Is it Possible to Overdo Democracy? | New Hampshire Public Radio

Is it Possible to Overdo Democracy?

Nov 29, 2020

We talk with philosopher Robert Talisse about his book, Overdoing Democracy: Putting Politics In Its Place. He argues that politics is dominating our lives and minds right now, at a moment when we might make more of a difference by nurturing social connections, cooperation and civic engagement. We find out more, and ask: Has the pandemic increased political polarization? 

Airdate: Monday, Nov. 30. 2020

GUEST:

  • Robert B. Talisse - W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Author of Overdoing Democracy: We Must Put Politics In Its Place. He specializes in contemporary political philosophy, with current research focused on democracy, polarization, public ignorance, and egalitarianism. 

Watch his Ted Talk here

Transcript

This transcript is machine-generated and will contain errors.  

 

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange. There's plenty of lamenting these days about America's political divide, but our guest today says in order to narrow the gap, we all need to put politics in its proper place. That means, hesays, deliberately seeking out activities that have nothing to do with politics and where you're likely to engage with people who hold different views than your own. Today in The Exchange, we're talking with political philosopher Robert Talisse. He's a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of many books, including the one that we'll talk about called Overdoing Democracy Listeners. How do you feel about our nation's political divides and your own role in perpetuating them? Are you feeling saturated in politics right now or do you think paying attention is more important than ever? And Professor Robert Talisse joins us from Nashville. Professor Talisse, nice to have you on The Exchange. Thanks for being here.

Robert Talisse:
Well, thank you for inviting me. It's great to be here.

Laura Knoy:
So what does it mean to overdue democracy? I haven't heard that term before until I read your book.

Robert Talisse:
Well, I'm glad to hear that. So, you know, we have the idea that good things can be overdone in almost every other area of life. You know, we have the idea of a workaholic, somebody who's so devoted to their work. And let's just presume that their job is important and socially produces socially good things. But there's still a sense in which one can overdo a good thing. And what got me thinking about the book was that, well, maybe democracy is that kind of good, namely, maybe it's the kind of thing that it's possible to do too much of it in a way that makes us actually less good at being Democratic citizens.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So too much of it actually is a bad thing. Like overexercising over eating, over working. So where does the line fall? And this is what a lot of workaholics probably ask themselves. Professor Talisse, I appreciate the analogy. Where does the line fall between doing it well and overdoing it?

Robert Talisse:
So it's it's a it's a tricky line to draw. And I think that it varies depending on different people's social contexts.bBut here's one sort of feature of the problem. As our country has gotten more diverse in the aggregate, that is in the hole, the spaces that you and I inhabit in our day to day lives have become more homogeneous so that the diversity has flourished in the country. But each of our little slices of the the political and social world have become more alike, and that a likeness is more and more organized around our partizan or political identities. And so part of what it is to overdo democracy is to allow our political allegiances and loyalties to shape and organize the entirety of our social lives such that where we buy our groceries and how we spend our weekends and where we vacation, so on and so forth, have all become ways of expressing and communicating our political allegiances, which means that we spend more and more time interacting only with people who are just like ourselves politically. That's bad for democracy because democracy runs on disagreement.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I want to ask you a lot of questions about, you know, this political sorting that you talk about and all that and how that's happening in ways seen and unseen. But a couple more questions just on this notion of overdoing it. How does that square Professor Talisse with the idea of an engaged citizenry, you know, that you need to know what's going on.

Robert Talisse:
Sure. So I agree with most I think most citizens and certainly most political philosophers and democratic theorists that democracy needs an engaged, active citizenry. That is part of what makes the, you know, the project of collective self-government work is people engaged actively in self-government. So the thesis that it's possible to overdo democracy and that in fact, we in the United States are overdoing it, is to be distinguished from a nearby but I think untrue claim, which is that, you know, politics is all small stuff and don't sweat the small stuff. There are better things to do with. Your life then worry about politics, I'm not committed to that claim. I think that politics is really important and that we need to be engaged and active citizens. The overdoing democracy thesis is the slightly different claim, which is that amidst all of our political engagement and interaction and activism, even we need also to do other things. We need to find cooperative social endeavors in which politics plays no part. We need to find things to do together, not where we're reaching across the aisle or trying to suppress our political differences. I mean, we could do a little of that, too. I'm not opposed to that. But the thesis is that we need to find things to do together in which politics is just not part of the activity.

