Is Democracy Still Possible?

By Richard EldridgeMarch 21, 2021

Is Democracy Still Possible?

Overdoing Democracy by Robert B. Talisse
Political Argument in a Polarized Age by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett

IN ELEMENTS OF the Philosophy of Right, Hegel describes the inherent tendency of free market society to destroy itself in a frenzy of raw, egoistic self-interest, leading to massive inequality and “a spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of the physical and ethical degeneration common to both.” Hegel nonetheless defends free-market economic organization and argues that its excesses can be cured through the formation of individual character from above (by the state and its educational system), from below (by the family), and from within (by the enlightened corporation as a second family for its members). John Rawls similarly argues that we can find our way to a congruence between rational, individual self-interest (or seeking the good for oneself) and a shared, reasonable commitment to fairness as political and economic justice. But what if — as Marx believed — the state, the educational system, the family, the corporation, and individual character formation are all colonized by the imperatives of capitalist profit extraction and individual self-interest?

Here are two anecdotes that illustrate the relevance of this problem — the problem addressed by the books under review — to our current situation. First, when I arrived to teach at Swarthmore in 1982, I was told the following story. Not long before, Christopher Lasch had published The Culture of Narcissism. A Swarthmore student was assigned to write an essay on the book for seminar presentation. The student found himself, as students will, stuck at the last minute. Being enterprising, at 2:00 a.m. he found Lasch’s Rochester, New York, phone number from Directory Information. He called Lasch, explained his situation, and asked for help. Lasch replied, “Fuck you,” and slammed down the phone. I heard this story from multiple sources. From faculty members in their late 40s, who had come to maturity in the 1950s, the moral was: “What narcissists these students are!” From the students, the moral was: “What an asshole Christopher Lasch is!” Second, around 1997, an eminent philosopher-friend, a fully secularized Jew, told me that his teenage daughter had asked him, in some puzzlement: “Are we Jewish?” After taking a moment to think, he replied, with some ironic pride: “I’m not sure, but we are Democrats.”

In The Upswing, Robert D. Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and Shaylyn Romney Garrett investigate our current cultural situation combining economic inequality, selfishness, political polarization, and social isolation that rival those of the Gilded Age (c. 1870–1900). They undertake “an exercise in macrohistory,” stretching over 125 years and covering the four broad domains of economics, politics, society, and culture. While acknowledging the depth and complexity of our current problems, they draw from this history the good news that “we successfully weathered [a storm of unbridled individualism] once, and we can do it again.” Yes, things have gotten worse since roughly 1965–1973, in all four domains, but prior to that there was progress. There was, for example, a Great Convergence in incomes toward equality from 1895 to 1968, and a Great Divergence thereafter. In politics, trust in government rose from 1895 to 1965, and 47 percent of Republicans supported New Deal legislation. Since the 1960s, politics, beginning with changes in the elite, has become tribalized and affectively polarized (the subject of Robert B. Talisse’s book). Union membership, church membership, participation in voluntary associations, and even early family formation increased until the 1960s, when suddenly “expressive individualism” appeared. “Beliefs, values, and norms” about economics, politics, and society centered increasingly around solidarity and mutual responsibility until the mid-1960s, when individualist attitudes and norms began to increase. Even the ratio in Google-searchable books of occurrences of “we” to occurrences of “I” increases from 1895 to 1963 and plummets thereafter. The percentage of children given traditional baby names peaks around 1955, begins to drop in the 1960s, and drops after 1980. In all four domains, Putnam and Garrett find an inverted U-shaped curve describing a development toward social cohesion, community, equality, and mutual responsibility from 1895 until roughly 1965, followed by a downward slope toward individualism, inequality, and looking out for oneself afterward.

This story is complicated by somewhat varying courses of development for both Blacks and women, who remained (and remain) subject to special forms of oppression. Nonetheless, the Civil Rights movement coincided with the peak of We-sensibility, and there were significant gains for Blacks in income, education, life expectancy, and even political participation from 1895 to 1960, despite Jim Crow, and largely owing to the Great Migration and the Great Convergence in income equality. Likewise, for women employment opportunities increase from 1900 to 1965. In both cases, backlashes against progress begin to appear after the early 1970s, when individualism is on the rise.

All this naturally raises the question of what the causes of the inverted U-shaped curve might be, and what cures might be available. Putnam and Garrett rightly eschew simple causal stories and point instead to “a skein of interacting social and economic and political influences” with “feedback loops” among all four domains. They offer “a narrative that aids understanding,” instead of a one-dimensional causal story. Pointedly, they argue that globalization is not the cause of the downward turn, since globalization has had only a modest downward effect on wages; some other countries, equally embedded in the international economy, have showed more modest movements toward inequality than the United States. This suggests that the cause of rising inequality is as much political as global-economical.

