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Participatory Democracy Requires Transformed Personalities

Carol Gould (Rethinking Democracy: freedom and social cooperation in politics, economy and society [1988]) believes that there is a personality structure “appropriate to participation in democratic institutions …” (p. 284). For her, democratic agency is “not the agency of an isolated individual considered outside of any social context, but is rather the exercise of this power in free association with the agency of others” (p. 289). She insists that the agential right to co-determine actions pertains to “contexts of economic, cultural, and social organizations” as well as to the “domain of political democracy” (ibid.).

What traits of character are needed in such contexts? First, individuals need initiative, the “quality of activity against passivity” (ibid.). They must be able to freely enter into any structure of participation. But to enter dialogic relationships requires self-understanding: “awareness of the relation of one’s own interests or needs to the common interests of the group” (p. 290). The second basic character trait is the disposition to reciprocity. A relational character trait, reciprocity is realized “only in a situation of social interaction” (ibid.). This disposition, the centrepiece of the democratic personality, places a premium on granting equivalency to the other’s perspective and demands the skills of listening and heeding the other. This openness to the other catalyzes the learning process and makes possible the establishment of a “shared point of view” and an “explicit understanding of differences in point of view” (p. 291).

Without openness to “alternative arguments and views” (ibid.), conflict resolution easily slips into coercion. Gould maintains that recognition of the other as equal agent is a fundamental feature of the disposition to reciprocity. This includes respect for their rights. “Without this recognition of the equal rights of others,” Gould says, “and an appreciation of their interests and needs, democracy can become simply a contest of wills and power, and tends toward tyranny of the majority” (ibid.). This disposition to reciprocity also requires agreement on the pedagogical procedures necessary to “forming an association and to its ongoing functioning” (ibid.). It also requires the practice of listening. Learning theorist John Forester states: “By not listening we deny ourselves the insight, vision, compassion, and ordinary meaning of others. We deny ourselves possibilities of learning, growth, understanding who we are – collectively and individually.”

For many democratic theorists the most prominent trait is tolerance. This trait, Gould argues, suggests that “each agent should reciprocally accept differences in the other and not require conformity … to any given set of beliefs or modes of behaviour” (p. 292). This trait focuses attention on very contentious philosophical and practical issues. Deep scepticism about establishing firm foundations that would permit us to achieve consensus or approximate commensurability pervades contemporary intellectual culture and everyday life. What needs to be heard at the extremities of this debate? Is not the answer that autonomous public life ought not to repress irreducible differences among human actors? That it is possible to recognize the partiality of one’s initial views and develop a more considered viewpoint?

Within our institutional life, our interactions ought to mutually meet each other’s needs and enhance self-development. Both Gadamer and Habermas insist that difference, otherness and mutuality are constitutive of our humanness. We can both respect difference and struggle with one another to find the common ground of human solidarity. Our horizons both fuse and remain open to the future. Even if one accepts the arguments of radical pluralism, universal commensurable norms and pedagogical procedures are required to ensure that difference will be respected and expressible in our institutional life. Sociologist Ben Agger says that “we speak to each other in hope of sharing our common humanity, however buried or distorted, and of buffering our mortal aloneness.”

Gould also believes that the character traits of flexibility and open-mindedness are corollaries to the others. She thinks that flexibility and open-mindedness require rationality, that is, we must be able to comprehend “alternative views and frameworks” (p. 293). This quality of mind (or communicative virtue) is necessarily an educated mind, recalling John Dewey’s call to construct an educative democracy in the US. Commitment and responsibility are, moreover, pertinent to the formation of the democratic personality. “Responsibility to abide by the decisions in which one has participated and to act in accordance with such decisions is likewise a precondition for the viability of any democratic institutions” (ibid.).

Finally, Gould considers several character traits, often identified with women’s culture, supportiveness, sharing and communicativeness, as clearly relevant to the democratic personality” (pp. 293-4). She does not think that they are “exclusively women’s traits” (pp. 293-4). However, like feminist theorist Carole Pateman, Gould argues that these traits have often been excluded from the political and economic domains marked by “egoistic pursuit of self-interest in competition with others, and by authoritarian or hierarchical models of social relations in which the emphasis is on individual power or control over others” (p. 294). Gould holds out the promise that if the “alternative character traits historically associated with women” were allowed into play in the public domain, changes in the “procedures and structures of democratic decision-making” (ibid.) would occur.

This would open the “options for democratic decision-making to modes derived from the experience and character formation historically associated with women, as well as those typically identified with men” (ibid.). Gould offers her account of democratic traits as specifying only the enabling personality conditions for participation in decision-making. She does believe, though, that people will “choose positively to participate,” given their “interest in freedom and in expressing their autonomy” (p. 298). We don’t have to wallow in the mud like the prodigal son. We can return home and get on with building a democratic culture. Dig where you stand. Be what you want to build.

Thirty years after Gould published this illuminating text we are mired in a cacophonous world of competing and bitter voices. But human beings have the intellectual and spiritual resources to create another world, one anchored in the ingenious learning capacity of our species. Our yearning for a vibrant, colourful, tolerant and artful learning society has, in Habermas’ words, a “stubbornly transcending power, because it is renewed with each act of unconstrained understanding, with each moment of living together in solidarity, of successful individuation, and of saving emancipation.”

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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