Democracy is necessary for a free and just society. It is tempting to conclude that democracy is such a crucial social good that there could never be too much of it. It seems that when it comes to democracy, the more the better.
Yet it is possible to have too much democracy. This is not an anti-democratic contention. Holding that democracy is a crucial good is consistent with denying that more is always better. Democracy’s flourishing requires that we avoid overdoing it. In other words, when democracy is overdone, democracy suffers and politics devolves. Let me explain.
Consider a case in which we readily admit the possibility of having too much of a good thing: cheesecake. However satisfying that first bite may be, the tenth is far less so. Moreover, there is a point at which cheesecake becomes positively displeasing. Hence we say that cheesecake is subject to diminishing utility: with every bite, the value of the next diminishes. We must not be excessive in consuming cheesecake, or else it loses its value. It’s good alright, but only in the right portion.
No one would claim that that democracy and cheesecakes are alike in this respect. So if there’s such a thing as having too much democracy, there must be another way in which a good can be overdone.
I once knew someone who decided to pursue optimal physical fitness. Apart from working and sleeping, she devoted her life to her workouts. After several months of intense exercise, she was in exceptional shape. However, along the way she lost her friends and allowed all of her other interests—travel, opera, and antiques—to wither. She allowed one good thing to crowd out all the other good things in her life.
To this day I wonder what the point could have been. One reason why being fit is good is that it enables us to engage in valuable activities other than working out, such as going to concerts with friends. But she achieved fitness in a way that left her friendless. She achieved fitness at the expense of the things that being fit is good for.
Democracy, like fitness, has a point. No matter what one might believe about democracy’s intrinsic value, what makes it such an important social good is that it enables goods of other kinds to flourish. When these other goods are crowded out of our collective lives, democracy becomes pathological.
Consider that democracy is not only a form of constitutional representative government; it is more fundamentally a system of collective self-government among social equals. When equals govern themselves, you can count on persistent, and often severe, disagreement about politics. As these disagreements are commonly high-stakes, there is an ethos that democratic citizens must embody. This enables citizens to sustain their respect for each other’s equality amidst ongoing political disputes. As citizens lose the capacity to respect each other’s equality, democracy devolves into a cold civil war by which factions seek simply to rule.
When there’s too much democracy, the travails of current politics penetrate the whole of social life. Well-documented trends suggest that in the United States and elsewhere, rival partisans do not merely divide over politics; they also live in different neighborhoods, shop at different stores, drive different vehicles, follow different sports, consume different entertainment, worship at different churches, and do different kinds of jobs. Consider: Walmart or Target? Hybrid or pickup? Camo tee or yoga pants? Starbucks or Dunkin’? NASCAR or NBA? This partisan clustering of social life means that our everyday encounters are increasingly likely to place us in contact only with others who are politically much like ourselves. The trouble is that as the horizon of social experience condenses around our co-partisans, we become more extreme in our commitments and grow more suspicious of, and more hostile towards those who we perceive to be politically different. Eventually we come to see everything as an expression of our political identities, and our political rivals begin to look increasingly alien and even threatening. Thus we lose the capacity to see them as our social equals, and democracy devolves into a cold civil war.
Commentators from across the spectrum lament the polarized state of democracy. Polarization is indeed regrettable. However, it has its root in the infiltration of politics into the entirety of social life. Although it might be helpful to “reach across the aisle” and foster bipartisanship, the real trouble for democracy lies in the fact that rival partisans live wholly different lives. To restore democracy, we need to recapture the shared social, but non-political, goods that our overenthusiastic democratic pursuits have crowded out of collective life. That we struggle to envision share social goods that are nevertheless non-political is a symptom of our tendency to overdo democratic politics.
Robert B. Talisse is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His central research area is democratic theory, where he pursues issues concerning legitimacy, justice, and public political argumentation. He is the author of a new book, Overdoing Democracy, published by OUP. This article is republished from the OUP blog with permission.