Robert B. Talisse
Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place
Oxford University Press
First of all, I should apologise to my editor. This isn’t the book I was supposed to review. About a month ago, I promised him a review of a recently-published intellectual history monograph, which I assured him would be a gripping read. Three weeks later, I was halfway through chapter one, and it was proving hard work. I told myself that I would set aside that Friday to make progress with it, aiming to at least reach Chapter Two, but on Thursday evening someone mentioned Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse to me. Friday morning came, and I started to read Overdoing Democracy. I finished it in a day, recommended it to several friends and decided to write a review of it instead.
Why is Talisse’s book so engaging? In the introduction, Talisse, who is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, sets out his central argument:
Our day-to-day social encounters tend to be structured around our political allegiances. In short, we are overdoing democracy. And in overdoing democracy, we dissolve our capacity to do democracy well. Thus the prescriptive upshot of this book: if we want to improve the condition of democratic politics, we need to occasionally do something together other than politics. We have to put politics in its place.
A straightforward argument, but one that comes from outside the conventional paradigms of contemporary political philosophy. Overdoing Democracy offers critiques of all sorts of conceptions of democracy: deliberative democracy, instrumentalist democracy, idolised democracy and unthinking democracy. The book doesn’t fit neatly into any one scholarly tradition. Like much of Talisse’s earlier work, it engages extensively with pragmatism. Early in Chapter One, Talisse characterises his project as turning the American pragmatists Jane Addams’ and John Dewey’s maxim—that the cure for democracy’s ills is more democracy—on its head. But he also engages with the likes of Joseph Schumpeter, Cass Sunstein, Amy Chua and Alisdair MacIntyre. Talisse’s book is lucidly written, but there’s real philosophical breadth under the bonnet.
Overdoing Democracy is both an argument from first principles and a timely intervention into contemporary (mostly American) society. Its first chapter, as Talisse puts it, “goes back to square one”, and asks how we put a value on democracy in the first place. He argues convincingly that an unequivocally good thing can still be ‘overdone’ if its pursuit crowds out the pursuit of other comparably important goods. His example is someone so obsessed with their physical fitness that they neglect other pursuits they regard as valuable, such as socialising or travelling. They may well get fitter and fitter, but their overall well-being will suffer. Talisse goes on to reason that democracy is that sort of social good—one which is beneficial insofar as it is in its place. Whereas most political theories or ideologies argue (and have argued for millennia) that it’s the corruption of democratic procedures and behaviour which leads to political breakdown, Talisse suggests that a mis-proportion can also be to blame—quantity, as well as quality. So, before he examines any particular society, Talisse has set out some criteria on what an ideal democracy would look like. To borrow from Amartya Sen’s What Do We Want From A Theory Of Justice?, this is what we might call a transcendental approach.
But Talisse also works from what Sen would call a comparative approach, looking hard at the present situation in the USA (and to a much lesser extent the UK) to show ways that doing a little less democracy might ameliorate some contemporary problems, even if it won’t eradicate them. Talisse argues in Chapters Three and Four that many citizens are harmed by belief polarisation and social division along partisan lines—consequences, he thinks, of political affiliations saturating our workplaces, shopping malls, web browsers, and family gatherings. And he knows that there will never be an ideal state: “even under highly favourable conditions, politics is messy, conflicted business”. So rather than describe a utopia, he makes practical suggestions in Chapter Five about how we might make these spaces a little less politicised, without sacrificing democratic engagement altogether. These suggestions are not intended to apply to hypothetical omnipotent legislators, but to individuals like you and me. Talisse wants to inspire us to action. Join a book group, volunteer with the elderly, support a local sports team, sing in a choir—but whatever you do, Talisse says, make sure it’s in no way political. That way, we can start forming “civic friendships”, which are an end in themselves, and “work to desaturate our social environments of politics”. What’s distinctive about Overdoing Democracy are the fresh philosophical foundations it lays for this conclusion and the way it locates its case in our midst—it is political philosophy with both transcendental and comparative clout.
