive, and we can’t get stuff done. And all we get is this rancor and then people just defining themselves in opposition to the other side. That’s it.
Robert Talisse: That’s what’s sometimes called negative partisanship. It’s the idea that under certain conditions like the conditions that we live in America today, where we have highly belief polarized political coalitions and a totally saturated culture, that everything is about politics and we’re heavily segregated, so we’re heavily belief polarized. This condition, no matter what Joe Biden might have said in his inaugural address about the toxicity of politics and we need to see each other again and unity, as good as all that may sound. Part of me thinks that when politicians lament the polarized state of American democracy and how toxic our politics are, it’s not entirely genuine. The reason is this, a heavily belief polarized and partisan segregated electorate is strategically very, very good news for any national political candidate. If you can count on your likely voter to also shop at Kroger, drive a pickup truck, live in a certain kind of neighborhood, work a certain kind of profession, a lot of strategic choices about how to campaign become very easy to make, right?
It’s like when the electorate is more politically heterogeneous, when their partisan affiliation is not so tightly tethered, tied to their lifestyles, campaigning becomes much more complicated. And so, as a national candidate or even a statewide candidate, being able to count on your core voter, not only having a set of political ideas, but be committed to a certain kind of lifestyle, it’s a real benefit to campaign strategists and political operatives. And, that’s why I don’t think that the problem of our divisive toxic politics can come from an elected official. They benefit from the way things are.
Brett McKay: Okay. Your solution to this is we need to put democracy in its place. What does that mean? Does that mean you not engage in politics? What does putting democracy in its place look like?
Robert Talisse: Good. I don’t think that the solution comes from the institutions or from the leaders or from the parties, they benefit. Where can a solution or a remedy or an intervention, a mitigation, which is really what I think we’re talking about here… Because no, on the analysis that I’m giving, the problem of Overdoing Democracy is not the problem of some anti-democratic tendency taking over the population. We overdo democracy because we’re concerned about being responsible citizens. That is that this is an autoimmune disorder, not a malady that infiltrated from the outside. Overdoing Democracy is a problem that emerges because we take politics seriously. So, I think that the remedy, the mitigation has to come from us as citizens. And what I recommend is that we need to figure out ways and reclaim spaces for cooperative interactions with others where we just don’t know what their politics are. Now that’s different from saying that, “Well, we need to build bridges, invite the local, if you’re a liberal, invite your conservative neighbors over for coffee”. Maybe you should do that, maybe you should go join a bipartisan softball league or something. I don’t know, maybe those things aren’t bad. That’s not the proposal that I’m making.
The proposal for putting politics in its place is finding ways to do more things together in which we simply don’t know what the other participants’ politics are like, not because we’ve agreed to suppress our political differences, but rather because we’ve agreed that the point of the activity we’re engaging in is not politics, it’s something else. Here’s the kind of thing I mean, even before writing the book and thinking through the issues. I like music, I’m a very amateur musician, when I moved to Nashville after getting situated in the city or whatever, I discovered that there’s a really interesting bluegrass venue in town called the, Station Inn. This is not a genre that I listen to, I don’t know a lot about bluegrass. In fact, when I first started attending performances at the Station Inn, I had no idea really what I was getting myself into. So anyway, bluegrass is not my… I don’t own any bluegrass records. But on occasion, I go to this venue to listen to the music because it’s very, very high quality bluegrass music, so of its kind, it’s really high quality. I wouldn’t even call myself a fan of bluegrass music.
However, one thing that I think has been politically impactful in going to the Station Inn is having conversations with other people who show up at the open mic night at the Station Inn, Sunday nights or something, and just talking to them about the music. Now the political philosopher in me can predict somewhat reliably that often, and when I’m attending performances at the Station Inn, the person sitting at the table next to me probably has political views that don’t align very closely with mine, that seems to me to be likely to be true. However, go to the Station Inn, talk to the guy at the next table about the music and discover, well, here’s a guy who really understands this genre. This is a person who’s got a very keen aesthetic sense of what’s going on in this genre. I’m learning things from this guy about who wrote this particular song or about how the upright bass player is doing something interesting that’s borrowing from a different kind of sub-genre within bluegrass. And so I can no longer see the guy at the next table who I’m having sometimes extended conversation with, learning a whole lot from, can no longer see this guy as a failed, depraved human being.
I can see him as a human being who, regardless of his political affiliation, undeniably has a command and an aesthetic appreciation and a grasp of this aesthetic form that I don’t, that he has a sensitivity that I don’t have. And that leads me to not be able, I can’t demonize him now. [chuckle] I can think he’s politically wrong, right? If we ever do… This particular person I’m thinking of, if we ever do get into a political discussion, we haven’t, by the way, in years of running into this guy occasionally at this venue, never get into a discussion about politics, not because we’re biting our tongues either, but because we’re talking about something else. It’s like if we ever did get into a political discussion, I would still think perhaps… If he’s got the views that I suspect he may, I would still think he’s wrong, I would think that his political views are in a serious way off on the wrong foot even. So it’s not even that I see him as, “Well, maybe he’s got a point or maybe his political views aren’t as bad as I thought they were”. I might still see his political views as as bad as I thought they were, but I can’t see him as a failed person any longer. That’s the kind of venue, that’s the kind of interaction, that’s the kind of setting that I think we have to build again for our democracy to thrive, a setting in which we can see one another’s virtues outside of seeing them as partisan affiliates.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, how do you do that? Because we were just talking about a lot of the things that we do, like the tote bags we carry, the cars we drive, the hobbies we have, the restaurants we… Are tinged with politics.
