Summer 2017

Can Democracy be Deliberative & Participatory? The Democratic Case for Political Uses of Mini-Publics

Cristina Lafont

This essay focuses on recent proposals to confer decisional status upon deliberative mini-publics such as citizens’ juries, Deliberative Polls, and citizens’ assemblies. Against such proposals, I argue that inserting deliberative mini-publics into political decision-making processes would diminish the democratic legitimacy of the political system as a whole. This negative conclusion invites a question: which political uses of mini-publics would yield genuinely democratic improvements? Drawing from a participatory conception of deliberative democracy, I propose several uses of mini-publics that could enhance the democratic legitimacy of political decision-making in current societies.

CRISTINA LAFONT is Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She is the author of Global Governance and Human Rights (2012), Heidegger, Language and World-Disclosure (2000), and The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy (1999) and coeditor of The Future of Critical Theory: Transforming the Global Political and Economic Order (with Penelope Deutscher, 2017) and the Habermas Handbuch (with Hauke Bronkhorst and Regina Kreide, forthcoming).

There is a difference between a sample of several hundred speaking for the nation and the entire citizenry actually speaking for itself.1

–James Fishkin, The Voice of the People

In recent decades, deliberative democracy has become increasingly popular.2 One of the reasons for its popularity is that it offers an attractive interpretation of the democratic ideal of self-government. According to the ideal of deliberative democracy, citizens must justify to one another–based on reasons that everyone can reasonably accept–the coercive policies with which they must comply. To the extent that citizens can mutually justify the political coercion they exercise over one another, they can see themselves as colegislators or political equals in precisely the way the democratic ideal of self-government requires.3 The essential contribution of public deliberation to democratic legitimacy is that it enables citizens to endorse the laws and policies to which they are subject as their own. In the absence of a commitment to mutual justification, citizens cannot meaningfully see themselves as participants in collective self-rule, but instead come to see themselves as coerced into compliance by others. Indeed, by adding a requirement of public justification, the deliberative model provides a way in which citizens might prevent political domination by consolidated majorities. They can engage in public deliberation in order to show that their proposals are supported by better reasons and hold out hope that the force of the better argument may move other citizens to change their political preferences.4 The claim that better reasons (and not just a higher number of votes) lend legitimacy to the outcomes of democratic decisions is crucial to the idea of mutual justification as a criterion of democratic legitimacy, distinguishing deliberative democracy from other conceptions of democracy.

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  • 1James S. Fishkin, The Voice of the People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997), 44.
  • 2For surveys, see James Bohman, “Survey Article: The Coming of Age of Deliberative Democracy,” Journal of Political Philosophy 6 (4) (1998): 400–425; and Simone Chambers, “Deliberative Democratic Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science 6 (2003): 307–326. For recent collections that include different theoretical approaches, see Seyla Benhabib, ed., Democracy and Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996); Samantha Besson and José Luis Martí, eds., Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents (Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2006); James Bohman and William Rehg, eds., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999); Jon Elster, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett, eds., Debating Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003); and Stephen Macedo, ed., Deliberative Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  • 3As Amy Gutmann puts it, “the legitimate exercise of political authority requires justification to those people who are bound by it, and decision making by deliberation among free and equal citizens is the most defensible justification anyone has to offer for provisionally settling controversial issues.” See Amy Gutmann, “Democracy, Philosophy, and Justification,” in Democracy and Difference, ed. Benhabib, 344. For similar renderings of this basic idea by other deliberative democrats, see Joshua Cohen, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy,” in The Good Polity, ed. Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 17–34; Joshua Cohen, “Reflections on Deliberative Democracy,” in Philosophy, Politics, Democracy, ed. Joshua Cohen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 330; Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), 110; John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 227; John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 137; and Philip Pettit, Republicanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 184. I analyze the intricacies of the commitment to mutual justification at the center of the ideal of deliberative democracy in Cristina Lafont, “Is the Ideal of Deliberative Democracy Coherent?” in Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents, ed. Besson and Martí, 3–26.
  • 4See Cohen, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy”; Jon Elster, “The Market and the Forum,” in The Foundations of Social Choice Theory, ed. Jon Elster and Aanund Hylland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 103–132; Bernard Manin, “On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation,” Political Theory 15 (3) (1987): 338–368; David Miller, “Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice,” Political Studies 40 (1) (1992): 54–67; Cass Sunstein, “Preferences and Politics,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 (1) (1991): 3–34; and John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
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