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Twists of Democratic Governance
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Chapter on April 17, 2021 0 Comments 35 min read
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Twists of Democratic Governance

[This conversation was first published in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]

Defining democracy

Gagnon: How do you conceptualize democracy?

Dryzek: First of all I should say that I do not particularly like foundational philosophical questions and I’m not very good at dealing with conceptualizing democracy at that level. I’ll reiterate something that I originally said in my 1996 book, Democracy in Capitalist Times. Rather than come up with a precise definition of democracy, what I would much rather do is define what I called, in that book, a concourse of communication about democracy. This identifies a domain of democracy. Democracy’s domain concerns the collective construction, application, distribution and limitation of political authority. Within that domain of course there are many different ways to think about democracy. Democracy is, after all, one of the classic examples of an essentially contested concept.

So I think contestation is integral to the very notion of democracy itself. But contestation itself does take place within limits. Democracy is not command. Democracy is not the market. So it’s not as though the concourse is unbounded. Within that concourse I have got my own normative account of democracy. I’m associated with the idea of deliberative democracy or as I actually still prefer to call it, discursive democracy. I would also describe my orientation as being somewhat open ended. I’m more concerned with thinking about processes of democratization, especially the deepening and broadening of democracy rather than being preoccupied with specifying, advocating or evaluating particular models of democracy.

I think that sets my own approach to democracy as being very different from say that of David Held in his book Models of Democracy (2006). Although he lays out a set of models, some with great precision, I actually prefer to work with processes of democratization in different contexts, rather than being beholden to any sort of finite set of models of democracy.

Gagnon: There is a contrast here. I see it as something that falls between Held’s rigid models and your context specific model. It’s between an approach to precision and an approach to abstraction. Therein is the recognition that complexity abounds in regards to defining democracy. And I have an appreciation for the efforts happening on both sides of this Rubicon. On the one hand I worry that precise models of democracy are too limiting – that they try to do too much especially when used in contexts not specific to the history, thinking and peoples from which the model came. This is a critique that I have been making for some time. On the other hand I worry that we risk becoming tautological without some underlying structure to help us navigate different, often highly divergent, contexts. In regards to your approach to defining democracy, how is it that we can investigate something that does not have a rigid structure?

Dryzek: I would say that we can investigate democracy in many different ways. Just by looking, for example, at the range of people you have interviewed in this book I think democracy gets conceptualized very differently. So for instance, if we look at the people who study democratization in comparative politics, most of those people work with models of democracy that are very, very different from those that we find in normative political theory. Comparativists tend to work with a fairly conventional sort of Schumpeterian model of democracy. They focus on electoral competition. They tend not to be interested in the range of questions about the depth and authenticity of democracy that normative political theorists look at.

So I think democracy is always going to mean a lot of different things to different people. But that is perhaps what makes it so interesting. I really do not see the necessity for closure around any particular model. We do not need any sort of precise conceptual definition of democracy.

Gagnon: Could we call that a medium methodological approach – or is that too outfield?

Dryzek: I would say it is not a question of anything goes. Democracy cannot just mean anything you like. But as I say it does, as a term, have a concourse. This idea of ‘concourse’ actually originally comes from a psychologist named William Stephenson (see, for example, Stephenson 1978, 1980, and 1983). A concourse has boundaries. The way I see it there is contestation about the meaning of democracy which takes place within boundaries. That distinguishes me from saying democracy can mean just anything you like. But on the other hand I really do not think it’s productive to argue about trying to define what the essence of democracy is once and for all.

Gagnon: Although I think there is value in approaching a post-foundational and positivist definition of democracy – which I argue about at length in my book Evolutionary Basic Democracy (2013) – it would take us off topic to press that particular point further. I’m more curious to know what your conception of democratization is in global governance.

Dryzek: Over recent years I have become very interested in the possibilities for global democracy. And that interest is actually shared by an increasing number of democracy scholars. When it comes to global democracy, I think this is a particularly fruitful place to think in terms of processes of democratization rather than models of democracy. The reason for this is that we are clearly a long way from global democracy in terms of anyone’s ideal.

