Review of Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics In Its Place

©John Danaher (Reprinted with Permission)

Aristotle once said that humans are political by their nature. Certainly, political processes and institutions are central to human life. But are they everything? Is everything we do inherently political? And, more importantly, should everything we do be seen to be inherently political?

These are the questions that Robert Talisse takes up in his recent book, Overdoing Democracy. He argues that contemporary life (specifically contemporary life in the US) is overly politicized. Political identities and political causes have seeped into and contaminated virtually every aspect of our lives. As he puts it:

[C]ontemporary democratic societies have embraced a hyperextended conception of democracy’s reach. They have adopted a conception of democracy’s scope that allows for the attribution of political significance — and accountability qua citizen — to too much of what people do, and accordingly tend to recognize too many spaces as sites in which democratic citizenship is to be enacted…we come to see one another solely as political agents who either obstruct or help enable our own political projects. (Talisse 2019, 48)

In other words, we have created a world in which there is no respite from politics. We are forced to see ourselves through our political identities and loyalties and to see others in the same way. Talisse argues that this is a bad thing because over-politicization crowds out the other goods of life, resulting in an impoverished form of existence. He thinks we should push back against this wave of over-politicization and find some space for non-political activity and engagement. He thinks this is particularly necessary in an age of increasing political polarisation.

The book is thought-provoking and well written. The argument against over-politicization builds in a careful and logical way, and there is some interesting argumentation with respect to polarisation and over-politicization in the book. But, as I mentioned to Robert when I recently spoke to him, I may not be the ideal reader for the book since I was already primed to agree with its central thesis. I tend not to think of myself or my actions or my relationships through an overly political lens. It’s not that I am not interested in politics — I pay close attention to political debates and developments around the world — but I try not to define myself through political loyalties or identities. The main reason for this is one of epistemic humility. I don’t have well-formed or well-reasoned views on the vast majority of political issues. I resent the pressure to pick a side.

But this pressure is there. I am often reminded by my academic colleagues that I cannot afford the luxury of sitting on the fence. They tell me that everything is political; that to not pick a side is, in some sense, to favor the political status quo and mark oneself out as a political conservative. And since I don’t like the idea of being labeled a political conservative, I sometimes relent and express loyalty to ideas I am not entirely comfortable with. Am I wrong to do this?

What follows is not going to be a full review of Robert’s book. Instead, I want to critically engage with three key ideas from it, all from the opening sections of the book. First, I want to consider the main argument against over-politicization from the book: the crowding out argument. Second, I want to examine an objection to this argument that claims that you cannot put politics in its place because “everything is politics”. Third, I want to examine the objection that claims that the desire to ‘put politics in its place’ is an expression of political conservatism. Throughout, I will be folding my own reflections and experiences into the discussion. So what follows is, in part, an exercise in philosophical self-analysis. I offer it in the hope that what I say might resonate with (or challenge) other people’s experiences.

1. Overpoliticisation and the Crowding Out Argument

Talisse presents his thesis in a logical and patient way. He builds from simple definitions and concepts to an extended argument against political overreach. He points out that there are a number of activities that are central to democratic politics — for example, voting, participating in deliberative debates, acquiring and disseminating information about political candidates and policies. He also points out that these activities ought to occur in certain places — for example, newsrooms, town halls, political hustings and conferences, and parliamentary chambers. His thesis about over-politicization is simply that the activities that are central to politics now occur in too many places — places where they really ought not to occur. Examples of this overreach would include the politicization of the family dinner table, the office, leisure activities, and so on.

The suggestion from the get-go is that this political overreach is a bad thing, but why is this? Why is it that political activities ought to occur in only a few specific places? Talisse’s main argument for the badness of political overreach is the ‘crowding out’ argument. Very roughly, his claim is that if we allow for political overreach then we allow politics to crowd out the other goods of life. He has a nice analogy that he uses to illustrate this problem.

