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Opinion

Democracy Works: What does it take to sustain democracy?

Robert Talisse
Vanderbilt University
/
Robert Talisse

Political disagreements are everywhere these days and most experts agree that too much political polarization is bad for democracy in the long run. How do we move beyond those disagreements, or at least not make them worse? Does the solution come from individual actions or institutional reform? Or perhaps a mix of both? This is what Robert Talisse describes as the "democrat's dilemma" and he argues the solution starts with introspection that he calls "democratic reflection."

Drawing on social science research concerning political polarization and partisan identity, Talisse's new book "Sustaining Democracy" suggests that when we break off civil interactions with our political opponents, we imperil relations with our political allies. In the absence of engagement with our political critics, our alliances grow increasingly homogeneous, conformist, and hierarchical. Moreover, they fracture and devolve amidst internal conflicts. In the end, our political aims suffer because our coalitions shrink and grow ineffective.

After the interview, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem contrast the need for democratic introspection and collaboration with the prospect of institutional reform and discuss how to make sense of Talisse's arguments as we approach the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. Talisse previously joined Democracy Works in December 2019 to discuss his book "Overdoing Democracy."

Episode Transcript:

Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I'm Chris Beem.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. This week, we are excited to welcome back to the show, Robert Talisse of Vanderbilt University, who is joining us to talk about his latest book sustaining democracy, what we owe to the other side. And this book, I think, really gets at something we've been talking about on the show for a while now, which is I think everyone agrees that there are aspects of democracy that are not doing very well and haven't been for a while. But what's the path forward? Does it lie with individuals or with institutions? And what is the right combination of those things? And I think, as you'll hear, Robert very much thinks that the path is individual. And that lines up with what we've heard from Tom Nichols, and perhaps others on the show this season.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, I think that's a nice way to frame what we've been hearing from some different people, obviously, not everybody, but you know, some people focus on what you would think of as institutions, rules, ways of organizing party systems. How politics are organized, and how politics operate. And others, like I think, this book clearly falls into this category, focus on people's behavior as citizens or how they think of themselves as citizens, and argue that we can do better. And as you mentioned, I mean, I last remember having this conversation around Tom Nichols work. I've also had this conversation around Chris beams work and other people that have been on the podcast. So what do you think, Chris, you agree with that kind of distinction?

Chris Beem
Yeah. I mean, you know, I was trying, I tried to remember to look up the quote, because I couldn't remember exactly, but it's something like Winston Churchill said about the the House of Commons that we established Parliament, and then the parliament established us. And his argument was that, you know, once you establish these institutions, and the point is that because the two sides face each other, encourages this kind of level of acrimony, right that their hair. Yeah, everybody on my side says this, and everybody on that side is going to disagree. And so I guess what I would say is that, you know, at some level, this is a false distinction, right? That you can't do, you can't really change infrastructure, political infrastructure, without affecting culture, and you can't affect culture without affecting infrastructure. And so it is just a matter of, kind of where your emphasis is. And, you know, the people you mentioned, including yours truly, you know, the people who are kind of more theoretical, tend to focus on on culture, and the people who are institutional has focused on institutions. And obviously, Talisse falls into that former category.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, I mean, I think the distinction is meaningful because of where people put their analytical focus. And, you know, there's no doubt I think Chris captured it pretty well, that culture, behavior, and culture is a very difficult concept to get a handle on, I think, is clearly shaped by incentives. They're shaped by rules. They're shaped by procedure, they can even be shaped by the way the room is laid out. As Chris makes an important point, the British Parliament is laid out quite differently than the American Congress, the American Congress, in many ways, really represents I think, the separation of powers that doesn't exist in the British Parliament.

Jenna Spinelle
You know, the other thing he does here is talk about polarization. And I think we all agree that to least does a great job of framing up social science research.