Now, there are some hard-headed international relations scholars who do not think it’s even worth talking about democracy at the global level because it just seems to be such a remote prospect. To think of anything that allows a global democracy to run in parallel to the kind of democracy we see within some states is simply not engaged. My approach to the democratization of global governance is to say that we increasingly see authority being exercised at the global level. Like any exercise of public authority, the legitimacy of the exercise of authority ought to turn on the principle that it is democratic.

If you accept that, then thinking about questions of democracy at the global level is unavoidable. The only question is, just how do we think about it? Now, I think the best and most fruitful way to think about it is to think about how we democratize those existing sources of authority that are increasingly being exercised at global level. This is a better approach than thinking ‘well, if we were going to construct a global democracy from scratch, how would we do it?’

Again, there are different approaches to global democratization. I think one of the least fruitful approaches is looking at the global level and trying to see if we have any conditions there which made liberal democracy possible within some nation states. That is probably one of the least productive ways of thinking about it because that immediately beholds us to thinking of democracy as essentially an attribute of the state. It makes us try to think about whether we can replicate state-like structures at the global level. I think that we cannot, at least not in any foreseeable future. So we have to think in somewhat different directions about what’s possible and what’s not when it comes to global democratization.

Gagnon: I could not agree more. There is some parochialism to taking one conception of liberal democracy and looking for its foundational principles in the global forum: I do not find that convincing or ethical.

Dryzek: Yes, I think I would agree that global democracy does not have to be liberal democracy. Global democracy in particular it seems is going to have to accommodate people from very different kinds of political traditions. Of course there are enormous challenges as to how we do that. But I think we certainly should not assume that existing western liberal democratic states in particular provide the model for global democracy right here and now.

That is going to deter people from other parts of the world who might otherwise be interested in projects of global democratization. I understand there’s even interest in this project amongst scholars in Chinese universities for example. These scholars have become interested in prospects of global democracy.

Gagnon: Yes, that is certainly true. If I may offer one example, Sonny Lo (2007, 2008, 2011) has conducted research on the comparative types of democratic polities between East and West; the styles of democracy within the Greater China Region; and how divergent indigenous approaches to democracy could manifest on the global stage. It was unique to see how Mainland China’s democracy differs to Taiwan’s and how both polities differ in approach to democracy from Macau and Hong Kong. Lo’s expertise lies with Hong Kong and Macau. He has, for example, argued about horizontal accountability which differs from vertical accountability in the West. There is scope for Hong Kong to show New York City or Sydney a thing or two about accountability and governance.

Dryzek: Yes, that is interesting. Although this is getting away from the global level, I think there’s certainly lots of empirical work to be done on democracy and looking at how democracy plays out in different parts of the world. I’m actually quite interested in that myself at the moment. I have got a couple of things underway. To offer one example, I’m working with a Chinese post-doctoral fellow (Dr Beibei Tang) looking at Mainland China. That is where she’s from. She’s doing her research through a deliberative democratic lens so to speak. She’s not taking a look at locally designed citizen forums which other scholars have looked at. Rather, she’s looking at emerging prospects, the emerging public spheres in Mainland China. She’s especially investigating some issues surrounding migrant workers.

That is a broader point. I think political theorists can learn from empirical inquiry in different contexts. The other project which I should mention is something that a number of scholars are working on. It falls under the general heading of comparative political theory. It’s looking at deliberative democracy in different cultures and how deliberation is something akin to a universal human capacity. The way it plays out can differ quite radically in different cultures and there’s lots of empirical inquiry to be done there. But this is empirical inquiry that is informed by and then at the same time can inform normative political theory.

Gagnon: Before we can dive further into deliberative democracy on the global scale, it would be good, I think, to set out the cutting edges of deliberative democracy. How are the leading moves in this ontology affecting governance?

