A talk with political theorist Robert Talisse, (Twitter: @RobertTalisse) author of the book Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe To The Other Side. His book is one of the best I’ve read about both American polarization and about the challenges of democracy: I highly recommend it. A transcript of this talk is included below.
Topics we talk about include: the nature of democracy and the limits of what it can achieve; separating expected and healthy polarization from unhealthy, toxic polarization; what we owe to our fellow citizens even when we see them as very misguided and even dangerous; how extreme polarization can make our relationships and coalitions even with politically similar people suffer and fall apart.
Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:
- Talisse’s first book Overdoing Democracy
- Intercept article about how in-fighting has hurt progressive non-profits (which is related to Talisse’s points about how extreme polarization creates fracturing even amongst the politically similar)
- My book Defusing American Anger
- A previous episode: Are we paying too much attention to politics?
Zachary Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com
On today’s episode, I talk to philosopher and political theorist Robert Talisse about his book Sustaining Democracy, which has the subtitle What We Owe To the Other Side. In my opinion, this is one of the best books on depolarization I’ve read.
Talisse’s book tackles a very important question: how can we engage in politics and democracy when we hold our political opponents in such low regard, when we view them as morally bankrupt and even dangerous?
His book emphasizes the important fact that democracy is hard; it’s not easy. Democracy is basically just majority rule; whoever gets more votes can implement a lot of things that other people will strongly disagree with.
And Talisse’s book contains one of the best explanations of a lesser known negative aspect of toxic polarization: the fact that it makes political groups less able to form coalitions; it makes more people righteous and overly intolerant of other views, sometimes even views not that far from their own, and makes them overly focused on policing the borders of their group, in ways that make them less able to actually do the work of politics and persuade other people and work with other people. And this aspect of polarization I think can help explain some of the worst outcomes of extreme division: because when a society is extremely fractured, it makes it easier for some relatively small extreme and dangerous group to come in and cease power, because resistance has been weakened. People are worn down and stressed, or just apathetic. This is what extreme polarization does to us: creates the breeding ground for bad people to be able to do bad things.
In this episode, some topics we discuss include: What is polarization? How do we define the problem of polarization? Robert also believes something that I focus on in my book: that the incentives of a lot of the influential political and media systems around us make it unlikely that those same systems and people will help us reduce our animosity, which to me points to the importance of grass roots approaches of spreading the word about these ideas.
We talk about some aspects of group psychology that play a role in our divides; for example, the tendency for like minded groups to grow more extreme and hardened in their views over time. We talk about that time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a dress with ‘Tax the Rich’ on it, and Robert gives some thoughts about how us-vs-them polarization dynamics affected the debate about that on the liberal side. We talk about how our political animosity can make us more likely to start acting in some of the aggressive, biased ways that we dislike about the ‘other side’; how it can make us into hypocrites: forgiving bad things we and our allies do while judging the same behavior very harshly when it’s present on the other side.
We talk about common objections people have to seeing extreme polarization as a big problem.
If you enjoy this episode, I recommend checking out some past episodes about political polarization I have in the library. You can find a compilation of the politics-related ones on my website behavior-podcast.com.
This conversation was recorded a couple months ago. Since Robert and I talked, I’ve released my own book on polarization, which is called Defusing American Anger, and that’s available at www.american-anger.com.
A little bit more about Robert Talisse: he’s currently Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is also a Professor of Political Science.
Okay, here’s the talk with Robert Talisse, author of Sustaining Democracy.
Zach: What moved you to write this book? What were your motivations, and what problems were you trying to solve?
Robert Talisse: The book, Sustaining Democracy is the title, is a sequel of sorts to a book I published in 2019 which was called Overdoing Democracy. The thesis of the first book, Overdoing Democracy, is that there are certain virtues of citizenship that can be cultivated only when our social lives are not overrun with politics. So it may sound a little counterintuitive, but nonetheless, I think it’s true that when everything we do together is an expression of, or communication of our politics, we become worse democratic citizens. That was the thesis of Overdoing Democracy. We need to sometimes do things together, we need to carve out space in our lives where we can do things together that are in no way organized around our political objectives. And, you know, I’m an academic philosopher, I work in political philosophy, if some of your listeners know anything about political philosophy or political theory, the thesis that it’s possible to have too much democracy or for democracy to play too large a role in one’s life is pretty counterintuitive [laughs] to say the least. So as I was giving talks, I confronted a lot of the standard objections that I’m sure a lot of the people listening to us can already anticipate, but there was one kind of objection or reaction that really got me thinking.
