The Debasement Puzzle

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Everybody knows what real-world political disagreement is like: shouting, name-calling, dissembling, browbeating, mobbing, and worse. As it is practiced, deliberation in actual democracy has little to do with collective reasoning about the common good; it’s instead a constrained, but nevertheless ruthless, struggle for power. Notice, however, that hardly anyone embraces this condition. When people describe democracy in such terms, they are most often complaining. But notice that lamentations over the cut-throat nature of politics make sense as criticisms only against the backdrop of an aspirational alternative. Our forthcoming book, Democracy in a Divided World, develops a democratic ideal worth aspiring to. According to that ideal, democracy is a system where political equals govern together by means of well-run political argument.

This ideal is admittedly distant, but it hasn’t been plucked from thin air. Despite the condition of our democracy, citizens and officials alike hold one another to high standards of civil conduct. When the President characterizes those he perceives to be his critics as “very dishonest people,” he appeals to the public virtue of honesty. Charges of bias uphold the related public virtue of evenhandedness. When one criticizes a news organization for being slanted, one is insisting upon a public virtue of fairness. Note, too, that it is common now for the word “partisanship” to be used as a criticism; when one official charges another with being “partisan,” she is claiming that the other is dogmatically committed to a party line. Such charges uphold the ideal of proper argumentation. The fact is that real world politics, warts and all, is still animated with the aspiration to democracy as a system of well-run argumentation.

This occasions a puzzle. We all embrace the same democratic ideal of well-run argument and joint governance. And no one wholeheartedly approves of the political status quo. So why is our democracy so dysfunctional? Call this the debasement puzzle.

The short answer to the debasement puzzle is that we did this to us. Here’s the longer answer. Deliberation is a collective enterprise of argument. When it is engaged in a democracy, deliberation is also an enterprise of argument among political equals. Political equals owe one another a kind of civic respect, an acknowledgement that among citizens there are no bosses and subordinates. This means that in a democracy political disagreement must evince the participants’ recognition of one another’s standing as political equals. So that’s why it has to be argument that runs deliberation, not merely giving orders or speaking ex cathedra. To fix terms, we can call the collection of dispositions, attitudes, and practices that constitute this recognition and argumentative orientation civility. Hence we can say that, in a democracy, citizens owe to one another the duty of civility.

To be clear, civility is a term freighted with associations that we are here rejecting. It’s worth emphasizing two key ways in which our usage diverges from what is common.  First, in our view, civility does not require a gentle tone, a concessive posture, or a general stance of conflict aversion. Rather, we mean by civility that collection of traits that enable citizens to manifest their respect for the equality of their interlocutors even amidst heated disputes over important political matters. Second, as we have argued previously, the demands of civility are reciprocal; that is, we each have a duty to engage civilly provided that the requirements of civility are generally upheld by our interlocutors. In our view, civility does not impose duties on us come what may.  Now, even granting these stipulations, there will be competing views regarding what civility amounts to. But we can leave debates over civility’s nature aside; our purposes lie elsewhere.

Whatever else democracy is, it involves the thesis that a decent social order is possible among equal citizens who disagree, often vehemently, about the precise shape their collective life should take. This means that in addition to thinking together about questions of public policy, citizens must also be able to think together about questions concerning how political argumentation should be conducted. And this in turn means that democratic citizens must evaluate not only one another’s political judgments regarding the policy questions they face; they must also evaluate each other’s performance in political argumentation.

Normally it’s easy to see that these two levels of evaluation are conceptually distinct. Ann might articulate a severely flawed view of, say, immigration without thereby violating her duty of civility. Similarly, Bill might articulate the correct position on that matter in a way that is uncivil. In Ann’s case, those who disagree with her should criticize her position by engaging her reasons; in the case of Bill, however, citizens as such – even those who agree with his view on immigration – should criticize him for his incivility. In a democracy, mistakes regarding questions of policy are to be expected, and when a citizen comes out on the wrong side of a policy question after having deliberated in good faith, she’s blameless. By contrast, even when a citizen has impeccable judgment regarding a policy question, if he is uncivil in expressing his view, he deserves censure.

And here is where the trouble lies. Although the distinction between the two levels of evaluation is clear on paper, it’s difficult to keep them distinct in the heat of high-stakes democratic decision-making. Given the importance in a democracy of coalitions for achieving one’s preferred results, the tendency is to regard agreement on the policy questions as sufficient for civility. And for the same kind of reason, there’s an inclination to regard those who disagree with us about the policy issues we think most important as ipso facto also failing at civility. And the reality is that those who reject the things you hold dear and do so explicitly to you seem to be uncivil people. Indeed, in a democracy, there is often a strategic advantage in treating one’s allies as beyond all criticism, and one’s opposition as not merely wrong about the policy issues, but as wholly inept.

Thus the debasement puzzle finds its explanation. In regarding our policy adversaries as wholly inept, we come also to regard them as so thoroughly misguided as to be incapable of proper citizenship. Accordingly, although we all embrace the same democratic ideals of civility, we regard our opposition as unable to meet civility’s requirements. Given the reciprocal nature of the duty of civility, once we are convinced that our opponents will not reciprocate, we no longer have a rationale for upholding civility. Our opponents, of course, reason similarly. The result is a dysfunctional democracy. However, the dysfunction is compounded by the fact that much of the incivility is, in fact, blameless: ordinary citizens often have adequate reason to take their opposition to have divested from civility; thus they also have adequate reason to conclude that that civility’s requirements no longer hold. The debasement puzzle hence points to a tragedy for democracies: perhaps this particular debasement dysfunction is an inevitable result of democratic practice.