While this seems correct, Putnam and Garrett do not much consider either capital investment and job flight to cheaper wage countries or the increasing political power of corporations and their economic influence on politics. These are political phenomena with their roots in the single-minded imperative of the international corporation to extract profit for shareholders: invest efficiently or die. Though there has been some recent literature on the corporation as potentially socially responsible, long-term social agent, with responsibilities to many stakeholders (employees, neighborhoods, consumers) and not only stock owners, it is hard to see how the imperative to profit extraction will moderate in a competitive economy without a significant degree of political regulation.

Instead of focusing on globalization and profit extraction, Putnam and Garrett stress among the knot of interrelated causes Baby Boom cultural dominance and the wide availability since 1965 of oral contraceptives, issuing in “the Sixties’ Earthquake,” the “Me-Decade” of the 1970s, and identity politics. It is worth noting both that increasing individual liberation is not all bad, especially for professionally employed women (despite the Second Shift) and that economic self-centeredness is also strongly fed by globalization and a sense of shrinking economic possibilities. From 1895 to 1965, and especially after the devastations of two World Wars, the American economy was the international hegemon, and a rising tide seemed to lift all boats. From the early 1970s onward, that is less and less the case. So, again, global economic factors have more force than Putnam and Garrett allot to them.

Once we take these factors into account, Putnam and Garrett’s cheery optimism — “we can do it again” — seems misplaced. Calls for a “moral awakening,” for “a reevaluation of our shared values” in the direction of concern for the common good, and for “massive grassroots organizing” seem bootless in light of global economic structures of corporate privilege and the colonization of both social institutions and individual sensibilities by the profit motive. For all the welcome character of Putnam and Garrett’s sense of the importance of ideas, it is hard to see how a decolonization of capitalist sensibility might develop, other than through isolated and hence ineffective individual decisions.

In Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place, Robert B. Talisse approaches these same issues from the perspectives of democratic theory and of recent experimental psychological work on polarization. Over the last 50 or so years, people have increasingly sorted themselves into living and working circumstances in which they have little contact with members of the opposite political party. Second, party allegiances have infiltrated almost every region of life, as choices of all kinds are understood to indicate political stance. If you patronize Starbucks, then you are likely a Democrat; Dunkin’ Donuts, a Republican. Target is Democratic, and Walmart is Republican. Social space, as Talisse puts it, is politically saturated. Sorting and saturation in turn produce polarization in both beliefs and affects as people adopt more extreme positions and come to harbor more negative feelings toward opponents because of interaction only with the likeminded. Belief and affect polarization in turn produce “the degeneration of democracy,” as the ability of citizens to trust in the overall reasonableness of fellow citizens even where they disagree wanes. The legitimacy of government is threatened, as minorities on any issue come to have difficulty accepting that the majority, whom they regard as ignorant and malicious, has inaugurated a policy for any good reasons, as opposed to naked, ignorant, hostile self-interest. Such suspicion of majority legislation can appear on both the right and the left, depending on who wins on a given issue.

Nor are the problems of lack of political trust and threatened legitimacy the result only of polarization. Democracy, Talisse argues is “an inherently expansionist ideal.” Simply having equivalent legal possibilities of political representation — which in any case do not obtain, owing to gerrymandering, the structure of the US Senate, and the nonrepresentation of the District of Columbia — is not sufficient to ensure that (one’s own) reasonable political arguments get a fair hearing. The wealthy can and do buy lobbyists and advertising time, as well as directly influencing the political process through campaign donations. Information flows can be controlled or distorted by the rich and powerful. Hence income and wealth, education level, information, and even job holdings must be equalized, if democracy is to be fully achieved. Since full equality in all domains is not readily achievable, the regime comes to seem undemocratic. This argument echoes Plato’s description in Book VIII of the Republic of the degeneration of democracy into tyranny, as the increasingly resentful disadvantaged turn to a strongman to redress their grievances, and it echoes Richard Rorty’s prescient 1999 observation that, after years of job flight and sinking wages,

something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bonds salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

So what, then, in the face of polarization and mistrust might we do? More democracy — for example organizing against gerrymandering — will not work; such efforts will just produce further polarization, since positions on what counts as gerrymandering and what counts as legitimate state judgment in districting are already crystallized around hard, mistrustful political identities. Instead, like Putnam and Garrett, Talisse suggests that we might come to reevaluate our own values and attitudes by participating in “collective practices that are not structured by political allegiance.” Given saturation, these may be all but impossible to find. But one could at least start with practices that one oneself regards as nonpolitical. By joining with others, we might come to recognize that others, too, are decent, reasonable people who rationally pursue a conception of the good. Such participation could “enable a rehabilitation of one’s conception of one’s political opponents,” as well as reminding us that there are important goods in life that democracy should protect and promote.

