Robert Talisse, Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe the Other Side

By Walter Horn 

Robert Talisse, Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe the Other Side (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Robert Talisse makes a passionate plea for a particular sort of civility in his new book. But he wants us to understand that it's not precisely politeness on which democracy depends, since good adversarial democrats should be congratulated rather than scorned for cross-examining, contradicting, arguing, and a number of other behaviors made famous by a certain Monty Python sketch. And such activities as those may often be associated with impoliteness: certainly, they may not go over too well either at a posh tea party or a down-home Thanksgiving dinner. But Talisse insists that democracy nevertheless requires them. This is partly because he takes this particular concept of civility to reflect an essential element of democracy: the recognition that every citizen in the society in question isequal in worth to every other one. He finds that attitude to be waning in the United States largely as a result of increased party identification, and believes that the disappearance of that attitude may also be leading to a diminishment of that other form of civility that makes for calm family gatherings. 

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that, in common with many other recent books on the subject, Talisse worries about the almost rabid partisanship now exhibited by a surprisingly vast number of U.S. citizens over the past couple of decades. For he notes that deterioration in rational discourse can reach a level at which there may be insufficient common ground for successful communication between members of opposing parties at all, and when that happens, it seems doubtful not only that there can be either sortof civility, but that anything like a transparent, efficiently operating government is remotely possible. 

“Good” and “right” are known to be difficult–if not impossible–to define, and, perhaps because Talisse takes democracy to be a “moral idea,” what he calls an “ethos,” he declines to attempt to precisely delimit that concept here. He does, however, specify some qualities that he says any democratic society must have. He tells us that they all “involve an elaborate system ofrepresentation,” which makes them both “institutional” and “electoral.” And he says of electoral institutions that they must be “fair and open,” that everyone must have the equal opportunity to vote, and that each vote must be counted equally: that is, democratic societies must be “structured in a way that ensures that everyone is given an equal say.” That, in turn, seems to him to require the freedoms of speech, association, press, and conscience, as well as the transparency of governmental operations and a general willingness of the population to abide by the rule of law. He goes on to suggest that electoral processes must be adequately funded, that various types of free-riding should be prohibited, that criminal trials must be conducted when necessary, and that, generally, the population must share a concern for the common good. All these are said to follow from the appropriate conceptof the equality of citizens and to thus be part of what each of us owes to each other member of our society. It may be, as Talisse believes, that “every existing society falls short of being a self-governing society of political equals,” but he believes that we may nevertheless categorize as democratic any society that includes “a stable infrastructure of accountable and representative government, regular open elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, legal protections for dissenters, an orientation toward the rule of law, and so on” On his view, if a country intends to be a self-governing society of equals, and is at least making a good faith attempt to exemplify the above essential characteristics, Talisse believes that we are right to call it a democracy. 

In his discussion of the perils for democracy of increased polarization, Talisse tells a story of a debate in which he participated regarding the appropriateness of televising state executions for capital crimes. No fan of capital punishment himself, Talisse nevertheless agreed to argue in favor of the benefits of making executions public. A problem arose, however. Talisse’s adversary, an attorney who also opposes the death penalty, couldn’t bring himself to believe that anyone who shared his revulsion of that practice could possibly support the bestiality of broadcasting such atrocities. This person took the position that if one really hated this practice with sufficient heat, one could never consider the “barbarizing” of the general public by televising these ghastly acts. So, instead of airing any good faith disagreement, the debaters ended up spending a lot of time discussing abnormal psychology: specifically, just how much of a sicko one would have to be to insist that one opposes capital punishment while also favoring the televising of executions.Talisse finds this move from critically discussing differences to diagnosing people with different views to be adisturbingly common practice among groups who have intensely polarized into “teams.” He may be quite right, but it is also true that the approach he takes in his book is largely a psychological analysis of the intractability of political adversaries in today’s U.S.

If Talisse does not indict one side only as being insufficiently empathetic and innately unreasonable, he doesn’t hesitate to impugn both for these sins. This can be seen, he thinks, not only in the vicious critiques of their “enemies,” but also by noting that the adversaries are simply “unable totolerate differences among [their] allies.” These, too, are psychological claims, but it is hard to deny that such responses can be seen almost everywhere. In fact, when Talisse concludes with disdain both that “the attorney didn’t have much to say in response to my arguments,” and that “the debate was a bit of a mismatch,” one may quickly imagine this attorney doing the same sort of self-congratulatory kvelling pursuant to similar psychological mechanisms. In any case, few will doubt that the sort of hyper-polarizationthat Talisse discusses is nearly ubiquitous these days–whether involving protests about “defunding police” or discussions of requirements involving mask-wearing in churches or handguns in schools.

