Summer 2017

Political Deliberation & the Adversarial Principle

Bernard Manin

Retrieving an insight dating back to antiquity, this essay argues that the confrontation of opposing views and arguments is desirable in political deliberation. But freedom of speech and diversity among deliberators do not suffice to secure that outcome. Therefore we should actively facilitate and encourage the presentation of contrary opinions during deliberation. Such confrontation is our best means of improving the quality of collective decisions. It also counteracts the pernicious fragmentation of the public sphere. It facilitates the comprehension of choices. Lastly, arguing for and against a given decision treats the minority with respect. This essay proposes practical ways of promoting adversarial deliberation, in particular the organization of debates disconnected from electoral competition.

BERNARD MANIN is Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and Professor of Politics at New York University. His publications include “On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation” (in Political Theory, vol. 15, no. 3, 1987), The Principles of Representative Government (1996), and La démocratie délibérative (forthcoming).

In a liberal democracy, the existence of conflicting opinions about the policies the country should adopt is a fact of life. In a democracy committed to the deliberative ideal, it is also a desirable situation. If such oppositions did not appear, the supporters of deliberation would have to encourage them.

In contemporary democracies, there is one institution that requires the presence of opposing points of view: the judicial trial. Here, what we can call the “adversarial principle” obliges the judge to render a decision only after having heard both parties. The maxim audiatur et altera pars (“let the other side be heard”), gradually forged by the jurists of the Middle Ages, is today considered a fundamental legal principle. It is at the heart of our conception of a fair judicial procedure.

But a trial and a political deliberation are two different processes. It is not clear that the rules that are appropriate for the settlement of legal disputes are also appropriate for collective reflection about the decisions to take as a polity. In a trial, the judge is, by definition, confronted with two points of view that are opposed to each other. But in a political deliberation, the points of view being advanced are not necessarily in opposition. Faced with a collective problem, we often find not only supporters and adversaries of a given solution, but also supporters of solutions that, while different, are not always mutually exclusive. For the injunction to hear the other side of things to apply in these conditions, we must intentionally organize deliberation so that it fosters a confrontation of opposing positions. One could, for example, consider by turns the arguments for and against each proposition advanced, or limit a debate only to propositions that are mutually exclusive. If, in political deliberation, the opposition of different points of view ought to be intentionally organized (as this cannot be simply presupposed), we must show why it is desirable to deliberate in this adversarial, for-and-against manner. Such a demonstration is not necessary in the case of a trial.

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