Chris Beem
His description of polarization is not just him survey, but he's got data and it goes back to some features of just human behavior that are going to manifest manifests itself anywhere, but it's particularly relevant right now. Right? Because there, that's where we are. And, you know, he talks about how groups naturally kind of ratchet up and how it is almost I think he talks about this in the interview too, right? Where there are, there are just, it doesn't matter what you're talking about, when you have a group that is all of one mind, they're going to become more extreme and, and it really is clearly kind of demonstrative and what we see in American society right now,

Michael Berkman
Polarization is a reflection of a particular party system at a particular point in time. party systems change. But they don't change that often. And when they do change, we they have what we call real life balance. And these realignments really shuffle politics, because they shuffle what each party stands for, what the issues are that divide them what the groups are, they get behind. What we're seeing now is a well entrenched party system that dates back to probably the mid 1960s, when the parties took dramatically different positions on the Civil Rights Act and started to pull apart, this had all kinds of consequences throughout the political system. This is a pretty entrenched kind of thing.

Michael Berkman
And it's not going away. And it's not going away because of the way politics are structured around these particular kinds of issues and the groups that have aligned behind them. And so I think anybody that really wants to talk about like, what's going on, how does things change? You know, it has to be it has to begin with a major change in the party system. And I think that comes about from crises, or comes about from the introduction of new issues, there are some other ways that it could come about as well. But until that happens, you know, I feel like talking about people behaving better, so it's just not gonna happen.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, I think we have laid out some of the dynamics about individuals and institutions, and we know where you guys stand, and maybe we can come back and pick up on some of Roberts Talisse arguments in the back half. But now let's go to the interview.

Jenna Spinelle
Robert Talisse, welcome back to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Robert Talisse
Well, thank you, Jenna, for having me back.

Jenna Spinelle
So it has been about two years since we had you on the show to discuss your book overdoing democracy, which was out at the time and you've been quite prolific and have a new book out called sustaining democracy. I thought maybe we could start with perhaps some of the connections or lack thereof between those those two books, what is kind of the through line? And how has your thinking changed in these these past couple of years?

Robert Talisse
Good. Yeah. So I think the two books are connected. And I see sustaining democracy as a kind of sequel to overdoing democracy. And here's how I understand the relation. overdoing democracy argued that there are certain civic capacities that can be cultivated, only when, in addition to political participation and activity, we reserve space in our collective lives, for cooperative endeavors that aren't organized around politics. And one of the observations of overdoing democracy is that more and more of our social spaces are have become infiltrated by and coded by partisan affiliation. So it was becoming harder and harder to maintain and practice and cultivate those particular kinds of civic capacities. Because politics was saturating the the social environment. When that book came out in 2019, I gave a lot of talks to various kinds of audiences about the idea. And I don't know how many people I convince, but maybe I can meet some people that the thesis is correct.

Robert Talisse
But one question that I kept getting sort of went like this, the questioner would say, okay, you've convinced me or they might say, I'll grant you we need more more. We need to reserve space in our lives for cooperative activities, where politics is, is out of place. But when it is time to do politics, how should we proceed, given all of the saturation of partisanship, the animosity, the hostility, the polarization, given all of the dysfunctional factors that are in play? How am I supposed to do politics when it's time? And it got me thinking? That, you know, there's a, I think, a pretty powerful and formidable, you know, critique, that is sort of internal to the Office of democratic citizenship that we as citizens face when the political stakes are high when the questions seem urgent when we think that a lot is at stake in politics, and that conflict has to do with sort of the What I see is two directives for democratic citizenship, we've got to take responsibility for the political world around us are the parts of it that we have some influence over. And that means we have to participate and be active and vote and, and those sorts of things.

Robert Talisse
But in addition to taking responsibility for politics, we also have a responsibility to our fellow citizens, because they are equals, even when we disagree with them about politics, right? Democracy is, you know, the project, the aspiration for a community of self governing equals, and the responsibility to our fellow citizens entails that we have to consult with them to see try to see things from their perspective, find out where our disagreements lie, we have to, in some ways, interact with them, as citizens in ways that manifest are do acknowledgement of their equality. And the tension is that, and this is what the sustaining democracy book is all about. The tension has to do with the fact that, you know, political disagreements are not always but are when, when they seem urgent, and important, their disagreements about what justice is all about. And so when we disagree about what justice is about, I don't I don't see the other side is merely on the other side of the question. I see them as being on the wrong side, and don't see them as being nearly wrong about the political issue before us. I see them as in the wrong.