Before turning to Talisse’s suggested treatments for what I believe cannot be sensibly denied to be an acute description of prevalent psycho-political ills, however, I want to take a step back. Let me do this by hypothesizing what will no doubt seem a couple of crazy analogies. Suppose, at a consultation with your doctor about the pain you are experiencing and the difficulties you are lately having getting around your house, you are told that your habit of ambulating by exclusively hopping on one foot has become quite harmful to you. She tells you that the damage you are doing to the foot, leg, and hip on theside on which you are constantly jumping might even be irreversible, and she not only explains with anatomical precision exactly why these predictably permanent problems are quite likely to arise, but also gives clear and ample advice regarding what you absolutely must do (stop hopping on one leg) to avoid those future dangers. Or, to take another wild story, say someone is reading a magazine article on why it is absolutely not a neighborly thing to do to poison visitors to one’s home.The author is completely convincing in her admonitions that poisoning really isn’t nice at all. Both the doctor and the article writer are recommending a reversion to prior courses of action—walking normally, i.e., on two feet, and ceasing and desisting in the offering of arsenic-laced cookies to the folks who comeby one’s house.You, along with most of the magazine’s readers, are entirely sold: these arguments simply cannotbe gainsaid. Presumably, then, we can expect both that you will go back to walking on both feet and that several confused people will throw all their arsenic away. Everything should be better now, right?

Well, maybe. But suppose you began hopping on your right foot only because you couldn’t use your left leg without intense pain. Or suppose the regular practice of the anti-neighbor apothecaries among us, before they began to dispatch anyone foolish enough to ring their doorbells, had been to lock all of their visitors in their basements indefinitely. Once we consider these prior states of “normality,” the suggestions to simply use both feet to walk or to dispose of all deadly household toxins may lose much of their luster. These prescriptions may now seem unlikely to fully remedy the problems, no matter how sensible and well argued they were. Now, this recognition should not be understood to suggest that the doctor or the pundit were wrong in anything they said. We can stipulate that their analyses were both careful and correct. And the recommendations made may have been crystal clear and otherwise laudable. They may even have been, in common with Talisse’s diagnoses of our political ills, thoughtful and engrossing.

And yet…. It is my opinion that there is a similar problem with Talisse’s discussion of the current crisis in American democracy, one that I think should give clear-eyed readers the same sort of suspicion that something central is amiss. While Talisse doesn’t here attempt a definition of democracy or try to provide all its essential elements, as indicated above, he is quite passionate about the requirement that each citizen be given the potential of making an equal contribution to political determinations. Well, I take it that to sustain democracy, we must actually  have  democracy–or at least have had it at one time. This is where I think Talisse goes astray. For we have never had anything even attempting to deserve that appellation in the U.S.

I have discussed this matter at length, not only in my own work, but also inmy reviews of recent books by Jentleson and Franks here at 3:16 AM , and it should not be necessary for me to go into much detail in this review about the inequities that have always sullied the Federal system in the United States and that were intentionally put in place by our “Founding Fathers.” Leaving aside all complaints about the treatment of blacks, native Americans, women, and those under 18, I will here simply mention that the Electoral College provides each voter in Wyoming four times the input of each voter in California. In fact, as Sergio Peçanha amusingly demonstrated in the Washington Post in 2020, cows are much more accurately represented than human beings in the U.S. Senate, since, e.g.,Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming, with their aggregate total of only 17 million people (but a ton of cows) get to elect 18 Senators to Congress, while California, with its population of 39.5 million featherless bipeds (but not nearly so many cows) is allowed to elect only two. Not only were these clear defects in democracy intentionally placed, they are not likely to be removed during the lifetime of anyone who reads this review. The clear moral here is that there is nothing like some golden era of democracyin the U.S. that we might strive to get back to; nothing deserving that designation that we might “sustain.”

I don’t deny, however, that there’s an important sense in which the above criticism is largely a quibble. That’s because even if it’s not really the case that democracy as I understand it (and as Talisse explicates it) can actually be sustained  in the U.S., it is certainly true both that the public civility that Talisse describes so aptly in his book really is essential to any authentically democratic polity and that it has been rapidly disappearing all over the world in the past couple of decades. In other words, there is no question that exemplification of the qualities Talisse specifies is a prerequisite not only for the somewhat sham excuse we have always had for democratic processes in Washington, D.C., but also of any authentic specimen—real or imagined. I think , therefore, that only a minor change in the title and a few friendly amendments to a handful of paragraphs would be sufficient to shrug off the above analogies to the doctor and magazine writer. It should not be forgotten, though, that no sort of civility can ever be enough to produce legitimate self-government. In the U.S. that would also require such remedies as proportional representation, approval voting, abolishment of both the Senate and the Electoral College, limited terms for Supreme Court Justices, campaign finance reform, and so on. Perhaps, as Lee Drutman has argued, a complete dumping of the 2-party system for a multi-party arrangement would also be necessary.