Imagine Anne. Anne is a fitness freak who spends all her waking hours focused on honing her fitness. She carefully manages what she eats and spends most of her time in the gym. As a result, Anne is very fit and her fitness is clearly a good thing. It gives her a level of health and physical well-being that few people attain. But Anne is such a fitness freak that she has little time for anything else in life. She has no time to dedicate to her family, friends, career, social networks, art, literature, sex and relationships, and so on.

Is Anne living a good life? Obviously there are some goods in her life (her fitness) but she is also missing out on a lot. Her dedication to fitness has crowded out lots of other things that would make her life good. There is something imbalanced and incomplete about what she is doing. Furthermore, there might even be something perverse to it as well. After all, few people think that fitness is an end in itself. We don’t simply want to be fit. We want to be fit in order to be able to enjoy other goods, e.g. playing social sports, and living a longer life that gives us access to other goods. So it’s not just that her fitness obsession crowds out the other goods of life, it also undermines itself.

Talisse’s argument about political overreach follows this basic structure. He claims that an obsession with politics can crowd out the other goods of life. If you spend every waking hour obsessed with political processes, policies, and identities, you never get to enjoy any of the other important things that make up a well-lived life.

Furthermore, politics is not an end in itself. There are some political obsessives who might enjoy nothing more than thinking about political strategy and power every waking hour, but for the majority of people, politics is means to other ends — education, health, employment, family, and so on. If politics dominates our attention, these other goods can get ignored. Of course, it is probably true to say that most people aren’t political obsessives in the sense that they completely ignore everything else that is good, but if political overreach is encouraged, then it becomes more and more difficult to sustain any oasis of life that is free from political concerns.

I am sympathetic to this idea. For what it’s worth, I defended a similar-ish claim in my book Automation and Utopia when I looked at the political effects of technology. I pointed out that one thing technology does is that it redistributes power in society. What’s more, in recent times, it seems to be doing this in a highly inegalitarian way (hence the dominance of certain companies in the market). But I also argued that we shouldn’t focus on the redistribution of power in and of itself. We should focus on how that power gets translated into effects on people’s lives (specifically how it affects the conditions that need to be satisfied in order to live a flourishing and meaningful life). One reason for this is that there is more than likely always going to be some power structure or power elite in society, and so the challenge is to make sure that this power structure supports, rather than undermines, the conditions we need to satisfy to live flourishing lives.

This has turned out to be a controversial claim. Some people have suggested to me that we should care about power structures in and of themselves. I continue to find this confusing. I have an instinctual preference for egalitarian and decentralized power structures, but I don’t think I prefer them for their own sake. I prefer them because I believe they are more likely to have good effects on people’s lives (in most cases). But I could be wrong about this and so there are some cases where I think inegalitarian and centralized power structures make more sense (e.g. I think some industries and utilities work best when they are under monopolistic public control).

People who resist this idea and think that we should care about power structures in and of themselves, seem to me to assume, implicitly, that certain power structures necessarily have bad effects and so should be resisted. They may well be correct in this. But I would respond to them by saying that this doesn’t undermine the claim that what we really care about are the effects these structures have on people’s lives. In other words, the following argument could apply to this debate:

  • (1) When it comes to evaluating political processes and power structures, what we ultimately care about are the effects they have on the goods of life.
  • (2) Certain political processes and power structures necessarily have negative effects on the goods of life.
  • (3) Therefore, we should focus on these specific political processes and power structures.

People like myself and Talisse are concerned primarily with the truth of premise (1); critics who care about power structures might tell us we should focus more on premise (2) and its implications. We might just be talking past each other.

One final caveat about this. What I have just argued is not inconsistent with the view that certain political processes have intrinsic goods associated with them. For example, somebody could argue that public, transparent and deliberative processes are better than their opposites because they allow people to be the active agents of political change and not just the passive recipients of its benefits (or burdens). In fact, I have made precisely that argument in the past when critiquing modes of algorithmic governance. This does not, however, imply that deliberative processes are the only good that we should care about or that deliberative political processes are not primarily valued because of the effects they have on people’s lives.