Robert Talisse
And it struck me that maybe it was time to give a fresh analysis and exploration of the question of a kind of moral burden, that I think lies at the heart of democratic citizenship that I don't think often gets enough, you know, gets enough attention, which is, you know, I have to treat as my equals fellow citizens, who I nonetheless am bound to regard as agents of political injustice. And so the sustaining democracy book, attempts to lay out that tension, which I think is not just theoretical, I think that we feel this, this is part of the phenomenology, we might say, of citizenship, we feel the tension, when I say, Why should I listen to or give a platform to or pay any regard whatsoever to my political opponents? After all, they are wrong. And if they get their way, justice will be set back? Why shouldn't I instead, work with my allies to further justice?

Jenna Spinelle
You know, I was thinking, as you were talking to me, and even as I was reading the book, I wonder if this sustaining democracy sort of this, this question, or these lessons that you offer, are perhaps more relevant now than ever, because COVID-19 has brought politics into the places in our lives where it perhaps did not exist before. So I don't remember if we talked the last time you were on, but I played in a community band, and so that I think would fit in your sustaining democracy model of of a space where, you know, people come together, and politics is not at the forefront. But now, you know, we have to make decisions about masking and vaccines and all of these things that are both public health decisions, but also the way that they played out our sort of political decisions as well. And so I find myself thinking a lot about is it still possible to have these these spaces where politics is not front and center? And if that is the case, how should we kind of be be approaching them? You know, just knowing that in some level, this, you know, political undercurrent is going to be there and in a way that it may be was not before the pandemic?

Robert Talisse
Yeah, I think that you're right, that a lot of these, let's just call them sort of tendencies for dysfunction have intensified, I think, because because of the pandemic because of the what we might think of as just sort of a crisis in sort of public understanding of public health. And one of the the angles that I that that argument takes, that I think is novel, is that I tried to show that the problem of polarization of incivility and hostility among citizens, is perhaps most visible or legible as a problem impacting The relations between partisan opponents. That's where we see it. That's where we feel it. That's how it arises.

Robert Talisse
But nonetheless, those same forces, cognitive and emotional or affective and otherwise, that trouble, our ability to see our foes, our political opponents, as nonetheless, our political equals those same forces, confound our relations with our allies. And so one of the strategies in trying to make the case for sustaining democracy, even with one's political opponents that I take up in the book is say, look, because the problem sort of becomes manifest us in our relations with the other side, doesn't mean that the problem simply is the problem of treating the other side, well, forget about treating the other side. Well, in fact, I might even say in the book, I'm not sure. Like, you can still see them as your enemies, you don't have to do the Joe Biden, let's unify and bring the sides together, you can still have political enemies. But you have a reason to try to sustain democracy with them, despite the fact that you see them as enemies, because as it turns out, heavily polarized groups become increasingly conformist. They become more and more invested in conformity in a likeness. They become more like high school cliques that are focused ultimately on detecting posers.

Jenna Spinelle
You know, as as we're talking about allies, and maintaining that that sense of allyship and trying to find an understanding with people who hold different views, I wonder to what extent, the sustaining democracy thesis is based on the fact that everybody involved in the conversation agrees that democracy is important or that in America, we actually do live in a democracy.

Robert Talisse
You know, I think that democracy is an aspiration. I call it in the book, I think, an aspirational ideal. And what renders a society a democracy is the extent to which its institutions and practices manifesto reflect that aspiration. Now, that doesn't mean that the United States is democratic credentials are beyond question or challenge. They're Yeah, they're not beyond question or challenge, right? It's one of the you know, what makes it what makes a challenge more than just a mere complaint is that you say, well, this particular like the filibuster, for example, this particular institution or practice, looks like it's a violation of a certain kind of understanding of how representative government works, that now whether you buy that criticism of the filibuster or not, I just want to say, you have to see that as a criticism.

