American political polarization is a popular topic of discussion, and an increasing object of social scientific research. But up until now, philosophers haven’t had much to say about the phenomenon, perhaps thinking that the problem is too transient and specific to the United States to deserve sustained analysis.
In Overdoing Democracy (2019), famed democratic theorist Robert Talisse shows what political philosophers can contribute to our discussion. He begins with a simple postulate—that we want to live in a functional democracy, a society characterized by popular sovereignty, where the people as a whole make decisions about how to shape our shared social world.
Of course, any functional democracy requires that citizens take part in the democratic process. We know that too little political involvement makes democracy function worse. But Talisse argues that too much political involvement can also make democracy function worse. His thesis is this:
Politics is being overdone, and this is to the detriment of democracy; accordingly, in order to rehabilitate democracy, citizens need to do less rather than more politics. In a nutshell, even in a democracy, we must put politics in its place.
Democracy Has Become Politically Saturated
Many will respond that democracy cannot be overdone, that there’s no such thing as too much democracy. Talisse anticipates this criticism and offers compelling replies. In particular, he is worried about the threat that our shared social spaces are becoming “politically saturated.” Political saturation occurs when most or all aspects of social life are politicized, such as our choice of homes, clothes, or food.
The problem with overdoing democracy is that political saturation gives rise to social maladies, such as social sorting and belief polarization, where people spend more time with the like-minded, and their beliefs become more extreme and radical with time. So by allowing politics into too many aspects of our lives, we lose our ability to cooperate, in part because our natural tribal impulses make us less comprehensible to one another, creating unnecessary political division and strife. And since people increasingly lack non-political projects, spaces, and identities, everything is getting sucked into the nexus of democratic politics, creating conflict that can undermine democracy by weakening the social norms required to keep democracy functioning well.
To illustrate Talisse’s argument, consider the role of trust in democracy. Democracy can only function with a measure of trust in democratic institutions, but as people polarize and sort, they interact with one another less and see each other as increasingly alien, eroding many bases for trust in shared democratic institutions. So by being overly political, our tribal impulses are activated, and trust in democracy falls, making democracy worse.
We Must Develop Cross-cutting Identities
Talisse’s diagnosis strikes me as correct and important. But what about his suggestions for improvement? Talisse wants people to develop cross-cutting identities with their political identities, to create and join spaces where people do valuable, non-political activities with one another. That’s how people can develop a basis for civic friendship where people with different political views can see each other as human. I agree!
However, one of the most striking things about Overdoing Democracy is that Talisse expressly declines to tell us what those cross-cutting identities should be. He writes,
If our social environments are indeed politically saturated and if this saturation has entrenched us in the polarization dynamic, then any example of a nonpolitical endeavor that I might propose is likely to reflect my own political valences and allegiances. And if this much is correct, then taking up any practical proposal I might make is likely only to feed the polarization dynamic. Hence prescribing a catalogue of nonpolitical cooperative activities would be worse than futile; it would be counterproductive.
I appreciate Talisse’s point. Indeed, if Talisse had offered a list, some readers would certainly classify him as a member of the blue tribe or the red tribe. And yet, I can’t help but think that Talisse might have tried to put on his red hat or his blue hat and make targeted suggestions. For instance, the red folk might do better to get involved with their church, whereas the blue folk might do better to get involved in a secular charity. Or, much better, the blue folk might participate in an activity where she knows she is likely to interact with red folk, such as attending a church bake sale, or getting involved with a religious soup kitchen. Conversely, red folk might even dare to get involved in the local arts scene at a local university campus. I think that would give readers more concrete advice on what he has in mind by way of solution.
Two Explanations for Our Political Saturation
I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.
You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.
I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.
So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.
In the end, then, Overdoing Democracy identifies one of our central social problems, and we must now turn to study both local and institutional solutions.
Kevin Vallier is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he directs their program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law. Vallier’s interests lie primarily in political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of religion, politics, and economics (PPE).
He is the author of three monographs, four edited volumes, and over forty peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles. His most recent book is Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society (2019), published by Oxford University Press.