interior of large cylinder of stacked books

Thoughts on *Sustaining Democracy*

If we had to say what “democracy” means, could we? Would we come up with the definition “self-government by political equals”?

I liked that definition, and I’m not sure I would have come up with it on my own. The “government of the people by the people for the people,” yes. But the “political equals” and all that it implies, I suspect not. But once it’s stated, it’s clear that it’s a requirement. Otherwise – that is, if “some of us are more equal than others” – I can see that we’re not exactly dealing with a “democracy” any more, but rather some other form of government. Oligarchy. Monarchy. Something like that.

That concise definition of “democracy” was one of the things I really liked about Sustaining Democracy, a little book by Robert B. Talisse that takes on the big topic of how we might be able to undo some of the destructive polarization in our contemporary politics, and why we might even want to do that.

Talisse is a political philosopher, and he writes like one. That was one of the more challenging aspects of the book. Talisse writes clearly and logically and concisely, and not obscurely; this is not a book of analytic philosophy, at least not on the surface. And it seems unfair to say that Talisse does not write “passionately,” when clearly anyone who would write a book like this must have a passion for the problem. He cares enough to write philosophy for non-philosophers. Maybe it’s that self-consciousness, an unstated but sensible holding back and not using big words, the way we might if we were explaining something important to a toddler, that comes through in the text.

Despite that sense that Talisse is trying to be as clear and focused as possible for people who can’t be expected to understand things the way he does, this book was not unenjoyable, and promising. Anything that holds out the promise of making our hellish political climate somewhat milder and bending it more towards humanity brings some joy with it no matter how it reads. And Talisse’s analysis seems astute, and his proposals practical. Like a prescription with some real hope.

He presents his project as one of solving what he calls the “democrat’s dilemma” – “democrat” with a small d, a political organization and practice problem, not a partisan one. The dilemma he sees is that engagement in politics, which is incumbent on the citizens in a democracy, what with a democracy being self-government, itself tends to raise the question in our minds “Why the hell are we doing this?” [Not a direct quote.] That is, engagement itself leads us to wonder whether we are not fighting a war for justice against opponents who are simply using the mechanisms of the democratic process in bad faith, for unjust ends, and that we would be better off subverting the democratic part of the process in the interest of reaching the end of actual justice.

This subversive thought process will always happen in a democracy, he says, because the active pursuit of political ends will bring us into disagreement with our political equals. The disagreements will matter to us; we’ll see them as matters of what is right and just.

As well we should. Talisse is adamant that he is not going to recommend that people stop caring about politics, or try harder to see the justice of their opponents’ positions, or stop yelling at them. When we have ideas about what is good and right, trying to make policy in light of those commitments makes moral sense. We’d be morally obtuse if we didn’t try to do that. We’d be bad citizens, in fact. So we will band together with our like-minded fellows to accomplish our political objectives. As well we should. And that’s when the trouble will really begin.

That’s when the trouble will really begin, because that’s when the processes that lead to “belief polarization” will take over.

“Belief polarization” is a well-documented and widespread phenomenon that affects people thinking in groups – which is how we often do think, and must think. Belief polarization happens when we spend time thinking with like-minded others. Whether because of the way the group processes information (maybe think “confirmation bias”) or because of the way the group members compare themselves and their ideas to those of other members and adjust accordingly (maybe think “peer pressure”), or – Talisse thinks more likely – because of the way people like the feeling of belonging, like it a lot, and taking on the popular beliefs of the group(s) with which they identify gives people that good feeling every time they express those beliefs, people get closer to their “allies” and farther from their “enemies.”

Ample documentation, across many studies, over many decades, shows that when people spend time with like-minded others their views become extreme; they overestimate the evidence in favor of their position vs. alternatives; thus, they hold their beliefs with greater confidence; and they are more inclined to take risks on the basis of those beliefs. Juries grant bigger awards and hand down harsher sentences. Football clubs get in fisticuffs. People take to the streets, or the steps of the capitol. [He didn’t say that; I infer.]

Belief polarization fuels political polarization, across platforms, partisan positions, and in popular imagination. Common ground among the bands of political equals shrinks, and collective ability to form and maintain political coalitions dwindles. One consequence may be that nothing gets done, or can get done only with extreme difficulty. Another consequence is, predictably, that people begin to feel the processes of the democracy need to be put on hold, if only temporarily, to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. [See above. Or, see the public opinion data that show that increasing percentages of Americans think resorting to political violence may be necessary to “preserve democracy.” Again, Talisse himself didn’t say that. I infer.]

