Talisse: To Be a Democratic Citizen


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September 16, 2021

Talisse: To Be a Democratic Citizen

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska talks with Robert Talisse, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, on epistemology of democracy. The conversation largely draws on Talisse’s recently published book “Sustaining Democracy”.

  • CEU
  • Citizenship
  • Corruption
  • Democracy
  • RevDem

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska: A provocative question for the beginning: why write a book on the need to sustain democracy at all? Do you think that democracy is in such a crisis that we need to go back to the essentials and remind ourselves why it is important to sustain it?

Robert Talisse: I do think there is a crisis in democracy, particularly in my country but not only there. I think the crisis is not fully understood, so one of the motivations for writing “Sustaining Democracy” was to try to bring into view an aspect of what democracy requires of us as citizens. Here is an experiment that you can run: do a Google Images search on the phrase ‘this is what democracy looks like’, and quite understandably you’ll get hundreds of thousands of images of masses of people in the streets carrying signs expressing their political views, making demands on the political system.  I don’t deny that is one of the ways that democracy looks. But remember that democracy needs those active citizens that you are seeing in the images, but it also needs reflective citizens who are able to think their own way through some pretty tricky issues. 

When we are in the throes of democratic politics, when issues seem urgent, when it matters to us what the outcome of a democratic decision point is – whether that is an election or making new policy – the activist side of democratic citizenship takes centre stage as it should. But this other reflective element sometimes becomes undermined or lost in the clamour of democratic citizenship. This is a problem not only because it leads us to misunderstand and, in many cases, mistreat our political opponents. 

The argument of “Sustaining Democracy” is that when the reflective side is over-run by the need for action it hurts our alliances. We become less good to our political friends when we give up the reflective mode for the urgency for democratic action.

You can read a lot of democratic theory and walk away with the impression that, whatever the dysfunctions, challenges and problems there are with democracy, we just need more active citizens. I think that is wrong. Sometimes we need citizens to take a step back – not withdraw – from politics and think away from the influences and pressures of the political conflicts we are embroiled in. The book ends with an argument that says, ‘democracy looks like masses of people in the streets, but democracy also looks like a guy sitting alone with a book’. That is an act of democratic citizenship as well. 

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska:  Just recently I heard a lecture given by Camila Vergara based on her book “Systemic Corruption”, where she argued that democratic theories are now more procedural in nature and less substantive.  Would you agree that thinking about democracy entails a more procedural approach?

Robert Talisse:  A tension or conflict is often presented between the demands of democratic proceduralism and the substantive dimension. We want right answers to policy questions, but these right answers have to be achieved in ways that respect certain kinds of procedural norms. It looks as if the procedural stuff can obstruct democracy’s ability to get the right answers. 

I am sympathetic to views that claim when democratic procedures are properly designed they are epistemically most reliable. They might not always get the right answer, but they perform better epistemically than any alternative collective decision-making mechanism or procedures. There are certain kinds of formal results, including Condorcet’s jury theorem, the diversity trumps ability theorem that Hélène Landmore writes about, that are supposed to show that proper democratic procedures are epistemically the best among the available options. 

I am not so sure about those results. Democracy is about getting the right answers, but the right way to understand the question that democratic societies ask themselves is not simply the question ‘what should the immigration policy be’ or ‘how should we set the tax rate’. 

The question for a democratic society is always ‘what can we force other people to do once we recognise that they are our equals?’

I want to suggest that getting the right answer is always constrained by a moral requirement.  Because politics isn’t just about enquiry in the direct sense – politics is about getting the right answer given the fact that politics always involves the exercise of power over people who are moral and political equals. That complicates the epistemic issues. I think there is a way of easing the tension by understanding the substantive elements of democracy as constrained by certain kinds of moral requirements that the procedural elements are designed to force us to respect. 

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska:  In your book you provide an example from your own experiences to prove how we are sometimes misguided about others’ ideas, making presumptions about them rather than engaging with them. However, what should we do when, for example, someone supports the death penalty or, more generally, holds unreasonable views that are incompatible with democratic fundamentals? Can we simply cancel people who hold such views? 

Robert Talisse: This is one of the core and most urgent questions of democratic theory. You can see it playing a role in democratic theory since Plato. 

To put it in a contemporary way, a democratic society’s commitment to the freedom and equality of the citizens creates opportunities for anti-democratic agents to get into the system and free-ride and appeal to the democratic norms that they seek to undermine as a way of furthering their political aims. 

Urgency to act as a democratic citizen can sometimes lead us not to reflect on the range of possible opinions, and the push and pull of democratic politics leads us to constrain the range of possible opinions. The book tries to explain the cognitive forces behind this –  it is not incidental that when we are in the thick of politics, we lose our sense of the range of acceptable opinions.  

But to respond to your question, I don’t think there is a general abstract answer to be given to the question ‘what do we do with the people who are beyond the pale of democracy?’. I don’t deny there are such people, nor that there are people who are anti-democratic agents who are free-riding on the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship. But until we are talking about specific people or specific views, and have information about their aims and what they are doing to further those aims, we don’t have enough information to give an answer to the question ‘what should our response be?’. In some cases, as a purely practical matter, there are some unreasonable people who ought to be treated as if they are reasonable. There are some people who hold views that you might justifiably assess as inconsistent with the fundamental principles of free and equal citizens who are members of an open society. 

