I loved Robert Talisse's Sustaining Democracy book. Until I read the final chapter.
Then I felt the same letdown as when I put in many hours watching a TV series that promises to eventually tie together compelling plot threads in a satisfying fashion, only to find that the final episode falls flat.
But this doesn't take away from the brilliance of Talisse's analysis of what typically goes wrong in a democracy. It has a certain Marxist feel, since he persuasively argues that a democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction.
In brief, his argument is that democracies want citizens to be actively engaged in politics.
Ideally they're able to balance democracy's twin goals of (1) viewing all citizens, political friends and foes alike, as having an equal right to participate in the democracy, and (2) pursuing justice.
Problem is, these goals tend to diverge.
The more avidly people engage in fighting hard for justice, the more they come to see their political opponents as standing in the way. This leads to an attitude of, If something has to go, viewing the opposition as equals or achieving justice, let's dump the equality thing.
So, we get partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, intense efforts to not only win elections but to ensure that our opponents never have a chance to get back in power and undo the justice that we hope to achieve.
Talisse goes into much more detail, of course, along with discussing how belief polarization makes the situation even worse. He defines this as "the phenomenon by which interactions among like-minded people tend to result in each person adopting more radical versions of their shared views."
Taken to an extreme, this makes allies into enemies.
I've encountered this on Facebook groups frequented by fellow progressives. To offer an example, I support the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I decry the protests in Portland where businesses were vandalized.
That seems like a reasonable view. My political tribe should be able to accept differences of opinion about protest tactics, since we agree on the overarching goal of police reform. But I've been attacked as a fake progressive because I don't share the most extreme left-wing view.
Tallisse describes that dynamic in a sophisticated fashion.
Isn't it ironic? The democrat's dilemma arises in cases where it seems to us that treating our opponents as our equals impedes justice. Yet this very stance winds up undermining our political objectives.
To see how this works, let's rehearse a familiar line of reasoning: We see the opposition as advocating policies that are out of step with what justice demands, and this leads us to conclude that sustaining democratic relations with them only gives them an undeserved political advantage.
It then strikes us that by suspending democracy with them, we improve the chances of achieving justice. Hence, our zeal for justice occasions the democrat's dilemma. It supplies a compelling rationale for the claim that we should indeed suspend democratic relations with out opponents.
But this reasoning is flawed. The very same zeal for justice that motivates us to suspend democracy with our foes also heightens our exposure to belief polarization, which leads us to overstate our opponent's vices and to inflate our reasons for regarding them as divested from democracy.
Moreover, we have seen that once we have disengaged from our opposition, belief polarization works to dismantle our capacity to recognize good-faith disagreement among our allies. Our political coalitions thus devolve, which also damages the prospects for achieving justice as we see it.
Passages like that caused me to rapidly read his book. I found his take on democracy and politics to be right-on. As befits a philosophy professor whose focus is research on democratic theory, Talisse writes about the perils of how we're going about democracy in a gripping fashion.
Often I felt like I was reading a thriller novel. The suspense was building. The book was convincing me that our democracy faces serious problems that go way beyond the current Democrat - Republican, Biden - Trump freakouts.
I could hardly wait to read the final chapter on how democracy can be sustained in the face of those threats.
Sadly, I felt letdown.
In the end, Talisse sounded too much like an armchair philosophy professor and too little like a practical saving-democracy warrior. I was hoping for ideas that could actually be implemented, ideally with support of both major political parties.
Instead, I got an inward-looking, contemplative, sit-back-and-ponder suggestion for how democracy can be sustained.
I have laid out a two-step proposal. First, we can manage belief polarization within ourselves by establishing practices and habits that keep us mindful of the vulnerability of our political views to reasonable criticism. This calls us to seek out and engage with ideas of our reasonable critics.
...Second, we must supplement our public political engagement with occasions of political reflection by creating forms of distance from the fray of partisan politics. We must make space for political reflection, imagination, and self-examination.
OK. Nothing wrong with those ideas. But they seem totally inadequate to fix our ailing democracy.
The hordes are attacking the castle of our democracy with flaming balls of tar and volleys of arrows. I just can't see how looking inward is sufficient to prevent the potential destruction of what we need to protect with all our might.
I mean, here we are with Trumpist Republicans (meaning, a clear majority of one of our two major political parties) wrongly believing that the free and fair 2020 presidential election actually was fixed and crooked, and that Trump actually beat Biden.
Now those Trumpists are busily constructing what amounts to a catapult-like scheme designed to lob dangerous projectiles into the 2022 and 2024 elections that's a serious threat to our democracy.
There's no way only but a few Republicans are going to engage in the sort of inward-looking political exercises Talisse views as the best bet to sustain democracy. The GOP is going all out to win elections at any cost, even if that cost is anti-democratic.
So Talisse has written the right book at the wrong time. While its analysis of the problem is great, its advice as to how to deal with democracy's problems in the United States isn't in tune with what really is going on.
In fact, Talisse comes close to admitting this when he states repeatedly in his book that there's no obligation to play nice with people who refuse to abide by democratic norms, civil behavior, and reasonableness.
Hopefully at some point in the future Talisse's final chapter will make sense for a kinder and gentler American democracy. At present, it would be a disaster for citizens to do anything other than fight the Trumpist attempt to subvert our democracy with passionate vigor -- not inward-looking contemplation.