Robert Talisse
Were it true that the filibuster runs contrary to a certain fundamental premise about representative democracy, what it means for office holders to represent constituents? That would have to be you have to respond to that, right. You can't just it's something different from just saying the filibuster makes it harder for me to get my way. So let's undo it. That's not a criticism. The criticism has to be a sort of an appeal to democratic ideals, aspirations, and then say that the existing practices and institutions aren't living up to them as well as they could or are violating in ways that we could fix. Okay, that's one fun. Here's the second thought the argument of sustaining democracy does not require us to think that every political opponent counts as a democratic foe. So I want to say there are some views, there are some positions that are what I say in the book beyond the pale of the democratic ideal.

Robert Talisse
And I'm also willing to say do say in the book, it is a kind of this is a long standing, you know, this goes back to Plato even Right, yeah, there is an element of a democratic society, that in the way it organizes itself as a as a polity that invites democratic imposters right people who free ride as it were, on democratic norms and vocabulary and institutions for the sake of diminishing, chipping away undermining democracy. So I want to say, there are certain views, certain kinds of citizens, even who are beyond the pale, now don't want to say what to do about them. And their views is a different question.

Jenna Spinelle
So I kept thinking, I wrote in my notes as I was going through the book, all this, this introspection, and as you just been articulating there, it's, it's easy for a philosopher to say in in some respects, so as we start to bring this from the realm of the theoretical into the practical, how might people start to think about behaviors or things that they could do or kidding, either individually or with others to try to put some of these ideas into practice?

Robert Talisse
We tend to think, with good reason. We tend to think of democracy and interventions to repair or bolster it as residing almost exclusively in interpersonal political interactions. Now, I don't, you know, resist any of that, you know, I think that there's a lot of really exciting empirical work being done in what I call in the book sort of facilitated democracy, you know, deliberative polling, citizen, Jury citizen assemblies. But I want to suggest that one of the other sort of essential features of democratic citizenship is really an internal matter. You know, John Dewey, who's a hero of many of us, you know, has this brilliant little essay that was a little address he gave called Creative democracy, the task before us, which I recommend everyone should go read, it's a really wonderful statement of very important elements of the Democratic aspiration.

Robert Talisse
But I want to suggest that democracy is also a task within us. And that part of what's going wrong with democracy has more to do with the way we are comported towards our own political ideas. In fact, I want to suggest that some of the ways in which our political interactions with perceived opponents are going wrong, ultimately, oh to a failure on our part, to be adequately reflected, in our own case, with respect to our own ideas. Now, what I do want to suggest, though, is that in addition to the practices of hashing things out and joining with a group and getting your voice out there, and being heard, and caring signs in the street, and voting and calling up, you know, phone banking, and in addition to all that democratic action, there needs to be democratic reflection. And I think that democratic reflection is largely a matter of hearing the other side, finding out what their views are seeing where you where the disagreements lie, getting an accurate picture of the pro and con situation with respect to the questions of the day. That's part of it. I think there's another part of democratic reflection, though, and that's the acknowledgement of the fact is, I argue it is that even if all of your political ideas are correct, there's still room for improvement.

Robert Talisse
So I want to suggest that part of democratic reflection has to do with recognizing our own perpetual state of improve ability with respect to politics. Last point on this. And this is the the thing at the end of the book that says the book is only out for a couple of weeks, but it's already I think, I've gotten the most pushback on so but a retreat from the fray of politics, exposure to ideas and arguments and perspectives that are separated, that are detached from the politics of the moment. I think that there's a a particular kind of significance to our political thinking, that emerges from encountering political ideas that are just not part of our own political landscape that for you know, there's a kind of A set of political ideas that are irrelevant to our political travails of the moment. And encountering them has a kind of political relevancy all its own.

Jenna Spinelle
And it did make me think about some of the work Danielle Allen and others are doing with the the our common purpose project with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And that's sort of, I think, in some ways thinking about how to how to bring our institutions along on some of this this project of making a democracy that's, that's healthier, and, you know, sustainable for everyone. And it just made me wonder, like, are there ways that institutions could help facilitate this democratic reflection, whether it's the way we think about the how these things are taught in schools, like what people lump under the civics education, umbrella, or other types of structural reforms that could perhaps work in concert with this, this democratic reflection?

