Posts tagged: polarization

My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.

My Next Book – A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times

I am pleased to announce that my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, will be published late this year with Oxford University Press. It is the data-driven sequel to Must Politics Be War? I argue in this book that specific liberal rights practices can not only be morally justified, but create social and political trust in the real world with real people. I focus primarily on freedom of associations, markets, social insurance, quality of governance, and democratic elections.
I wrote MPBW primarily for philosophers and political theorists, but this book is aimed more broadly at political scientists, economists, and policy people. It has philosophical argumentation, but I mark out where it begins and ends so that non-philosophical readers can profit from my overall argument. This book will also be much cheaper, under $30, so if you’re not a philosopher or political theorist who wants to learn about how we can build trust in diverse societies, then this book is for you.
Here’s another part of my pitch. I think that mistrust and polarization are in a causal feedback loop, and so those of you who are interested in addressing polarization may find the book of interest as well. If there are laws and policies that can increase trust, then perhaps we can contain the more destructive aspects of political polarization.