For Talisse, the problem of not being able to work across the aisle with one’s political opponents is obviously a problem. But an even bigger problem, in his view, is that the processes involved in belief polarization affect coalitions of allies just as much as they affect contention across political party lines.

This is because, in real life, there are lines of difference running through the coalitions of allies, too. But because of that belief polarization effect, within political alliances, a kind of puritan dynamic begins to operate. [He doesn’t use that word]. Group members who express reservations about this or that, share one commitment but not another, etc. etc., start to look to the others like “not true Christians.” [He didn’t say that.] The moderates get fed up and leave, the radicals get fed up and circle the wagons, the coalition falls apart due to infighting, and so much for the consciousness-raising group at the women’s bookstore. [He didn’t say that, either, but the shoe fits. My guess is, everyone could think of a real life example or two of this phenomenon.]

In other words, ultimately, if we want to keep the consciousness-raising group going, or the church welcoming, we need to work on sustaining democracy with the so-and-so’s down at the Moose Lodge, and the atheists on the internet. He didn’t say that, exactly, but I infer. Because the health of our democratic engagement with political opponents is vital to the health of our democratic engagement with political allies. And political alliances are indispensable for political accomplishment. No peace at home, no justice in the public sphere. [Once again, that’s my take.]

So, we should want to sustain democracy, according to Talisse, because it will make it more likely for us to accomplish our political ends by sustaining diverse political coalitions.

And the trick to sustaining democracy, for that reason, he thinks, is for us to subject our own political views to “reasonable criticism.” That is: to listen to the criticisms leveled against our own views. To think about how we would make our own views better. To recognize that there are things we could do to make our own views better, or at least to being better expressed, so that they are less likely to be misunderstood by the people who reject them. For reasons. In other words, knowing why our opponents reject our views, instead of embracing them – being able to articulate their criticisms, and being able to think about those – is a tonic when it comes to democracy.

Mainly, it keeps us humble.

It reminds us that that there is a range of variation in political position, a range of acceptable variation, of “good faith disagreement.” And this, in turn, makes it more possible for us to build and sustain political alliances. With people who are not identical to us. And that’s the key thing, for him.

[Everyone who disagrees with us is not automatically stupid or crazy. Just sayin. And have been just sayin for a while.]

He’s not saying we need to try to master our opponents’ reasons for their own positions. Consider those positions as even potentially right or just. [That would be unreasonable, actually. Again, we’re committed to what we’re committed to because we believe it’s good and right and just. We’re not going to abandon our morals for the sake of democracy. Indeed, that’s the problem he’s trying to address.]

And he acknowledges that there’s a fine distinction between someone’s reasons for advocating what they advocate, and their reasons for not advocating what they don’t advocate. And grasping that fine distinction, and using it to combat belief polarization, is an inside job. It’s something that people don’t do well in groups, out in the fray of political action. It’s something that takes some solitude, and some reflection.

That’s another tonic he recommends: a little distance. Not too much. But some. Enough to think about things, rather than getting so caught up in the political fray that we have the idea that the instant we hear about something, have a fact, we also have a conclusion and an explanation and a prescription. Recognize that sometimes we need to think about things, alone.

I suspect Talisse is right about all this. It would probably be good for lots of people to read this book, and take it to heart.

It’s a short book. Not hard to read (except for the resistance the reader might feel to being constructed as a philosophical toddler by the text).

His prescriptions for sustaining democracy might be more bitter than they seem at first, however. We’re well out of practice, it seems to me, at considering and responding to, seriously, the criticisms of our own political positions. In some cases, the people who would need to offer us those criticisms are well out of practice at articulating them; have gotten used to simply going for the easy “yeah, man!” of labels and slogans. Getting back down to the business of using our words – our bigger words, our more considered words, like in sentences and paragraphs and chains of reasoning – may give us sore muscles for a while, cognitively speaking.

Probably good exercise, nevertheless.

I thought this was a worthwhile book, and was glad I read it. I hope others will, too. And will commit to sustaining democracy. I’d like my grandson to have that to look forward to.

tower of books
Yes, I am going to read all these books.

Images: “Book Tower,”Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Talisse, Robert B. Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side. Oxford University Press, 2021.

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