Deliberative democracy is at risk of becoming collateral damage of the current crisis of representative democracy. If deliberative democracy is necessarily representative and if representation betrays the true meaning of democracy as rule of, by, and for the people, then how can deliberative democracy retain any validity as a theory of political legitimacy? Any tight connection between deliberative democracy and representative democracy thus risks making deliberative democracy obsolete: a dated paradigm fit for a precrisis order, but maladjusted to the world of Occupy, the Pirate Party, the Zapatistas, and other antirepresentative movements. This essay argues that the problem comes from a particular and historically situated understanding of representative democracy as rule by elected elites. I argue that in order to retain its normative appeal and political relevance, deliberative democracy should dissociate itself from representative democracy thus understood and reinvent itself as the core of a more truly democratic paradigm, which I call “open democracy.” In open democracy, popular rule means the mediated but real exercise of power by ordinary citizens. This new paradigm privileges nonelectoral forms of representation and in it, power is meant to remain constantly inclusive of and accessible–in other words open–to ordinary citizens.
The motivating concern for this essay is the impact that the crisis of representative democracy, widely diagnosed by political commentators and democratic theorists alike, has or should have on deliberative democracy as a mainstream theory of democratic legitimacy. To the extent that the fate of deliberative democracy has become intimately intertwined with representative democracy as both a normative paradigm and a set of particular historical institutions, and to the extent that representative democracy is under attack precisely for being representative and keeping ordinary citizens at arm’s length of the real site of decision and power, deliberative democrats should be worried about the status of their theory. Deliberative democracy risks becoming collateral damage of the problems currently facing representative democracy.
Deliberative democrats thus need to clarify the relationship between deliberation and representation and, more generally, deliberative democracy as a theory of legitimacy, on the one hand, and representative democracy as a specific institutional instantiation of democracy, on the other. This clarification should reveal that while the connection between deliberation and representation might indeed be essential, at least in mass societies, the relation between deliberative democracy as a theory of legitimacy and representative democracy as a historical paradigm is essentially contingent: it is possible to separate the two. I suggest that deliberative democracy is better seen as an independent theoretical module that is compatible with, and indeed better suited to, a different set of institutional principles than the one called “representative democracy.” I propose that deliberative democracy should be made a central part of a new and more attractive paradigm of democracy, which I call open democracy.
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