Deliberative or Delusional Democracy?

I was traveling with a colleague of mine this weekend who brought up the concept of deliberative democracy (DD). Whenever thinking about DD, I turn immediately to Professor Joshua Cohen who is arguably one of the greatest geniuses of political philosophy in the history of the world—right up there with Plato, Kant, and Herbert Marcuse. Cohen defines DD with great sensitivity, learnedness, and dare I say, bravery—in 1989:

  1. An ongoing independent association with expected continuation.
  2. The citizens in the democracy structure their institutions such that deliberation is the deciding factor in the creation of the institutions and the institutions allow deliberation to continue.
  3. A commitment to the respect of a pluralism of values and aims within the polity.
  4. The citizens consider deliberative procedure as the source of legitimacy, and prefer the causal history of legitimation for each law to be transparent and easily traceable to the deliberative process.
  5. Each member recognizes and respects other members’ deliberative capacity.

DD can thus be thought of as the legislative process that we “owe” one another, which includes giving reasons for one’s proposals. Cohen’s DD is more of a theory of legitimacy that is based on the idea of achieving ideal deliberation.

Cohen presents deliberative democracy as more than a theory of legitimacy, and forms a body of substantive rights around it based on achieving “ideal deliberation”:

  1. It is free in two ways:
    1. The participants consider themselves bound solely by the results and preconditions of the deliberation. They are free from any authority of prior norms or requirements.
    2. The participants suppose that they can act on the decision made; the deliberative process is a sufficient reason to comply with the decision reached.
  2. Parties to deliberation are required to state reasons for their proposals, and proposals are accepted or rejected based on the reasons given, as the content of the very deliberation taking place.
  3. Participants are equal in two ways:
    1. Formal: anyone can put forth proposals, criticize, and support measures. There is no substantive hierarchy.
    2. Substantive: The participants are not limited or bound by certain distributions of power, resources, or pre-existing norms. “The participants…do not regard themselves as bound by the existing system of rights, except insofar as that system establishes the framework of free deliberation among equals.”
  4. Deliberation aims at a rationally motivated consensus: it aims to find reasons acceptable to all who are committed to such a system of decision-making. When consensus or something near enough is not possible, majoritarian decision making is used.

However, despite the soaring genius of Cohen and the heartbreaking beauty of his deliberative democracy, there is one slight problem, and that problem is—reality.

You could imagine whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, lawyers, and political scientists—let’s call it a murder—encamping in a legislature, parliament, congress, or the supreme soviet to debate and reach agreements. But the fact remains that agreements reached by that murder has no bearing on the outside world. There’s a kind of mania or delusion that occurs in such deliberative bodies in which those high on status and their own egos image the benighted souls not privy to the deliberations are waiting outside, breathlessly, for word of the vote and the agreements to they can be instructed on how to lead their lives. The fact that this is true is indicated by the number of councils and committees who have oil portraits done of themselves at testaments to their sagacity, virtue, and selflessness. In fact, these have just been prohibited in the US Congress.

YPC wouldn’t really mind though if these murderers did a good job—after all, rank has its privileges (RHIP)—but the fact of the matter is that these legislatures and the decisions they generate are terrible, and the fact that these murderers feel that their activities merit oil portraits is jus a single manifestation of delusional democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville argued explicitly after traveling the length and breadth of this land taking notes and thinking about what he saw—as opposed to merely reading extensively the other theorists from one’s democracy echo-chamber and contemplating what one has read from one’s Ivory tower academic perch—said that democracy does not promote excellence and that democracy so overtakes one’s mind that one forgets that other matters like, reality.

The examples are near endless, starting with King Canute in 1027. His flattering courtiers engaged in deliberative democracy and decided that Canute could order the tide to stop. Canute ordered his throne placed on the beach and ordered the tide not to come in, and yet it did come in. Now Professor Cohen may argue that the illegitimate monarchical order of Canute could not stop the tide but an agreement arrived at through deliberative democracy could, but YPC has his doubts.

And yet the shortcomings of democracy keep on coming. Specifically, I think of the American and British government’s experiment with deliberative democracy in the 1990s in which they sought to reflect the will of their people. As it turns out however, the British people didn’t care to deliberate matters like bridge maintenance until they had deferred said maintenance for so long that the bridges, like London Bridge, were falling down. So as it turns out, deliberative democracy when implemented in its extreme for guaranteed an almost maximally dysfunctional society, but the citizens could warm themselves with the knowledge that the decisions were stamped with the imprimatur of deliberative democracy while their bridges were falling down, which is, in its own way, delusional too.

So too, the ballot issues in California form another kind of extreme democracy that is ultimately unworkable. I remember looking at a ballot with tens of confusingly worded questions and thinking, “I’m a smart guy who’s really interested and can’t keep this stuff straight. How is this going to work across the whole population in the whole state?” The answer is confusingly and poorly. But sadly, that’s the way California has been going for decades. Deliberative democracy works great in theory, it’s just that when applied in reality, it turns into delusional democracy.


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