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In this far‐​reaching conversation, we look at the problems of American democracy, at the sources of polarization and tribalism, and offer ways each of us could take small steps towards improving the state of our politics.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Dr. Robert Talisse is a political philosopher focusing on democracy and civic ethics. He has authored over a dozen academic books and more than 100 peer‐​reviewed articles. In addition, Talisse hosts the podcast Why We Argue, and co‐​hosts the podcast New Books in Philosophy. Talisse is also a regular contributor to various public philosophy venues such as Aeon, Scientific American Mind, 3 Quarks Daily, 3AM Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, Think, and Institute for Arts and Ideas magazine.

His current work examines public political discourse, partisanship, incivility, and polarization. His latest book is titled Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Democracy can be a good thing, but if forced into places and situations where it fits poorly, like a Thanksgiving dinner, then maybe we should rethink its limits. We discuss the nature and purpose of democracy and whether democratic politics is an end in itself or whether democracy exists for a purpose with Robert Talisse.

Is it possible to have too much democracy? Does too much democracy damage the very goals for which we have democracy in the first place? How has our partisanship seeped in to other areas of our lives?

Further Reading:



00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Is it possible to have too much democracy? Probably yes, as our guest today argues. Democracy can be a good thing, but if forced into places and situations where it fits poorly, like a Thanksgiving dinner, then maybe we should rethink its limits. We discuss the nature and purpose of democracy and whether democratic politics is an end in itself or whether democracy exists for a purpose. Does too much democracy damage the very goals for which we have democracy in the first place?

00:36 Trevor Burrus: In this far‐​reaching conversation, we look at the problems of American democracy, at the sources of polarization and tribalism, and offer ways each of us could take small steps towards improving the state of our politics.

00:47 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Robert Talisse. He’s the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and co‐​host of one of my favorite podcasts, New Books in Philosophy. His latest book is Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics In Its Place. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

01:03 Robert Talisse: Well, thanks for having me.

01:04 Aaron Ross Powell: If this is going to be a conversation about overdoing democracy. Maybe it makes sense to start with what you think are the proper constraints and limits on democracy.

Robert Talisse: So there are all kinds of different things that one could mean when one just uses the word democracy. So, let’s just stipulate, if you’ll allow, that by democracy I mean sort of constitutional democracy, which is intended to include the idea that democratic popular will formation as a way of authorizing government action, and the exercise, of course, of political power is going to be constrained and limited by publicly accessible menu of individual rights and liberties. So when I say that democratic politics has to have constraints, I’m already taking for granted the very sensible point that you just made, which is that, well, certainly it has to have constraints, because not every aspect of our life is something that gets to be put up for a vote. And that seems to me to be not only true, but it also strikes me that certain styles of democratic theory that have a hard time countenancing that kind of point I think are therefore non‐​viable.

06:09 Robert Talisse: That is, individual lives are not the subjects of popular will formation and certainly not the kinds of things that get regulated or managed. Maybe they get regulated in some sense of that word, they don’t get managed and planned and orchestrated by the state. So accepting those standard constitutional what we might think of as liberal constitutional constraints, I think there’s still the issue of the way that our identities as democratic citizens tend to organize, in some ways we might say infiltrate, condition, to use that kind of terminology, the whole of our social life. So let me just give one example that comes up in the book. In the United States and in the UK, but I’m sure you can find similar kinds of trends in other developed democracies, when you mention how you arrange the furniture in your house, in the United States today, the contents of your home are highly correlated with your partisan identity, such that the more clocks in your home, the more conservative your politics are.

07:16 Trevor Burrus: Okay. I’m not sure, I don’t know what that means, but…

07:19 Robert Talisse: The more maps, the more maps that you have on display in your house, the more liberal your politics tend to be.

07:25 Trevor Burrus: I can go with that, I can understand that. You might have maps with pins that show all the countries you’ve been to.

07:31 Robert Talisse: And we also know that having… In the United States, having a passport correlates with being liberal. So these spaces that we take it, I think rightly, to be out of or outside of the scope of the course of power and surveillance and monitoring of the state are nonetheless spaces where our partisanship, our partisan identities are expressed, are signaled, are communicated and in some ways, sort of consciously or not, we organize them in ways so that they perform that expressive function.