And it was the kind of reaction that went as follows: Some people would say things like, “Well, okay to Talisse, you’ve convinced me that in order to be a good democratic citizen, I have to make room in my life for cooperative but non-political activities or engagements with fellow citizens.” These would be engagements where we’re not suppressing our political differences, we’re reaching across the aisle, both of those kinds of activities put politics at the center after all, but we’re looking for activities in which the political affiliations or alignments of the other participants are simply beside the point or unknown to me. “Okay,” the challenge would go, “I think you’re right about that.
But when we are doing politics, how are we supposed to do it given that we are already inclined, and so strongly inclined to see our political opposition as fundamentally and often irredeemably benighted, ignorant, bigoted, duped, divested from democracy? Isn’t that a problem that, you know, we still have to do politics? How can we do it given that we have such low regard for our political opponents?” So that got me thinking that maybe there was another book to be written. And so the Sustaining Democracy book is an answer to that question. How is it, or is it we might even ask, is it possible for us to do reasonable and responsible democratic politics, given that cross-partisan animosity, distrust, disgust for the other side is so prevalent in society? And that so much of our social life is already sorted and segregated according to partisan affiliation such that it’s increasingly easy, particularly in the United States but not only in the United States, to avoid contact with anyone who’s not just like you in your day-to-day activities. We can talk more about that later if you like.
And so the thought was maybe under the conditions where the cognitive and affective phenomena that we call polarization are already so high, and that the social world is already so divided into different sectors and quarters according to partisan affiliation, what reason can we have as individuals to try to live up to the democratic ideal of trying to be a partner, even with the people whose political judgment we think is terrible, in the common endeavor of collective self-government as equals? That was the question that drives Sustaining Democracy book– the subtitle– as what we owe to the other side. So it’s a book that’s in part about depolarization and in part about some of the ways in which a proper conceptualization of the problem of polarization shows us that some standard strategies for depolarization are unlikely to succeed, and then tries to make a novel case for thinking that it’s still worth the time of a democratic citizen to attempt to uphold properly civic relations with those who may regard as their political enemies. How’s that sound?
Zach: Yeah. No, that’s great. I think the important part about your book is getting at something that is a very important concept, which I think is that democracy is difficult. It’s always going to be a difficult thing, especially as we become more polarised. And you’re arguing for seeing that and facing that difficulty head-on. Because I think in many people’s minds, it almost seems to me like people become kind of spoiled in their thinking about what democracy is. They think it’s just… Their very version of what the world or what democracy should entail is a continual progress of the things I believe are right, whereas the fundamental reality is that you’re going to have political losses, even losses that you believe are very harmful to society. And that is a fundamental nature of democracy because both sides will have narratives about the other side doing harm, and they will have understandable reasons for why they believe– even if we can very much disagree with them, we can understand the reasons why they can see the other side as doing harm in various ways. And I think that’s why your concepts are so important because I think, you know, democracy is difficult and if we’re going to survive and be a stable society, I think more people have to grapple with that fundamental difficulty. Would you agree with all that?
Robert: Oh, I would agree with all of that. I think that we’re so enamored, and I think rightfully so, with the idea of democracy, with the idea of a self-governing community of equals, with the idea of each person counting for one and none for more than one. However, you know, whatever government of ‘by and for the people’, whatever your favorite sloganized version is of the core of democracy, we’re rightly enamored with it. But even at its best, democracy is not an easy pill to swallow. And let’s just think of it sort of… Well, think of it in this way. Democracy is the proposal that you, Zach, can be forced to live according to rules that you reject, simply because other people like those rules. [laughs]
Zach: Right. It’s a majority makes the rules system. It’s not a magical system.
Robert: That’s right. That’s right. And so the idea that in a democracy, we have to recognize that sometimes the state, the government, the political agencies and institutions that run the country, are required and are bound to enact policy that we think, in our best judgment, and maybe in our informed judgment and maybe we could even be correct, that the government is required under certain conditions to enact policies that we know are unjust. That’s what democracy is. That it forces us to recognize the category of legitimately enacted injustice. Now, within certain bounds [laughs] there’s certain kinds of severe forms of injustice that can never really be legitimately enacted, that’s what the Bill of Rights is supposed to help us discern.
But within those broad constraints about fundamental political rights of human beings and so forth as citizens, there’s still a lot of room for where the government is required to enact policy that enjoys a certain degree of support among the people, even when the people are wrong. And so the thought that’s associated with, you know, Jane Addams and John Dewey that the cure for the ills of democracy is always more democracy is often thought to suggest a further thought that I think is less obviously true. In fact, I think it’s untrue that if we just get democracy right, the world will be sweetness and light. [laughs] That every injustice has as its core the failure of democracy. I just think that’s got to be false because part of what it is for us to live together as political equals is that we have to recognize that our fellow citizens get to make up their own minds about things. [chuckles] And when we politically disagree, maybe with respect to certain kinds of issues it’s no big deal who’s going to be dog catcher or whatever, but when we politically disagree over tax policy or environmental policy or over immigration or over health care, that’s a disagreement about what justice requires.