Robert Talisse:
Note that reaching across the aisle and the other kinds of metaphors we use for political cooperation across differences all keep politics at the center of the activity. In fact, reaching across the aisle literally puts politics at the center of the activity. What I want to suggest is that, well, in addition to being active and engaged citizens, we also need to do something else. If we're going to perform well democratically, we need to find things to do together. Now, we were when we were suppressing our political differences, but in which our political differences are just not part of the activity, there is irrelevant to what we're doing as the color of the walls on our bank and that we struggle to imagine. What kind of activity that could be is a symptom of our overdoing democracy, that that that our political aims and objectives have infiltrated our conception of everything that we could possibly do together that would be worthwhile. That's a signal that we've overdone it. In fact, I would say that's what a workaholic is to a workaholic is somebody who sees his work or her work in every little activity that happens throughout his or her day. Similarly, we overdo democracy when everything we can think of doing with and in the presence of others becomes for us a way of signaling or communicating or advancing our political objectives. And it turns out that when politics is all we ever do together, we get bad at it.

Laura Knoy:
Because we're not listening or understanding people who hold different political views.

Robert Talisse:
Well, there's that and we were subject to certain kinds of cognitive forces that erode our capacity, not merely to listen to the other side, which is a crucial capacity, to be sure. But we're subject to cognitive forces that erode our ability to even recognize that there is another side, we come more increasingly inclined to see our political opponents as merely obstacles, not even opponents. Right. There are people who aren't engaged in the same way they come to seem to us to be people not even engaged in the same project that we are engaged in. They come to they are political opponents come to strike us as unworthy of democratic citizenship. Now, it just seems to me that to invite and nurture the attitude that. Only those people who hold the views that I'm comfortable with are worthy of democratic citizenship, that strikes me as a fundamentally anti-democratic attitude, but that's the attitude that's encouraged in us when everything we do is politics.

Laura Knoy:
I want to run an example by You that I came across this morning, Professor Talisse, that I'm wondering if this kind of fits in with what you just said. So Danny Meyer, famous restaurant guy, opened up a whole bunch of famous restaurants, you know, Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, the Shake Shack burger chain on Saturday, hours after the presidential election have been called for Joe Biden. Meyer was, I'm reading from The Washington Post here, once again playing the gracious host, offering a, quote, virtual hug to those in the losing side and encouraging the victors to embrace the moment, time for all of us to show the virtue of leading with hospitality, Meyer added in his tweet. Much hard work to do, many big problems to solve, nothing possible without a place at the table for all. The idea didn't go over well with those in the left, though, the Post says one tweet, for example, and there were lots of tweets like this, there's no room at my table for haters. So I just wonder what that says to you. Professor Talisse, you're calling for people to do stuff with sit down with people who feel differently, saying that overall that will improve our society. But it seems like a lot of people aren't interested.

Robert Talisse:
So good. I would say that that kind of reaction is a symptom. In fact, it confirms the diagnosis that seeing everything as a life and death struggle, not with my fellow citizens who have different political views from me, views that I think are false. But there's nonetheless my fellow citizens. We've given up that attitude and taken on this different kind of political posture, which is the posture that says my political opponents are are not properly citizens. My political opponents, in virtue of their disagreement with my politics, are for that reason failures at democracy and unworthy of equal citizenship. That's fundamentally, it strikes me, an anti-democratic posture, no matter who's taking it. And so the idea that the other side and in the example that you gave, we were thinking about sort of liberal citizens seeing that the losers in this case, the Republicans as haters, seeing the other side as a monolith. That embraces a single idea, in this case, a single attitude, hatred that is beyond rational discourse that cannot be understood even or it's not even worth trying to understand why they've got the political views that they do, as as depraved as we think those views may be.