08:12 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems that you could read it, though, the opposite way, which is as… So what we’ve seen over the course of quite a lot of years is a sorting in the political process and we have the two parties that have taken on the two sides in this massive sort, and maybe it’s instead that there are uniform cultures, so there are people who are socially open‐​minded and those people also happen to like maps for, say, the reason that Trevor mentioned, or the passport reason. There are people who are very fastidious and they like the clocks and then certain kinds of politics also happen to appeal to certain kinds of people and so it’s not, it’s not that we’re performing our partisanship in the privacy of our own homes, but that the kinds of stuff we happen to like in the privacy of our own homes also informs the partisan roles that we are most comfortable in when we enter into the political sphere.

09:13 Robert Talisse: Sure, and I wouldn’t want to resist that reading in particular, it seems to me that that’s… That thinking of this as moving in different directions at the same time, it’s not just a single causal direction, seems to me to be right. However, these trends are relatively new, and that when we talk about partisan sorting, and now we mean partisan sorting now of actual physical spaces, it’s a relatively new phenomenon that conservatives living in the south‐​east in the United States share more by way of lifestyle preferences, aesthetic preferences, occupations, shopping and consumer habits, share more with conservatives that live in the north‐​west coast than they do with liberals living 500 miles away on the east coast. So that these trends have become more uniform across geographical space, such that conservatives living in any part of the country live lives that are much more like other conservatives despite the geographical distance separating them, then they live, then their lives are like the liberals that they live close by, too, that’s relatively new.

10:32 Trevor Burrus: Of course, all that polarization and the different cultural attitudes of conservatives and liberals is not exactly what your book is about, as you’re focusing on maybe the effects of putting democracy into places where it shouldn’t belong. And I thought that the way you opened the book was super interesting, talking about Thanksgiving, and I must confess that I myself have written a what to do on Thanksgiving post before. But that one was actually about why the fact that we’re debating at Thanksgiving and writing think pieces about what to do about your uncle is a demonstration that politics makes us worse people if we overuse it. But you also point out that despite all these articles that said how to deal with your family at Thanksgiving and some of them are blatant, where they actually ask people to essentially read the riot act to their uncle or something like this. But you say no one wrote the piece that was just like, how about someone says, “Let’s not talk about politics at Thanksgiving, that sounds like a good idea.”

11:35 Robert Talisse: Right, right, and so yeah, the book begins… And this is a true story. This wasn’t just concocted for the book. This friend of mine, right after the last presidential election, she was really distraught by, you know, this coming Thanksgiving holiday, that she was hosting and she knew that or she strongly suspected that it was going to be a disaster because of different family members were going to bring to the dinner different evaluations of what just happened with the presidential election. And so as we talked it just struck me, isn’t there a way just to say to your family, we don’t have to suppress our political differences, we just recognize that we’re here to do something else today, that the Thanksgiving holiday is about something that is just, it’s about cultivating and serving values of family and close personal connections, that the insertion of politics into that is inappropriate. And that’s not the same thing as saying bite your tongue or suppress your politics, your political difference, it’s the suggestion that it’s possible to just do something else, to talk about other things.

13:06 Robert Talisse: And when I suggested this to her, I said, well, couldn’t you just send sort of like a mass email out, don’t pick out any particular uncle or cousin or whatever to address this to and just say, hey, you know, this political thing just happened and everybody’s got views about it and it’s all good. But let’s remember that the purpose of this holiday actually lies elsewhere. And so, let’s not suppress our political disagreements but just kind of rise above them in a way that just says we’re here for something else. And when I said to her, I’m like, well, couldn’t you just do that? And she said, “Oh, that’ll never work.” I thought at the time, I’m like, “You know, she’s right, it will never work.” But then, later in the day, the philosopher in me was like, “Well, why wouldn’t that work? What does that suggest about the way we understand politics in our country, what does it suggest that it couldn’t be an acceptable message to send to people who are about to attend a gathering that by the way, let’s not forget, involves a lot of good food.”

14:14 Robert Talisse: It’s like, the more I thought about it, I’m like that suggests something strange and I have come to sense, see democratically pathological about the way that we are enacting our politics, and I think that’s an important sort of feature of the argument of the book. The argument isn’t politics is too divisive and we need a break. It is in part committed to that thought, but the fact that politics is so divisive and we need a break; if we don’t take the break and don’t create spaces where we can interact in social ways in which politics is just out of place and therefore irrelevant, we actually do the politics much worse. Democracy suffers when it’s all we ever do together. The pushback I’ve gotten about the book so far has been, here’s the thesis as a kind of don’t sweat the small stuff and politics is always small, which isn’t the thesis. The thesis is politics is really important. It turns out that it’s so important that when we discover that in order to perform well as democratic citizens we sometimes need to do other things. Well, we ought to start doing other things.

