“Overdoing Democracy” with Dr. Robert Talisse

Dr. Robert Talisse spoke on campus on Nov. 11. Photo: Samantha Camp · The Sentry

Giving politics a rest
Dr. Robert Talisse spoke on campus on Nov. 11.
Photo: Samantha Camp · The Sentry

Vanderbilt University philosophy chair Dr. Robert Talisse visited CU Denver on Nov. 11 to discuss his latest book, Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place.  

The lecture was part of CU Denver’s fall colloquium series hosted by the philosophy department and was held in the Tivoli’s Baerresen Ballroom. The crowd of about 40 was made up largely of students, as well as members of the philosophy department and some other faculty. 

Dr. Talisse’s talk centered around his book and the concepts therein discussed; namely, how politics have invaded every aspect of daily life, how that affects people, and what must be done about it. The title, Overdoing Democracy, has put some off, believing that Dr. Talisse is advocating for less democracy or for resigning oneself in the face of politics but, according to Talisse, this is a misconception.  

“The book is not anti-democracy, it’s not [to] resign yourself to the status quo…these are not the messages of the book,” Dr. Talisse said. “The [message] is that you’ve got to do more of other stuff if you want to do well at democracy.” The thesis is that democracy can be overdone in the same way that, say, studying can; i.e., it’s necessary, but too much of it can have the opposite effect of what is intended. Breaks from politics are just as necessary as breaks to recoup energy between exercising.  

In every other area of life, Dr. Talisse pointed out, it’s easy to accept that breaks are necessary, such as with the examples of studying and exercising. “Why shouldn’t it be obvious in this case too?” 

The other major aspect of the lecture was the consideration of polarization, which is separated into multiple forms. These forms can be simplified as belief polarization and political polarization.  

Belief polarization invokes what is sometimes referred to as the “echo chamber effect,” when a person surrounds his or herself only with others who share their same beliefs or views. As Dr. Talisse put it, “Interaction with like-minded others turns us into more extreme versions of ourselves,” which in turn means that, “As we shift into our more extreme selves, we embrace increasingly negative attitudes towards those we perceive to be different.” 

Nearly everyone in America has seen first-hand this principle, and with Thanksgiving fast approaching, it is something likely to be witnessed again soon. It is because of how politically saturated American society is, Dr. Talisse posited, that dynamics like belief polarization and, in turn, political polarization exist.  

This all leads to where America is now, where most people, often unconsciously, choose to interact solely with those who share their political beliefs and shun others. However, as Dr. Talisse demonstrated both in his lecture and in his book, this mentality is harmful to democracy.  

If the American people want a better democracy, “As with most good things, there is an element of its pursuit that has to be indirect…The way you fight for democracy [is] sometimes to pursue other things.” 

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