Robert Talisse:
Those are all fundamentally non-democratic attitudes. If democracy is anything, it's the hypothesis. It's the it's the proposal that ordinary citizens can achieve a relatively just and stable political order, a decent society in the absence of rulers and bosses and kings, because democracy says ordinary citizens can govern themselves as equals. But if we're committed to the idea of. Self-Government as equals, we must also be committed to the idea of self-government among people who sometimes, perhaps often profoundly disagree about politics, because that's just one of the options of equality if we are equal citizens. Part of what equality means in this context is we each get to exercise our own judgment about politics. We get to make up our own minds. When you've got a group of people together, each of whom gets to make up his or her own mind about something important, you're going to get diverging viewpoints and judgments. So democracy is the commitment to self-government among political equals who disagree. And once we adopt the attitude that those with whom we disagree are merely haters, people not even worth engaging with, we've given up on democracy.

Laura Knoy:
Wow, that's a pretty big statement, Professor Talisse.

Robert Talisse:
I try.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I want to invite our listeners to join us and see what they think about all this, and then we have a lot more to talk about, including media saturation, social media and so forth. So exchange listeners, it's your turn. We want your thoughts on the political divides we see in America, where they come from and what our own roles are in perpetuating these divides. Our guest is political philosopher Robert to Lease, a professor at Vanderbilt, the author of many books, including the one we're talking about right now, called Overdoing Democracy. All right. Professor Talisse, what role does the ubiquity of media, including social media, just information every single time you go anywhere. What does that play in all this?

Robert Talisse:
Well, good. So, you know, there's a I think by now familiar concern about social media being a tool that we individually use to curate our informational environments such that one of the things social media platforms do is they allow us to sometimes very consciously, sometimes with algorithms, unconsciously allows us to select in advance the kind of information will be exposed to the kind of news will be exposed to who are interlocutors or, you know, sort of conversation partners such as they may be on social media will be. And so part of what social media does is it empowers us as individuals to shape our own environment, including our informational environment.

Robert Talisse:
And now the common concern about that, which I share, is that social media platforms enable individual users to filter out and to expel from their informational environment any disconfirming or uncomfortable or even opposing viewpoint or messaging. And what that means is that as users use social media and more increasingly get their news, including their political news from social media, individuals come to embrace an increasingly narrow conception of what's going on in the world, increasingly politically narrow conception, where they hear only a particularly a particular political interpretation of world events. And so what that means is that we become more convinced of those particular pieces of information or that kind of reporting or the perspective from which that website or news channel delivers the news. We become more convinced of it and we become less able to recognize messaging and reportage that doesn't conform to our expectations. We become less able to recognize those as legitimate reports. We become more likely to dismiss them. We become more promptly to see them as fake news or as propaganda. But as it turns out, I should say, maybe this is not surprising, but sometimes it helps to for it to be said, you know, politics is not easy. What goes on in the political world, even in the relatively local political world of individual states, let alone the national stage or even the international stage. This is complicated. Politics is complicated. It should come as no surprise to us that with respect to any particular political event or happening, there are there's lots to say about it. There are lots of different ways of describing even what happened. And as citizens, we have to figure out we have to navigate that complexity. It turns out that social media and the media environment, such as it's developed now provides us with a mechanism by which what is complex and what is what rightly prompts thought and reflection is now delivered to us in highly simplistic, easily digestible pieces that require no reflection whatsoever. That again, strikes me as a blow against proper citizenship. The idea and the promoting of the attitude that politics is simple.

Laura Knoy:
Wow, I have a couple questions for you about that, Professor Talisse, but let's go to our listeners now and Sharon's calling in Exeter. Hi, Sharon. Thanks for being on the air with us today.

Caller:
Hi, thank you for taking the call. I want to say that I think Professor to Lisa's thesis is very sound and it really is an important thing, especially now when we've been so factionalized that we've got to find a way to pull ourselves together. And it means really trying to understand why the other party is so upset. So I think it's really good. But it also strikes me that this thesis coming up at this moment after we've been through this crisis in our democracy, which really took over my life, I just feel like it's really important to say that this thesis cannot be generalized and that there are lots of generalizations that can't be applied to this past four years and this past election.

Laura Knoy:
So what do you mean by that, Sharon? At first you said you're on board with what the professor says, but then you're saying this doesn't apply to right now.

