Democratic Rehab

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Elephants-and-donkeysWhen we tell people that we write about logic and politics, we let our interlocutors make the big joke. There is no logic in politics! It's a funny joke, for sure. But it's also tragic. And the tragedy is double-barreled. First, good reasons should be behind decision making. Without good reasoning, policy will likely be an irrational hash. There may be no logic in politics, but there ought to be. Second, the politics referred to in the quip is the politics of our democracy. And in a democracy what's true of the politics is often true of the participants. This includes not only the candidates, politicians, lobbyists, and media personalities, but the citizens as well. And it's hard to deny that we, the democratic citizens, are not users of logic when it comes to politics. The joke's on us.

As the current election cycle grinds to its finish, we easily see the toll it has taken on us. As a democratic nation, we are fatigued. We are so exhausted by our politics that it has become a common theme on the news channels and the late night comedy shows. Keeping up with the latest scandal, press release, spin, poll, and decision from governmental investigative institutions has worn us down. Moreover, the months of daily demands for outrage, disgust, and indignation have left the nation drained. Were such a thing conceptually possible, a clever politician would mandate a moratorium on politics beginning on November 9.

There is good news and bad news about our weariness. The bad news is that many of the items that have consumed the citizenry's attention of late have sapped us in a way that has diluted our trust in democracy itself. It is a common observation among democracy's enthusiasts that democracy is, even at its best, hard to love. But it really shouldn't be this easy to despise. The country has spent months feeding on a forced diet of doomsday politics, with each candidate and nearly every political officeholder given an abundance of reasons for thinking that November 8, 2016 marks the beginning of the End Times for democracy. When this message is accompanied by an “unless” clause that conveniently identifies the speaker, his Party, of his favored candidate as the country's only savior, the nausea is only exacerbated. The full-tilt political season, now arguably in its fourteenth consecutive month, has been not only something difficult to endure. It has provided good reason to wonder whether self-government is worth all the psychological trauma.

The good news comes on a few fronts, but is in no case untarnished. The first is that things are almost over. The country votes tomorrow. That brings an end to the phone calls and the advertisements and all of the unbelievably hostile discussions on television news channels.

But we will have to endure the aftermath of the election. And this includes the recriminations that will come from the losing side. The Republican candidate has already claimed that his loss would constitute a proof that the voting had been rigged against him, and perhaps this is the basis for his refusal to say in advance that he will accept the election results. The longer-term impact of Trump's candidacy on American democracy is difficult to fathom but impossible to cast in a wholly positive light.

Still, there is an optimistic point lurking in all of the darkness. The fact that the entire country has found so much of this election – its coverage, the behavior of at least one candidate, the way surrogates have conducted themselves, and so much of the political discussion around all of it – categorically tiresome is revealing of an important fact about ourselves. Despite the fact that live in an environment of bad argument and cynical political maneuvering, we citizens still find it all objectionable. We still see incivility, dishonesty, evasion, exaggeration, threat, and innuendo as worthy of criticism. Accordingly, we haven't yet normalized the traits that have driven the current election season. We have grown weary of our politics because we implicitly believe that democracy must not succumb to the vices of acrimony and sophistry. Citizens have tuned out because they demand better than what this election has offered; they have placed themselves above the despoiled condition of this election.

Of course, not everything is sweetness and light. The country is apparently deeply divided over who is culpable for debasing our democracy. We agree on the norms that should govern our democratic politics, but do not agree about when they've been most severely violated and by whom. This is to be expected. Getting democracy right is no easy task, and it is even more difficult to do democracy correctly on a large scale when the stakes are perceived to be high. Nonetheless, in the wake of this truly awful election season, our democracy needs rehab.

Democratic rehab will require sustained reflection on how and why things deteriorated so quickly. This kind of reflection will involve public debate. The trouble is that in the course of this election, the country seems to have lost its capacity to engage in debate. Hence the essential first step is to rehabilitate our practices of public political discussion. Democracy runs on civil argumentation, and argumentation is driven by disagreement. In order to disagree, one must be able to see those on the other side of a dispute as having reasons. Of course, to see others as having reasons is not to see that as being in the right; in fact, in order to disagree, one must see those on the other side as having weak reasons and being mistaken about their force. There can be no disagreeing with those who one cannot recognize as having reasons, only the kind of verbal maneuvering that made for such an exhausting election cycle.

The biggest hurdle to get over in our rehab will be to firmly renounce the common practice, made even more prevalent in the current election cycle, of pathologizing our political opponents. From the widespread use on the Right of the offensive epithet ‘Libtard,' to the Left's regular invocation of DSM personality disorders (particularly, paranoia and narcissism) to explain the behavior of Trump and his supporters, there is an overwhelming temptation to see those who we oppose as utterly irrational, driven not by reasons but simply driven. When we engage the activity of political argument, we first need to preserve the sense that there is an argument to be had. And this requires us to sustain a view of the opponent that unrelentingly attributes to him or her reasons. The point of argument is to lay bare all or many of the reasons in play, and jointly assess their force; so unless one is prepared to regard one's political opponents as nonetheless reasoners, there can be no arguing with them. The pathologizing tropes that have become all too common in the public political vernacular are at best blocks to democracy; at worst, they are instruments of self-deceived insulation from criticism.

Yet the nation seems hopelessly addicted to language that pathologizes political opposition, and there may be no sure-fire treatment. One thing worth trying is to force oneself to sincerely seek good (or at least plausible) arguments from one's opposition. Again, to see one's opponent as rational is different from seeing him as correct; so sincerely looking for cogent reasons from the other side doesn't require one to abandon one's convictions. Thus it's possible to assess the opposition's reasons as reasons and yet hold that the opponent is mistaken. But in pursuing this, we must also acknowledge that finding the good reasons the opposition has to offer will require us to actually listen to the opponents themselves. We must recognize that we are not the best judges of what reasons there are on the other side of an issue that we care about. And we should especially avoid getting our sense of the reasons on the other side from those on our own side who are all too eager to condemn the opposition. In short, weening ourselves off of the tendency to pathologize our opponents, we will need to actually talk to them.

No doubt a little humility will be helpful here. In looking for the best reasons our opposition has to offer, we will need to do a lot to invite their best thoughts, and this will require us to adopt the attitude that we have something yet to learn from our opponents. This kind of humility can be motivated by reflection on the ways our own views have changed and developed over time. We have all had the experience of learning better how to articulate our own ideas, and sometimes we may have even changed our minds about an important issue. What moved us? In all such cases, we learned something new. How did that happen? We had a good conversation with someone where a crucial fact was well-communicated, or we struggled to respond one of their criticisms. None of us ever learned anything by shouting down and demeaning others or by convincing ourselves that our own view is so obviously correct that only those suffering from a pathology would reject it. Democratic rehab, then, begins at home, with the willingness to recognize that our political opponents are nevertheless our fellow democratic citizens.