15:22 Aaron Ross Powell: The cause of this, though, or the critique here. So on the one hand, you can critique the way that politics might be important but we’re approaching it the wrong way, we’re talking about it too much, we are getting too angry about it, we’re yelling at our uncles at Thanksgiving. And so that’s kind of a problem with the way that we as individuals, the way we as citizens and family members are engaging with this thing called politics and democracy. But the other way that this might go is that the politics and democracy have themselves become such a problem or such a powerful thing that we are actually justified, say, in caring about them as much as we do, in being as upset about political differences as we are. And so the problem is less like we’re responding rationally to it, and the problem is less with the way we’re responding but with the nature of the thing itself.

16:18 Aaron Ross Powell: And so I guess, I mean, to clarify that point, like if your uncle, it’s one thing like if your uncle is someone who wishes that we had marginally higher tax rates than you prefer, but in some cases, maybe your uncle is someone who, if he got his way, he would deport all of your friends. And that seems like the kind of thing that maybe you should be mad at your uncle about it. So how do we distinguish those, especially when it seems like the two feed off of each other?

16:49 Robert Talisse: Right. So I again, wouldn’t argue that passion and even fervor, and I would go so far as to say even animosity, these things are, I think, intrinsic and inexorable to democratic politics. When we’re arguing about politics, we’re arguing about how a massively powerful set of institutions is going to exercise coercive force over individuals that those institutions are also committed to saying are moral equals. That should be a momentous, wrenching thing. Any exercise of that kind of power by a massively powerful set of institutions over a population consisting of members, none of whom is another subordinate, it seems to be that animosity and heat and tone and spice is part of what we’re buying into and accepting in democratic politics, because after all, the exercise of coercive power over moral equals is something that not only matters but should be kind of hard to justify, it would seem to me.

18:06 Robert Talisse: So I’m ready to accept what sometimes people tell me is a sort of classical liberal bent in my thought about this stuff, that state power is not easily justified. The argument is not that when we do politics, we need to be nicer. I mean, maybe we do, I don’t know. The argument is not that when we’re engaged in political debate, don’t get so heated, because after all, it’s only politics, it’s that if we want to do well by our political objectives as democrats, we have to do something in addition to politics. So it’s not sort of put the brakes on democracy, it’s the more demanding ideal, you have to do other stuff as well, other stuff as well. Not where… It’s not a proposal for more bipartisan softball games, although I suspect that that’s probably not an awful thing. It’s not a reach across the aisle and invite your enemies, political enemies to dinner. Those things might be fine. It’s there have to be… Our success as democratic citizens, as advocates for the political policies that we are committed to, I would even say, this all depends upon capacities that can be developed and cultivated only under social conditions where we engage with other people in ways that do not invoke ours or their political identities.

19:39 Aaron Ross Powell: I mean, that sounds all well and good, but wouldn’t it just be easier to use the political might of the state to crush our enemies? And I’m being flip about it, but it does seem like that notion that democracy exists in part to enable us to do these non‐​democratic things and to have a life of flourishing outside of the sphere of politics. I increasingly wonder how widely shared that idea is, in that how much we Americans are comfortable with other people making choices in their lives different from the ones that we would make. We did an episode of the show a while back on national conservatism, and one of the critiques the national conservatives have of Western democracies is that basically enables people to lead lives that the national conservatives, for a variety of reasons, often religious, find distasteful and so they see the role of the state as forcing people to live the way that they would like to live.

20:37 Aaron Ross Powell: And you can find the same sort of stuff on the left, that people live in ways that don’t align with my cultural values, and so we’re perfectly comfortable there with kind of saying no, in fact, I don’t want there to be a sphere outside of this, because I think that that would enable people to do things that make me uncomfortable.

20:57 Robert Talisse: Sure, so insofar as the views that you just described are as you described them, insofar as somebody thinks that it’s a justifiable deployment of the coercive power of the state to make people live in accordance with my own values. In my view those are profoundly anti‐​democratic ideals, because part of what one gets, one of the natural by‐​products of a political order rooted in the ideal of self‐​government among equals, this is a sort of later Rawlsian ideas, slightly repackaged, it’s like one of the by‐​products, the intrinsic by‐​products of self‐​government among equals, is that people are going to disagree, not only about politics, but about the values that make a life successful, that make a life virtuous, that make a life admirable, even the values that make some particular life admirable or valuable. That’s just what you’re buying when you commit to the ideal of self‐​government among equals, so when you commit to the ideal of equality, a community of equals is a community where the members who constitute the community, insofar as they’re equals, they get to make up their own minds within some broad constraints about these matters.

