Two Theories of Democracy

How ought democracy to be understood? These days this is certainly a weighty and urgent question because there is considerable empirical evidence of deep-seated dissatisfaction within the liberal constitutional democracies and dismay at the persistence of brutal authoritarian regimes throughout the world. In fact, if “democracy” means that citizens have a voice in decision-making affecting their lives, then liberal democracy is either disintegrating (such as in Canada, see Donald Savoie, Democracy in Canada: The Disintegration of Our Institutions (2019) or functions as an oligarchy ruled by ruthless elites.

And there are political scientists who chillingly inform us that citizen input is seldom the basis for political decisions anyway. Citizens, so we are told, are too ignorant or busy to speak pertinently to the wide range of issues facing our societies. Leave it to specialists and be happy consumers. In the magnificent text, Between Facts and Norms (1996), Habermas states that the liberal model “guarantees an essentially non-political common goal of satisfying personal life plans and private expectations of happiness” (p. 298).

We now look at four theorists of democracy for critical insights into our situation: Giddens (“Two theories of democracy,” in A. Giddens, Beyond left and right: the future of radical politics [1994]), I. Angus (“What is democratic debate? In Angus, Emergent publics: an essay on social movements and democracy [2001]), Bohman (“Introduction: deliberation and democracy,” in J. Bohman, Public deliberation: pluralism, complexity, and democracy [1996]) and S. Chambers (“Discourse and democratic practices,” in S. White [Ed.], The Cambridge companion to Habermas [1995]) argue that liberal democracies suffer from various weaknesses and need reform.

All agree that liberal democracies are formally characterized by rule of law, right of free speech, right freely to own property, and the right to form political associations and to vote. But they do not believe that simply identifying the formal properties of the political system provides us with a rich account of democracy. All of them counterpoise deliberative democracy to the orthodox understanding. They believe that authentic “rule by the people” is linked closely to the quality and extent of public debate. Giddens (1994) is particularly interested, sociologist that he is, in how dialogic democracy is manifest in four connected areas (personal life, social movements and self-help groups, organizational arenas, and the larger global order). He links inexorably the practice of dialogic democracy with relationships of trust, obligation and solidarity. He alone focuses our attention on dialogic relationships within our most intimate circles. If families are intolerant and deaf to their children’s views, kids will pick up their parent’s intolerance and stubborn resistance to listening.

In clear and simple language, Angus (2001) moves us inside the meaning of democratic debate. Like the others, he worries that our established institutions and media of communication will not be adequately safeguarded from control by elites. For Angus, rule by the people—to rule we must participate in decision-making—requires several preconditions if we are going to be able to formulate the questions that must be decided by the public. We cannot, he says, be merely subject to the law; we must have the “power to deliberate and decide what the law will be” (p. 24).

He would gain strong agreement from Habermas on this point. To make good decisions, citizens need both to be informed (access to relevant information) and to have access to public places (marketplaces, pubs, street corners, living rooms, and public spheres of different kind). These are essential ingredients for deliberative democracy.

Bohman (1996) is the most complex and difficult of the four selected readings. He carries us inside some of the sophisticated political debates where the language can be tough sledding. Like the others, he ties the reforms of democratic institutions to improvements in deliberation. When our practical reasoning is muddled, uninformed, or coerced the entire political culture suffers. Bohman is particularly helpful in providing us with a preliminary definition of deliberative democracy (pp. 4-9). For him, it implies public deliberation in some form, legislation authored by citizens who are subject to them, the rejection of the reduction to politics and decision-making to instrumental and strategic rationality, and collective decisions which ensure that they are justified by public reasons.

Chambers (1996) traverses similar territory as the others. But she adds several strands to our tapestry of understanding. Like the others, she believes that discursive democracy depends on the institutionalization of the necessary preconditions of communicative action. But, if we leave matters there, we have an overly formal approach to building the conversible world. People must be motivated—have an interest—in engaging in conversational democracy. Thus, she adds an important ingredient for our map of deliberative democracy: conversational habits must have been acquired by men and women through cultural socialization and societal encouragement and social practice.

