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Self-Help for Democratic Citizens

Why personal political contemplation and reading Aristotle might be more depolarizing than trying to make friends with your politically outspoken neighbor.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

Are reading a book or taking time for contemplation essential acts of democratic citizenship? Philosopher Robert B. Talisse is rooting for the quieter side of democratic participation, which could solve the whole of the problem of partisan animosity.

In American politics, belief polarization—a process by which our beliefs become more extreme and tightly held as we surround ourselves with only like-minded people—abounds. Prescriptions for ameliorating it, though? Not so much. 

Robert B. Talisse, author of Sustaining Democracy, has one to consider. We each need, he says, to embark upon a kind of personal political contemplation that clarifies our political thinking and sucks us out of the politics of the here and now. 

Below, The Progress Network (TPN) Executive Director Emma Varvaloucas speaks with Talisse, a philosopher at Vanderbilt University and a Member of TPN, about why he thinks reading Aristotle might be more depolarizing than trying to make friends with your politically outspoken neighbor or engaging in civil debate. Watch the interview in full below or read an excerpt, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Emma Varvaloucas: We’re used to hearing about the problem around “those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t” hating each other. And your book talks about that. But it also talks about a different side of the problem, or maybe another problem, which is that within a particular political group, because belief polarization has gotten so bad, allyships have started to fracture.

Robert B. Talisse: That’s right. Look at Liz Cheney. She is a conservative member of the Republican party. This is somebody whose voting record is very much alive with Trump Republicanism who gets pulled out of a leadership position because she publicly says that Trump is lying about the election. She’s not one of the cool kids. She doesn’t get to sit at the table anymore. When groups become more conformist and hierarchical, they become more and more focused on policing their internal dynamics. They lose sight of the broader political objectives that they are supposed to be pursuing. And they shrink, because they start expelling people who are perceived to be posers or inauthentic or half-hearted.

When that happens, you wind up with political coalitions that might be very loud, because they are composed nearly exclusively of hardliners. But for that very reason, despite their volume, despite the noise they’re able to make, they’re not able to get anything done politically. In politics, you have to build and grow coalitions. The tension in democratic citizenship tempts us to think that the problem has to do with “how am I going to get along with my Republican family members” and “how am I going to talk to the person who lives across the street from me who has a Trump flag.” And that is a problem. It’s just not the whole of the problem of partisan animosity. 

The whole problem of partisan animosity says, “well, those people whom you hate, whose politics you despise, whom you can’t see as your equals, they’re the occasion for a problem that really has to do with you and your friends.” If you don’t take steps to mitigate some of the pressures that emerge, when you break off relations with at least some of your critics and foes, those divisive forces turn inward, and you start turning your friends into enemies. We can’t have that if we want to succeed in politics. That’s the argument of the book. What do you think?

I thought we had a big enough problem already that we all hate each other across political lines. Now you’re telling us there is a secondary problem, which I think will ring true for people—it’s pretty easy to think of examples in the political realm, either on the left or on the right, where we’ve seen these kinds of purity tests rolling out, with people starting to get ejected from the group. But given that now we’re talking about an even bigger problem, what are the prescriptions here? I’m a democratic theorist who is an agonist. I think that democracy is about conflict. Conflict that is conducted within the parameters of certain kinds of processes and norms, but conflict. A lot of democratic theorists think that democracy is about being friends and everybody getting together and singing “Kumbaya” or whatever. That’s just not me, you know?

The challenge of the democratic life is to . . . see the democratic experiment as a commitment to equality, even though that means at certain important junctures, justice will not prevail.

That’s good too, though. Having the expectation in our heads that “there is going to be conflict, and we’re choosing democracy anyway,” and being okay with that, is one step. And the challenge of the democratic life is to look at that kind of conflict and feel good about it, even if it’s real conflict, even if you think the losses are real losses, when you lose. To see the democratic experiment as a commitment to equality, even though that means at certain important junctures, justice will not prevail.

It’s a big-picture democratic view. That’s right. I think the solution can’t be “eliminate polarization.” I don’t think that there is a way to do that, because like-minded coalitions are intrinsic to what democracy is all about. Instead we have to figure out ways to manage the most destructive effects of belief polarization. I don’t think we can do it only by having more carefully curated and orchestrated interactions with our political enemies. A lot of empirically minded democratic theorists are interested in designing deliberative spaces and citizen jury experiments for that purpose. I don’t reject any of that. I just think it’s insufficient, because I think that the change has to be within ourselves. We have to take steps to fight the tendency toward conformity within our allyships.