22:12 Robert Talisse: So, the idea that one can be committed to democracy while also holding some strong version of the view, the kind of view you just described, seems to me false. That is I think that if you’re unwilling to countenance the legitimacy of a social order in which people live lives committed to different kinds of values and projects and aspirations and ideals, again within some very broad constraints, then you’re not really interested in the project of constitutional liberal democracy in the first place. Now, I suspect that the more sophisticated version of the kind of view that you spelled out, and this is not to say that the coarser version isn’t the more popularly ascribed to version, I’m just saying there’s a philosophically more sophisticated version of these sort of perfectionist thoughts. By perfectionism I just mean the idea that it’s the state’s job to exercise its force in such a way as to make us good or virtuous or admirable according to some particular ideal that the state endorses of admirability or virtuosity.

23:23 Robert Talisse: So more sophisticated versions of perfectionism are going to say, well, it’s not just the brute diversity of ways of life that democracy upholds or permits, I should say, it’s that some of these ways of life are not only morally corrupt and so bad for the people living them and choosing them, but they’re ways of life that were people more properly educated or properly acculturated, they themselves wouldn’t choose it for themselves. So there’s a kind of, I suspect, in the more sophisticated versions of these perfectionist views, a kind of positive liberty ideal that your way of life is corrupt, from my point of view, but it’s actually corrupt from your point of view, too. If you could only get clear, if you could only be less corrupt in your view of yourself, you too wouldn’t choose these things for yourself.

24:18 Robert Talisse: A lot of religious‐​based versions of perfectionism are overtly this way, that if you let Jesus into your heart, you’ll see the wrongness of your ways and wouldn’t choose the life you’re living for yourself. So it’s the state’s job to liberate you from your illusions, right? That’s how that kind of view goes. Now, one can hold that kind of view as a moral matter and one can even hold that kind of view as a conception of human autonomy, maybe even of human liberty, but you still need a separate argument to justify the exercise of coercive force. It’s like, it might be that, yeah, you wouldn’t live the life you’re living if you weren’t so ignorant or enslaved by a corrupt conception of what makes a life good.

25:06 Robert Talisse: And so, you are in a sense, I might think you are a prisoner to your ignorance or to your irrationality. If you were forced to live another way, you would be liberated from that ignorance and delusion. You still need a separate argument that’s going to show that one gets to deploy the coercive force of the state in order to perform that act of liberation. And those arguments are really hard to… It seems to me it’s hard to make those arguments work, for all kinds of purely pragmatic reasons. We’ve got all kinds of good examples of them going, of political arrangements going very, very badly when the state adopts that kind of conception of itself, but for other kinds of reasons too. You might even think that it’s sort of… You don’t get the goods, you don’t get the virtues if you’re forced to live in accordance with them. You can only get the virtues if you’re motivated in a certain way, and deploying the state to force you to live a certain way might get the external behavior in that sense. You might get what looks like virtue, but virtues are internal dispositions and you can’t get them by way of external coercion.

26:13 Robert Talisse: By the way, this is roughly Locke’s argument for religious toleration. But anyhow, so whether the idea of self‐​government among equals, which my argument entails that there’s going to be ongoing moral and political disagreement, whether that’s a popular conception or not, you know, I’m not sure. It is, I would argue, the right way of understanding what democracy is committed to to, and what the values are that are embedded in our founding documents and our institutions, that this conception might sound foreign or alien to a lot of citizens of the country is, I think, a further indictment of the way that we practice politics rather than a bit of evidence against the ideal.

27:01 Trevor Burrus: As you were discussing this, I was thinking about nowadays because, as you pointed out, you kind of came up with part of this book after the 2016 election, and when it comes to the Trump phenomenon in particular, if we’re talking about not letting politics into Thanksgiving as an example, in a bunch of areas it seems like it’s a matter of norms, that maybe there used to be a norm about not discussing politics at Thanksgiving, but now things are are different. And for, say, people who are vehemently anti‐​Trump you get this, we’re talking about someone else, someone who himself has crushed all norms of civility, and therefore… And has emboldened a movement that simply believes that people of color shouldn’t exist or something, like this kind of rhetoric that you hear, and therefore there is nothing to do in this moment except to realize that sort of everything is politics, everything is political, and to stand up and fight, even at Thanksgiving or in your kid’s softball practice, or all these places where maybe politics historically hasn’t been allowed.