Robert Talisse
Yeah. So I see the end of the sustaining democracy book as the beginning of a kind of mainstream but maybe unique in certain respects, a defense of humanities education. Now, you know, I'm all for the some of the initiatives, at least, in some of the carnage, about civics, education, and, you know, education for citizenship, I'm all for that. But I want to say, look, there's something important for citizenship, about thinking through political matters that are not ours. Right. You know, there's something important for citizenship of reading through cities, not for the sake of trying to say, look, here's the city's dealing with this. And look, this is he's dealing with, we're reporting on or the, you know, the Greeks are dealing with something that's a lot like what's going on today, you know, we've changed the landscape with democracy. I think that the focus on the here and now and sort of translating things into the present, gets us stuck in the present.

Robert Talisse
And I'm a doing in this regard, just like, you know, scientific, the democratic experiment cannot be, we cannot succeed at democracy if we're stuck. And when everything comes to us, and is presented to us, and we were trained ourselves to think of everything in terms of the political categories and fissures and travails of the moment, we deprive ourselves of some real central democratic potency in the moment, which is the ability to understand the present as having Layton within it a future, that's not just more of the same and not translatable into the present. But as different because things have changed for the better.

Jenna Spinelle
You know, I, we could keep talking about this for another hour, but we are going to have to leave it there. I, I always appreciate your work. And I think that the perspective about taking that that step back and trying to think about things in different ways, will hopefully be well received by our listeners. So thank you for the book, staying democracy. And thanks for joining us today to talk about it.

Robert Talisse
Jenna, thank you so much. It's been wonderful to talk to you again.

Chris Beem
So I think I just want to start by talking about Talisse's argument, just to lay it out, just to make sure that we're reflecting it accurately. He's arguing that there is this fundamental tension within democracy, not democracy now, not American democracy in the 21st century, but democracy period. And the and the problem is that on the one hand, we all have a vision of justice of how we want to see the world, our society functioning, that what it values, what it sees is important what it achieves for its citizenry. And the other part of that democracy is that we have to accept as equals as equal participants in that democracy. People who not only don't agree with us, but who actually want to subvert undermine wreck, our conception of justice, and so he sees this as a, a dilemma.

Chris Beem
That is Part and Part So of any democracy anywhere, and his argument is he says it's not instrumental. I think it's quite instrumental actually. But that's a that's a, that's an ethical or less. That's a parlor game for Ephesus. But anyway, his argument is that if you do that, if you get rid of people, and don't let them in, say that your conception of justice is so bad, so wrong, that it, it means I don't have to give you status as an equal participant in the democracy. It's just too important for this goal. Right? If you do that, then you are opening the door for just cutting more and more people out. And you end up with an inability to sustain any kind of political coalition.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, I mean, my summary of his argument, and I think that, you know, I know I was reading this and thinking, Yes, exactly. This is exactly the problem that I and so many people are having right now is like I having trouble accepting those with whom we disagree, because it seems to be so wrapped up in so many issues and identities that are of critical importance to me or, or other people. And I thought it captured that really quite well.

Chris Beem
So the, the, the, the weird thing about this book is that it is making an argument about democratic theory, full stop. But it, it just leaves fallow, the climate in which we find ourselves. And so, you know, he says, you know, no matter where you draw the line, in terms of who is legitimately a full, equal participant in this democracy and who isn't right, what do you say, if you're a neo Nazi, you're out or whatever, right? He says, there's going to be people who are still in who you are going to disagree with vehemently, and who are going to force this dilemma upon you? And I say, yes, you're absolutely right. But the question right now is not. What do we do about this abstract dilemma? The question is, what do we do about drawing the line right now?