Robert Talisse: Yep.
Brett McKay: So how do you find those areas of things…
Robert Talisse: You’ve got to build them, you can’t find them, that’s the thing, you’ve got to build them, right? So going to the bluegrass venue became for me… Right? Again, I still don’t count myself as a fan of this music. I mean, I can appreciate it now as somebody who understands things about music, I can appreciate it. I don’t own any of the records, right? I go to the venue to have that kind of interaction because it is a place where I can interact in a cooperative, pro-social way with another person in which I don’t know what the political affiliation is, I can guess, I think I can guess pretty reliably, but the interaction is about this music. So I think that we have to build it. In the book, I say, “Look, here’s something to do, right? Take a moment to think, what kind of activity could I engage in with others that I sincerely believe won’t just be another mode of expressing my partisan allegiances?”
And then I say, “Try it”. [laughter] And then I say, “If you find your partisan allegiance being confirmed in that activity, try something else, do a different thing, go someplace else, figure out a different activity. If on the other hand, you find in that activity, some conflicting partisan affiliation or allegiance being promoted, try telling the other participants, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m volunteering here. I’m not politicking, I’m picking up litter from the park. If that doesn’t work, do something else”. Now let me say, just in case I’ve given the other impression, I don’t think of myself as an optimist about this, right? I’m perfectly willing to say, “We might have crossed the Rubicon here, it might be that political saturation and partisan segregation have so taken hold of our communities, of our social environments, that there’s no turning back”, that’s possible. But I say, “It’s worth trying because it’s not clear whether there’s no turning back”. The way to turn back, though, I think, involves not merely trying to make friends with your political opponents. Not everybody can do that, not everybody ought to do that. Some people are committed to political projects that run so antithetical to my own that there’s no way of seeing them as potential friends.
I accept all of that. What I wanna suggest is that, there are certain kinds of people who might be your political opponents with whom you can engage in some non-political cooperative activity simply for the sake of unsticking your conception of the virtuous human being from your conception of your political ally.
Brett McKay: And I guess what this will do, by doing that, it helps revitalize democracy, because we’re kind of mitigating or reducing the heat on that belief polarization where you just see your guys as the good guys, the other guys are the bad guys.
Robert Talisse: That’s right. By simply being able to point, as I can, with this particular human being I’m thinking of right now, who is such a connoisseur of bluegrass music, I don’t know if he’s a political ally or not, but I do know that he’s a decent human being. And saturation and partisan segregation obscure that thought, they make that thought no longer available to us, they tether our conception of the decent human being to our conception of the partisan ally. That’s the thing that needs to be broken, if it can, and it’s worth trying, ’cause democracy is important.
Brett McKay: And what else it also does by putting democracy in its place, you’re reminding people that politics, democratic politics, it’s a good, but it’s an instrumental good. We do this stuff for another thing. It’s not a good in and of itself.
Robert Talisse: That’s right. So, one of… Good, let me make sure that this part of the argument gets in because you’ve put it very well. You might ask, what’s democracy for? The answer, it seems to me, can’t be more democracy, right? The answer has to be something like, look, when democracy is healthy, it creates the social conditions under which we, as individuals, can build our lives around other kinds of valuable things. The cultivation of valuable human relationships that aren’t structured around the categories of partisan democratic politics, right? Lives devoted to relationships with others about nurturing and caring and making art, [chuckle] right? And creative thinking that’s not about politics, projects that are not about politics. When democracy goes well, our lives are free, are open to building those other kinds of pursuits. Now of course, we are perpetually citizens, so we have to care about democracy. It’s not that we set up democracy so that we can vote, then go be musicians, right? It’s that we have to do democracy, that’s true. It’s just that the point of the exercise can’t be more of the exercise. The point of the exercise has to be to create social conditions where we can, on occasion, do something else together.
The prevailing social forces in our democracy have prevented that. They’ve saturated our social lives with the idea that the point of democracy is more democracy. That just seems to me to be philosophically confused.
Brett McKay: Well, Bob, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Robert Talisse: So there are now two books, so let me say that. So there’s a book that I published in 2019 called Overdoing Democracy, that’s largely what we’ve been talking about. A more recent book that came out about not quite a year ago is called Sustaining Democracy, they’re both published by Oxford University Press and can be found there or you can look on, wherever you might buy books online or otherwise, both books should be available. But you can find me online at the Vanderbilt University Philosophy Department. My email and everything is easily accessible there. And I’m also on Twitter at just my name, Robert Talisse with no spaces on Twitter. And happy to hear from anybody who has questions.
Brett McKay: Alright. Well, Robert Talisse, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Robert Talisse: Brett, thank you so much for having me. It’s been really nice talking to you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Talisse, he’s the author of the book Overdoing Democracy. It’s available on Amazon.com. Check out our show notes at aom.is/overdoing democracy. We can find links to resources we delve deeper into this topic.
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