Make debate great again: How bad political argument is undermining democracy

We have forgotten how to argue, and it’s easy to become extremist in our political views. That is undermining our democracies from within, according to two philosophers.

We’re also 'overdoing' democracy, says a philosopher

Do leaders' debates change how people vote?

3 years ago
Duration 8:39
Debates have been a hallmark of Canadian elections since 1968, but what effect do they actually have on voters? Strategists will tell you they’re critical to elections and a lot of planning goes into them. Researchers, on the other hand, say there’s evidence they can change votes, though often they don't.

** This episode was originally published on September 26, 2019.

By Nahlah Ayed

For evidence of the decline of political argument, you need only tune in to the next election debate, or the next session in Parliament.

For evidence of the pervasiveness of the problem, we need only look in on ourselves.

Not only have we forgotten how to argue in today's democracies — our debates simultaneously are becoming both shrill and tone deaf — we also live in times when it's easy to become extremist in our political views, and therefore less likely to listen to the other side. 

That in turn makes us lousy arguers, and that is undermining our democracies from within, according to two philosophers who have spent years studying political argument.

Philosophy professors Robert Talisse, right, and Scott Aikin are co-authors of the upcoming Political Argument in a Polarized Age. They also host the video podcast Philosophy15, short discussions that they hope will encourage non-academics to ponder big questions. (Vanderbilt University)

"It's not that democracy got infected by something else — it's something from within," says Scott Aikin, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and co-author of the upcoming Political Argument in a Polarized Age.

"We did this to us."

The imperfect debate

The professors argue that growing political polarization, hyper-politicized social media, and the echo chambers we inhabit online and off create a perfect storm of imperfect argument.

It starts with a distorted picture of our political rivals — formed with the help of like-minded people, as well as of politicians and their own imperfect debates.

"We are more than ever able to get our understanding of what our political opponents think and how they live from people who are on our side — that I think is the trouble," says Robert Talisse, Aikin's co-author and chair of the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University. 

Disagreement is the bedrock of democracy, says Talisse. (Submitted by Robert Talisse)

These depictions signal that the people on the other side "aren't even worth listening to, because the views that they have are so 'extreme and crazy,' there couldn't be any profitable reasoning with them."

"These strategies are fundamentally anti-democratic. They're tyrannical, they're fascistic. They are the kinds of strategies that lead us to accept a politics based on the idea that there is no such thing as reasonable disagreement."

Coffee clash

The echo chambers we inhabit go beyond the online realm and into everyday life, physically separating us from those with political views different than ours, says Talisse.

Consumer choices — even where we get our morning coffee — skew politically, he adds, and contribute to our estrangement from political opponents.

Americans who frequent Starbucks, says Talisse, tend to be on the more liberal side, while those with conservative leanings tend to prefer Dunkin' Donuts.

That even the coffee we choose is caught up in our hyper-politicized world is only one indication of just how much politics has permeated our lives. 

Civility is a matter of addressing the other side's … reasons in a way that gives them a fair hearing.— Robert Talisse

Along with the online echo chambers, it all turns us into extremist versions of ourselves, who are more likely to be dismissive of our political adversaries—again making for unproductive argument, say Aikin and Talisse.

"We radicalize in contexts where we're surrounded only by like-minded others," he explained. 

"We become less likely to listen to the arguments of the people on the other side, and by the way these are empirical results and they're very, very robust."

'Overdoing democracy'

In this age of intense polarization, Talisse argues, we have allowed politics to dominate our lives to an extent that we are "overdoing democracy."

"It is possible to enact our roles as citizens to such an extent that we crowd out of our social lives all the other bases on which we might build valuable relationships together," says Talisse.

In doing so, he adds, we come to see one another "exhaustively and exclusively" as citizens who are either allies or rivals. 

"Not only do we crowd out other good things in our lives we do but we also crowd out other good things in our lives that democracy needs in order for it to flourish."

The answer, Aikin and Talisse say, is in finding civic activities and conversations where politics is beside the point —everyday situations where common ground may be discovered and established.

The answer may also be found in reaffirming that family gatherings like Thanksgiving, for example, have a much higher purpose than arguing about politics —-a dreaded tradition.

Civility is key

And how to make debate great again?

Civility is key — but in Aikin's and Talisse's view, that doesn't mean "polite."

"Civility is a matter of addressing the other side's … reasons in a way that gives them a fair hearing," says Talisse.

Good debate also requires the ability to assess argument — and reasons for an argument — independently of whether an opponent's conclusion is correct, they say. 

Aikin says given the fractious political environment in today's democracies, the best that can be hoped for is finding spaces where people who strive to argue well can do so — including university classrooms, public forums both online and off, and in everyday conversation, even in a line to grab a coffee.

Aikin says, "It requires us as individuals to kind of reach out and be better than ourselves."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?