The way that we do that is that we take steps to make sure that we expose ourselves to ideas and arguments and political problems that don’t come pre-packaged in the trappings of the politics of the moment and the partisan divides that prevail right now. Democracy needs citizens to claim for themselves moments of solitude, solitary reflection, detachment, where they don’t withdraw from politics, but they withdraw from the political fray, from their friends and their enemies alike, and reflect about political ideas and arguments that are not so easily imported into things that are happening right now. 

If you google “This is what democracy looks like,” you will get tens of thousands of images all depicting the very same thing. People in streets with signs, communicating a unified message of some kind, making a demand, pointing out an injustice. That is what democracy looks like. I don’t want to say that that is not part of democracy—that is what democracy looks like. But democracy also looks like a guy sitting in a chair, reading a book. That is also an essential act of democratic citizenship, opening up Aristotle and seeing how Aristotle thinks there are eight different kinds of democracy. What is he talking about? Eight different kinds of democracy? What does that mean? 

The point of this detached reflection is twofold. One is to suck us out of the moment. It’s reminding ourselves that not all political thinking and not all democratic political thinking is easily translatable into the contingencies of our democracy at the moment. I think we lose sight of that. It seems that the battles that we’re fighting right here and right now strike us as so urgent precisely because we think that the political world around us is all the politics there is.

The second is not to understand the other side or to hear them, or think, “oh, maybe they’ve got a point.” I mean, those are all good things to do. But my point is that you get stronger depolarization effects if, when people do sit down with their political opponents, their interaction is not organized around the for-and-against model of talking around politics, but instead around the model where I say to you, my political opponent, “Where do you think I’ve gone wrong? What’s the weakest part of my view? Where do you think my position is objectionable?” That isn’t conceding anything to your opposed ideas. I still get to think that you are mixed up about politics. I still get to hold all of those negative assessments about your views. I’m not trying to fight it out. I’m not trying to convince you who has the right view about taxation or immigration or whatever it is. I’m simply saying, “Where am I wrong? What do you think the most severe problem is? Why are you unconvinced by me?” 

That allows you to remind yourself of the idea, that I think gets lost with the polarization phenomenon and the drive of this urgency to act, that even if you’re on the right side of all the political questions, it doesn’t mean that your political thinking can’t be improved. Even if you’re right about all the issues, there still might be a better way to formulate your position. There still might be an objection that you have to figure out a way to evade. It’s a philosopher’s thought. Epistemic success is not strictly about having the right beliefs. It’s about having the right beliefs with the right kind of rationale to back it up. 

There is something really dangerous about the move to treat everything as if its significance lies strictly in its ability to speak to the political moment right now.

Isn’t it just like a philosopher to say that the solution to polarization is to go off and read Aristotle? We did another episode on depolarization with TPN Member Jonathan Haidt, and when we asked him what advice he had for people, he said to read Marcus Aurelius. But the road between Aristotle and depolarizing my thoughts about people who think that Trump won the 2020 election seems to be a very, very long one. How would you manage some of the objections along these lines? Like, “you want me to go read philosophical treatises? First of all, I don’t even have time. I’m ruminating about what’s for dinner.” I wouldn’t say it has to be reading. I think it’s important to have time away from the gaze of your friends who are going to try to police you for compliance with group expectations and away from the gaze of your enemies who are going to arouse in you the affect that is going to lead you to comply with your group expectations. You can sit at home in a chair for a moment and try to order your political thoughts in a way that gets at what the most fundamentally important political thing is. What is it? Is it freedom? Is it equality? Read the preamble to the Constitution and think through the thoughts right now. If someone says that they don’t have time for the Constitution, then maybe the right response is, “well, do you have time to be an activist, then?” I’m not so sure. 

Let me say one thing for the Progressives who might be horrified by the thought. I think that there is something really dangerous about the move to treat everything as if its significance lies strictly in its ability to speak to the political moment right now. A lot of what I hear as a faculty member from people at my own university, but also universities in general, is that education has to speak to the present, to what is happening now, to the politics and the political struggles and the objectives going on now, that students experience now. It’s not that I think that that is valueless. It’s valuable. But that can’t be the whole thing. Sometimes there is a kind of political significance that consists in a text or an idea or an argument not talking to you where you’re at right now, but pulling you out of that content. That’s politically significant, too.

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.