How does Talisse achieve both? Chapters Three and Four, ‘The Political Saturation of Social Space’ and ‘The Problem of Polarization’, are crucial. They do the descriptive heavy-lifting, cataloguing the symptoms that American society exhibits, which allows him to diagnose its political malaise with great sharpness. I suspect many readers’ initial reaction to Talisse’s thesis will be that there’s really no need to explain the ills of national, partisan politics by arguing that it’s being overdone—it’s just broken. But the barrage of evidence he marshals in these descriptive chapters should make such a reader think twice. A few examples stand out. In Chapter Three, he explains several studies showing that when it comes to finding a date, or even a spouse, partisan identity now proves on average to be a more important factor than personality attributes. Later on, he quotes a 2016 paper by Ryan Claasen and Michael Ensley, which found that a large proportion of those sampled thought it essentially forgivable for a co-partisan to steal a campaign sign from someone’s yard, but regarded the same offence as inexcusable when a member of the political opposition committed it. And in Chapter Four, he draws our attention to a Pew report, which initially seems encouraging: it shows that US citizens, on the whole, report a strong desire for ‘compromise’ between political parties. But, Talisse continues, “The Pew study also shows that in this context, US citizens understand ‘compromise’ to mean what one would otherwise call capitulation. In other words, they want compromise ‘on their own terms’; their yearning for compromise is actually a desire for their political opponents to simply give way.” Partisan politics, Talisse shows, has saturated even quite everyday words.
Overdoing Democracy’s sensitivity to the nuances of political language is one of its great strengths. Early in the book, Talisse also uses it to prepare the sceptical reader for his idea that democracy is the sort of good which can be overdone. He explains that in countries like the USA and the UK today, we typically use ‘democracy’ as a term of praise—it is a thick ethical concept, with both descriptive content and strongly positive normative content. As Talisse puts it, “it is baked into the vernacular that democracy is a capital social good”. Talisse does not deny in any way that democracy is a capital social good, but he wants the reader to be aware of the evaluative assumptions towards which our language predisposes us. Because if we are only able to think of democracy as a capital social good, as a necessarily praiseworthy thing, then our imagination as political philosophers will be very small indeed.
Even more important, however, is the sensitivity to political language that Talisse shows in his writing style. A light, conversational tone, the avoidance of technical jargon, and a wry sense of humour are often indications of good writing, but a book like Overdoing Democracy simply wouldn’t work without them. Firstly, because Talisse is essentially rebuking his readers (or at least many of them). He’s saying that we are too embroiled in partisan politics, and he’s telling us what to do about it. It’s easy to forget that when you read the book, because of his easy style. But it remains true that most of us won’t listen to someone correcting us if we don’t like them. And secondly, Talisse’s style models the kind of discourse that he wants to promote. He consistently chooses non-partisan evidence. He doesn’t lampoon other scholars, or views he disagrees with. And when developing his arguments, he selects examples from everyday life: three friends working out what film to watch, someone eating too much cheesecake, or a family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. His style means that Overdoing Democracy comes across not just as persuasive, but authentic.
Particularly when they get to his discussion of civic friendship, I expect some readers might think Talisse’s argument is a bit too nice—maybe even naïve. “Have you even heard my political opponents?”, one might say. “It would be immoral to befriend someone like that, given all that they stand for. The only option is to engage with them politically and defeat them.” Or another might think, “What use is civic friendship, when so much injustice has already been committed? Our society is broken. Are we just supposed to forgive and forget?”
Regarding the first case, Talisse wants us to begin to separate a person from their politics. He’s quite clear that when we start to make civic friendships, we should do so in ignorance of others’ political views, not in spite of them. If someone in the choir or the book group tries to talk politics with us, Talisse says, we should explain that we’re not going to. If necessary, we should find a different choir or book group. He’s not telling a die-hard Bernie supporter to drive to the nearest Trump rally and start making new friends. The point of Talisse’s civic friendships is that they’re inherently unpolitical, and so—irrespective of what the participants’ political views might be—are morally-good ends in themselves. If we can practice separating these two parts of our citizenship, Talisse’s model offers us both healthy, non-political relationships and robust political debate—albeit in moderation.
