Robert B. Talisse on What We Owe to the Other Side in a Polarized World

In December 2021, IHS hosted a discussion with Robert B. Talisse on his recent book “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side.” Talisse, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, has conducted extensive research on the forces that divide us politically and discursively. The conversation fed off material from his first book “Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place,” which argued that we must engage in activities that have nothing to do with politics if we want to revive our democratic institutions. We also interviewed Talisse earlier this year about his IHS experience and how it has facilitated his research project into political polarization.

In his new book, Talisse emphasizes that “citizens have adequate moral reasons to extend the kind of regard that’s appropriate among political equals, even when one is inclined to see their political opponents as fundamentally mistaken.”

He illustrates the dual functions of the democratic citizen as upholding a responsibility for the political order while also nurturing a civic regard for each other. According to Talisse, these contrasting obligations embody what he calls the “democrat’s dilemma,” in which one’s pursuit of justice often collides with one’s pursuit of civic toleration.

“As democratic citizens, we need to take responsibility for the political order of which we are part authors as well as promote certain civic duties like listening and hearing what the other side is saying. Even when we lose at the polls, we owe this to our democratic citizens.”

Robert B. Talisse
Robert Talisse
Robert B. Talisse

This creates a tension that often spills into our everyday lives, especially when people view their political counterparts as being fundamentally misguided or even opposed to justice. “The effort of giving a voice to the other side often strikes our allies as a signal of our own half-heartedness,” he observes.

While acknowledging that political disagreement is unavoidable, it becomes a healthy exercise to give those with whom we disagree a fair and patient hearing. Talisse adds that by doing so, we cultivate our productive democratic impulse and stem the tide of polarization that widens the gulf between citizens.

In fact, when citizens fail to listen to the other side, they transform into more extreme versions of themselves. This phenomenon, known as belief polarization, has made us “more suspicious and distrusting of anybody who’s not like-minded. It makes us negatively disposed to others,” he says. The greater conformity in our beliefs make us more likely to turn against our allies and expel them from our own group. In other words, belief polarization undermines the internal as well as the external relationships that could have fostered richer and better conversations.

“When you dismiss the other side, the forces of belief polarization don’t just disappear. They turn you against your ally and set into motion group dynamics that reward conformity and fracture coalitions. Belief polarization shrinks our conception of what permissible disagreements are.”

Robert B. Talisse

In any democratic order, Talisse argues, treating each other as dignified political equals is how we advance the democratic mission. “It’s the idea that we’re trying together for a society not of masters and lords, not of superiors and subordinates, but of political equals,” he claims. The first step in our long road to political understanding is a recognition of this inherent equality between citizens.

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