Caller:
Well, I think it's kind of ambiguous, but what I mean to be saying is that there is definitely a way that this message meeting other people, being responsible in your in your part in democracy, being a good citizen, those things are essential. But what we just went through seems to me a very clear demonstration of the opposite. And so what we have now is I feel safer, say, in the newly elected president. But I also feel that there's we have to find a way to say to the people who supported the sort of behavior that we saw in our president, in term, we have to find a way to reach those people and make them make him part of our party, make them make us all part of the democracy. And so I think that's what he dactyl some thing. But I also feel like this this past election was an extreme. We had an extreme example of an undemocratic behavior from our president in undemocratic behavior from his followers and led to violence in some cases. So does that make it a little more clear what I'm.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Sharon, thank you very much for calling in. It's great to hear from you. And Professor, at least there's a lot there. One thing that I'm so struck by from Sharon's comment, because I've heard it from other listeners, you know, she felt like politics in recent years has taken over her life. Not that she wanted it to, but it just kind of. Yeah. Did you write about the ubiquity of politics? It's everywhere. We're saturated. What about that Professor Talisse?

Robert Talisse:
So, yeah, let me say one. I feel with Sharon the same sort of set of attitudes and even some of the conflicts that that she was giving voice to. So let me say one very general thing that I think is non-controversial, but we'll see. You know, it's the mark of an author of authoritarian regimes that everything is politics. That is a sure signal that you are living under a dictator when every little choice you make, the kind of car you drive, you know what music you listen to, how you spend your your weekend time off, when all of that is seen as political and as warranting political evaluation. That is how dictatorial regimes operate. They politicize everything.

Robert Talisse:
Now, it strikes me that our own society, even though it is it is a democracy, has sort of started edging in that direction where in both ways that are conscious and unconscious our lives from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed are constantly we're constantly being summoned to express and to live and to communicate and to stand up for our political values. Now, again, let me reiterate.

Robert Talisse:
Democracy is a spectator sport, we need to be engaged citizens. Politics is serious stuff. So I'm not saying that we shouldn't be doing politics. It's just that when that takes over, as Sharon put it, when that takes everything over, when that becomes the sole point of it all. Not only do I think we do we lose the do we lose our sense of the value of democracy, which after all, part of the value of democracy is that it creates a relatively just and free social order in which individuals can go pursue things other than politics. I mean, you know, part of what makes democracy so good is that you can go devote your life to jigsaw puzzles if you want. You still have to do the work of citizenship. But when you know, when the work of citizenship is done, you can go and pursue something that has nothing to do with you can be a gardener. You can take up hobbies, you can do all kinds of things right. So that everything is become a Web site, a way of doing politics. We sort of lost our sense of what the value of the whole enterprise is, which is to create a social order in which you can devote your life to other things in addition to politics.

Robert Talisse:
The other edge of it, though, is that when everything becomes politics, when politics takes over our lives, we become just to repeat, we become less good at it. And let me just add one other sort of detail to this, because, as Sharon said, one might wonder, and I think legitimately so, given what the country has just gone through and in some ways is still going through. So why why should I try to make peace with my political opponents? After all, my political opponents seem divested from democracy. My political opponents seem to be invested in the idea that elections that they don't win are rigged for that. By that reason, rigged. Why should I try to make any common cause with them when they seem already to have their head out of the game? I think that's a valid concern. Let me just give one additional sort of detail of the story that Sharon might appreciate.

Robert Talisse:
When we decline or withdraw from the project of trying to uphold the norms of democratic citizenship, even with our political enemies, that is when we cut loose from our political opponents, when we write them off as incapable of good citizenship and uninterested in civility, when we demonize them as anti-democratic as a monolith of people who are out to steal elections, so on and so forth. Not only do we break civic relations with anyone who's not just like us, which I think is bad for us, but also. The forces of division and factionalism don't go away, they turn inward, that is when we break off healthy Democratic relations with people who we oppose politically. And we no longer engage with the opposition. What happens to our political alliances is that they start to factionalized. That is, we become less able to maintain our political friendships when we break off Democratic relations with our political opponents. And we see this happen a lot, right, in the absence of a healthy opposition. It's not just politics either. In the absence of a healthy opposition, the group splinters. And when the group splinters, it shrinks. And when the group shrinks, it becomes politically less efficacious in a democracy. So we kind of subvert our own political ends, right? We kind of subvert our own political friendships. Right when we break off relations with our political opponents.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and, you know, Lincoln said it best, right? A house divided against itself cannot stand. So even if it seems incredibly difficult to, you know, not just stay in your own little political silo, you're saying, you know, don't do it for the other person, do it for yourself and for the country. We have to take a very quick break, Professor Talisse. So when we come back, we've got some more calls and emails that I'd love to get to. Our guest says when we do politics too much, we become less good. So we're going to dig into this more in just a minute. Stay with us. This is The Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy today in The Exchange, are we overdoing democracy and as our guest says, in the process, undermining it? That's what political philosopher Robert Talisse says in his new book and his TED talk overdoing democracy. By the way, we have links to all of that on our Web site. It's Nhpr.org exchange. Professor Talisse, here's an interesting email from Phil in Loudon who says, To overcome this tribalism that threatens our democracy, I would suggest a plan for mandatory national service for all high school graduates. Military basic training works to overcome social, religious and racial intolerance by identifying a common enemy tribalism, Russia, China, climate change pandemics and other national disasters, etc. and then unifying to overcome it with a mission is more important than the individual. Phil, thank you so much for writing in. And Professor Talisse, what do you think?