Regarding the second case, Overdoing Democracy could have had more discussion of political reconciliation. Talisse focuses on creating new relationships and de-politicising existing ones, but doesn’t write as much about repairing broken ones. This is one instance of a broader tendency of Overdoing Democracy: in pursuit of harmonious relationships, it sometimes marginalises the virtue of truthfulness. When I join my new choir or book group, according to Overdoing Democracy, I should hide part of my personality, and expect others to hide it too. At Thanksgiving dinner, I’m not supposed to try to persuade my great-aunt that her political views are wrong, factually or normatively—truth-seeking political debate is off the table. As Kazuo Ishiguro so elegantly explores in The Buried Giant, the price of peace is very often forgetfulness. Whether such forgetfulness can foster full relationships is another matter. In Overdoing Democracy, small acts of forgetfulness are deemed necessary, a price worth paying to create unpolitical spaces. And I suppose that Talisse could also argue, from a deliberativist standpoint, that when discussions about political justice permeate everybody’s everyday lives, the quality of debate plummets. So even if we granted that truthfulness is our main democratic goal, democracy would still need to be kept in its place for effective truth-seeking to occur. But I’m still not sure that—given that partisan division is as deep as Talisse shows—forgetfulness is a sufficient basis for sincere, unpolitical relationships. In the long run, and especially in instances where significant hurt has been caused, true civic friendships may need to be founded on forgiveness instead.
Towards the end of Chapter Two, ‘Democracy’s Expanding Reach’, I think that Talisse’s critique of the deliberativist view of democracy stops a little short of the heart of the argument. Talisse’s case is that “on the deliberativist view… politics quickly becomes, at least presumptively, omnipresent”. If we think that collective reasoning is the central democratic value, because legitimate political decisions are those which all citizens have fairly and thoroughly discussed before voting, then we will inevitably sanction the spread of political discourse deeper and deeper into society, because that will mean more citizens will have partaken in fair and thorough discussion. Talisse concedes that the deliberativist view might allow some social venues to be inappropriate spaces for political discussion, but argues that “it recommends as extensive an interpretation of the scope and site of democracy as can be plausibly envisioned”. Talisse sees this as the fast lane to overdoing democracy.
Now, the deliberativist has a couple of simple ways of beginning to reconcile their position with Talisse’s. They might point out that, even if all citizens should be involved in collective reasoning, this doesn’t mean they should all be involved all the time. There might be an optimal amount of political discussion, which Talisse has shown to have been exceeded in contemporary society. Or the deliberativist might say that, actually, we have just about the right amount of political discussion, but it’s highly unproductive and unpleasant discussion, in part for the reasons Talisse suggests. However, I think there’s a deeper response available to the deliberativist too.
I completely agree with Talisse that democratic deliberation should not be an end in itself. It would be a perverse democracy where the result of our collectively reasoning was that it made our society worse-off. (It is for this reason that I’ve sometimes wondered whether, were I to miraculously end up in Rawls’ original position, the best thing to do would be to avoid coming to any agreement altogether for as long as possible. A situation where you can debate principles of justice without any sort of necessity, threat or inequality sounds much better than any society I would plausibly help dream up from behind the veil of ignorance.) But in his discussion of the value of collective reasoning, I don’t think Talisse quite addresses the deliberativist on their own terms. Because the deliberativist might well reply that in the messy, real-world sort of democracy that Talisse so powerfully describes—democracy where, as Talisse puts it, there are real “conflicts of value”—collective reasoning must be our first priority, because that’s what helps us work out which goods are worth aiming for as ends in the first place. In his concluding chapter, ‘The Place of Politics’, Talisse states that “the point of democracy is to enable us to lead lives that involve the cultivation of valuable human relationships”. Fundamentally, that’s the standard by which he argues that we are overdoing democracy. But many deliberativists would surely reply that (as Talisse himself seems to suggest on pp.143–4) a society can only legitimately establish that sort of standard, and work out how to implement it in practice, after a healthy process of collective reasoning has taken place. On a strong deliberativist view, where citizens deliberate not just about policy but also about values, democracy is a meaning-generating machine. I think that Talisse offers such a deliberativist a compelling account of why contemporary American democracy doesn’t deliberate very effectively. But then that’s not to say democracy on the deliberativist view is being overdone, but rather that it’s being done badly.