This suggestion that we might thus discover our likeness to others with different political identities resembles Hegel’s account in the Phenomenology of Spirit of the breaking of the hard heart in recognition of likeness. We might, as Talisse puts it, discover that “it matters to ourselves and to others how our lives go.” Unfortunately, however, Hegel’s account of this breaking relies on practices of confession and forgiveness that are rooted in a religious conception of our ultimate likeness to one another as created beings. Absent this, reconciliation in recognition of mutual reasonableness seems likely to founder, and such practices and conceptions have been colonized by individual, competitive self-interest, even more in the United States today than in early 19th-century Prussia, as we have come to take “how our lives go” to be largely a matter of “getting what we want” in competition with others — never mind “reasonableness” and “fairness,” claims to which strike many as having essentially partisan content.

This is not to gainsay the importance of either moral awakening or micrological associations with others. As Joseph O’Neill has argued in recent New York Review of Books articles on political branding, however, it is also important to win politically, and that may require playing hardball. Neither Putnam and Garrett nor Talisse denies the importance of the political: Putnam and Garrett call for organizing, and Talisse insists that participating in nonpolitical associations is fully compatible with intense political involvement. In practice, however, given saturation, maintaining both political and nonpolitical involvements will be difficult.

A third story: On November 8, 2016, the night that Donald Trump was elected president, a colleague dreamt — so he reported the next day — that he was henceforth prohibited from teaching logic. In Political Argument in a Polarized Age, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse describe a widespread degeneration of political argument into invective, spin, dog-whistling, and charges of fake news. Political argument has been “weaponized” and simulacra of argument have displaced real argumentative engagement with opponents. Despite claiming that this book is not “a kind of self-help for the political class,” and that “democracy can’t be fixed,” they nonetheless go on to propose that we might remember what real political argument is: trying to offer genuine reasons that one’s opponents might recognize as at least deductively or inductively valid (even if they reject the premises), plus reflecting seriously on the merits of both one’s own elected premises and the premises of one’s opponents (cultivating humility and being open to self-criticism). These are essential dimensions of taking others seriously as equal political citizens with whom one disagrees but who are entitled to a hearing. Remembering what genuine argument is is possible, they argue, both because we share ideals of argument (since each side charges the other with failing to respect them) and because disagreement (as opposed to mutual unintelligibility) presupposes agreement on many humdrum topics. Abstractly, it is difficult to disagree with all this. There is such a thing as genuine as opposed to simulated political argument, and more of it would be a good thing. The suggestion that we might take up practices of genuine argument is a piece of spaghetti that we would do well to throw at the wall to see whether it sticks, along with the other pieces suggested by Putnam and Garrett and by Talisse.

But does it have much chance of sticking? In our actual circumstances, the thought that we at any rate share ideals of argument sounds a bit like Hume’s mordant observation that we all agree on the general merits of beauty and virtue but are unable to agree on any particular instances of them. Perhaps it would help to teach formal logic in schools, along with concrete practices of contentful argument in civics, history, and philosophy. But who is likely to pay for that, in a general culture devoted not to understanding but to efficient individual self-seeking, where humility and self-criticism are in short supply, and we are prone to taking for granted individual preferences as they stand?

A classic dilemma of politics aiming at transformation beyond business as usual is: Which should we change first, institutions or individual consciousness? It seems impossible to change either without changing the other first. In a vicious cycle, defunding of education and infrastructure spending produces vulgarized politics, and vulgarized politics produces further defunding of education and infrastructure. We no longer quite know or believe in who we are as a democratic people. If there is to be significant transformation, it will have to involve changes in both what Hegel called “objective spirit” — the set of practical commitments that we live out concretely — and “absolute spirit”: how we understand ourselves reflectively through art, religion, and philosophy. We shall somehow have to give up the economic conception — a conception that covertly infiltrates all three books — that life is primarily about preference satisfaction.

This will, moreover, have to happen in a time when, in the United States and much of the industrialized world, globalization is producing an ebbing rather than rising tide. In the bleak meantime, the issue, as Stanley Cavell once put it, is “not the overcoming of our isolation,” but “the sharing of that isolation, not to save the world out of love, but to save love for the world, until it is responsive again.” It is not hopeless to try to save love for the world, concretely and in ways that do not re-entrench isolation, but it will not be easy either.


Richard Eldridge is Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Swarthmore College and the author, most recently, of Werner Herzog: Filmmaker and Philosopher.

LARB Contributor

Richard Eldridge a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Swarthmore College. He has held visiting appointments at the universities of Sydney, Brooklyn, Freiburg, Erfurt, Bremen, Stanford, and Essex. He is the author of seven books and over one hundred articles in Romanticism, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of art (especially literature, music, and film), and German Idealism, including, most recently, Werner Herzog: Philosophical Filmmaker (Bloomsbury, 2019) and Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject (Oxford, 2016). He is the general series editor of Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature.


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