28:15 Trevor Burrus: And some of these people would say, would probably say something like, I bet you wish that a lot more people politicized non‐​political spaces before Nazi Germany rose to power, they had a thing like speaking up right at the right time, even in places where politics isn’t supposed to be allowed. How would you respond to those critiques?

28:36 Robert Talisse: What’s happened is, when it comes to policy issues that used to be back in, say, the ‘80s, culture war fault lines for partisan division. I’m thinking here of abortion, stem cells, euthanasia, same‐​sex relations, I mean sort of sexual morality in general. I don’t know how old you two are, but I remember growing up in this period, and these were the things that people got really heated about. We as a polity are no more divided on these issues than we were back in the 1980s. In fact, with the issues I just discussed, the partisan divisions have eased, in that it’s just not a hot button issue anymore. It’s very easy to find among rank‐​and‐​file citizens. Now, I’m leaving aside party leaders, candidates representatives of the party and their handlers, leave those guys aside for a second. Among rank‐​and‐​file citizens, we actually are on key issues less divided and on the whole are not more divided when it comes to the other issues than we were 25–30 years ago.

29:48 Robert Talisse: What has intensified is partisan animosity directed towards our fellow citizens, that is to say, it feels to us like members, the rank‐​and‐​file members of the other party, the guy who’s also a parent on the Little League team who I know voted for the other guy, he feels more yucky and alien to me. And I infer from that, on my account, this is, for the philosophers listening, this is a straightforwardly Humean account, by the way, right? He feels more icky. And I infer from that in a kind of Humean style rationalization, I infer from that that we are more divided than ever about the politics. And, also more Humeanism, if I ask him his policy views by first priming him in a way that makes salient his partisan identity, he will express the more extreme policy ideas that are associated with his partisan identity.

31:00 Robert Talisse: In cooler moments, though, this is not what people tend to think about the policy issues. That is, you ask the same guy a couple of moments later without the partisan cue, what do you think about tax rates? What do you think about same‐​sex marriage? What do you think about abortion? Without the partisan priming, you get far more moderate expressions of conviction, which is to say our expressions of our political… And by the way, this is a point that is sometimes marshalled in support of… Well, this is a point that’s marshalled in all kinds of different ways, some of them libertarian, I should mention. Ilya Somin draws a certain kind of conclusion from the plasticity of our political beliefs, that is we express them in ways that are very sensitive to exogenous kinds of cues.

31:53 Robert Talisse: This looks to Ilya like a reason why we should go from minimal government. According to Larry Bartels and Chris Achen it’s a slightly different kind of realism about democratic theory. All I want to say here is that our partisan identities when they’re primed, when they’re made salient to us, drive what we express as our political views, because here’s the thing that’s changed from the ‘80s till now, over the past 40–50 years, Jeez, is that our partisan identities, our understandings of ourselves as liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, have become more central to our understanding of our social identity overall. That is, more and more of our lifestyle choices, the ways that we live, are bound up with in our own self‐​conception, our political identity, such that that is more than it has been… We understand ourselves more centrally in those partisan terms than we have in the past, and so we become far more apt to hear questioning of our political ideals as personal attacks.

33:16 Robert Talisse: We come to see people living in ways that are unlike our own as threats to our way of life. And I could go on like this, but the idea is that we’re far more sensitive at the affective level, and we’re prone to see difference in ways of life as an assault than we were in the past. And, this is the part of the argument of the Overdoing Democracy book, it’s like… And that’s how you get these off‐​the‐​rails comments, threads online. That’s how you get all of this partisan animosity. And that’s why you get in certain contexts large groups of people together, usually together, when they get together, ready to express and claim as their actual views versions of rank‐​and‐​file conservative or liberal positions that are far more extreme than what you would get them to announce as their view even under slightly different social contexts.

34:27 Robert Talisse: So there’s a kind of pantomime Kabuki theater of the whole thing that has to do, ultimately, with the centrality of our partisan identities. The strategy I want to recommend in the book and what the sort of trying to create or craft spaces for non‐​partisan, pro‐​social cooperative endeavors is just supposed to give us some context for interacting where I can come to understand that somebody is a decent human being without understanding or having any knowledge of how he votes. It might be that he votes the same way I do, but my understanding of him as a decent human being isn’t parasitic on that piece of information, it’s gathered independently of it.