And so if Zach, you and I disagree on one of those issues, I have to see your view as on the side of injustice and as something less or other than what justice requires. So if you get your way democratically, I have to think, “Well, the world is less just than it would have been had I gotten my way.” And so the thought that democracy is this engine that produces justice just seems to me to be false. And I think that we are giving short shrift to the value of democracy when we don’t recognize the slightly less attractive features of it. Because it seems to me that for all of its flaws, Winston Churchill was right. This is the best there is. [laughs] [crosstalk] Right. Good.
Zach: Well, yeah. And one thing I say to emphasize that point of just how fundamentally we can disagree on even the simplest moral problems, you know, there’s the well-known trolley problem that the philosophical or ethical problem. And you can imagine we can disagree on even the simplest problem of whether– for people that don’t know– whether you pull the lever to divert this train and have it kill, you know, as opposed to killing four or five people, have it kill one person. But you have to make the decision to pull the lever. And we can disagree, you know, people have argued over this for a long time. You can even imagine polarization around that issue where, you know, a version of the trolley problem in politics where liberals were on one side and conservatives were on the other and they very much viewed the other side’s stance as completely immoral and unjust. The fact that we can get so divided on even the simplest issue should give us pause when we form very certain confident views about how evil the other side is.
And getting back to your point about the way I view these polarization problems like you were saying, more and more people focusing on these issues can be unhealthy because it’s almost like a magnifying glass effect where you’re focusing all the social energy in one place and creating this destabilizing and anger emotion-producing thing in one area. And even Ezra Klein talked about this in his book, you know? He ended his polarization book with the point, “we focus too much on these national problems that we have no influence over, and we just are becoming more outraged and throwing energy into this divide. Maybe it would be better if we focused on local things that we could actually influence or things in our community as opposed to adding fuel to this polarization fire.” I’m curious if you’d agree with some of that.
Robert: Well, the Klein book is interesting. It’s written for a particular audience, it’s more of a narrative than-
Zach: -I found a very biassed, personally.
Robert: I can see why one might say that. So, it’s of its kind, it’s a perfectly fine book. One thing I think is important, maybe just to take a step back, I think it’s important to sort of introduce some distinctions when we’re talking about polarization. There’s so much, especially in political commentary and in journalism, there’s so much talk about polarization and it’s being bad. That there’s not a lot or not a similar degree of talk about what it is. And I think that there’s too little talk about what it is and why it’s bad. It’s not hard to come across political theorists, political commentators, politicians even, who talk about polarization in a way that I think betrays or suggests the view that animosity among citizens is always bad to any degree. [laughs] Or disagreement always needs to be resolved in some way that leaves all parties satisfied. That rancor is a sign of a democratic dysfunction. I happen to think all that’s false. [laughs] I think that democracy runs on disagreement and division. I think that, again, part of what it is to respect or to fully acknowledge our political equality is to recognize that adult citizens get to make up their own minds about things and they get to make up their own minds about how they should make up their own minds. So what level of information is required, where the information needs to come from, these are all things that I’m not required as a citizen to defer to anybody else’s judgment about.
Now, what that means is that even when we’re all as citizens trying to do our best as custodians of the public good, it’s very unlikely that our judgments about political matters are going to converge on to some common view. So it seems to me that the late 20th-century and early 21st-century political philosopher John Rawls got something right. Political disagreement over pretty central normative matters is the direct implication of our freedom and equality. It’s not, therefore, a mark of some kind of political failing. In fact, Rawls said, “Consensus is suspicious.” [laughs]
So it seems to me that disagreement is inescapable in a society of free and equal people. It also seems to me that political disagreement is disagreement over pretty important values like justice and freedom, liberty, dignity, respect. And so the idea that if we’re doing democracy correctly or properly, there won’t be heated tones and there won’t be real division and there won’t be real animus strikes me as a mistake. So it seems to me that depolarization– or let me put it slightly differently– the problem of polarization cannot be simply the problem of political divisions and divisiveness and dislike and animus. Some degree of divisiveness and animus and dislike is just a necessary part of politics when you’re aspiring to realize the ideal of a society of free and equal self-governing citizens.