There is a demand for a criterion that says: here are people who are good faith members of a democratic society, you have to treat them like equals, you have to listen to them, you have to engage with them, to respond to their objections to you, and here are people who are not good-faith members of a democratic society, they might be residents within a democratic community but they are beyond the pale, and here is how you treat them. 

The impulse to look for that criterion and then for a practical plan to deal with those people is another product of the way in which the urgency for democratic action short-circuits reflection.  

I know people who voted for Donald Trump twice. Some of them are understood as marginally invested in the democratic project at best. Others, including some of my family, are misinformed about politics, are not very astute in thinking about politics, are interested in things that lead them to draw hasty conclusions about politics, and they’re just mistaken! It is hard to know what to think about anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers in the US; it’s really hard to know the right approach to take with them to convince them that masks are not an infringement on their freedom, and taking the vaccination is an obligation for public health reasons. 

That is why I don’t think there is a general answer to your question.  You have to get really granular and think about the real population and real differences among the people on the other side and go from there. But that makes everything a lot harder than we thought it was.

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska:  It seems to me that you are arguing that people’s political views might be changed by reading books, exchanging arguments with others etc. But aren’t political views influenced not only by reading and thinking, but also – and mostly –  by people’s experiences? So to change people’s political views one would also have to change people’s experiences, their past, and that would be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Robert Talisse: It is a utopian diagnosis of extreme conservative views to see them simply as mistakes in thinking, of not knowing the facts, not knowing the science and so on. A lot is diagnosable in those terms, but not everything. Some of it has to do with real experiences of feeling socially excluded in various ways, of feeling disenfranchised, of feeling marginalised, and in a context where those feelings and anxieties are then channelled by powerful and astute political operators into formation of political identity. A large number of citizens in the United States who are on the more extreme side of the conservative movement really see themselves as victims of marginalisation, as oppressed, as left-behind, as excluded. What do we do about that?

I don’t know if there is a way to change somebody’s mind or their set of political commitments once their identity has been formed in a particular way. In the United States, once partisan affiliation is formed, once the individual sees himself as a conservative or a liberal or a progressive, or as a Republican or Democrat, that is one of the most stable identity markers throughout one’s lifetime in the United States. 

People don’t change their understanding of their political selves once they form it. 

The social democrat in me is saying that since you can’t change people’s minds, we need policies that do better at enacting justice for everybody. I think there is an economic and broader social explanation for some of the more pernicious forms of extremism in the United States, and we need more education, and better economic security for people across the board. That’s an empirical claim though, and now we have to argue it out.  You can’t change people’s minds, but you can change the conditions under which those sorts of political identities become central in the first place – that has got to be the answer. 

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska:  Why do you think cancel culture is becoming so increasingly popular, especially among the younger generation using social media? Is it a reflection of political polarisation, and belief polarisation? Does cancel culture strengthen in-group solidarity or does it instead further divide allies?

Robert Talisse:  I just don’t know what ‘cancel culture’ means any more. In the US we identify some new and insufficiently understood field of bad behaviour and we give it a name. Then we invent a language for diagnosing that bad behaviour and reacting to it in a morally appropriate way, and we give that a name. But once these newly minted normative terms are introduced into the vernacular, they become a new linguistic football to fight with. A term like ‘cancelling’ enters into the vernacular as a way to describe a social sanction, not a legal sanction, but it’s what you do when somebody on social media says something that’s obviously offensive – they get cancelled. But now on social media we use the word ‘cancelled’ just when someone has criticised us. The new normative term has to be elastic enough to cover lots of different moral wrong-doing and moral repair for it to do its job it, but that elasticity makes it easy to co-opt.

I think there are tendencies all around democratic culture that have their ultimate explanation in certain cognitive phenomena, and to diagnose it as liberal versus conservative is to misdiagnose the cognitive nature of it. A sure-fire way of communicating to your allies that you’re authentic, a real member of the team, that you are part of the squad, that you are not a poser or a fake, that you are a stalwart ally, is not to get involved in what your political alliance should say about policy as there is too much divisive stuff even among your allies. 

The way you show solidarity with your allies is to figure out new and more hostile ways of calling out the ‘bad people’ on the other side – new ways to deform, to caricature and demonise the other side. 

That is a far more effective way of building solidarity with your own side because if there is one thing we agree on, it’s that we hate those guys. If we start talking about environmental policy or immigration policy, we might discover we disagree and that would not be fun, so let’s instead figure out new ways to tell each other how bad the other side is. That is a far more effective way of building coalitions. In a democracy if you want an effective political voice, you have to join a choir and build those relationships of loyalty, alliance, allegiance and solidarity with others.  The best way to do that is to turn up the heat on the negative estimation of the people in the out group.