35:17 Robert Talisse: The suggestion is that if there were more context, and there used to be such context, that’s another thing that as social spaces have become more partisan and segregated they’ve also become places where we’re constantly called upon to express and signal our partisan identities, ’cause that’s a way of showing that we belong in the spaces that we’re in. And that just means that I don’t encounter a courteous other shopper in the shopping mall without having been cued in various ways to understand that person as a co‐​partisan, and therefore my conception of what it is to be a responsible courteous person is bound up with my conception of what it is to be a fellow ally in political debates. That’s got to be decoupled if we’re going to perform well as democratic citizens, that’s the argument in the book. And so if we think of these kinds of cases that, Trevor, you were asking me to think of, like what about the Nazis or what about people who are so dangerous, like, yeah, fight them, absolutely, but know that it is a feature of a set of cognitive phenomena to which we are all vulnerable to see our entire political opposition as embodying only the most radical version of the opposing side’s view.

37:00 Robert Talisse: So when we think, this is… Sometimes when I’ve given these talks to audiences at universities where there are lots of people who take themselves to be politically on my left, this is a point that is very hard to communicate. So not every Republican is a racist, not… By the way, it’s not difficult to get, for the reasons, those Humean reasons I just spelled out, it’s not difficult to get groups of people primed in certain ways to feed off each other and want to show their solidarity with their identity group to behave in ways that are atrocious, but that’s more a feature of these sort of exogenous features of their behavior. These are environmental cues more than sort of expressions of stable dispositions in anything like political views that they have. There’s a lot of variation among conservatives about their views about all kinds of things. We tend because of these cognitive phenomena to lose side of that. And we tend to ascribe to the people we regard as our political enemies not only an unreasonable degree of political homogeneity, but also we ascribe to them the views that tend to be the most extreme versions of those views.

38:30 Robert Talisse: That’s part of what this, there’s a long chapter in the book about the belief polarization phenomenon. This is a robust social scientific phenomenon, this is about as robust a finding as you get in cognitive and social psychology, that we’re vulnerable to this kind of shift towards extremity and what we expresses our commitments on the basis of cues from what we perceive to be like‐​minded others, that’s as robust as you get in this field of cognitive social psychology. So when my suggestion that there could be and there needs to be spaces for non‐​political pro‐​social engagements is met with resistance that automatically goes to the cases of these dangerous people, I suspect, and you can come back at me if I’m wrong about this, and we could talk more. I suspect, Trevor, that, oh, well, that just indicates that you’ve just indicated your vulnerability to thinking of your political enemies as an extreme monolith and they’re not.

39:51 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned how, like Ilya Somin, who’s been a guest on the show, his argument is therefore minimal government. And I think early on in the book if I remember correctly you say I’m explicitly not making an argument or I don’t need to make an argument for minimal government. But reading this as a libertarian, as a very minimal government sort of guy, why isn’t this an argument for the minimal state? So you said what we need are larger spaces for non‐​political pro‐​social interaction and libertarianism can be, framed sort of as saying, well, yeah, let’s just make every space a space for non‐​political pro‐​social interaction and get rid of the anti‐​social political stuff entirely or to the extent possible.

40:38 Aaron Ross Powell: And it seems to me that one of the problems we run into is if we say how do we get… You’ve identified these problems, now, how do we undo it? That a lot of this seeing each other as enemies comes from the fact that as the reach of the state grows, as the number of things that it can do to me, the number of choices that it can make for me or that my fellow citizens can make for me through it grows, I’m incentivized to care more about it. And I’m incentivized to see them as a threat, not just in the sense of imagining they’re more extreme than they really are, but in that any differences between me and them become grounds for future damage to my way of life. If you and I, if you have very little power to do anything to me through the political process, then I can tolerate even very large differences between us in tastes. But the moment you can operationalize politics and operationalize that coercive force of the state to compel me, say, in the educational sector, like if we have public schools, to compel me to get, have my kids educated in a certain way, or to pay an extraordinary amount that I might not have to try to get them out of that system.

41:54 Aaron Ross Powell: I kind of have to see you as a threat and I have to start embracing further democracy if I think I can win to push back on that. So it almost seems like you can’t get out of this cycle unless we’re willing to radically scale back the size and scope of the state and the reach of politics.

42:15 Robert Talisse: That might be true. I thought you did a nice job. Look, my claim is not that the account in the book runs counter to various kinds of… Well, just, let’s just call it sort of minimalist liberalism, which is a broader category, at least in my understanding, than libertarian. There are lots of libertarian use. So the point I would like to make is, or the point I’m trying to make in the book is that it’s still an open question from the point of view of the argument of the book, what the limits to and therefore the scope of legitimate state power, what those are. That’s a debate that strikes me as related but different.

