Thursday, October 17, 2019

Robert B. Talisse's "Overdoing Democracy"

Robert B. Talisse is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His central research area is democratic theory, where he pursues issues concerning legitimacy, justice, and public political argumentation.

Talisse applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place, and reported the following:
On page 99, readers will find the conclusion of a discussion of political polarization. Commentators from across the political spectrum lament the polarized state of contemporary democracy, but they infrequently explain what they mean by polarization. Intuitively, polarization is a condition where the middle ground recedes between opposing political camps, leaving no basis for cooperation or compromise. Politics is said to be polarized when the ideological distance between opposing parties is especially broad. But what exactly is meant by “ideological distance” and how is such distance best measured?

It turns out that there are three different senses of “distance” that are relevant for thinking about polarization. One metric looks to the official party platforms; the extent to which these share no common policy objectives is the degree of polarization. Another looks to the political stances of party officials; the extend to which these reflect opposed partisan agendas is the extent of polarization. The third looks neither to party documents nor to candidates and officeholders, but rather to rank-and-file party affiliates, and measures their dislike, distrust, and overall animosity towards affiliates of opposed parties. Page 99 explains this third, “affective” sense of polarization, and notes that polarization in this sense has grown especially intense in the US over the past two decades. This is despite the fact that ordinary citizens are no more divided over crucial policy matters than they were 20 years ago. We have less to fight about, but nonetheless more intensely dislike and distrust the other side.

Page 99 is both a good and poor representative of Overdoing Democracy. It is representative in that the book clarifies the terms we employ in diagnosing the problems with democracy. The argument of the book depends heavily upon the distinctions introduced on pages 98 and 99. Still, page 99 does not provide a good sense of main thesis of the book. My fundamental claim is that, in order to enact democracy well, citizens must do things together in which politics plays no role. Hence, although the book draws on empirical materials, its core argument is normative: I provide an account of what’s going wrong with democracy and how we might try to repair it. This normative thesis is not well represented on page 99. Page 99 comes at the beginning of Chapter 4, which is the second of two chapters devoted to the diagnosis of what’s troubling current democracy. The prescriptive dimension of the book begins in Chapter 5.

It might be helpful, then, to provide a quick sketch of the view developed in the book. Democracy in the US and elsewhere is subject to two forces that serve to separate us from our political opposition. The first is polarization in is various forms. This leads us to see our political rivals as increasingly unhinged, dangerous, and unfit for citizenship. The second is political saturation. This is the name I give to the fact that in contemporary democracies, more and more of our everyday behavior indicates and expresses our political allegiances. Where we shop, the car we drive, what we do on vacation, the kind of neighborhood we live in, the television programs we enjoy, the sports we follow, and much else are all now tightly tied to our politics. The result is that our daily social interactions are increasingly likely to occur only with others who are politically just like ourselves. More and more of what we do is politically intoned yet enacted under politically homogeneous conditions.

I argue that these circumstances are democratically degenerative; they erode our capacities as democratic citizens. To function well as a democratic community, citizens must have the ability to regard their political opponents as nonetheless their political equals. When everything we do together is organized around politics, we lose this ability. In overdoing democracy, we contribute to its undoing.
Learn more about Overdoing Democracy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue