Can We Talk?: On Taylor Dotson’s “The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy”

December 24, 2021   •   By Bill Thompson

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy

Taylor Dotson

“THERE ARE FEW words in the English language that seem to be spoken with as much disgust or hopelessness as politics,” Taylor Dotson writes in The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy — but it is too little politics, he argues, not too much, that is the chief obstacle to bridging divisive ideological gulfs.

The author analyzes our manifest failures to utilize pluralistic political involvement in addressing such troubling issues as economic and racial inequality, gun violence, and climate change — matters that provoke overheated ire and distrust.

Despite its boilerplate subtitle, this calm, largely persuasive analysis of the United States’s — and much of the world’s — civic malaise lowers the thermostat long enough to show a potential way out, should we have the foresight and restraint to attempt it.

Dotson, who teaches social science at The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, is not in thrall to calcified doctrines. The cornerstone of his work is practical application, making social science useful to average citizens as a bulwark against the tendency of technological societies to become less individualistic and more authoritarian. The fundamental arguments might sound trite: negotiate and compromise, design and implement pluralistic policy, walk a mile in an opponent’s shoes. But it is Dotson’s thorough and intellectual analysis that most impresses.

Dotson notes that a majority of Americans see little logic in political debate or discussion, and that compromise is often reviled as a betrayal of principles. He laments that bargaining is often seen as an impediment rather than an essential function of democracy.

What is the role of truth, that most elusive construct, in the practice of democracy? Dotson wonders how a democratic system can survive when a citizenry is cleaved by basic, often erroneous assumptions about each other, indeed how such a citizenry can hope to govern themselves.

All valid questions. He begins by focusing a critical lens on the intersection of science and politics, then proceeds to examine those assumed opposites that have defined so many political cultures: governance by informed “elites” versus the rule of “populists,” or, expressed differently, the tug-of-war between expert opinion and common sense. He pillories an excessive fealty to both, but not before eviscerating the idea of a “post-truth” era, wherein opinions “crowd out and overwhelm” facts. When did objective fact ever guide politics?

Many political pundits claim that their opposition traffics in fallacious, uninformed, or deceptive ideas, endeavoring to shut down disagreement as quickly as possible. But argument — thoughtful, if sometimes rancorous — is precisely what greases the wheels. How can one comprehend the position of another if they refuse to consider it? Our current climate appears to dismiss the notion that people’s views are malleable, that they might change in light of opposition or modify with ongoing learning. When disagreement arises, we’re prone to fanning the flames and further undermining democracy, instead of using it to work toward more intelligent outcomes.

But political interactions are not going to hew to democratic principles by force of argument alone. Configuring a more democratically pluralistic society will require significantly, even radically, reforming political structures and media systems, not to mention making “dramatic changes to schooling, childhood, the workplace, and other institutions.” Dotson believes it is possible for citizens to recognize their commonality, but many will remain skeptical. He suggests a degree of pluralism and connection that are idealistic, a matter of potential, and promotes a language and identity to transcend social differences.

There are consequences to ever-increasing political polarization. Resentful and vengeful anger is perilous, but Dotson points out that groundswells of outrage have been instrumental in some of history’s most conspicuous social changes — changes that likely would not have occurred if people had not channeled their indignation constructively, compelling others, in turn, to negotiate and compromise.

Polarization in the political sphere is nothing new. Many Americans search for community through their political identities, and this only partially explains today’s entrenchments. Is it a pipe dream that we can avoid “ever starker and [more] solidified ideological divisions” and work toward greater understanding? It certainly seems improbable, given the temper of the times. But Dotson insists:

By putting people in the position of having to persuade, negotiate with, and strategize against opponents, democratic pluralism turns politics from a machine wherein groups battle only to ensure victory for their own narrow preferences into a more dynamic process where citizens’ goals, beliefs, and aspirations evolve in response to their interactions. Policy becomes more intelligent and circumspect as a result.

The question is, can we stop idealizing expert knowledge and romanticizing the beliefs of the Capra-esque average citizen long enough to open a genuine dialogue?

In his characteristically reasoned tone, Dotson addresses the limits of technology and of free markets as a panacea, the deceptive allure of moderation, the importance of respecting experience, the excesses of identity politics, and the error of entrusting complex problems to cloistered experts or fervent populists.

Dotson contends that the tensions between truth and democracy are embedded in their very nature. Could it be, then, that the ideal of truth is the problem, rather than the fact that we rarely live up to it? It may be intelligent to discard the pursuit of objective truth and embrace a more pluralistic democratic process, but one suspects it may not be quite so productive as the author hopes. Moreover, the old democracy versus republic argument is not going away, and not everyone will subscribe to Dotson’s “more is more” dictum.

The Divide conceives of democracy as a process, more basic yet complex than a simple translation of popular opinion into policy. It advocates a system that does not define democracy strictly in terms of electoral politics, one in which citizens can wield significant influence on the decisions that affect their lives. It asserts that misguided policies are more often the result of processes that fail to be inclusive.

Although his solutions are not always convincing, Dotson successfully describes why most proposals to correct gridlock and polarization are flawed by showing how they fail to address underlying causes and even flirt with worsening the situation:

To the extent that experts dominate policy decisions, government seems increasingly distant and unresponsive, sowing discord among ordinary citizens. At the same time, idealizing the beliefs of laypeople or mythologizing “the majority” creates anxieties among experts and other important decision makers, worries that can motivate attempts to centralize power.

And this is his overriding fear: the threat of authoritarianism from any quarter. Perhaps it should be ours as well.

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Bill Thompson is the author of Why Travel? A Way of Being, A Way of Seeing.