I guess it was good timing.
Just as the fight in Washington D.C. over the Build Back Better bill and related bipartisan infrastructure bill hit a crescendo the past few days, I started reading a book by Robert Talisse, "Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side."
I'd learned about the book by hearing an interview with Talisse on the POTUS channel on satellite radio. Even though it's a rather spendy Oxford University Press hardcover, I liked what Talisse was saying. (He's a philosophy professor specializing in democratic theory.)
The book is aimed at a general audience, thankfully.
I've only read the first two chapters, but that's enough to give me a decent feel for Talisse's central points, a few of which I'll try to summarize.
Since I'm a political junkie, I resonated with his observation that democracy can be undermined by people who actively participate in politics. That seems contradictory, but Talisse writes:
Democracy can be threatened from within by citizens who are taking the enterprise of self-government seriously and acting roughly, as they should. In a nutshell, some of democracy's ills are caused by citizens' sincere and earnest political activity. More democratic participation can't cure those ills.
How can this be? Well, a basic problem is the democrat's dilemma, keeping in mind that Talisse is speaking about those who participate in a democracy, not big "D" Democrats.
That's the term I use to capture the tension between the moral requirement to recognize the equality of political opponents and the moral directive to pursue and promote political justice.
Hmmmm. Equality of political opponents.
As a proud progressive, initially those words rubbed me the wrong way. Why should I view Trumpists who wrongly consider that the 2020 election was stolen to be the equal of those of us in the reality-based community?
But as I read on into the book, I realized that Talisse is correct: democracy demands that those of us who participate in it view our opponents as equal.
As is commonly observed, in a democracy the government must treat its people as political equals, as properly citizens rather than merely its subjects. It is somewhat less frequently noted, however, that this requirement applies among citizens as well.
As democratic citizens, we are required to recognize our fellow citizens as our political equals. They're to be regarded as equal partners in the collective project of self-government. Among other things, their equality means they do not merely get an equal say in political decision-making, but are entitled to one.
Democracy demands that we acknowledge that entitlement.
This is tough to do, but it has to be done. It doesn't mean that storming the Capitol in an attempt to overturn Biden's victory has to be tolerated. When our opponents go too far in their political protesting, they have to be brought back in line.
Furthermore, democracy never requires us to simply acquiesce in or accede to the views of our opposition; recognizing their equality is consistent with abhorring their political views.
So somehow we have to maintain our commitment to social justice, while accepting that our political opponents -- who may have a very different view of what that justice consists of -- are equally entitled to participate in our democracy.
In other words, we have to strenuously resist the temptation to demonize our political opponents, as much as we may feel this is deserved.
In a democracy, however, even though citizens are called upon to take responsibility for their government by standing up for justice as they see it, they must also recognize the political equality of those who would enact injustice. Such is the oddly conflicted moral stance that constitutes a central virtue of the democratic citizen.