So if polarization is a problem, where is it? What is it? Where does it reside? And I want to suggest that the way to think about the problem of polarization is to say, “Well, polarization is the problem of, or the problem of polarization is better understood as follows: Too much of our political division is driven by cognitive and affective forces that don’t track actual differences of opinion. [laughs] Right? Your listeners might be aware of this, but it’s always worth repeating. Forget about parties and political platforms and party leaders and politicians, forget about them for a second. The American electorate is no more divided over ‘rubber hits the road’ political policy questions than it was in the 1990s. In fact, on a lot of pretty central questions of political public policy, in fact with respect to a lot of the questions of political policy that were the main sites of political division in the ’90s– think about gay marriage in the ’90s, stem cells, you know? The American electorate has actually come closer to consensus. That is, we’re less divided over certain kinds of what were once very divisive issues 30 years ago. We’re less divided now. The problem in American politics at present is not that we have these deep divisions among the citizenry about what the government should be doing, it’s that we believe that we have these deep divisions over what the government should be doing. And on the basis of the perceived or the assumed divisions of that kind, we dislike each other more, we distrust each other more, we walk around with caricatures versions of what the other side thinks and what they believe and how they live, despite the fact. So we dislike each other more but have actually relatively less that divides us at the level of policy. That strikes me as the problem of polarization. So our perceived political divisions are a kind of mirage. How’s that sound to you?
Zach: Yeah, I think we’re largely on the same page because in the book I’m working on and sometimes in the podcast, I spend time… You know, defining the problem is important. And the problem, as you say, is not that we disagree or even strongly disagree, it’s that seeing the role of these negative emotions and how we view the other side and the distorted views… Not just about, because like you said, there can be distorted views about how much the other side disagrees with us that the number of people that held X position. But there’s also distortions around the motivations even for the things that we strongly disagree on, like specific issues. You know, immigration, we can have these worst-case scenario interpretations of what the other side’s stances are about and view them as all those bad as the worst people on that side, etc, etc. So I think it’s very important to define the problem, and one thing I often say to politically passionate people to get them to see the wisdom of these ideas– and I think it’s tough because the word ‘depolarization’ is probably not the best word because I think people interpret that to mean we’re going to depolarize your beliefs and move your beliefs to some moderate state. It’s increasingly seemed to me as not a great word because that’s how people interpret it. So it’s not about changing their beliefs or as you say, their emotional investment in those beliefs and political goals and willing to work hard towards things, it’s about examining the role that these negative emotions play. And I try to tell the politically passionate people, “Can you see how this anger and this dehumanization that this worst-case thinking about the other side helps create the very things we’re angry about?”
And to give an example of that, James Druckman and his colleagues had a study showing how higher levels of partisan animosity before COVID were later linked with more polarised and more extreme COVID stances on either side. Like, they either being really for strong COVID restrictions, or practices or being for super laxed COVID reactions and stances. And this is just to say that it’s helping make the case that our anger can be helping create and polarise the very things we’re angry about, and helping shift our beliefs and people’s beliefs to the outside based on that anger. And I’m curious if you think that’s a persuasive argument to people that are politically passionate.
Robert: Well, I think it’s true. [laughs] Sometimes good philosophical insight does not always run in tandem with what’s persuasive. But one thing just to say about the kind of research is it also looks as if strong partisanship was positively correlated with over or under-estimations of the kind of threat and severity. [laughs]
Zach: Exactly. Yeah.
Robert: So, not only was in favor of the policies, it was-
Zach: It distorts our views of reality.
Robert: That’s good. So yeah, I think that’s right. Now, let me just sort of again make a further distinction given what Zach you were just saying, we can talk about polarization as the pulling apart of the parties or pulling apart of the political units, the political movements, that conservatives, the liberals, the progressives and however you want to characterize it, you know, and the consequent falling out of the common ground between them so that there’s this chasm between the left and the right that doesn’t seem bridgeable without somebody making a rotten compromise or conceding something to evil. There’s that. And maybe some degree of even that kind of divisiveness among political units like parties, some degree of that seems to me to be not only inevitable in a democracy, but maybe a sign of democratic health. After all, when you’ve got the parties that are sharply divided over identifiable issues, makes the job of the citizen figuring out where his or her allegiances lay. Given that, as a voter, the agenda is already set by the time you show up at the voting booth. So again, the parties making salient their differences by sort of focusing on their fundamental disagreements and their dislike for one another make the job of being a voter a little bit easier. Now it’s really clear what party stands where on which issues that I care about? All that stuff becomes very explicit and salient. So some degree of that pulling apart of the two parties so that they stand in clear opposition, in part by each one signalling their dislike of the other side and their opposition to the other side, maybe some degree of that isn’t bad.
But as we were just saying, the affective and cognitive side of polarization– and what I would want to say are sort of distinct phenomena that are called polarization– is where I think the right diagnostic focus is. Because, again, it seems to me that the problem is that our political divisions, including the party divides, are kind of driven by a hallucinated sense of who our fellow citizens are. In fact, it seems to me that the political parties and the candidates and the campaign managers and the pundits kind of benefit from this circumstance. That’s why I don’t think that any solution will be forthcoming from large-scale institutions and political leaders and the parties. They benefit from this imagined illusory division.
