Objections to deliberative democracy state that culturally plural societies are too diverse to be able to enact such a concept, that social groups who are marginalized in these societies would not have the access or ability to participate in such decision-making processes. This essay argues that deliberative democracy is applicable to these societies and may be the only method of addressing historical injustices through the reconciliation process, shared stories and perceptions of a common good.
“First we argue for equality, by appealing to the arbitrariness of the natural lottery. Then we allow departures from equality provided that these are not worse for those who are worst off. This explains why, in Rawls’s phrase, the worst-off have the veto, so that benefits to them should have absolute priority.” Parfit (2000, p.121)
Theorists of deliberative democracy assert that democracy relies upon notions of a common good and an egalitarian ideal, and also that democracies should be developed to encourage civic responsibility and self-respect. While many modern societies are culturally plural, as long as a system of government allows for a fair system of bargaining that is representative of all groups, these theorists think that it will be a legitimate system (Cohen, 1997). This essay will look at the different concepts that underpin deliberative democracy and assert that such a democratic process is both applicable to a modern, pluralist society and that collective choice will also lead to better understanding between the different groups that inhabit these societies.
John Dryzek’s “Discursive Democracy” (1990) was the first book written about deliberative democracy. Dryzek states that ‘the final decade of the second millennium saw the theory of democracy take a strong deliberative turn’ (Dryzek, 2000:1). The opportunity to participate became the imperative in asserting effective deliberation and claims for or advocated by others could be justified in terms that would be acceptable to the participants. For Dryzek (2000), deliberative democracy should not be confined to strict forms of ‘public reason’ but should be able to engage in more tolerant positions that include testimony, humour, emotion, storytelling, argument, rhetoric and even gossip. He contends that this would help deliberation in a non-coercive way and rule out dominant powers manipulating outcomes or attempting to enforce an ideological conformity.
This also explains how deliberative democracy has come to be seen by some as being too chaotic and unmanageable through inclusion, and yet by others as being too restrictive through exclusion. For these objections even the idea of rational argument is elitist and exclusive to those who cannot explain themselves comprehensively (Dryzek, 2000:5). However, Dryzek’s inclusion of story allows those that do not have the same worldview as the dominant group to come to an arena of democracy and show through narrative why their preferences might be the ones that are chosen by the collective. Indigenous people can benefit from democracy in this way, instead of having to rely upon the political representation of someone who has little concept of their worldview or culture.
Jürgen Habermas developed the concept of deliberative democracy, basing its legitimacy in reason. Democracy, asserted Habermas, is supposed to encourage free critical reasoning about common affairs designed to guide the practice of coercive powers (Cohen, 1999:386). Joshua Cohen states that one of the reasons that Habermas contended that democracy should be deliberative, was to ensure the impartial justifiability of outcomes (Cohen, 1999:402). John Rawls (1972) also reflected this in his thinking about political decision-making where his principle of participation required fair political equality. Deliberative democracy relies upon the participants engaging in free deliberation amongst equals as the basis of their legitimacy and Cohen (1999) thinks that in this way deliberative democracy is able to address pluralism within a democratic process. Citizens find resolutions to problems of collective choice through public reasoning and establishing a framework for deliberation. It is a plural and diverse association that is committed to resolving problems through collective choice. This is assisted through each party not reaffirming self-interested or mandatory preferences or ideals.
The first step in collective choice is choosing an agenda, then the proposal of different solutions to that agenda with supportive reasoning, and finally settling upon an agreed solution. While all comprehend the necessity of their own good, in deliberative democratic decision-making they also share a commitment to finding decisions that are acceptable to all, even if it involves revising one’s own preferences and beliefs. Deliberation requires critical reasoning because it is not enough in pluralistic societies for people to provide reasons for decisions being based upon preferences, beliefs or ideals. The notion of autonomy is also important in a deliberative democracy, as preferences should be formed by agency rather than circumstance. Therefore, deliberation consists of assessing the common good from the basis of legitimate public reflection on what is an appropriate claim on public resources, rather than notions of preconceived ideas and interests (Cohen, 1997).
Historical injustice means injustices that have occurred across generations from oppressive social practices and institutions. These social practices legitimise exclusion and oppress certain groups because their features mark them as inferior to others. Through this oppression these social groups are vulnerable to exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. If this oppression occurs over a long period of time they become historical injustices. Historical oppression is unique in that it formulates identity in terms of conflict and opposition, leaving a stigma even after reparations have been reparations have been attempted. Indigenous cultures that have been conquered by settler colonial powers are an example of historical injustice. In attempting to address the plural dimensions of historical oppression, democratic inclusion must find a way of resolving these issues (Bashir, 2012).
Benjamin Barber (Young, 1989: 256) highlights the opposition between the general interests of the civic polity and the particular interests of private affiliations. Barber states that concepts of the common group are not enforced from a position of authority but agreed upon as part of a common project. Although Barber states that notions of belonging to particular groups are important as well for people, it could be that concepts such as universal citizenship and deliberative democracy may require a degree of impartiality that humans may not be able to practice (Young, 1989). People understand polity from their particular perspective and the narrower their perspective the narrower will be their political view. This occurs in societies where some are privileged while other are oppressed. To recommend that all citizens leave their perspectives and interests behind merely reinforces the privileged position of some and fails to redress the oppression, all the while silencing it by ignoring the perspective of the oppressed. Young (1989) argues that Barber confuses plurality with privatisation, stating that pluralism encourages particular private interest groups to assert their interests over others. She goes on that instead of unified public realm that does not disregard the particular perspectives of individuals but acknowledges the ‘desire to decide together the society’s policies’ (Young, 1989:258). Therefore Young suggests that there should be specific representation of disadvantaged groups in order to enact affirmative action with regard to their participation in the greater group, the greater group already having a strong enough voice (Young, 1989:262).