Robert Talisse:
So this idea of a national service requirement is very compelling to me, whether it needs to be on the model of military training or not is a different kind of issue. I'm not so convinced as Phil is of that, but it's not new and it strikes me as as a good idea. Let me just add the one thing. So the idea of a mandatory national service. Although I find it a compelling thought still runs the risk of making politics the center of it all, and in fact, in some of the examples that Phil just listed about having to identify a common enemy, some of them are political enemies, not merely just sort of large scale global problems like global warming. So I understand the the appeal and feel the appeal. But here's an additional thought. You know, it wasn't more than 30 years ago in the United States where. It was very common in individuals social lives, as a matter of course, to just have interactions planned and unplanned, casual and less casual with others who were different from them socioeconomically, politically and in all kinds of other respects, but nonetheless had those interactions in context where their differences were just not central to the interaction. And I'm thinking particularly about bowling leagues, for example, in the United States. Turns out that sociologists by the name of Robert Putnam,

Laura Knoy:
Who lives part time in New Hampshire, been on the show a number of times.

Robert Talisse:
Oh, good. Good. So you know what I'm about to say. So we so we still bowl. It's just we don't do it in context. That put us in touch with people we haven't already chosen to be our partners in the activity. And if you look across American society from our workplaces and our neighborhoods, our congregations, our schools, even occupations like dentistry and surgeon, these have all become politically sordid such that our neighborhoods, our congregations and our workplaces there are there are the Republican districts, the Republican neighborhoods, the Republican or conservative congregations. And then there are separate parts of the city where the liberals live, where the liberals drink their coffee and buy their groceries. And so in all of these subtle ways, occasions for pro social interaction among people who might who are quite different, but their differences are not the focus of the interaction. These have receded and we've become more and more a society where interaction with people who are who are unlike us is interaction that is focused on the differences, rather than a case in which some social interactions are just like we don't know whether we're different or not. You're just behind me online at a grocery store. It turns out that grocery stores, different grocery store franchises lean heavily according to partizan identity, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. Starbucks leans heavily liberal, Dunkin Donuts skews heavily conservative. And so little pieces of our everyday social lives are already sordid and segregated, according to partizan divides. So that the very thing that Phil is suggesting that we need to find commonality is true.

Robert Talisse:
But it also seems that we're living in a society that is already structured around the idea that we can't bridge differences and that when they're when we're dealing with people who are different, we must be focused on the difference which seismic activity that we're focused on.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, and in a few minutes, Professor, don't ask you about what policies or activities or organizations might remain. I'm thinking kids, sports, maybe that's one area. But let's go back to our listeners. Heidi is calling from Francis Town. Hi, Heidi. Thanks for being with us on The Exchange.

Caller:
Hi. Thank you. I'd just like to say that I support the professor completely. I think that you really are saying things that are very, very important for people to hear. And yes, it is true. We have been pushed away from democracy and everything has become political. And just one hideous example, of course, is what happened with Mass wearing that that that the that a matter of health becomes something political and that people are are resisting that sort of thing. And I found for myself that not so much myself, but I think that this has been generally true, that we've had to resist being broken into warring camps. And it's I've found that it's so important to keep in contact with other people, not just that there's more to life than politics, but that we need each other and that we're in trouble in a way we're in danger. If we find ourselves surrounded by people we can't talk to, we're surrounded by by enemies. And I think that's terribly important for people to keep talking to each other, to keep up the social relations, the friendly relations, the neighborly relations. Because what has happened with our president is that he has become a cult figure and there's been what cult figures do.