43:03 Robert Talisse: And when I say I’m not making the case for a minimal state, I mean that’s sort of understood strictly. I’m not excluding it, it’s just, it seems to me to be orthogonal. Now, I don’t know if it’s correct, although it seems to me a plausible, one among other plausible candidates, the kind of view you just laid out, Aaron, which is that the threat of being the subject of coercive force by the state, and let’s, I think I can concede this without being a libertarian, that the coercive force of the modern state, perhaps one particular or a few particular modern states, is actually at this point, just probably, I’ll just pull the mask off and say, yeah, there are modern democratic states that have at their command brutal degrees of coercive force that are problematic on many different registers. Let me put it that way, in as broad… Because I think, I’m trying to make the argument of this book compatible with a full range of broadly speaking constitutional liberal democratic views about the limits and structure of democratic authority and legitimacy.

44:28 Robert Talisse: So I’m trying to be ecumenical in this regard. The kind of view that you just laid out seems to me to be one view. And so, I wouldn’t resist, certainly not a priori, and would resist for the purposes of this argument the thought that the right conclusion to draw is that the state has to be shrunk or that more severe constraints on the exercise of political power have to be imposed. In fact, depending on what in particular we’re talking about, I would actually support that. Just to give one kind of example, some mornings I wake up and it just occurs to me how shocking it is that there are people who are working very hard to get jobs as police officers when they know that part of what it means to get that job is to have it as part of your job to enforce blatantly unjust drug laws. So sometimes it’s like, what kind of moral failure is this that people stand ready to enforce these laws, which we know these can’t be just. In fact, not only are they not just, they’re I would say stingingly unjust, right?

45:40 Robert Talisse: Okay, so I’m willing to accept these kinds of thoughts that I take it are not exclusively libertarian thoughts, but are thoughts that libertarians are very much at home with. The question is whether the sort of modal strength, which you presented the view, the only way to do this. That’s where I would say I’m not so sure about that because, look, we have other contexts that I think are structurally similar to the kind of tribal, let’s just call it, because I mean to say something now more than just partisan, the tribal animosity, the hatred, the vitriol, the escalation that don’t involve, at least in a way that’s obvious to me, the threat of this massive, and I would say in lots of cases this sort of vulgar degree of coercive power. You know, look at sports fans.

46:29 Trevor Burrus: They’re just like political parties.

46:32 Robert Talisse: Right. But there’s no state there, that it’s not that the fans of the one team, by the way, you see this especially throughout Europe, when you look at European football, you know, this is where these phenomena really show up. In the United States, they show up in all kinds of ways. When I give these kinds of talks in Europe, I just use examples from football that like… Yeah, the rivalries that exist between these teams and their fans, these people hate each other and they identify as fans of their team, and they’re connected to regions and regional rivalries, and all kinds of class and other kinds of differences. But it just doesn’t look to me like… Let me put it this way, those kinds of rivalries and the animosities that emerge and erupt out of them are on my account structurally similar to partisan animosities that we see in contemporary democracies. However, in the sports case, we don’t have this explanatory feature that Aaron was pointing to of, well, the reason why I hate the other people so much, is because if they win the state gets to push me around and I don’t like being pushed around.

47:52 Trevor Burrus: How about if they win, I have to become a fan of that team, or I’m controlled by that team in some way. That would be horrible, they would be even more violent fans, if that were the case.

48:03 Robert Talisse: But in the sports case is that, again, I’m…

48:06 Trevor Burrus: It’s not how it works, I’m just thinking that if that were the case, yeah.

48:08 Robert Talisse: No, it’s not how it works, okay, good, good, good. So I just want to just say, look, we have this other context in which there isn’t an analogue of the threat of the massive power of the state, but you still have the affective polarization phenomena operating in a way that looks to me structurally, maybe it’s even better and stronger and similar, it looks to me structurally identical. So that just… I want to draw the conclusion now against Aaron’s suggestion that the minimal state is the only… I’m not resisting the thought that it’s a contender, I’m just saying it’s not yet clear to me that it’s the only way out of partisan animosity, because it looks as if we got this other case where the same phenomena are being driven in the absence of that threat from coercive power of the state.