Dryzek: Deliberative democracy has really gone from strength to strength in the last couple of decades. It’s remarkable that the sheer number of people working on it today is massive compared to just twenty or so years ago. Now, my own account of cutting edges is contained largely in a book that came out in 2010 called Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance. In the first chapter of the book I identify a number of turns that deliberative democracy has, as a field, recently taken. Those turns include what I call the systemic turn. This focuses on deliberative systems as opposed to just looking at or thinking about deliberation as an attribute of a particular forum.

The forum in question could be a parliament, it could be a constitutional court, and it could be a designed citizen forum. But in the last few years deliberative democratic theorists have increasingly turned to thinking about the idea of a deliberative system. The concept was first introduced by Jane Mansbridge in 1999. It has been developed by a number of other people since; including several of my colleagues and students at Australia National University. Actually, there’s a book that came out in 2012 edited by Jane Mansbridge and John Parkinson called Deliberative Systems which I think is a confirmation of that kind of turn.

So the idea of a deliberative system is that we should not load all the burdens of deliberation and the pursuit of deliberative legitimacy onto just one particular forum. Instead we can think of not just interlinked forums such as parliaments, legislatures, assemblies, citizen forums or whatever, but also think of how that relates to larger processes in the more informal public sphere. If we are thinking about deliberative democracy then we need to think about how all those things fit together.

That is certainly one of the cutting edges of deliberative democracy. The other turns I also talk about are a practical turn and an empirical turn. The practical turn is about taking practical ideas and trying to see how they might be realized in the real world of politics. A lot of people have done this. A number of deliberative theorists have done this in different ways. James Fishkin has of course been developing and pushing his idea of the deliberative poll. There are other theorists who are involved in the design of political citizens’ forums. I was involved in the design of something called the Australian Citizens’ Parliament in 2009. So there has I think been this practical turn. Many of the practitioners who are involved in this are not necessarily theorists themselves. There is, nevertheless, a very productive conversation between theorists and practitioners.

The third turn which I note is the empirical turn which, again, is something relatively recent. This empirical turn has been ongoing for most of the last ten years: this is where a lot of the action has been happening. In many ways deliberative democracy has been one of, if not the most fruitful area in which normative political theory has encountered empirical social science to their often, although not always, mutual benefit.

I say not always because some of the empirical work is lacking in quality despite there being some very good empirical studies. These not so good studies are simplistic in conception of what deliberation is. In terms of cutting edges, the systemic turn, the practical turn and empirical turn definitely represent a lot of where the recent action has been seen. The theory of deliberation itself gets increasingly nuanced over time. It is increasingly varied and I think increasingly sophisticated. It’s moved. The earliest statements of deliberative democracy were very much tied to the idea of democracy as an attribute of developed democratic states. We now think beyond that to global democracy. But the theory has also contributed to things like governance networks which are much more informal. The way governance networks produce outcomes is very different from the traditional imagery of how policies get produced by the liberal democratic state. Networked governance presents all kinds of challenges to deliberative theory; well, to democratic theory in general.

I think that those turns go from strength to strength. In terms of the political theory itself they involve turns in its practical application and its conversation with empirical work. The interaction between those bodies leads to an enormous and lively field.

Gagnon: I share that viewpoint. The literature on deliberative democracy and democracy more broadly, is nothing short of gargantuan.

Dryzek: Yes, it is. In fact it’s so big it’s actually impossible to keep track of. I have given up trying.

Gagnon: There has been some interesting work happening on the systemic front. Michael Saward gave an illustration that I would like to talk about in a recent edited collection called The Future of Representative Democracy edited by Sonia Alonso, John Keane and Wolfgang Merkel (2011). Saward pieced together different ways that democracy and representation, two arguably almost incompatible bodies, could interact. His illustration reflects what you said earlier, that there’s a variety of ways and places for deliberation to occur.

I wonder: if we were able to first establish the general areas that discursive opportunities arise, would we be able to condense these into a set of basic principles for civil societies and governments to follow? Could we turn deliberative democracy into something like a treaty or a demand that a citizenry can make with its government to try to formalize and proceduralize basic discursive techniques?