Laura Knoy:
Heidi, how do you do it? I'm interested in what you say, it's so important to reach out to other people to maintain friendships and relationships with people who feel differently. And it sounds like you're trying. So how do you do it? Like in what spaces.

Caller:
I don't find it's such a terrible effort? I find that, first of all, I don't have any political secrets. I'm an open book. Everybody knows that I belong to the Democratic Committee. I write letters to the ledger. They get published. And still I just am in touch with people. I keep in touch with people. And and these are my neighbors, my friends. And I don't I don't try to convert people, but I think that somehow this keeping in touch with people is going to help break a kind of spell that cult figures have have a kind of bewitching power over people. That's their power. They they don't necessarily do anything for them or help them. They just somehow draw them in.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's great to hear from you. And Professor, please go ahead. What do you think?

Robert Talisse:
So I think Heidi's right in that one of the consequences and I think, again, a consequence, this is a consequence that's bad for democracy, but one of the consequences of all the tribalism and polarization of the American citizenry, which is heavily tribal and heavily polarized, by the way, the American citizenry is we are we feel more divided than we've ever been, despite the fact that when it comes to actual policy preferences, we are no more divided than we were in the 80s, which is. So it's almost that's a revolution. Yeah. So, you know, in fact, you know, when you think about this sort of staple culture war issues of the 80s and even the 90s, these are just not things that people you know, gay marriage, for example, stem cell research, for example, these are not the You. In fact, the American citizenry has moderated. They've moved closer together on those two issues. They've become more liberal as a citizenry. We've become more liberal as a country on those two issues. So we are far more we seem to want another to be far more distant politically than, in fact, we are.

Robert Talisse:
And just to speak to Heidi's point, one of the consequences of this segregation that feeds that misperception of what the other side is like is that as society positions us off into our like minded enclaves, we come to get our image, our understanding, our conception of the other side from our own side. And that's toxic. When you get your view about what the opponent is like from not the opponent themselves, but from your friends, lo and behold, you wind up with a distorted conception of what the other side is like because you're getting your information from a group of people who are consciously or unconsciously motivated and incentivized to amplify the differences between the good guys and the bad guys, our group and their group.

Robert Talisse:
In fact, you know, the more you look into some of the group dynamics that drive this, the more you realize the funny, but also in some ways tragic fact. You know, adult human beings aren't that much different from 16 year olds in high school. It's a lot of kallick behavior where you find out who the cool kids are and then figure out ways to make fun of the kids who aren't cool. That's kind of what goes on in politics at a much higher stakes level, unfortunately.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let's take another call. And Heidi, thank you. It's great to hear your thoughts. Megan's calling in from Exeter. Hi, Megan.

Caller:
Hi, I've had the good fortune of being able to work in a lot of different industries, one being factories. So I think we all hopefully know at this point the polls are wrong. So talking about whether people accept abortion or stem cell research, poll polls are just we've seen this in the presidential elections twice now are inaccurate, having worked in those positions myself. Right now, I'm a mental health counselor, so that's a very diverse from being a factory. So I've been able to see a lot of different kinds of people and what they do and how they think. And I might really like that guy who's in shipping, but his views are dramatically different than my own and I can get along with him on the job. But I think that these things are real. And the reason that there is such a divide is because in some ways, yes, we are more divided by all the things we see on social media. But we're also in some ways, we're more informed. And I think part of the problem is that both of these sides see each other as being supportive of a certain kind of abuse. So for the most part, you'll see people on the liberal side as thinking that the other side supports abuse against social issues, gay marriage, different topics that are more social. And that end. And then you'll see if you look into because I'm all over the I'm so into psychology. I'm all over the place on Facebook looking at different opinions that.

Caller:
The other side is making up, you know, stuff like pizza gate, where they're talking about this idea of Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children and things like that, thinking that our side is about child abuse and that we accept that to have, you know, the last caller is mentioned about cult and you really do have these two sides building the other side up. Is this really, really abuse of force?