But the affective and cognitive phenomena– I just want to say a little bit about that– there’s this well studied robustly documented cognitive phenomenon that’s called belief polarization. Belief polarization is the tendency of members of like-minded groups, particularly when they are in one another’s presence, to become more extreme advocates and more extreme versions of themselves. Let me sort of make that distinction one more time. So we can think of political polarization as this sort of sociological phenomenon of the major parties or major political groups pulling to their ideological poles and letting the common ground fallout between them so that they’re results in a chasm and a lot of frustration and log jams and paralysis at the policy level. Belief polarization is something different. Political polarization is a metric, we might say, of the division between the Right and the Left or the Liberals and Conservatives or the Democrats and the Republicans. Political polarization is a metric of some kind of distance between two things. Belief polarization is not a metric of the distance between two things. Belief polarization is a phenomenon that occurs within a like-minded group. If anything, it’s a metric of the distance between your former and your present self. So, when groups of like-minded people interact, they become more extreme, they become more confident, they become less inclined to see counter-evidence as weighty, they become more inclined to dismiss as biased and unreliable any source of counter-evidence to their view.
And even more importantly, as like-minded groups shift into these more extreme doxastic that is attitudes with respect to their beliefs, they also become more ready to act on the more extreme beliefs that they hold. And something that some of your listeners will be familiar with is the phenomenon called the risky shift. The more extreme and confident we become, the more tolerant of risky behavior we become when the risky behavior can be shown to be in the service of the more radical and confident beliefs we hold. [laughs] So, like-minded groups become more extreme in their beliefs and their cognitive attitudes. But at the same time and for reasons that are not hard to discern, our more extreme selves are also more as effectively negatively disposed towards anybody who’s perceived not to be a member of the group or not to be a member of our like-minded group. So as we become more extreme, we also become more distrustful of, more suspicious of, more likely to attribute negative character traits, negative intellectual traits and untoward motives towards anybody we perceive to be on the outside of our group.
Let me put the package together. Interaction among like-minded people shifts us into adopting more extreme beliefs and cognitive stances towards our commitments that makes us more ready to act on their behalf, but it also is positively tied with escalating negative emotions and negative affect towards anybody who’s perceived to be outside our group. And so, if you’ve been to high school you know what this is, this is just clicks. [laughs] Right? When groups become more extreme and more insular in the ways I just described, they also become more hierarchical. Right? They become more and more reliant on tastemakers within the group to establish what it takes to be a member in good standing of the group. Belief-polarised groups become more reliant on internal slogans and behavioral cues that signal to other members their allyship. They begin to dress alike, they begin to pronounce certain words in the same way. In fact, you can already see this. I’m not sure, Zach, if you’re aware of some of this research about the pronunciation of words having a partisan valence.
Zach: Yeah, I’ve seen this a lot. It shifts a lot of things.
Robert: Yeah. Right. So if you’re listening to somebody on the news and you’re wondering where their partisan affiliation lies, wait for them to say the name of the country I R A Q. [laughs] Iraq or Iraq? I don’t even have to say where the partisan identification lies in that, Iran and Iran. Iran is a clear signal and the pronunciation Iran is a clear signal that you’re dealing with somebody who’s a liberal. So the thought is that these heavily belief-polarised groups become not only more extreme but more insular, more hierarchical, and ultimately, they become increasingly fixated on policing the borders between the in-group and the out-group. And I think that strikes me– maybe Zach you’re on the same wavelength– that strikes me as politically counterproductive. When our political coalitions are subject to internal dynamics that lead the coalition members to become more and more focused on detecting posers and fakers within the group so that they can be expelled, it strikes me as– from the point of view of real politics– it strikes me as just counterproductive.
Zach: Right. Building coalitions, yes.
Robert: Yeah. If you want to be an effective democratic citizen, you got to join a choir. You want the choir to grow. You can’t have it shrink. And so it looks to me like polarization isn’t only a diss… I want to even say it in the Sustaining Democracy book. One of the central pillars of the argument is that the dysfunction of polarization is not properly located within the animosity for the other side, the divisiveness towards the other side, the disgust and distrust with the other side. Those might be problems, too. But part of the problem of polarization is the impact it has on our alliances. It makes less able to be a member of a successful political coalition. Can I just give one real quick example? I have some initial mainly anecdotal data in the form of a couple of online threads.
Robert: Zach, you may remember two years ago or whatever it was the Met Gala where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a dress with a slogan on the back of it. Do you remember the slogan?
Zach: It was something about doing something to the rich or something.
Robert: Tax the rich.