Michael Berkman
So yeah, I mean, it was a frustrating aspect of the book. I mean, I don't blame the guy is reading a book, and you know, an insurrection takes place while he's in the middle of it. And you could tell he's kind of trying to deal with it in the epilogue, but he also like got something kind of wrong, because it was early. And that is, you know, it's like, oh, these white supremacist took over the Capitol, and as a way of dismissing them. But actually, the more we've learned about the people that invaded the capital riot in the capital, how whatever you want to say, we're not necessarily white nationalists, there were white nationalists there, there was also the dentist from down the street, and the realtor who wants to sell you her house, who actually came in on her private plane, right? And that empirically, we're finding that these are people that were professionally doing quite well, they were the kinds of people in your community, you probably respect that this

Chris Beem
was as an expression of their, their patriotism, of their commitment to, you know, the American political system that, that it had been robbed. And, and and, you know, subverted by this incredible hoax and corrupt scandal. And my question is, that's about, you know, some, somewhere around 70% of Republicans believe that the the election was stolen. And it just strikes me that there's simply no prospect for these people changing their mind,

Michael Berkman
You know, if confronted with people that just don't accept basic democratic processes, like the outcome of an election, right, and who are going to keep insisting to, you know, some element of the population that the person they voted for only got there because they cheated and is illegitimate, then, you know, you're gonna just say, I can't work with these folks right now, how can I work with these people? And there'll be something rather depressing about that, because he wants us to argue he wants to argue and, you know, while I don't necessarily see this as a way of reform, I certainly see this as an individual reading the book as somebody who's involved and engaged. I was quite taken by what he said, like Yeah, I do fall into that trap. I see exactly how that happens. Right. You know, it probably does require more self awareness on my part. to capture this, and to see what's happening, but I'm always going to run up against this idea. But the guy, you know, that would invade the Capitol and deny that we won the election. And he's going to try to overturn the next one is not somebody that I can really work with.

Chris Beem
I, you know, I have a lot of sympathy for a lot of things. He said, I think the art the idea, that reaction, immediate, visceral reaction to the position of your opponent is not universally the right. Response. Yep. That, that, that that part of being a good democratic citizen is reflection is thinking is reading is conversing in non, you know, vituperative language? Not not because we all want to be nice and sing Kumbaya, but because part of understanding and confronting this reality which we find ourselves in, is taking it seriously.

Michael Berkman
Yeah. And at one point, even going after protesters a little bit, and yeah, take a step back. And, and I'm thinking, you know, if you're a woman, and you just watch that hearing the other day, I don't think you really want to be told to take a step back.

Chris Beem
And I think that's kind of where we are with the book. Right, that, that there's just too much going on right now to talk about this in the abstract.

Michael Berkman
Yeah. And yes, and and it's very challenged. I appreciate what he's trying to do, though, and I, and I'm really sensitive to the idea. And I did just want to get this out that, you know, when I'm with a group of people that think kind of like I do, right, that rarely do our conversations take us in the more moderate direction.

Chris Beem
Yeah, I mean, it is, you know, I don't know if it's true for you. But it's true for me that when I'm in a group, and a conversation is going on making a point that is contrary or asking a serious question about where things are going, is not Matt with equanimity, let alone welcome. You know, it's like, no, we're we're kind of enjoying this. This ratcheting up.

Michael Berkman
My only point just to kind of put a bow on this from the beginning, is that when I think about, you know, how to make things really different, okay. It requires changes at the top and institutions and the way political elites are operating. And the incentives are operating in how politics are organized, more so than it is and in telling people that they have to act differently to be good democratic citizens? Because I just don't know how that ever happens.

Chris Beem
No, I, you know, that is that is a clear dilemma, right? Because until the incentives change, it's unlikely that politicians are going to change, it's unrealistic to think there's gonna change, but it's also there's very little that's going to change incentives, short of people not voting for these people any longer. And and I don't know that that's going to happen, either. Yeah. I mean, I think we're in a very difficult spot. And you know, and I think it's also true that police lays out this dilemma in a way that like you said, Michael, you know, resonates with all of us right now. And it's, it's not illegitimate for us all to think about how we as individuals, engage this reality and what kind of responsibilities we have on our own. Anyway, so. Yeah, good, good stuff.

Michael Berkman
Well, thank you to Robert Talisse for for a really interesting book and a good interview and gentle, not easy to interview political theorists. So very nice job.

Chris Beem
I agree. I agree. Here here. All right. Well, for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, I'm Chris Beem

Michael Berkman
I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
Thanks for listening.