2. Is Everything Politics?

An obvious objection to Talisse’s argument is that it is impossible to keep politics in its place because, ultimately, everything is politics. In other words, no matter where you are or what you are doing, politics infests and pervades it. It cannot be escaped and kept in its box.

Talisse points out that there are several problems with this objection. First, claims of the sort “everything is X” are usually problematic. If I say “everything is blue”, you have to ask “what about all the other colors?”. If I say “everything is water”, you have to wonder, “but what about all the other things that don’t seem to be anything like water?” If I say “everything is politics”, you have to ask “what about the things that don’t seem overtly political?”

Furthermore, even if it were true that everything was politics, you would still have to consider the fact that not everything is political in the same way so, if everything is political, these things must be political in different ways and for different reasons. So you will have to start introducing concepts and ideas that help you differentiate between different political kinds of things. More generally, if you are making a foundational claim about the nature of everything you better have the resources to explain it and back it up. But once you start explaining it and backing it up, you almost invariably have to rely on concepts and ideas that are not themselves the same as the thing that you claim is at the foundation of everything. So, pretty quickly, it starts to seem as if there are other things in the world.

Talisse doesn’t make much of this counterargument, hiding it away in a footnote. His more important counterargument is that there are two different ways in which to interpret the claim that “everything is politics”.

Necessity Interpretation: Political factors and processes play some necessary and non-negligible role in explaining all aspects of our lives.

Sufficiency Interpretation: Political factors and processes are sufficient to explain all facets of human life.

Talisse argues that the first interpretation is sensible and “surely correct”, but that it doesn’t undermine his thesis because he is not assuming that politics can be eliminated from our lives but, rather, that it can be put in its proper place. I don’t agree with Talisse that this interpretation is surely correct. It strikes me as trivially true that some aspects of our lives are not explained by any political processes or factors. For example, consider the fact that we are bound by the law of gravity or that we breathe oxygen. I don’t think political processes or factors play any role in explaining these aspects of human life.

That said, it seems clear from the context that Talisse intends the claim to have a more limited scope, viz. that political factors play a non-negligible role in explaining virtually all aspects of human behavior and social life. This is surely correct. The fact that I am sitting a desk right now and drinking coffee may not seem, initially, like it is explained by political factors but, when I reflect upon it, there are numerous political factors and processes at play, e.g. rules of property and employment law that give me the right to the desk and reward me for a certain kind of labor, facets of international economics and trade relations that facilitate the arrival of the coffee, and so on.

Talisse argues that the second interpretation is neither true nor significant. It is a stretch to claim that all aspects of human behavior and social life are sufficiently accounted for by political factors. They may play some role in the explanation, but there are surely other factors at play too. I tend to agree with him on this. Consider, once again, the laws of physics and biological evolution. They surely play some non-negligible role in explaining facets of our behavior and social lives. If that’s right, then not everything is reducible to the political.

All that said, I think there is a sensible version of the objection that might be worth considering in more detail. It is wrong for the critic of Talisse’s position to claim that everything is politics. But it may not be wrong for them to claim, more modestly, that most aspects of our lives are more political than we initially realize. In other words, that political factors and processes play a larger part in the explanation of what we do and how we do it than we initially suppose. Go back to my earlier example of sitting at my desk and drinking coffee. The political forces that make this act possible are not the ones that immediately spring to mind, but they are there if I reflect on it.

This modest proposal doesn’t undermine Talisse’s central thesis — that over-politicization crowds out the other goods of life— but if things are more political than we tend to initially suppose, it could make it quite difficult to put politics in its proper place.