But let us return to Talisse’s more limited goal: the restoration of the sort ofpolitical civility on which democracy depends. First, why is it disappearing? The central, and I think most interesting, segment of his book focuses on the psychological bases for increased partisanship. After considering a couple of other possible causes for the modern-day intensification of partisanship–something which has involved the demonization of the views of political“enemies” and increasing demands for homogeneity in the views of political allies–Talisse lands on a sort of obsessive corroboration as the principal cause of what he calls “belief polarization.” His arguments, which are bolstered by numerous psychological studies, are largely compelling (except for his description of sports fans, whom he strangely takes to agree on things like the superior innate talents of their favorite teams and the necessary weaknesses of their adversaries: I think he may need to spend more time reading angry or exasperated posts on team discussion boards.) He then turns to what can be done to address the extreme increase in polarization, a problem that has led, in his view, to the “dilemma of democracy”: a predicament that occurs when one comes to believe that the only possible solution for democracy is to entirely stifle one’s political adversaries based on the (perhaps reasonable) view that those opponents are unalterably antagonistic to democratic principles themselves. These attitudes are said to lead to the demonization of opponents and the attempted homogenization of allies, and those in turn are said to be ineluctably followed by the disintegration and shrinking of all political groups into entities akin to cults—at least in the sought-after “purity” of their doctrines and membership. And Talisse concludes that the sole possible remedy for the ballooning of this dilemma into an all-conquering destroyer of democratic principles is“looking inward.”

He takes this to be “a matter of reorienting our relation to our own political commitments, of seeing them–and thus ourselves and our allies–in a different light.” Talisse thus takes the arguably Eastern—even somewhat Vedantic—position that no “outward” mechanisms like the facilitation of increased participatory engagement can do the trick here, and calls on his readers to “establish practices that keep us mindful of the vulnerability of our political views to reasonable criticism.” In addition, he says we should “supplement our public political engagement…by creating forms of distance from the fray of partisan politics.” He is quite eloquent on these matters, not only here, but in anexcellent TED Talk in which he argues that democracy, like “having fun” is something that can be achieved only by focusing on other things, such as families and friendships. 

It seems to me hard to deny either the disease he highlights or the medicine he proposes for it. But there is, again, what seems to me a problem with this analysis. Unless people have long been engaging in Talisse’s proposed remedies and are only now slacking off in their use of them, if this book has all the psychical mechanisms right, polarization of beliefs cannot really be the primary initiator of the deterioration of democracy in the 21st Century. That’s because there’s no reason to suppose that such forces haven’t always been in play. If there were no new (non-psychological) mainsprings–like the explosion of social media or the multiplication of self-echoing cablechannels–it would seem that the operation of the psychological laws on which Talisse relies would have homogenized and shrunk every ideological faction into tiny cliques hundreds of years ago. But the expansion and intensification of this phenomenon of hyperpolarization is, if not something entirely new in the U.S., at least something newly omnipresent. It seems then, that in order to find what has been missed in Talisse’s analysis of U.S, shortcomings, we must turn to the political scientists and their suggestions of technological and social changes such as cable TV, internet media, and the complete “sorting” of the two major parties. For it has been those, as well as such longer-term instigators as single-seat districts and Duverger’s Law tha twould seem to have combined with the ancient laws of tribalism on which Talisse focuses to make any possibility of authentic democracy in the U.S. fade to black. 

While “turning inward” may slow what seems the inevitability of either a civil war or a more peaceful slide into extreme autocracy, and could conceivably also soften the impacts of these eventualities on the average U.S. voter—one wonders, in the mournful words of Peter Grimes,“ Who can turn skies back and begin again?”

To conclude, Talisse has provided a rich and well-argued description of a significant deterioration in civil engagement of two important types and has made sensible, even deep, suggestions for what can be done about these issues. There should be no doubt that what he claims to be happening to political discourse around the world is indeed happening, and there is no question that the speed of deterioration is increasing with scary rapidity. Furthermore, I believe that he is quite right to propose the reasonable (if exceedingly difficult) solutions that he offers. But I also think that he has neither (i) explained the essential shortcomings of democracy in America, (ii) diagnosed the most important causes of its acceleratedrotin the last 20 or 30 years, nor (iii) suggested anything that is, on its own, is likely to result in the sustaining even of what little democracy we do have in the U.S. today. For advice on those matters, Lee Drutman’s recent Doom Loop book might be more helpful. In spite of these complaints, however, I believe  Sustaining Democracy to be a lovely and important book that could do considerable good. With its earnest and trenchant analysis of the effects of social psychology on politics, it is a worthy successor to Aldous Huxley’s impassioned  Ways and Means— especially in the latter book’s discussion of the differences between group and crowd behavior. In addition, Talisse brilliantly explicates the following acute, but somewhat terse, remark in Benn and Peters’ classic  Principles of Political Thought : “Freedom of discussion…is not merely a safeguard against the abuse of authority in a democracy, but a condition for democracy itself. But discussion degenerates into mere abuse unless there is a minimal respect for persons as sources of arguments. Democracy presupposes, then, a willingness to assume good faith in opponents.”

About the Author

Walter Horn is a philosopher of politics and epistemology.

His 3:16 interview is here.

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