I suppose the main question with which I was left after finishing Overdoing Democracy, however, was whether its approach to democracy is radical enough. I don’t altogether mean this as a criticism of the book—one of its great strengths is the way it raises as many questions as it answers. I simply wonder whether it points further than it says. At times, there’s a curious tension between the argument and the evidence in Overdoing Democracy. On the one hand, Talisse gives some wonderful examples of democratic behaviour in small, everyday cases, such as three friends working out which film to watch—what Talisse characterises as “schoolyard democracy”. These examples are so effective because their charm reflects his broader point about the value of human relationships, and because we can all recognise the challenges of everyday decision-making: at work, at school or at home. But on the other hand, Talisse wants us to conclude that such everyday cases are not ‘democracy’, and indeed not ‘political’. Things like going to the cinema with friends are exactly the sort of thing he thinks are not, and must not become, ‘political’. And that makes sense insofar as ‘political’ means party-political, and ‘democratic’ refers to national, or even state-wide, democracy. But the very power of some of his examples, and the corresponding ones that you or I could easily remember from our experiences in the past week, suggests that there’s much more to ‘democracy’ and ‘politics’ than that.
We all recognise that there’s something inherently political in our small, everyday interactions. We refer to ‘office politics’, ‘classroom politics’ and ‘family politics’, in a way that isn’t just loose talk: like ‘national politics’, they all describe power relations, the pursuit of primary goods, and the ways decisions get made. Phrases like these often have negative overtones, but they needn’t. Deciding who cleans the bathroom, where to go for the office Christmas party, who will be which character in the school play, and what to have for dessert at Thanksgiving dinner are all good things, and could all serve as examples for democratic or non-democratic processes in action. We’re just not disposed to think about them that way. But we still find that sort of everyday politics highly compelling: take Jane Austen’s novels. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “the restricted households of Highbury and Mansfield Park have to serve as surrogates for the Greek city-state and the Medieval kingdom”. Emma Woodhouse and Mary Crawford, like so many of their counterparts, are quintessentially political characters. And we love them for it.
If we grant that there is, in some sense, politics in small things, then—as Talisse’s mode of exemplification suggests—I think we stand to gain by approaching larger-scale political questions on the basis of our experience of everyday politics, rather than drawing a line between the two. Take Overdoing Democracy’s account of “civic friendship”. As mentioned above, Talisse wants us to understand “civic friendship” as an antidote to democracy—a way of putting democracy in its place. But in Aristotle’s account of friendship in Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, he turns this sort of approach on its head. He starts the book by explaining what he thinks everyday friendship is, and what different kinds of friendship look like. He describes relationships between the old and between the young, between the similar and between the dissimilar, between those who are selfish and between those who are generous—the list goes on. Then about halfway through Book Eight, he makes this summative observation:
Friendship and justice appear—as we said at the beginning—to be concerned with the same things and shared between the same people. For in every community, there seems to be some form of justice and some form of friendship—at any rate, men refer to those they sail with and those they fight alongside as friends, and similarly those who are associated with them in any other community. And the extent of their association is the extent of their friendship, and likewise it is the extent to which justice exists between them.
For Aristotle, then, justice is something we observe in small, everyday communities, and the different types of friendship reflect its different manifestations. Aristotle only has to take a small step to make his next argument: that all these communities are constituent parts of bigger political communities, and as whole states seek the common advantage, so each small community within it—and thus each set of friendships, and the types of justice entailed—has its own aim for a particular good or set of goods. But it’s Aristotle’s next move that’s really interesting. He uses this discussion of friendship as a springboard to discuss the different types of constitution, including democracy, and explains those constitutions in terms of the different kinds of friendship. He draws parallels between different types of constitution and arrangements in everyday household life. He argues that the qualities of each constitution depend on the qualities of the friendship it is based on. Finally, he reasons that a constitution’s standards of justice and friendship will reflect one another: “Friendship appears in each of the constitutions to the same extent as justice”. Aristotle approaches democracy and other constitutions on the basis of small, everyday relationships, regarding those communities and large political communities as fundamentally the same sort of thing.