Zach: Oh, right. Yeah.
Robert: Okay. She was wearing this very elegant dress and it had in big red letters and it looked like it was painted too and even spray painted “tax the rich.” For reasons that were incidental, I happened to just be following some social media threads about the Met Gala and all the rest of the night that this was happening, and I saw something very interesting develop with respect to AOC’s dress. And I think it’s a nice illustration of the internal dysfunction, you know, the way polarization undermines our coalitions. So there’s live streaming, there’s all kinds of things, AOC is wearing a dress that says ‘tax the rich’ on the back. And you start seeing people commenting and I love her so much and, you know? Eventually, people on a couple of the threads start posting like, “Yeah, every billionaire! That billionaire is a criminal.” And others would say, “Yeah, Jeff Bezos needs to pay his fair share.” And others would say, “All property is theft.” [laughs] So you started getting different levels or different grades of liberal to progressive to more radically progressive ideas about what the slogan ‘tax the rich’ might mean, ranging from ‘it ought to be a crime to be a billionaire’ to ‘we should have a much more aggressively progressive tax system.’
And I started watching and I’m like, “Well, this is interesting. Because what exactly does tax the rich mean? I guess it’s consistent with a fairly moderate but left argument for progressive taxation. Yeah, Jeff Bezos isn’t paying his fair share, close the loopholes.” You know, this kind of thing. And it could be consistent with more radical doctrines like any earnings above a certain number is just taken back by the state. So I started monitoring this because I thought this was interesting. And what was interesting about it was how quickly the threads devolved, not into sort of disorderly name-calling over the policy. You saw people initially saying things like, “If you think tax the rich just means we need to close the loopholes in the existing tax system, you might as well be Ronald Reagan.” Right?
So there was that kind of initial we’re disagreeing over what the right tax policy is. But that lasted for only a couple of minutes. Ultimately, the threads became a kind of mudslinging about who the real progressives in the discussion were. And that struck me as deeply dysfunctional for a political coalition. The fact that we disagree, we all want something to change and could say the participants in this discussion all wanted something to change about the tax structure, and they wanted changes in the tax structure that moved in a progressive lefty kind of direction, but they gave up on the discussion of what the right tax policy should be and embraced a different discussion, who is the real progressive? And that just looks to me like okay, this is no way to achieve any political goal. It is to succumb so quickly to the tendency to give up on the substantive discussion, and then just try to establish the borders between the authentic progressives and the posers. That’s what polarization does to us.
Zach: That’s what I loved about your book. Yeah, I really liked your focus on the hidden, basically, the less discussed negative aspects of this us-versus-them polarization and how it makes the group’s more fractured and more contentious even amongst people that are quite politically aligned. And you gave a great example, and it’s like we can see this in so many ways on the Left and the Right. People just become more focused on purity. And there was a good article about progressive nonprofits going through chaos in the wake of the George Floyd and anti-racism discussions. It was an intercept and a good article for anyone who wants to look at that. But it was just an example of how even amongst people that are quite politically aligned, we become unable to form coalitions. And politics, for people that actually want to get something done, is about forming coalitions. And I think it’s also related to the saying that perfection being the enemy of the good. You know, your sense of perfection being the enemy of actually getting something practical done, and both sides become more and more fractured in that way and people become less willing to speak up to the more polarised and angry people in their group. Which I think gets back to how I would say us-versus-them animosity helps create some of the very problems that upset us because the more that we give power to the more angry and highly polarised, the more that gives power to the highly polarised on the other side who have a lot of anger and so on and so on. I really liked your focus on that part of it, the internal part of it.
Robert: I appreciate that. Can I just… I want to add one thing. I agree with what you’re just saying. Not only does polarization sort of create the conditions that we tell ourselves with our lamenting and regret, it creates the very conditions that we think are so terrible. I want to suggest one further thought, though. polarization turns us into the kind of people we hate the other side because we imagine they are like that. polarization punctuates within us the character traits that we claim to be the basis of our disgust and animosity towards the other side. Put it this way. polarization encourages in us not only the thought or the idea, but the attitudes, the disposition and practices that are fundamentally organized around the idea that democracy is possible only when everyone is just like me. And that strikes me as a fundamentally anti-democratic idea that there can only be democracy when people are just like I am. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic to think that. But that’s what polarization does. And often, we find ourselves in that heightened state of belief and affective polarization because we’re engaged sincerely in democratic activity. [laughs]
Zach: Yeah, like you say, it’s counterintuitive and a bit… Yeah, it’s hard to examine. It’s hard to solve for a reason because so many of the things, I think, we don’t have analogies for. We have a lot of analogies to the natural world but I feel like this is such a human dynamic that’s very unique that it’s hard for us to understand the complexity of how these dynamics work. It’s something I often think about. Like, if we had better natural-world analogies for this, it might be easier to tackle. But anyway, I know we only got a few minutes left so I want to ask you, when it comes to what we might do about these problems– like say, we could put you and made you king of the US for a while and you were given full rein to to combat this problem. Do you have confident opinions on what we would do at a policy level? Because I know in your book, you do focus on the need for more people to do internal examinations and considerations, which I believe is hugely important to a cultural change. But I’m curious about if you take some specific steps policy-wise.