Laura Knoy:
Meghan I'm so interested in what you have say. So tell me, as a mental health professional and good for you for doing that, because there's a shortage for sure in New Hampshire. How do you even sort through that to reach some of the ideas that Professor Talisse talks about, which is these are human beings and when we demonize them, we are in fact undermining our own democracy and undermining our own self-interest for a healthy country?

Caller:
Well, it is tough being in mental health because, you know, I I consider myself an independent and I'm very I like the conversation in this job for a reason. I like being able to talk to people of different opinions and see why they have these opinions. But sometimes they'll come across someone who's really will express themselves. And I can't do it's not my job to change a person to believe what I want to. Of course not. Yeah, it is fascinating to hear what people say and and knowing their history and people are coming from these terribly abusive circumstance. I actually I'm in Lynn. So my my population is very diverse. And it's just interesting to see that that everybody has a background, you know, we all are coming from a place where we've had experiences in life, just did this research survey on people's abuse, abuse, history of being bullied in school. And how we perceive the other side as being bullies or supporting us from not being bullied and people we care about, and I usually think about who's being bullied, who's being abused. And I think until that is kind of like a common ground place, like, yeah, it's a great idea that I can go out and put together a puzzle and maybe like relax from the world. There are real things going on. And until it's time to really like, look what the abuse, the things that we can commonly get together to address real issues and not just, you know, we all we all need to relax. Absolutely. We all need our time away or it just gets worse and worse. But there are real things going on, real abusers. And we have to look at those as Megan.

Laura Knoy:
That's a great point. And I'm sorry to jump in on you, but I have to take a very quick station break. And when we come back, let's pick up on that., Professor Talisse, the idea that, yes, we need a break from politics. Yes, we can overdo politics. But, you know, Megan's making a profound point that there are really deep seeded issues and fears here that do need to be addressed. So we'll pick up that thread after break and take more of your comments. Stay on the line. This is The Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy this hour, political philosopher Robert Talisse and why he thinks we're overdoing democracy and how so much political engagement, he says, is actually making our politics worse. Now, one of his prescriptions is getting involved with activities or causes that have nothing to do with politics. So, listeners, what do you think? How much of this are you able to do in your own life? How much do you want to do this? And Professor Talisse really quickly, because we got a lot more people want to jump into our conversation, which is great. But what about Megan's point? Yes, we all need to take a break from politics, but there is some fundamental stuff going on that you know, we need to address.

Robert Talisse:
Sure, I couldn't agree more. And again, the thesis is not that we need to withdraw from politics. Again, I maintain that democracy requires an active and engaged citizenry. We have to do something in addition to politics is the thought. Now, one of the things that Megan emphasized, which I thought was very insightful, is the need to see not merely, you know, not not merely to see the other side's position, not merely to listen to the other side's political ideas, but to see them as coming from somewhere, to see them as driven by a certain set of experiences, a certain history, a certain kind of background.

Robert Talisse:
And we need to turn those very same tools on ourselves. We often and it often feels to us as if our political opinions are the deliverances directly of facts and logic, when in fact we have all kinds of good psychological, not only philosophical reasons to to say that, no, our political views and our political thinking are deeply driven by our histories, our background, where we've come from socially and in other respects as well. And so anoxia that, yes, seeing that our views have these roots in our own sort of social background is an important step in understanding other people. You know, in order to understand another person, it's not enough just to comprehend what they say. You have to be able to tell a relatively accurate story of why they're saying it. And until we start seeing that, it's not just that people who disagree with me are saying what they're saying because they're crazy or depraved or child molesters or, you know, zombies or whatever, which is part of the discourse today, I'm sad to say, but to say what they're saying might still be wrong. But I can understand why somebody might be attracted to a view that strikes me as false.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's why it's great to hear from Megan, because as a therapist, she understands, you know, the depths of people's experiences and what's driving it. So back to the calls, people really jumping in on this topic and it's great. Michael's joining us from Nashua. Michael, you're on The Exchange. Go ahead.

