AR; Against Deliberation

…so is the title of an essay by Lynn M. Sanders, originally published in 1997 in Political Theory. (No link this time.) What is this about?

Well, deliberation, says Sanders, is perhaps too often regarded as some kind of panacea for the problems of democracies. An overly enthusiastic belief in the powers of deliberation overlooks its perceived problems: most importantly, that its prerequisites might easily exclude the disenfranchised from taking part – which is all the more dangerous since it is claimed that deliberation will eliminate such problems of political discussion.

Sanders illustrates the problem through the example of US juries: for example, how those of higher socio-economic status tend to be perceived as having better arguments than others.

So, on the one hand, deliberation, in theory, might not be so open as it is claimed; and on the other hand, in practice, as it is empirically shown, doesn’t produce the results that it is expected to produce.

What, then, should be the solution? Well, according to the radical view of Sanders, alternative forms of political participation should be sought; and one candidate of that would be the form of “testimony“: a personal, experiential, not-necessarily-rational account of things as they are and as they should be.

There are five points I’d like to make about this argument.

(1) First, I think Sanders’ warning about the dangers of perceiving deliberation as the ultimate good that there is, is well justified. Surely I also think that deliberation is a beneficial tool for democracy, but then it’s useful to have some counterarguments at hand, as a reminder that we (I) might be wrong about that.

(2) On the other hand, I believe that Sanders’ ideas are slightly too much influenced by her radical views; radical in the sense that she vindicates equality over everything else. Yes, some people will be better at deliberating than others; but, as Mill, Habermas and others have suggested, this is, apart from being natural, also acceptable, as long as every potentially involved person is represented in the debate. And as for the equality of arguments, well, if Habermas’ project is that of unfinished modernity, Sanders echoes postmodernist views. Insofar as I also think that some arguments are objectively, decidedly and universally better than others, I’d agree with him.

(3) However, Sanders’ own standards of equality could be used to assess the relevance of “testimony”, as a form of argumenting. I mean: why is it assumed that everyone is capable of giving testimony equally well? Some people can argue better, some tell stories better. If rap music is seen – as in the article – as an example of testimony, surely one cannot expect every disenfranchised black person to be able to “testify in rap”? Surely everyone has some kind of personal experience of relating to the world; but it’s a whole different question how (if) one can phrase this experience in an engaging manner.

(4) But if we suppose either that somehow everyone is capable of giving testimony, or that at least every interested group can produce representatives who can – so that no party remains unrepresented -, then still remains the problem of, actually, what to do with the testimonies. That is, how should they be reconciled and evaluated? What is the procedure through which testimonies can be translated into political process, while keeping their created equality intact?

(5) And a final point about juries. Sanders writes that

If American politics is ever considered really democratic, it is in the institution of jury; juries are supposed to capture what’s best about American democracy.

But while the second part of this sentence is probably true, I’m not sure that the activity of juries could be considered “political” in a meaningful way. Politics is about deciding what to do in the future; about evaluating possible solutions to a large number of different problems, without anyone being able to tell exactly how things will turn out. A jury, on the other hand, has the task of uncovering what happened in the past; to reach one irrevocable decision on a certain view of facts. There are no alternative solutions involved, no option of compromise, or of tabling the issue. Not to mention the fact that juries deliberate about a matter which potentially has very little consequence on the members themselves, whereas political deliberation is about issues which tend to affect the deliberators in some meaningful way.

Still, juries are arguably a good subject of the analysis of argumentative conversations; just whatever these analyses might found might not be fully applicable to political deliberation, given the different set of circumstances.

And this leads me to the idea of deliberation. Perhaps the best solution to the problems pointed out by Sanders would be the rejection of a monolithic concept of deliberation. As Habermas wrote – mind you, in 1996 – in Between Facts and Norms, the same, formal and procedurally correct model of deliberation cannot be applied to the totality of society. Deliberation might mean different things in different communicative settings; and as the two-track model of deliberative democracy also suggests, it is also perfectly capable of incorporating those forms of communication which Sanders here refers to as “testimony.”

Sanders, Lynn M. (1997): “Against Deliberation” in Political Theory, 25 (3), 347 – 376.

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