Dryzek: That is interesting. I know Michael Saward pretty well but actually I have not read the piece in question in the volume that you mentioned. In terms of a set of demands, I would say that certain demands like that have to be contextually specific. Your idea is in some ways a reflexive democratic commitment that I think is up to the citizenry in question to decide. They must be the ones to choose what should be asked for. My sketch of what I think a deliberative system ought to entail is fairly general. It’s something that can be filled in and thought of in different ways in different contexts.

In the Foundation and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance book I present the idea of a deliberative system schematically in terms of its requirements. I’m including empowered space which is a location where authoritative, collective decisions get made. Public spaces, or public spheres, are comparatively freewheeling and informal arenas. I look at mechanisms of transmission from public space to empowered space and accountability from empowered space to public space.

I think it is also necessary to have what Dennis Thompson (see, for example, Thompson, 2008) has called ‘meta-deliberation’ as part of a deliberative system. That is the capacity of the system to reflect on its own shortcomings and, if necessary, remedy those shortcomings. Those are some of the components which I think any deliberative system ought to contain. But in terms of how you fill those in it makes a particular context more precise. It all varies tremendously depending on what you are dealing with. Say, for example, that we are dealing with the global context or that you are dealing with an instance of network governance or with a state that is emerging from authoritarianism. Filling in what may actually be required in particular cases is an enormous amount of work. If you are thinking about demands, then it’s certainly for the people involved in the process of democratization in those contexts who should have the final say.

Separating the dominant theories of democratic governance

Gagnon: We have thus far given a lot of focus to deliberative or discursive democracy. But there are other praxes of democracy competing for attention in the discourse. Let us piece those apart over three questions. As I see it, there are four dominant praxes of democracy: the first is deliberative, the second assembly, the third representative and the fourth monitory. My contention is that we’ll find new inroads for governance by contrasting these types of democracy. So, to begin, how does deliberative democracy differ from assembly democracy?

Dryzek: It is possible of course to have deliberation within particular assemblies. Let us think back to Edmund Burke (one of the ancestors of deliberative democracy) who, over 200 years ago, referred to parliament as ideally being a deliberative assembly. There have been, and still are people who seek deliberation in particular assemblies. There is, for example, a very good book by my Australia National University colleague John Uhr called Deliberative Democracy in Australia (1998). The book is about parliament and about ways to make parliament, the Australian parliament, deliberative.

One can certainly imagine deliberative principles being applied to assembly democracy. The elected assembly of parliament, citizens’ assemblies, Swiss Cantons and ancient Athens were all places and spaces for deliberation. But I think that deliberative democracy does not have to be tied to any particular assemblies. There is a strong tradition in deliberative theory involving people like Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib which emphasizes the importance of the informal public sphere and all the interactions which take place therein. That has been a crucial component of
any deliberative democracy and I would place myself in that tradition too.

That tradition in deliberative democracy does offer something a bit different from assembly democracy. I would say that there always has to be more to a deliberative democracy than the existence of one particular assembly.

Gagnon: That explanation gives us useful insights. It shows that assemblies are places in which deliberation can occur but that deliberation itself is not dependent on assemblies. Both theories remain independent but do have at least one juncture.

How then does deliberative democracy differ from representative democracy?

Dryzek: I will start with a bit of history. Deliberative democracy has many streams that feed into it and one of them is participatory democracy. Now, I suppose going back to the 1970s, it used to be quite common to see representative democracy and participatory democracy as somehow opposites. In hindsight I’m not sure that they ever were. I do not know if the participative attack was actually a very wise thing to do because representation is unavoidable in many ways. Even in participatory forums you often become concerned with deciding who can speak on behalf of what. There and then we begin to see questions of representation. I think the traditional opposition of participation to representation was never a particularly good idea.