3. Is this a conservative thesis?

Another objection to Talisse’s thesis is that it is inherently conservative in nature. Anyone who laments the over-politicization of human life must, in some sense, be satisfied with large swathes of the current political and social status quo. They like things the way they are and they don’t like people coming in and disrupting their contented complacency by turning everything into a political fight. As I say in the introduction, this is the objection I tend to encounter most often among my academic peers.

It might be worth noting here that there are different senses of the word ‘conservative’ at play in political discourse. This objection is focused on what might be called a ‘thin’ or ‘minimal’ form of conservatism. This ‘thin’ form of conservatism is focused purely on avoiding excessive change or disruption to the current social order, whatever that social order happens to be. In other words, it is focused on stability for stability’s sake. It doesn’t have a strong normative view as to what the ideal society should be. There is a contrasting ‘thick’ form of conservatism. This form of conservatism focuses on conserving a very specific set of social values and has a strong normative view as to what the ideal society should be. This objection is not aimed at that thicker form of conservatism.

Talisse thinks this objection to thin conservatism is a serious argument, and he agrees there is a danger that those who step back from politics are guilty of exercising political privilege. But he still insists that his stance is not a thinly conservative one. There are two main reasons for this. First, he argues that you can recognize some apolitical spaces in life and still be deeply committed to the cause of political and social justice. He is not in favor of political complacency, but he thinks it is important that we don’t burn out and become exhausted by the struggle. We have to allow for some respite from the struggle in order to appreciate and realize that the struggle is worthwhile. Second, and linked to this, he argues that over politicization could actually backfire and undermine the pursuit of justice. His argument here is a subtle one and so I will quote from him:

…failing to put politics in its place threatens to endanger the most vulnerable among us. Those who persist in overdoing democracy of course might succeed in the short run in achieving their goals, but they do so at the broader expense of contributing to a thriving democracy. This renders their success pyrrhic; in attaining the desired political result, they have helped to sustain conditions under which all political outcomes are frail and volatile. (Talisse 2019, 27)

The last sentence in this quote seems to be the crucial one. If I am reading it right, Talisse’s argument is roughly this:

  • (1) The point of politics is to secure some spaces in which non-political goods can be realized (derived from the crowding out argument).
  • (2) If everything is a subject of political debate and contest, then there is no secure space in which non-political goods can be realized.
  • (3) Therefore, not everything should be politicized.

I find this to be an appealing argument but it faces two problems. First, as you can see, it seems to collapses back onto the previous argument: the only way we can justifiably say that there should be an apolitical space is if it is indeed true that not everything is political. Second, even the argument is right, we might worry that some people’s lives are over-politicized against their will and hence they, unlike the more privileged among us, do not have the freedom to step back into an apolitical space. For example, some members of immigrant communities might find that all of their choices are subject to constant political scrutiny and debate. Who they choose to associate with, who they marry, the jobs they perform, the way they look (and so on) are all used as talking points in political debates. They would like nothing more than to step back and take a breather from all this politics, but they are not given the option. Someone might argue that until their plight is addressed no one should be afforded the luxury of stepping back from the fight.

The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that it leads us down a slippery slope. If no one can take a breather from politics until all issues of political injustice are resolved, then no one can take a breather from politics. So the question is whether it is right for some people to take a breather even if their ability to do so is a product of unjust privilege. Talisse suggests that it is okay because even if they are privileged to do so, they are not always morally guilty or blameworthy for this privilege. He goes on to argue that this is consistent with saying that these people still have a robust obligation to change the situation so that their unjust privileges are reversed (p. 28).

I guess the bottom line here is that people who think we should all have the freedom to step back from politics from time to time have to ‘put up or shut up’. In other words, they have to take some active part in changing political injustices in order to give everyone that freedom. This applies to me and Talisse, but it also applies to those who would criticize us for being conservative.

… To reiterate, I highly recommend reading the whole book. It is a thoughtful and provocative read.

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John Danaher is currently a senior lecturer at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, where he teaches in the School of Law. He is the author of the blog “Philosophical Disquisitions,” from which this review was taken, and a new book, Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work (Harvard University Press, 2019.)

