How Can We Sustain Our Democracy?

A Conversation with Robert B. Talisse

Sustaining our democracy requires citizens to treat those with whom they disagree as their political equals. Robert B. Talisse, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, received a Hayek Fund for Scholars grant to support his book project which explores themes of democracy and civic empathy. The book is titled “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021).

Talisse expands on the themes in his previous book “Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place” (Oxford University Press 2019), which asserts that we are indeed consuming too much democracy, and the only way to remedy the modern excess belief polarization and political saturation we experience is through activities that have nothing to do with democracy itself.

Robert B. Talisse

After “Overdoing Democracy” recommended the paradoxical yet democratic-strengthening prescription of less democracy, the question still remained how we should engage in activities that require a democratic function?

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Talisse had limited access to campus resources, including the library and his own office. The Hayek Fund helped Talisse purchase books and secured the resources needed to finish his book. In addition to purchasing academic material, the Hayek Fund allowed Talisse to enlist the help of a professional copyeditor, who polished the writing to fit a more popular audience.

One of the real benefits of the Hayek Fund was that it enabled me to have a professional who can rein in the overly academic language and package the writing in such a way where it’s appealing to someone who might be outside of your own discipline.

– Robert B. Talisse

According to Talisse, sustaining democracy is not an intuitive exercise and it often cuts against our expectations. To illustrate this point, he finds people tend to scrutinize and condemn their allies more rigorously than they would their political foes. The less charitable we are towards the other side, Talisse avers, the harder it is for our political allies to pass the prevailing purity test, and thus the harder it is to collaborate democratically even with those with whom we mostly agree.

Known in psychology as the black sheep effect, this phenomenon underscores the importance of treating political adversaries as having an equal say, because it prevents the rigid belief polarization that amplifies the calls to conform within each group.


You owe it to your those with whom you disagree to sustain proper civil relations, even when you think they advocate for injustice. Because if you want to achieve justice, you need to build and expand your coalition, not create the conditions under which they splinter.

– Robert B. Talisse

More generally, it’s difficult to recognize the democratic value and contribution of your political adversaries without an environment that fosters free speech. When one group limits the free speech of another, it raises the political bar for those within the speech-restricting group, creating fractures where they otherwise wouldn’t exist. As a result, democracy withers and the very purpose of political association is rendered largely ineffectual.

Talisse argues that to counter these increasingly illiberal trends and ultimately sustain democracy, we must also appeal to the strongest version that our opponents have to offer, even when it conflicts with our sense of justice.

The most important truths about politics are not the simple ones, but the ones that have to be thought out in concert and sometimes in conflict with the most formidable versions of opposing views.

– Robert B. Talisse

Find more information on the Hayek Fund for Scholars and other support opportunities from IHS on our website.

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