When it comes to representative and deliberative democracy, there’s no opposition at all. I think it’s possible for deliberative democrats to look at the institutions of a representative democracy, in particular an electoral representative democracy, and think about how they might be more deliberative. There’s now a very, very strong strand of deliberative democratic thinking which does this as I showed (even as I criticized it) in my year 2000 book Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. In a liberal constitutional context, it’s possible to think of electoral representative
institutions as being more or less deliberative.

It is also possible to think about mechanisms of representation. Election campaigns can be, for example, more or less deliberative. So John Gastil (2007, with Reedy and and Wells; and 2013, with Richards) for example has written extensively about the idea of deliberative elections. He looks at ways of making campaigns more deliberative. Well, as we see, if you look at election campaigns in the world today we often see that they are not very deliberative. The use of attack advertisements, the trivialization of issues, the focus on personality rather than substance, all these things mean that election campaigns are not very deliberative. But Gastil has ideas about making them more deliberative.

On the conceptual level I do not think there’s really any opposition between deliberative democracy and representative democracy. But what deliberate democracy can do is I think give us some new angles on what we want representation to accomplish. One particular angle is provided in an article I did with Simon Niemeyer in the American Political Science Review (2008) where we talk about the idea of discursive representation; the idea that in democratic political processes we actually might want to represent discourses as well as people. Just the title of the article, discursive and representation, displays a unity between both camps.

‘Discursive’ as a concept is rooted in ideas about discursive democracy. ‘Representation’ comes, of course, from the idea of representative democracy. The idea of the article is to develop a new and we think potentially productive angle on what representation can entail. Representation does not just have to be electoral representation. We can think of various kinds of non-electoral representation. We can think of representative claims made, to use Michael Saward’s terminology, which do not depend on the representative in question having been elected. As Niemeyer and I said in the article, they might claim representation based on the discourse which the person in question is representing or claims to represent.

When it comes to global politics there are, for example, discourses of global justice and sustainability. Some NGOs have been representing those discourses rather than actually directly representing people. They do not necessarily identify with people, but they do represent the discourse. We have argued for representing discourses on the global level and other levels too.

Gagnon: That is a captivating explanation. Discursive representation does present a nice invitation to existing and emergent forms of governance does not it? To stress a point made widely elsewhere, your work in this particular area is still entirely novel as most assemblies or institutions of representation are not meeting the most basic discursive expectations. This is an area where many of our contemporary deliberative democrats are conducting research and making prescriptions for governments and the multifarious institutions of governance.

Now, how does deliberative democracy differ from monitory democracy?

Dryzek: Of course monitory democracy is John Keane’s term and I have read several of the things he’s written on it, including the last chapter of his excellent book The Life and Death of Democracy (2009). I think John Keane is quite eager to draw a line between monitory and deliberative democracy. I’m not sure that John is any particular friend of deliberative democracy. I’m not sure he’s necessarily hostile, but I would not regard him as a friend either as he’s eager to differentiate between the two theories.

The difference I would say between both theories is this: some of the things that Keane described as monitory mechanisms I would probably describe as deliberative mechanisms. Are, for example, the various accountability mechanisms in global politics and NGOs demands for accountability monitory or deliberative? Perhaps they are a bit of both. I would say the big difference is this: for John Keane, monitory democracy is an interpretive frame. It’s how he makes sense of developments in democracy in recent decades and he has done I think a very good and commendable job in interpreting many developments – especially of the non-electoral sort. He’s interpreting those as aspects of democracy, of the monitory mechanism. And I think that is fine. So while monitory democracy is first and foremost an interpretative frame, I would say deliberative democracy is a normative project. Its grounding is in normative thinking. Once we have got that normative project in mind we can attempt to design particular types of practices that enact it.

But we can also evaluate things that we see going on in the real world. So we can apply the idea of deliberative democracy to some of the developments that John Keane talks about in various monitory mechanisms. We can value them as being more or less deliberative. But we always, in deliberative democracy, have this normative project in mind. In monitory democracy it’s really much more of an interpretive frame although that does not rule out a normative commitment. It’s pretty clear that he does sympathize with the growth of monitory democracy.