An objection to deliberative democracy is that its treatment of basic liberties is unacceptable because it is dependent upon a majority decision and restricts the liberty of individuals. Cohen (1997) responds to this objection by stating that deliberative democracy entails informed and autonomous judgements through public deliberations in which free and civil expression is allowed to take place. In this way it includes the individual in decisions for the majority. Another objection is that public deliberation is, in reality, irrelevant to modern political conditions. It is basically an objection that direct democracy cannot occur in modern conditions because the nature of our states is too large and complex in both population and institutions. Especially with regard to the globalization of citizenship in large conglomeration states like the European Union, this objection states that it is difficult to encourage citizens under such conditions of diversity to consider themselves equal participants in acts of cooperative deliberation (Cohen, 1997). By ensuring that institutions engaged in deliberative democracy have arenas through which citizens propose and debate issues for the political agenda, this objection seems nullified. If these institutions can act across communities and states, through the use of social media and online translators people can engage with each other on a local, national and international level.
Habermas advocated such a communitarian approach to democracy based upon mutual communication. In this way deliberative citizenship can use narratives of shared experience to address thinner concepts of liberal theory and particular interest groups. John Dewey termed this type of deliberative vision as a ‘shared way of life’. For Immanuel Kant, without ‘enlarged thought’ or public engagement in the decision-making process that includes other perspectives there is a failure in the human community to live wisely. If one loses touch with public conversation one becomes sensorily deprived ( Boyte, 1995). Addressing issues in the public sphere that involve marginalised social groups, such as indigenous, disabled, or ethnic minority groups, a necessary part of the political process is allowing those groups to become engaged in decision-making. Approaches to this could be through the convening of town meetings where citizens can be involved in discussing problems, and ensuring that election coverage gives voices to a broad range of citizens, especially those that are marginalised, as well as representatives. Civic journalism also can play a role in revealing conditions that may be hidden from the general civic polity (Sirianni and Friedland).
To ensure that institutions work within the desired parameters of a deliberative democracy, it is necessary to understand that material inequalities usually mean political inequalities. Being from a remote or poor community can mean that you have little chance to engage in the democratic process because of lack of access. Therefore, political parties that are able to be supported through public funding are an important enabling feature of deliberative democracy. In this way material disadvantage in the political arena can be overcome and ensures the manifest equality that is a part of the Rawlsian view. Also, by providing a diverse enough range of issues parties can ensure that debate is not restricted to certain issues and provide more open-ended accounts that can properly inform diverse understanding of the common good (Cohen, 1997).
Objections to deliberative democracy on the grounds that it is either too inclusionary or exclusionary are counteracted by methods of storytelling that include people who might otherwise have their voices silenced. Deliberative democracy can provide a solution to the challenge of pluralism in its insistence that participants are able to engage with each other equally and with liberty of deliberation. Critical reasoning is essential for deliberative democracy because it helps to take the decision-making beyond personal preferences and beliefs. Deliberative democracy should also be viewed as an egalitarian approach. Furthermore, through such a Rawlsian egalitarian approach the difference principle can apply and reconciliation between the general community and disenfranchised groups can occur. This is especially important when it comes to redressing historical injustices.
Deliberative democracy is a way in which those who have suffered from historical injustices can be included in the process of decision-making in an attempt to resolve their issues. Elements of affirmative action are advocated to become part of the arena of deliberative democracy to ensure that those people whose voices are usually silenced, such as the marginalised or oppressed, are included in the decision-making process. Liberty and autonomy are able to be protected in the process of deliberative democracy through public decision-making with all free and civil voices being included.
Finally, although modern states are large and populous, smaller arenas, such as social media, where people can voice their opinions on issues are becoming more popular and varied across the political sphere. Civic journalism and publicly funded political parties are also a good way to make sure that those who have little chance to engage in the democratic process have their material disadvantage addressed. Therefore, if the objections to deliberative democracy are addressed then it should be a successful basis for addressing the claims of marginalised social groups.
- Bashir, B. (2012), “Reconciling Historical Injustices: Deliberative Democracy and the Politics of Reconciliation”, in Res Publica, 18 (27), 2012, pp. 127-143
- Boyte, C.J. (1995), “Beyond Deliberation: Citizenship as Public Work”, Civic Practices Network, viewed on 5 May 2013 on http://www.cpn.org/crm/contemporary/beyond.html
- Cohen, J. (1997) “Deliberation and democratic legitimacy” in Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics , Bohman, James; Rehg, William , 1997 , pp. 67-91
- Cohen, J. (1999),”Reflections on Habermas on Democracy”, in Ratio Juris, 12 (4),December 1999, pp. 385-416
- Dryzek, J (2000), Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics and Contestations, Oxford University Press Inc. New York
- Rawls, J., (1972), A Theory of Justice, Clarendon Press, Oxford
- Sirianni, C., & Friedland, L. (n.d.), “Deliberative Democracy”, Civic Practices Network, viewed in 5 May 2013 on http://www.cpn.org/tools/dictionary/deliberate.html emocracy reliescieties. cess ise issues.ther too inclusionary or exclusionary are conteracted by habit these societies. cess is
- Young, Iris Marion. “Polity and group difference: A critique of the ideal of universal citizenship” Ethics , 99:2 , 1989 , 250-274