Robert: Well, I don’t like the framing of being king but… [laughs] I think that we make progress in thinking about polarization and depolarization when we focus on the cognitive and affective aspects of polarization that enables, I think, a pretty solid response that Sustaining Democracy book tries to develop it, to polarization skeptics. polarization skeptics are the people who think that polarization is a false diagnosis because it’s really just a kind of both ciderism or the idea that we need to depolarize is really just a polite way of saying that nobody can really believe anything or that you’ve got to invite the local White supremacists over for coffee and these kinds of things. When you focus on the internal dynamics of polarization and the way in which polarization undermines our capacity to be members of a functional democratic coalition, I think then you get to just a different kind of argument for why we need to start thinking about depolarization, which is that if you want to pursue justice and you want to see justice done, you’ve got to hold the coalition together.
And polarization, forgetting about the people who are your opposition or your obstacles, polarization doesn’t go away when you start ignoring your opposition. It just turns you against your political allies. So, two very quick things. I think it’s important to realize that polarization doesn’t get fixed, it’s not something that can go away. polarization in its cognitive and affective dimensions are just part of our cognitive makeup and affective makeup as the kinds of creatures that we are. So the task is not to fix polarization or to eliminate it or to eradicate polarization, it’s to manage it and to keep it within constraints that render it not so dangerously toxic as current levels of polarization in that affective and cognitive sense or the degree to which that act affective and cognitive sense of polarization has become toxic. We need to contain that and constrain it in certain ways.
Now, I’ve got two pretty counterintuitive suggestions and I don’t know that either of them amounts to much at the level of political policy, although it does suggest certain kinds of policy upshots. First thing to say is that I don’t think that the problem can be fixed at the level of the President and the Senate and the Congress and the law. I don’t think that the problem of polarization is the kind of thing we should count on any existing political institutions or agents to fix. They benefit too much from it. When the citizenry is divided in the way that the US citizenry is divided, it makes the task of a campaign manager and a political strategist a lot easier because it’s so much easier to just talk about and to stoke your allies and your likely voters distrust of the other side. So much easier to do that than to actually lay out the details of policy in ways that can keep your likely voters on board. And so politicians and parties and candidates are the beneficiaries of polarization so we can’t count on them to fix it. Two things– initial thoughts. One is that I think that, as I argue in the first book and what turns out that now is a trilogy– there’s a third book coming. The first book is Overdoing Democracy as I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, Zach. And there, I said, “Look, we need to reclaim segments of social space and regions of our social environment for engaging in activities where we’re cooperating with others, but don’t know what their politics are like.” That’s not suppressing political difference, that’s just doing something where politics is beside the point. The fact that I’m sure many listeners have found what I just said puzzling– there could be an activity that I’m engaging with others that’s cooperative and politics is beside the point, what in the world could that be? That that strikes us as a strange thought is, I think, a symptom of the depth of the problem of polarization.
So here’s just one very, very quick example. And again, this is not at the level of large-scale policy but as listeners might be able to discern, although I live in Nashville, I’m not originally from Nashville and not originally from the South, that’s New Jersey you’re hearing in my voice. So when I moved to Nashville in 2001, I don’t know anything about country music or I don’t know anything about country music traditions. I know a little bit more now than I did when I moved from New Jersey. But one of the things my wife and I started doing a little while after we came down to Nashville is that we started investigating, as it were, bluegrass and country music as a sort of American musical traditional idiom. And eventually, I started going every now and then– not regularly anymore since the pandemic, although maybe I’ll start up again– I started going to a bluegrass venue. It’s a dive bar in Nashville that has real top-quality bluegrass. Now, part of what was interesting about that activity is that I go to the venue, I don’t know a lot about the idiom of this style of music, I know some things about music but I don’t know anything about this particular idiom. But because the place is just like you sit down at a table and whoever’s sitting down next to you is just somebody who could be a stranger, I started to get an appreciation for the way in which other attendees at this what turned out to be an open mic kind of bluegrass jam night at this one venue, I’ve got a real appreciation for the kind of command that some people who just happened to be sitting around me these evenings had of the music, where you’ll just be sitting there listening to the guy and a stranger sort of leans over and says, “Oh, you know, the mandolin player’s great grandfather wrote this song.” And you say, “Oh, really?” Like, “Oh, yeah. And the bass player is the guy who performed on Johnny Cash’s song.” Eventually, you realize that there’s a tradition and an idiom. And even further with one or two particular attendees at these events, I started getting the appreciation for their aesthetic sensitivity. Eventually, just by showing up, people will say, “Hey, it’s you again.” You know? I don’t know who these people are, they don’t even know my name, but they recognize me.