Incompatibilities in democratic governance?

Gagnon: During a symposium on democratic governance in late 2011 (organized by Benjamin Isakhan and others at Australia’s Deakin University), it was argued that democracy and governance are possibly
too incompatible; that, depending on the way one defines them, they are oxymoronic bodies. Would you agree or disagree with this statement?

Dryzek: I think I would have to disagree. Now, I can see why this was argued but only if we think of governance as involving low visibility informal networks in which collective outcomes get produced. There are certainly reasons to be very suspicious of them from a democratic point of view and I think the empirical reality of network governance is it can often be like that. It can involve very low visibility collective outcomes dominated by very well connected and wealthy interests. Democratic thinkers should certainly be suspicious of governance if we define it that way.

However, my own feeling is that we should not just stop there and condemn governance. What we should think about instead are ways of democratizing governance. It is here I think where it is actually helpful to bring the idea of deliberative systems to bear. I’m going to take some language from another Australian National University colleague, John Braithwaite, who has written excellent work on network governance including global network governance. What he argues is that what we should seek in governance networks are nodes of contestation. And if those nodes do not exist we should really worry.

The lack of these nodes means that collective outcomes are getting produced without contestation; that outcomes are agreed through low visibility processes. This kind of outcome generation is an accommodation between powerful interests. It is important then from a democratization perspective to try and think about ways of building in those nodes of contestation into governance. That means thinking about roles for opposition political activists and social movements that challenge this established power.

It’s possible to have governance with democracy and democratization. One other person worth noting on this is Mark Warren. His paper, called ‘Governance-driven Democratization’, was recently published in Critical Policy Studies (2009). Therein he argues that it’s often the case that you do actually get democratic innovation appearing in the context of network governance. In some ways it’s quite surprising that that should happen. So I do not think we should necessarily write off governance as being incompatible with democracy. Instead, we need to think about ways of democratizing governance.

Gagnon: I have thus far neglected to ask you a question about your telos of democratization. Do you view this as a process that is always ongoing or do you see it as a process that has some clear logical end?

Dryzek: I see it as a process that is always ongoing. It’s hard for me to see what the end might be. I think as time goes on new concerns get raised. That is quite interesting. New concerns get raised about particularly subtle forms of exclusion for example. It is here actually that some of the critics of deliberative democracy have been very salutary. I’m thinking of people like Iris Marion Young and Lynn Sanders. They would argue, pointing out ten to fifteen years ago, that maybe deliberative democrats were too beholden to rationalistic forms of communication. I think that people like me reacted to those criticisms. We eventually thought ‘hmm, maybe that is right. In light of those criticisms maybe we need to think about how deliberative democracy itself needs to be reformulated in both theory and practice.’

I do not see any end to that kind of process. New things keep coming along. New kinds of criticisms keep coming along and if we are lucky enough to achieve particular advances in theory and practice, then a new source of problems emerges that needs addressing. I do not see any end to that and I think that is fine because it’s hard to imagine what democracy would look like if there were an end to it, if things were ever settled once and for all. I find that so hard to conceptualize. I do not think that would be a democratically lively place.

Gagnon: Although I am interested in the philosophy of something akin to the moment of ‘democracy’s Singularity’ I share your opinion that democracy will probably never have an end. Democracy, I think, would be pointless if it had a grand end. It’s an ever growing, ever changing organism. It’s something humans use as an avenue to make things better.

We have been talking about big things so far: global democratic governance, major theories of democracy, and some of the problematics existing therein. There’s a large and growing literature on deliberative democracy in smaller places – local places. Where do you see deliberative democracy in the smaller tiers of government and governance? How is it present at the levels of villages, local regions composing several villages and states, provinces and so on?

