Robert Talisse: How Polarization Leads to an Overdone Democracy

Amanda Wampler '24, Associate Managing Editor

On October 27th, Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University Robert Talisse gave a presentation entitled “Overdoing Democracy: The Problem of Polarization.” His talk, which was hosted by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues, shed light on polarization, the harms it can cause, and why we should not allow politics into every part of our lives.

Before covering polarization, Talisse talked about the idea of “too much democracy.” As with every good thing, too much democracy will lead to negative side effects. “It is possible to overdo democratic politics in a way so that the pursuit of our political aims crowds out the other good things that are a part of the profile of democracies value,” he said.

Following that idea, Talisse spoke about the ideals of a good democracy. One ideal is that citizens are equal in politics and are self-governing, which means that all citizens are allowed to think what they want about how the government should be run. He also mentioned the idea of civic-friendship, or “the capacity to regard political opponents as nonetheless political equals.” With these two ideals in mind, Talisse began his discussion about polarization and how these ideals are hindered by extreme polarization. 

“When a democracy has extreme forms of political polarization compromise becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible,” Talisse said. 

Polarization is the phenomenon when two sides become more alienated overtime, so that there is no longer the middle ground for compromise. Talisse also said, “As we shift into our more extreme selves, we embrace increasingly negative attitudes towards those we perceive to be different.” This is when polarization becomes negative; when each side can no longer see each other as equals. 

Talisse added that our day-to-day lives are heavily saturated with political affiliation. From the products we buy, the places we shop, even the cars we drive, everything we do and use in day to day life has become political due to polarization. Breaking out of that “echo-chamber” and finding things to do in life that have nothing to do with politics is a way we can avoid polarization.

Talisse emphasized the importance of being around people who might have different political beliefs than oneself. He said to do this, it is more than just putting differences aside, but rather it is finding things to do that have no politics in them at all. 

Karli Tellis ’22 thought Talisse’s talk was extremely important, especially in the current state of our politics. 

“We must reintroduce civil discourse and bring back the humanity of our neighbors by engaging in non-political activities with them, going beyond this to remember what it’s like to have empathy and understanding for one another,” Tellis said. “As we can see with the current political climate, this bind between people has been lost, and we must do everything we can- I would argue it is our duty as citizens even- to counteract this erosion of democracy and bring back a sense of faith, trust, and hope.” 

After going through the values of a democracy, what polarization is, and how it affects democracy, Talisse closed by focusing on how to overcome polarization. By not allowing politics to dictate every part of one’s life and by doing things that do not involve politics, middle ground can be found, polarization will decrease, and “democracy will flourish.”

As one of his closing statements, Talisse said, “What makes democracy so important, what makes democracy so precious, what makes democracy the kind of good that it is, is that is promises to us a stable and structured order in which we as individuals can live lives devoted to realizing valuable things and relations that may or may not have anything to do with politics.”