And listening to them talk about the aesthetic properties of the music or the way in which the song was performed, or how the performers on the stage did something that was unusual in this particular performance of this particular song, these are things I was totally aesthetically completely insensitive to. I wasn’t able to hear. And I’m a musician! I wasn’t able to really hear some of the nuances that these guys who just happened to be showing up like me were very sensitive to. And I thought this was important for democratic politics for the following reason. We weren’t doing politics, right? No. We were talking about we were experiencing the music. The political theorist in me had all kinds of reasons to think that the particular people I’m thinking about right now probably don’t vote for the same people I vote for in national and local elections. They probably have political views that I don’t accept, who knows? But nonetheless, in the course of interacting with these guys about this music, I was able to perceive their virtues in a way that wasn’t so tightly tethered to my sense of who’s on the right and who’s on the wrong side of the political issues of the day. That is, in talking about this aesthetic form, I was able to appreciate these other people’s perspectives on this music.
And that had the following effect: were I to discover what I suspect might be the case that the particular people I’m thinking of right now are my political foes or on the opposite side of all the things I care about politically. Were I to discover that, I would have a much harder time simply writing them off as human beings. [chuckles] Because I engaged with them in an activity that allowed me to see the ways in which they have values that are legible to me as worthwhile, sensitivity that seems to me to be sophisticated and the product of a kind of intelligence and attentiveness. They care about things. [laughs]
Zach: Right, seeing their humanity.
Robert: Yeah, and seeing them in a context where they could display their virtues in a way that’s not tethered so tightly to their partisan identity. I think that was civically deeply, deeply important. So one of the things I would say then is that insofar as it’s possible at the level of policy to create spaces, social spaces and physical spaces that are suited to that kind of interaction, we should pursue that. Now, let me just put a little bit of meat on the bones. The third book in the trilogy which I’m writing now is about the political value of solitude. Part of the argument there is that our capacities for reflection, for imagination, for thinking about what’s possible in our political world, for thinking about how we can get from where we are to someplace better, these are essential reflective introspective tasks for the democratic citizen that our current political environment or saturated social spaces with politics, our current social environments don’t permit. And so part of the argument there, and this connects up with the thought about the bluegrass bar, is that we need to understand that or start understanding that democracy needs an active citizenry, yes, but democracy also needs a reflective citizenry. And some of the present modes– and indispensable, I would even say– modes of democratic action undermine our reflective capacities.
And so part of the task of better fulfilling the democratic ideal of a self-governing community of political equals is to figure out ways to create more social spaces where people can engage in a kind of solitary reflection. And so on this view, museums and parks become really central democratic institutions. Not amenities, not luxuries that well-off districts in the country might be able to afford, but the idea that there’s a public democratic service that museums and parks and even more importantly public libraries play that makes them democratically essential spaces for people to be alone with their reflection is really, really important. So if I were just to go back to your question, Zach, I’m sorry this is a long-winded way of putting it. If I were somebody in charge of this, I’d say, “Yeah, we need a way to combat the encroachment of commercial interests into the entirety of our social spaces. And we need to find ways to preserve, restore, and create social spaces of a particular kind. Social spaces where people can be alone with their thoughts.”
Zach: Yeah, I liked that part about your book, too, focusing on the internal thought. It really spoke to me because some of the things that I think where I’ve reached good understandings of the problem and what to do about it– and understanding the other another side too, you know, the things that other people think– was just me sitting around thinking about it and giving it thought. I wouldn’t have been able to do that in the heat of debate or reading social media or having conversations. It’s something that only came from going inside and thinking things through. But you saw that that was a really important point. And…
Robert: Well, I appreciate that.
Zach: Yeah, this has been great, Robert. Thanks a lot for your time. And yeah, looking forward to your next book and I’d like to read your first book in the trilogy, too. I haven’t read that one. But thanks a lot for your time. I appreciate it.
Robert: Well, thank you. It was really nice to talk to you and thanks for the invitation.
Zach: That was a talk with Robert Talisse, author of Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side. I highly recommend his book; it’s one of the best books on the subject I’ve read.
And just a note that my own book Defusing American Anger is out now on ebook and the Kindle store: you can learn more about that at www.american-anger.com.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood.
Thanks for your interest, and thanks for listening.