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6 thoughts on “Review of Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics In Its Place

  1. “we shouldn’t focus on the redistribution of power in and of itself. We should focus on how that power gets translated into effects on people’s lives.”
    Sounds brilliant, and I am not so sure that this asks for less democracy. Perhaps it is asking for less demagoguery.
    If democracy required constant focus on power, then it would self-destruct, as its essential element is citizens knowledgeable about things besides power itself; they must, e.g., study and research actual biology rather than make up virtuous biology in Political Biology Laboratories a la Lysenko, or virtuous Sartorial Optometry that says the leader’s new clothes are truly magnificent, and shiny. These ‘disciplines’ are not friends of the people–they are gaslighting tools. And our current polarization is made possible in part by lots of gaslighting.
    Increasingly, people are not so much choosing how they wish to be governed as being pulled into either of two extreme political catechisms filling the void that religious verity & its righteous witch-hunting frenzies left behind.
    But at least, is one of the two catechisms truly good for the dispossessed? That is an empirical question I cannot answer, but from what little I know, no, the beneficiaries are the (often self-appointed) leaders of the dispossessed, while the have-nots profit little and bleed much in the process.
    Doing good requires what Buddhists call skillful means. And first, one must know enough to do no harm. The advocates of wall-to-wall politics tend to be unencumbered by such concerns–they already know the exact algorithm that will fix all things.
    I’d be all for redistributing everything at whatever the cost, if it were the way to achieve eudaimonia. I suspect it would work only in the short run, but I may be wrong, and the key point is: it’s an empirical question (though extremely difficult to research) and not one that should be studied in the Department of Politically Pious Eudaimonia Studies. But that, and the VonMises-Robber-Baron Institute in their basement, are the only places where it will be allowed to be studied, though I hope it’s just a trick of the light in my crystal ball.
    [sorry re length, such an important and thought-provoking topic – will read Talisse’s book]

  2. Must clarify that I used the Buddhist term “skillful means” to mean deploying effective solutions, even if they go against dogma. E.g., to cure deadly virus, must use knowledge of evolution biology–even if it goes against the Bible. BTW, the Dalai Lama, who really truly cares about all sentient beings, said if science contradicts doctrine, science must prevail. Now I’ll truly shut up & read the book, and thanks for this and so many other compelling topics.

  3. thanks for all your thoughtful comments on this matter, and especially for taking the Buddhist perspective. JGM

  4. I appreciate greatly your take on the matter of politics. In my opinion, political involvement is about either creating something for yourself, or for future generations. Look at the legacy of William Wilburforce – 20 years of his life spent in a brutal but ultimately successful campaign to end slavery.

    The hedonist in me would despise for me to waste my own life doing such a thing. And yet, I am grateful for his selflessness, as I have benefited greatly from it (I myself might very well be in bondage today if not for Wilburforce!)

    Of course, Wilburforce and everyone like him is driven by an external motivator, a master greater than himself. His identity was rooted in an ideology greater than himself.

    But if we look at the politics of our day, it seems our physical characteristics have supplanted allegiance to any ideological force. We once again divide ourselves– not by our beliefs– but by our most primal attributes. Race, gender, and the like.

    And why should we not? It is the natural course of Evolution. In The Descent of Man, Darwin asserts that “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Survival of the Fittest does not see humans as equal. If the universe does not value life, why should we. The god of evolution favors the strongest, after all.

    So we must grapple with the paradox that, in order for us to fulfill our hedonist desires, someone before us had to lay down their life. The Wilburforces and Lincolns and D-Day soldiers endured pretty terrible things because they believed in something more than themselves.

    In the search for meaning, we have to eventually come to terms with the fact that the material world give us much to contemplate and discover, yet no real reason to make it worth the trouble.

    That’s my take on it, anyway. Cheers.

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