Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The difference democratic challenge: introduction

What follows is one of the more significant pieces of research I did in the past year, as part of my MA in applied ethics. I'm revisiting it currently, and in the process of doing so will post it up (in edited form) over three blog posts (three for reasons of length). It was an attempt to make sense of one of the more prominent challenges to the delibrative model of democracy, that of the difference democrats. Deliberative democrats, like Rawls and Habermas and other figures in the current mainstream in democratic theory, believes that the characteristic and good-making feature of democracy is that it involves the constituents of government to be involved in the procedures in whichs the laws and institutions of a society are made. So, democracy is good because it allows everybody to have their say, which in turn allows people to have their interests advanced. The fairer the way different people are heard, the fairer the government. Difference democrats aren't convinced, however. They believe that the above account leaves out a very important element of the make up of actual political societies, and that is that they often have more than one culture represented in them. Difference democrats point to this fact as something which the model of deliberative democracy struggles to accomodate: different cultures leads to different political cultures, with their own political procedures (conventional structures, ways of dispute resolution, traditional concerns, etc.). Since the deliberative procedures of a society are always going to be placed within one political culture rather than another, the difference democrat advances the challenge that the deliberative model is a de facto disempowerment of anybody who is a member of a political culture which isn't the official culture of the society.

The deliberative democratic idea is that we can create a just society by giving all the constituents of that society a worthwhile chance to contribute to its decision-making process. Because everybody has an opportunity to have their say when a matter is under discussion, any perceived injustices can be addressed and dealt with. On this theory, the justice of the society is predicated upon the justice of the decision-making process. What exactly the process is and how the constituents play a part in it differs from theory to theory, but I take the following parts of John Rawls's two principles of justice to be a good representative: 'each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all'; and, 'social and economic inequalities are to are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity' (Rawls also adds the famous minimax distributive principle to these principles). That is to say, under deliberative democracy the powers of any office of government is constrained by certain inalienable considerations of the government's constituents, like basic rights and liberties (to be spelt out by the theory), and those offices must in principle be open to every member of society.

In trying to make sense of the difference democratic challenge, I distinguish between two different claims that it could be making, which I call the 'communicative' and the 'representative' challenges. According to the communicative challenge, there is a shortcoming in deliberative democracy in its reliance upon a single type of discourse. This allows for the possibility that the members of some political cultures rather than others are advantaged in virtue of having the decision-making process cast in their political idiom. The representative challenge is that the substance of the claims of the unofficial cultures isn't afforded the appropriate attention by the decision-making process, in virtue of that process being a product of one political culture rather than another. So, in the communicative challenge it is supposed to be the way people present and discuss views among each other which unfairly advantages the official culture, whereas in the representative challenge it is only the claims that fall within the remit of the official culture that gets given full attention, while the claims distinctive of unofficial cultures get short shrift. The linchpin of my account is that independently of what cultural idiom one uses in political deliberation, there is always a fact of the matter of what is at issue. The upshot is that the weight of a political claim is independent of the manner in which it is made. Accordingly, I argue here that the communicative challenge fails. That will be the second post in this series. In the final post, I will discuss why the representative challenge can't easily be dismissed. My conclusion is, if we are to do justice to the difference democratic challenge, we must understand it in terms of the representative challenge.

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