Robert Talisse On ‘Too Much Democracy’ And The Public-Private Distinction

Over at Aeon Magazine Robert Talisse worries that “our social lives” are being “tyrannised by democracy” because “choices about mundane matters…are all deeply tied to [our] political profile…social worlds are shaped by the travails of contemporary politics” and builds to the conclusion that “there is such a thing as too much democracy,” that “we must reserve space in our shared social lives for that which is not political.” Because the “saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for community and social cooperation….we must cultivate a…civic friendship,” by engaging “with each other on matters that are not political,” by talking with each other “about matters of substance that are not at all political.”

Roughly, let us not structure our personal lives and spheres by the political, by democratic politics, revolving around the expression and instantiation of political preferences; rather, let us let the political emerge from a set of personal micro-interactions, cultivating along the way, the ‘civic friendship’ that should underwrite a viable democracy. Talisse thus insists on reserving an exclusively personal space, free of politics, one from which the political—‘democracy’—would emerge; at least in this way, Talisse’s analysis reinforces an older public and private distinction. Here is the personal, and here is the political; the twain shall meet but on the terms dictated by the former; the latter is not permitted to ‘tyrannize’ the personal. (Incidentally, we might ask whether the problem that Talisse points to is specifically a problem of democracy or of any political system in which the personal is infected by the political?)

I agree with Talisse that the social world–as it is visible in his formulation–is structured by politics but I think we get a narrowly framed picture of what this structuring is like if we think of this only in terms of political preferences i.e., I’m picking and choosing my friends and family and acquaintances based on their and mine political preferences and tastes. For instance, my socially constructed race and gender, and my materially constructed class has a great deal to say about what my social spaces and thus, what my social interactions, are like. This is not a matter of my political preference; I am placed into certain social spaces by these attributes of mine, and those are determined by larger social materialities. Furthermore, I am susceptible and vulnerable to legal control in differential ways, depending on my race, class, and gender, resultant in a vector of social placement and comfort; this susceptibility is only partially determined by political preferences.

As these examples show, we certainly exercise many choices in structuring our social spaces but many of our spaces are structured for us; for instance, many school children in the US today grow up in a society that is far more sharply segregated than it was in the past. They have not chosen their schoolmates based on their preferences; their mates have been chosen for them. How free then is their educational attainment and their subsequent economic and physical placement in a particular city neighborhood?

So, I would suggest that while Talisse is right in pointing to the importance of the micro-personal interaction as a basis for larger politics and political formations, it is not clear to me that this suggestion will result in the kind of democracy-or-politics-free space desired. Those spaces of micro-personal interactions will be structured by class, by race, by gender: working class black folks are going to spend, in the US, most of their personal time with other working-class black folks; and middle-class white women are going to spend their personal time with folks very much like them. Now, it is a consequence of materialist (or feminist or critical race) analysis that these kinds of class (or gender or race) placements do determine political preferences in interesting and significant ways, so in fact, it turns that even these personal spaces are politically structured. Indeed, it is not quite clear whether even in the domains of the romantic or sexual such structuring can be avoided. The activities that Talisse suggests could be made the basis of a civic friendship–mundane social activities all of them–are quite plausibly viewed as being infected thus. That is as it should be if we understand politics as a community wide movement towards a common goal, a project of inherent plurality that implicates even the minor personal interactions.  The personal is indeed political.

Hillary Clinton And The Supposed Political Windfall For Feminism

The ‘feminist legacy’ of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi is an ambiguous one. These women, in varying fashion, rose to great political power, and exerted it with varying degrees of aplomb. (They both earned nicknames that assimilated their visible displays of ‘steel’ into a stereotypical vision of male toughness.) Gandhi came to power in a nation whose imagined and real social role for women was sharply limited; it is unclear what Gandhi’s being in power had to do with the greatly increased visibility of women in Indian public life (the latter presence might well be linked with the changes in the political economy that have been introduced in India since the 1990s.) Thatcher’s ascendancy was seen as a victory for women in British politics while her policy support for women’s causes was widely debated. Again, in her case, it is not clear whether her tenure broke glass ceilings and rolled back the tide of sexism in British public life.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it is unclear to me that the election of Hillary Clinton as president will represent a windfall for feminism and women’s rights. The US of 2016 is not the England of  1979 or the India of 1966, but patriarchy–engaged in mutually supportive roles with corporate structures–still rules the roost here. The American corporate stronghold over politics, whose most visible symbol is the rampant economic inequality that so permeates the lives of American citizens, is better than most in co-opting potential foes as allies.  In its embrace, traditional identity politics matter for little (even as Barack Obama found that his being black was as potent a political force to be ranged against him as any other.)

Materialist feminists know that dismantling patriarchy will not be done without dismantling the economic system it works with; elect an economically privileged person to power and they will simply perpetuate class privilege. Their identity lies with their class, with their economic group, with the allegiances that ensure their economic and political power. Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record–stretching back to her days in Arkansas–indicates that on taking power she will enact policies that will act to dismantle the very system that is her, and her family’s, best friend. To be sure, the symbolic value of her victory will be immense; it would send a powerful signal to many women, old and young, that their voices have been heard, that they have political representation of a kind, and that oft-repeated-claim that more young women will find it possible to dream about political power will sound ever more plausible.

But those same women, I fear, will find their paths to the ‘top’ blocked if the routes remain the same. And they will resolutely remain the same unless power–in this political and economic system–is exercised differently, for different ends, by those who attain it, by those who show their priorities lie with matters more weighty than the mere retention of that power. Hillary Clinton does little to indicate she will make the kinds of possibilities dreamed about by women more tangible, more substantial. Worse, her election could weaken those arguments which claim that women are economically and politically under-represented. Remember, the refrain will go, if she can make it, so can you.