Obviously, we should reject most of the specific conclusions which Aristotle draws from his account. But I think the principles underpinning it are very helpful. They resolve that tension between argument and evidence which we saw in Overdoing Democracy—three friends deciding what to watch at the cinema can be re-admitted as an instance of democracy in action. And by connecting big-picture politics with our everyday interactions, they give us a richer and more systematic understanding of what justice is—the central question in political philosophy. Rather than friendship being an antidote to politics, it serves as a way of understanding it, and indeed furthering it, because the quality of our relationships in the office, in the soccer team, or around the Thanksgiving table becomes the same sort of end as the quality of relationships which national politics tries to improve. And rather than having to forget questions of societal justice to accommodate civic friendships, we become responsible for the standard of justice within our day-to-day relationships, which should then inform our (much, much less influential) behaviour in regional or national politics. This Aristotelian approach essentially validates Talisse’s conclusions, while reconstituting the problem he identifies. It’s not so much that we’re overdoing democracy, but under-doing friendship. It’s not so much that we’re over-invested in national, partisan debates about justice (though that may well be the case), but rather that we’re under-invested in the quality of justice pervading our everyday encounters. I wonder whether Talisse’s narrowly-focused understandings of ‘democracy’ and ‘politics’—understandings, of course, which are very widely shared indeed—are indicative of the same political malaise that he identifies.
Interestingly, Jane Addams, one of the pragmatists mentioned early in Overdoing Democracy, made a similar sort of argument. During her time as a social reformer in Chicago, she wrote Democracy and Social Ethics, which reflected both her experiences in communities across the city, and her discussions with fellow pragmatist John Dewey about the nature of democracy. In Democracy and Social Ethics, she too argues that there is politics in everyday relationships. She analyses the interactions she witnessed between factory employees, between maidservants and their employers, between parents and their children, and finds that in many cases, while the participants all spoke in favour of ‘democracy’ as an ideal, the power relations between them often revealed “an undemocratic ethics” in practice. She suggests that to have a truly democratic society—one where democratic ethics govern everyday interactions—we have to start by investing in genuine relationships with citizens from different backgrounds to us, so that we understand their different values and begin to reconcile them with our own. How can an employer understand their housemaid’s priorities, and indeed treat them well, if they don’t know what manual work is really like, or what sort of a social life their employee is able to have? For Addams, good civic relationships must be based on increased understanding of others—relationships where truthfulness is prized, not side-lined. And she makes the case that healthy democracy ought to make a mark on our small communities:
We are thus brought to a conception of Democracy not merely as a sentiment which desires the well-being of all men, nor yet as a creed which believes in the essential dignity and equality of all men, but as that which affords a rule of living as well as a test of faith.
We might say that by shifting the focus to everyday interactions, Addams moves democracy’s foundation from the idea of justice to the experience of justice, from the theoretical to the tangible.
So, when Addams said that the cure for democracy’s ills was more democracy, she was using ‘democracy’ in a much broader sense than Talisse’s, to describe a standard of values and conduct pervading everyday life. So, although Talisse sets his account of democracy up as a response to statements like Addams’, his conclusions are really very similar to hers. Like Aristotle, Addams simply looks at politics the other way up. And I suppose my suggestion is that we all stand to gain from looking at politics the other way up: because it enriches our understanding of justice, and helps us think about how to live it out.
None of this is to detract from Talisse’s book. Overdoing Democracy is well-written, innovative and insightful. It was timely when first published in November 2019, with its sharp diagnosis of the state of contemporary democracy, but is even more apt today, with its defence of community, cooperation and friendship in a time of lockdown. It’s no surprise that it has been garnering ever more attention and praise in recent weeks, as we increasingly miss the simple, everyday relationships to which Talisse attributes such value. However much background in philosophy you have, and whatever your political sympathies, I unreservedly recommend it. Even if you’re supposed to be reading something else.
Daniel Sutton  is reading for a DPhil in Ancient History at St John’s College.