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska: It’s fascinating that your book does not mention rights discourse explicitly,  but focuses primarily on citizens’ duties. Did you intentionally exclude rights from the discussion of democracy? In the current discussions we usually urge others to recognise our rights, because without this recognition we do not feel fully human. One could see in this a reflection of the judicialisation of our societies, but also, more generally, a discursive shift that excludes civilian duties. In this sense, your discussion of civility brings back this expelled dimension. Would you agree with such an interpretation?

Robert Talisse: I do not follow an important, philosophically astute and formidable tradition in democratic theory of talking about citizenship in terms of requirements to acknowledge duly each other’s rights. One of the reasons I try to step away from that kind of discourse is because I’m trying to make explicit what I see as a conflict within the phenomenology of the democratic citizen, a tension in what it’s like to be a democratic citizen. Once you start talking about rights, then the account is already set up to try to offer a particular familiar response:  Why do we need to treat our political enemies as our social equals? Well they have a right to that kind of treatment. You can see how the argument from that premise would proceed,  

I wanted to give a different kind of argument. Instead of trying to give a response to the question that focuses on the standing of the enemies, I wanted to take that conflict seriously because it’s embedded in the role of a democratic citizen.  If you are an active democratic participant you are going to have to confront the question ‘the people who oppose me only oppose me because they are ignorant, depraved, bigoted, stupid, misinformed and so on, so why should I care about them at all?’ To be a democratic citizen is to feel that tension. The account in ‘Sustaining Democracy’ says that we must stick with the conflict that emerges within the democratic citizen, however things might stand with the rights and entitlements of your opposition to be treated in a particular way. 

There is an additional argument that hasn’t got enough attention that says a reason why you need to treat your political opponents as your equals, despite the fact that they might be as bad as you think they are, is because unless you find real political enemies that you can treat as your equals, you are going to disserve and ultimately dissolve your political alliances. 

You need political enemies in order to keep your political friends. It is not merely a prudential or instrumental argument that it is good to have friends and do what you can to keep them, it is a moral argument. In a democracy if you want to pursue justice you need sturdy political alliances. You need political friends, there’s a normative requirement – not merely instrumental nor practical – to do what you can to preserve your political friendships. In order to do that, you need to find political enemies that can serve as occasions for you to be self-critical. 

Let me emphasize that last point because I think that is a crucial feature of ‘Sustaining Democracy’.  The challenge for the democratic citizen might arise because the democratic citizen has to confront a political opponent that she comes to see as depraved and ignorant and terrible and not really invested in democracy. Ultimately the solution in the book doesn’t really have much to do with the political opponent after all, it has to do with what’s inside of us. The office of democratic citizenship requires a certain set of normative and intellectual character traits.  The book does not give the argument for hearing the other side because they might be right or have a point or you could learn something from them –  it’s not that kind of argument. Instead, the argument is that 

you need interactions on democratic terms with some political enemies in order to do right by your own political commitments. 

You need to interact with you political enemies, not because they might be right, but because that kind of interaction reminds you that you can always improve your political thinking. The argument is that it’s a mistake from the point of view of the epistemology of democracy to adopt the view that you personally have had the final political thought that you need to have. The thesis of the book is that re-orienting oneself to one’s own political ideas so that one is constantly reminded of the possibility of epistemic improvements is probably the best tool we have for mitigating the pernicious impacts of belief polarisation. 

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska: Recent research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University shows that – even before the crisis – today’s young people are the generation that are most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. Members of this generation are more sceptical of the merits of democracy compared not only with the older generation now but also with young people polled in earlier eras. How do we combat even greater dissatisfaction with democracy among the younger generation after the COVID-19 crisis? Should we deem it only as a temporary trend or rather a persistent one?

Robert Talisse:  The first thing I want to say is that I need more clarity about what the result means.  One could imagine dissatisfaction and declining trust in democratic government to be an indicator of a range of different attitudes about politics.  Some people might report low levels of trust in democratic government because they think that existing democratic governments are too corrupt to do the job well. Others might report similarly low levels of confidence in democracy because they have anti-democratic attitudes, they are really committed to some other form of non-democratic government, such as a theocratic or authoritarian mode of politics. However, they are going to give the same kind of reading on the scale that was used in the study. 

We know there are overall trends in lack of trust in government. The philosopher Kevin Vallier writes a lot about this –  trust in government, trust in politics, trust in one’s neighbours is declining, particularly in the United States.

I wonder if there is a sense in which lack of trust or decline in trust or decline in confidence or decline in commitment to democracy can be partially explained by a kind of exhaustion. 

This is specific to the US, but I could imagine a similar case could be made in the UK right now, as the previous presidential administration just left me exhausted with politics. It’s not that I felt that politics isn’t important, it’s that I felt so inundated with what the President was doing. 

My hope as a political philosopher is that political outrage, resentment, and animosity are finite emotional resources. Surely at some point there’s no more hate to give. Surely at some point a democratic citizen has to say ‘I have no more resentment, I have no more outrage, I have no more indignation’. Surely that must be true? I hope it is, especially in my country, because it is not at all difficult to find sizable groups of people who, in the name of the constitution, and the republic, and our democratic traditions, and the founders of the nation, espouse fundamentally anti-democratic ideals.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Oliver Garner.

This article was originally published on RevDem, the Review of Demcoracy at the CEU Democracy Institute


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