49:01 Robert Talisse: And I think I’ve got a good argument in the book that shows, yeah, the tribalism of sports fans and the tribalism, especially in Europe where you’ve got these huge problems with hooliganism, right, the tribalism that goes on with sports fans and the tribalism that goes on with polarized partisans in the United States are just, these are just two different manifestations of the very same set of cognitive phenomena. In the political case, you’ve got the threat of the state as part of the mix; in the sports case, you don’t have that. So it seems to me that that suggests that it’s not clear at the very least that the only way out in the political case is by minimizing the state. How’s that argument?


49:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I can just say if I had access to the state in these areas, I would totally use it to oppress New York Jets fans. So it would certainly be worse, I think, even if getting rid of it doesn’t necessarily make it immediately better. But…

50:05 Trevor Burrus: Don’t… The Jets fans have enough problems, Aaron, that’s never been a reason… They don’t need anything more from you.

50:11 Aaron Ross Powell: But this pathway out. So we’ve talked about, much as it pains me to say it, going to the minimal state is probably not something that’s going to happen in the immediate future, and just setting aside our differences and looking at each other as human beings, especially when we’ve become so primed to do otherwise, is very difficult. So what are… With all of this, I mean, it’s a grim picture. So, what are kind of the practical steps, what do you think are the ways that we can actually get out of this that aren’t, man, it would be good to go back and start over and not make these mistakes along the way.

50:47 Robert Talisse: Let me as a sort of preface, one way in which I can’t answer the question is by giving a to do list. Not only because I bristle against academics doing that kind of thing, but also because I think that in this particular case, it would be not only unhelpful, but would run contrary to part of the diagnostic story of the book to say here, the five things to do, to save democracy. And here’s the reason why. If the diagnostic argument of the book is correct, whatever steps that we’re going to take to try to restore our ability to regard others as decent human beings independent of our understanding or knowledge of their partisan identity, if we’re going to restore any of that, we have to build new things, we’ve got to do different things, things that… We have to do things in a different way. So it’s not… Again, it’s not a take the closest Republican to lunch, that can’t be the right level of description for the solution.

52:00 Robert Talisse: I think this story made it into the book, but I’ll tell it ’cause it’s… I think it reveals something important. In an early version of this talk, or an early version, an early talk about this stuff, I should say, I got this kind of question, what should we do? And I very naively, naively as I now come to understand it, said, “Well, just volunteer to… How about just volunteering to pick up litter from the park?” And the person looked at me and said, “But that would be a liberal thing to do.” In philosophy, we sometimes talk about the incredulous stare. I gave the sort of chuckle and the incredulous stare, and I said, “You mean it’s liberal to not like junk?” And went on to the next question.

52:45 Robert Talisse: And it kinda bothered me. The next day, I said, man, I think I really messed up. I exhibited the very pathology that I’m diagnosing because I had no idea what that person was calling liberal. She might not have been saying that it’s liberal to want less litter in the park. She might have been saying it’s liberal to volunteer, or she might have been saying it’s liberal to volunteer outside of a church community, or she might have said it’s liberal to volunteer to pick up litter when you could volunteer to teach someone to read. There are all kinds of different ways in which she could have not been expressing the view that I instantly ascribed to her, and so I thought, gee, my own conception of what would count as a non‐​political cooperative endeavor is in ways that are not immediately apparent to me already sort of infected with my own partisan, with my own partisan ideas, I’m sure.

53:47 Robert Talisse: So, in the book, what I say is, look, there couldn’t be a to‐​do list because anybody’s to‐​do list is already going to be susceptible to being just an expression of their own partisan ideals. So I say this: What you need to do is think, first of all, recognize your own susceptibility, your own standing vulnerability to the belief polarization phenomenon. This is a phenomenon that we’re really good at seeing in other people and are very, it’s part of the profile of the phenomenon to not be visible to us, we don’t feel ourselves becoming more extreme. We don’t report. In fact, when you, in the belief polarization experiments when you show people, look, before you talked with the other jurors you said that this kind of punitive award would be the most accept, would be the right punitive award and anything in excess of that by a certain degree would be excessive. Now you talk to the other jurors who want to punish this guy, you’re recommending an award that goes far higher than the threshold you set.

55:00 Robert Talisse: People express surprise, so they don’t realize that they’re being pulled along by this group dynamic. So the first thing to recognize, it’s like, yeah, learn this fact about ourselves, and then in light of that awareness try to just think of an activity that you can do that is not expressive of your political partisan identity and try it, and if you go and try it and you find that your partisan identity is being affirmed, do something else. Or if you find that your partisan identity is being challenged, try to tell the people who you’re doing it with that you’re not there for the politics, and if that doesn’t work, do something else.


55:50 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.