Caller:
Okay, great. Thanks so much for having me on. Sure. I just wanted to make a plug, perhaps, just maybe seconding the argument that's already been made about volunteering. So I work at the National Kitchen and Shelter and before the pandemic, anyway, we had thousands of people coming in to volunteer over the course of the year. And I'm pretty sure that nobody ever asked the other volunteer whether they were Republican or Democrat. It was more, you know, weirdo's this can of beans go or can I get more eggs to serve on the line, things like that. And I think they're making, you know, when you're volunteering and actually it takes these abstract ideas and makes them very real. And they're in the process of creating that reality. You know, perhaps it softens the edges, like when we're only talking in the abstract. We can go to extremes in a way that you really can't when you have a real human being in front of you. I know that this past week when we were giving out boxes for Thanksgiving, you know, when you had an older gentleman come in who had a hard time walking and the volunteer helped carry that box out or a family came in with with young kids, you know, everybody's eyes just lit up and said, oh, wow.

Laura Knoy:
So Michael, Professor Talisse got to exactly what you conclude your book with, which is get out there and make civic friendships. So go ahead, Professor Talisse.

Robert Talisse:
Sure. So I couldn't agree more with the spirit of what Michael has said. It seems to me that volunteering is a natural and I think quite effective way to operationalize, to sort of live the idea that there's more to life, to politics and pursuing that extra social good that's beyond politics as a way of becoming a better citizen. I mean, that's the that's the thesis of the book, in fact. Now, let me just say one very quick thing. Very you know, I started writing the book and started giving some public lectures about these topics. A questioner in the Q&A session asked me, you know, what should we go and do you know, convinced me I need to do something in addition to to living my politics in order to to be more authentically a Democratic citizen. But what kind of things should I do? And I gave an answer that was almost like Michael's. I said, well, why don't you volunteer to clean up litter from the local park we were at? The lecture was across the street from a park. And the response that the questioner gave me was, well, that would be a liberal thing to do. Which again, I said that's a that's an interesting symptom, the idea that volunteering is itself a political partisan act is not entirely absent from the mind of the American, some American citizens at least.

Well, I think Michael is right that finding ways to engage together with people in prosocial contexts where we can focus on social goods that are not already coded according to our partisan identities is really is really where it's at. And unless we do that, we, you know, our democratic capacities will further deteriorate in particular. Now, let me just say a political philosopher thing. I think that Michael, what Michael was getting at, one of the benefits that Michael was recognizing in his comment is that when we interact with others in some cooperative way, for some prosocial end, in a way, in a context where we're not aware of their political leanings, we come to see one another as dependable neighbors, kind individuals caring. We come to see one another's virtues in a way that's not immediately tied to their partisan identities. And seeing one another as manifesting virtues is one way of getting over the tribalism that infiltrates our politics.

Laura Knoy:
Couple more emails I'd love to share with you. Professor Talisse, Victor writes, Doesn't race play a role right now in how people feel about politics? I think it does. And Trump in the presidency proves it for me. Victor says he brought out to light everything that is wrong in America, inequality across the board for those and minority groups. And, you know, I wanted to ask you this, Professor Talisse, at some level isn't saying, you know, disengaged from politics. Easier to say. We're not disengaged, but make politics less central to your life. Is that easier to say when you are coming from a point of privilege?

Robert Talisse:
So let me first say in response to Victor, I agree with all of that, that it seems to me that the one of the ways in which our democracy is failing at the ideal of collective self-government among equals is by way of radical inequalities, social economic inequalities, with respect to access to basic goods like health care and so on. So I agree with all of that. And that's certainly a broader view about sort of building a better democracy will have to be in large part about those inequalities. This is an analysis, though, that I think helps us to get some explanation as to how some of the ways in which we got to where we are and helps us to see one dimension of the problem that we're facing when we seek to make progress in these ways.

Robert Talisse:
If we can't see one another as political equals, it's no mystery to me why we have a hard time pressing for political changes that would better manifest political equality. So now let me address your question, Laura Knoy. Now, it might be true that the challenge of doing something in addition to politics depends upon social privilege, but it seems to me that those of us who enjoy those privileges should have a heavier burden for democracy.

Laura Knoy:
Professor Talisse, we could have talk for another three hours. I really appreciate you being here. Thank you so much.

Robert Talisse:
Well, thank you for having me.

Laura Knoy:
That's Robert Talisse. He's a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University and author of many books on politics and polarization, including the one we talked about today called Overdoing Democracy. And we have links to his work and to his TED talk on our website. It's NHPR.org/ Exchange. Thanks for being with us. I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange on NHPR.