Monday, April 26, 2004
On the phenomenology of deliberation
The theories I have in mind range from pluralist defenses of the liberal state (along the lines of Galston), to Rawlsian Political Liberalisms, to that group of theories Political Scientists promote under the name of 'Deliberative Democracy'. The particular problem I have in mind, though, seems to me to apply just as well to Rousseau's Civic Republicanism and Mill's Liberalism. It is, I think, a very general blindness.
Now the problem. The problem which all of these theories face in one form or another has to do with what Rawls called the 'Fact of reasonable pluralism.' Roughly, the fact is that in a free society there will come to be a multiplicity of mutually incommensurable conceptions of the good, each of which may be reasonably maintained. In virtue of this fact it becomes possible - even inevitable - that conflicts will arise which cannot be resolved through reasonable discussion. In the end, one party to the conflict simply imposes their solution on the rest of the polity. This is a problem for these theories insofar as they privilege something like consent as the source of political legitimacy. (Which, by the way, all of them do)
Here's an example of a statement of the problem (From James Bohman's Public Deliberation):
Just how cultural pluralism produces "deep conflicts" can perhaps best be illustrated by the many problems concerning the unique legal status of Native Americans in the United States and Canada...Interpretations of their rights based on the idea of political inclusion fail to work for the simple reason that these interpretations are disputed by the Native Americans themselves. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the calls for the integration of all racial and ethnic groups into the political community with full and equal rights for all, the federal governments of the United States and Canada began to dismantle the system of differential treatment of Native Americans based on the reservation system. Though the reservation system produced desperate and systematic poverty, groups like the American Indian Movement saw that it could be used for purposes of preserving cultural identity in the face of overwhelming and invasive European culture. Given the enormous asymmetries of power in this case, the capacity of specifically Native American political communities to protect their culture and identity depends on their ability to make use of the extraordinary rights and powers already present in the reservation system for this end...Without these restrictions on otherwise universal rights and without these special powers not guaranteed in the Constitution, permanent minority cultures might disappear. Are such special powers and rights reasonable and legitimate, or are they violations of the constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
A few paragraphs later, Bohman identifies the central issue in this conflict:
On the one hand, the segmentation of distinct political jurisdictions…without overarching common constitutional essentials and rights might sustain a semblance of political unity, but at the cost of disparate cultural communities that deliberate alongside of, rather than with, one another. On the other hand, not to recognize distinct cultural rights leads to forced integration and unity at the price of diversity.
Bohman seems right to think that there is a dilemma here. The question is, who is it a dilemma for? In Bohman's view, the agent which faces this dilemma is the political community as a whole. The problem, for that community, lies in resolving the dilemma in such a way that the unity of the community (understood as the unity of an agent) is not destroyed. This is to be done by, somehow, prevailing upon those who disagree with the decision to endorse it anyway -- perhaps merely by endorsing the process by which decision is reached.
My suggestion is that Bohman and those who hold similar theories overstate the degree to which individuals endorse their own preferred view -- at least prior to discussion. Moreover, I think that by pressing such a view, Bohman and other deliberative democrats promote political conflict. I will try to clarify these thoughts.
First, note that actors in Bohman's imagined body politic come to discussion with hardened views. In the case given, we are to imagine that there are, on the one hand, supporters of the Tribe's right to run its own schools and protect its heritage and on the other hand there are liberal unifiers seeking a common culture. It is only we, observers who are positioned outside of the debate, who have the perspective necessary to see that the dilemma is between competing choiceworthy values.
I submit that this is seldom our experience in private acts of deliberation. While there are some issues about which our opinions are firm and absolute, there are many others about which our views are undetermined. And the point is that most of us are much closer to the position of Bohman's impartial spectator than to that of his committed political partisans.
All the same we live in a world where decisions must be made. So we do, in fact, come down on one side or another of a particular issue. In the case he highlights, suppose that we decide in favor of the Tribal interest in preserving its culture. It does not thereby follow that we entirely deny the value of broad cultural unity. Rather, we have decided that in this concrete case we favor diversity over homogeneity.
Two further thoughts:
(1) In this kind of idealized case, it is easy to see how legitimacy can be preserved despite the presence of conflict. The fact of conflict doesn't evidence deep disagreement. All it shows is that there is a disagreement about how these particular values are to be balanced in this concrete situation. So one could have a debate in which everyone felt that their values were respected even if the weren't, ultimately, chosen.
(2) But, practically speaking, this is not how things go. In fact, what we see is that political conflicts tend to exacerbate differences rather than the other way around. In part, this is just bad communication. Those who favor Tribal educational sovereignty are likely to believe that those who oppose their policy do so because they see no value in the preservation of Native culture. But it is also tied to facts about the nature of political power (in countries like the U.S.) and facts about successful rhetoric. A successful rhetoritician will undermine the claims of competing values and oversell the chosen value. The goal and result will be that the concrete political debate will become more polarized -- both sides will underestimate how much they have in common with the other and will, as a result, grow to have less in common. The question of political power is perhaps most serious. For American political parties, ideology is a tool that is useful primarily for the acquisition of political power. Hence, it is in the interest of most politicians to exacerbate rather than solve disagreements. Under this system, it is unlikely that it is possible to have the kind of deliberative discourse that might legitimize democratic government.