Dryzek: Clearly deliberative democracy has a place for those levels too. In fact it’s often the case that the smaller the unit the more straightforward deliberation becomes. I see no problem at all in speaking of pursuing deliberative democracy at multiple levels. There’s work to be done at all levels. I know my own recent focus has been a global one, but that is just one location. I think that there are all kinds of possibilities at more local levels. For example I have got a PhD student at the moment, Andrea Felicetti, who’s working with deliberative democracy in association with transition towns in Italy and Australia (though the transition movement began in the UK and Ireland). These initiatives are generally local movements formed around issues pertaining to climate change and peak oil in particular. They argue for local initiatives to be pursued in the light of previous failures by both society and government in resolving these problems. So he’s looking at the deliberative qualities of those initiatives.

Now, most of the people who practice those initiatives have never heard of anything called ‘deliberative democracy’. But nevertheless one can look at them in a deliberative light. One can argue that they are adding a deliberative component to local government. I think deliberative democracy belongs at any and all levels of government.

Gagnon: Would deliberation take different shape depending upon which level of government, or which type of governance, it is being used by? Or would deliberation stay the same and only generate or modify different institutions?

Dryzek: I have not thought this one through systematically, but I think there are differences in terms of what’s feasible across different tiers. For the global level it is hard to imagine any kind of sovereign assembly emerging any time soon, whereas at a state level one can see that they already exist. If you move to a local level you cannot claim something like sovereignty.

Sovereignty is an attribute of the state and that determines what’s possible at the level of the state which is not the same as what’s possible at the local level. Anything done locally has to, for better or for worse, work within the framework that its location in the particular state involves. Inevitably I think things will work in terms of what’s possible institutionally. And in terms of deliberative systems, I think there will be major differences between different levels or tiers of government.

But I also think that a lot of the same ideals can apply at any level. The basic idea of some of the core claims about deliberative democracy, like how we should think about democratic legitimacy, apply at whatever level we deal with. The principles are the same at any level. But things work out differently in practice. I think you have to vary quite a lot according to level.

Gagnon: Brilliant. Now for our final question: how does deliberative democracy affect democratic theory? Where in the new is it taking us in practice and theory?

Dryzek: Well, I think there’s no question that deliberative democracy has been the most popular theme in democratic theory in recent years. Of course there are democratic theorists who are not deliberative democrats and that is fine. I’m thinking for example about people like Michael Saward whom we have already talked about and various agonist theorists of democracy like Bonnie Honig. For better or for worse deliberative democracy does seem to be increasingly setting the agenda for democratic theory and that even the critics, the people I just mentioned, often see the need to position themselves in relation to deliberative democracy.

Where is all this taking us? Well, being a deliberative or discursive democrat I see the good emerging. But I also see the dangers. There’s a danger of deliberative democracy becoming too successful. It seems that with time we have been very good at assimilating our critics. I mentioned people like Lynn Sanders and Iris Young for example. Their criticisms are the kinds of communication that deliberation now involves. We took these critiques on board. In her year 2000 book, Inclusion and Democracy, Iris Young herself moved closer to a deliberative democrat than she had been before – even though she would still prefer to style herself a communicative democrat.

So I suppose the danger is that we become too successful, that deliberative democracy assimilates too much and in the process loses its distinctiveness. The parallel I can think of there is the history of liberalism which with time has been very successful at assimilating its critics, but to the point where it’s sometimes hard to pin down what liberalism actually means because it comes in so many varieties. So there is a possibility that deliberative democracy could go the same way.

But for the moment I think it’s taking us in lots of interesting directions. One direction in which it does take us (and this is where it compares well with its rivals in normative theory) is into new areas of practice. This is an area where many deliberative theorists are quite involved. They are developing practical innovations in which they really get their hands dirty in terms of being involved in real world deliberative innovations. That is an advantage we have over other varieties of democratic theory which have tended not to do that. They’ve tended to keep more of a distance from the real world.

That kind of engagement is one place where deliberative democracy has taken democratic theory. It’s now very much a practical kind of engagement. In terms of what the future holds, well, who knows? All I can say is that for the present lots of interesting work is being done by deliberative theorists and that it’s a flourishing and fruitful enterprise. Of course, I look forward to it remaining that way.


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