She also raises the pertinent question—one that is always at the back of critics’ minds—about just how efficient discursive democracy is. Her response to this query is judicious and convincing; her analysis of discourse and bargaining in the Canadian constitutional debate makes a strong case against simply permitting elites to bargain, make trade-offs, and use various coercive measures to achieve their ends. Discursive democracy, she argues, need not be restricted to small, face-to-face gatherings, but is relevant to the complex social learning processes at the state and international levels (see, also T. Risse, “Let’s argue communicative action in world politics,” International Organization, 54 (1), 2000]).

Ideally, in various public arenas, citizens address one another in the give and take of free and open dialogue. This requires what we might call “conversational virtues.” It means that we must have learned to respect the other, must know how to learn our way through conflict, to dig deeply in our imaginations and desires to provide sound reasons to convince our conversation partners (or, in turn, be convinced). Shouting hate-filled and angry nasty words at perceived opponents is all too prevalent in our world of shattered speech and blocked dialogue. The social media is packed with nasty put-downs and in conventional politics partisanship and name-calling prevail.

Bohman summarizes the “ideal procedure” of democratic deliberation:

1. Inclusion of everyone affected by the decision

2. Substantive political equality includes opportunity to participate in deliberation

3. Equality in methods of decision making and in determining the agenda

4. Free and open exchange of information and reasons sufficient to acquire an understanding of both the issue in question and the opinions of others.

Debate, discussion, persuasion: these are the stuff of deliberative democracy and social learning theory. They contrast sharply with what passes for our daily television news: faces shrieking at those who killed their children through bombs or guns and mangled car wrecks smoking outside some city somewhere. Bohman is acutely aware that many political theorists have rejected the idea of deliberative democracy, claiming that it has been superseded by historical developments, that is, that contemporary liberal democracies are too complex, too pluralistic, and too bureaucratic to permit such citizen input. This theme, however, echoes early twentieth century American critics such as Walter Lippmann who proclaimed the end of the active citizen in a world now so complex that only experts could sort it all out for us.

For his part, Angus thinks there are good reasons to be concerned about the current state of representative democracy in capitalist societies, let alone the hordes of others that ride roughshod over their citizens. Consumerist values—purchasing without consulting anyone, watching spectacles, the dramatic rise in marketing and advertising—have seeped into our thinking about citizenship. We easily succumb to the idea that citizenship is just a form of consumerism. Alone, I choose my product, and once aggregated, all the individual choices conform the value of the product.

The famous “decline of the public” theme, announced by Habermas in the early 1960s, is borne out by our tendency to prefer bureaucratic organizations, marketing strategies, crowd spectacles, and mass entertainment. These latter developments are, however, only tendencies. Angus encourages us to extend democracy into the corporate/business worlds, government bureaucracies, and municipal governments. This is an urgent task!

One of deliberative democracy’s most able commentators, Maeve Cooke, an Irish master of critical theory of some fame, summarizes neatly the arguments present in this short essay. They are: 1) the educative power of the process of public deliberation; 2) the community-generating power of the process of public deliberation; 3) the fairness of the procedure of public deliberation; 4) the epistemic quality of the outcomes of public deliberation; and 5) the congruence of the idea of politics articulated by deliberative democracy with “whom we are” (“Five arguments for deliberative democracy,” Political Studies, vol. 40, 2000).

We are weathered children of the enlightenment. We see ourselves as autonomous persons who are self-determining. We know that there is no unequivocal foundation to appeal to for guidance in decision-making. Together, we must employ the five principles to arrive at decisions that are in the interest of all citizens. Who are we? Persons who have rational capacities and are moral agents. Down deep, our enlightenment heritage has etched itself into our souls. We don’t want to be bossed around and told what to do. How long will be bossed around and cuffed in the head and told to sit in the corner and be quiet?

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.