Category: .Goodin, Robert

Making democracy more reflective

Here I shall be attempting to identify deliberative democratic methods for evoking more reflective preferences as inputs into the political process. Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being:

  • more empathetic with the plight of others;
  • more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable; and
  • more far-reaching in both time and space, taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples and different interests.

The key innovation I shall be offering is, in the first instance, a theoretical one. What is required is a new way of con­ceptualizing democratic deliberation—as something which occurs internally, within each individual’s head, and not exclusively or even in an interpersonal setting. [7]

Conferring legitimacy on democratic inputs

In fixating in these ways on ‘the simple act of voting’, political scientists are not alone. In many ways, they thereby mimic longstanding concerns of democratic theory itself. Voting has long been regarded as the consummate act of democratic citizenship. For literally centuries, extending the franchise was the great democratic project. ‘Free and fair elections’ remain among its greatest contemporary aspirations. An inclusive franchise and regular elections are rightly regarded as sine qua non of liberal democratic politics worldwide.

All of those are undeniably indispensable elements of democratic rule. All of my discussions presuppose them; none of my mechanisms can claim any democratic legitimacy without them. But in such ays on those simple acts of voting and aggregating votes can blind us to important cognitive processes that precede and shape those ultimate political acts. …

Here I shall try to refocus democratic theory, at least in part, on processes preceding the vote. More unconventionally still, I shall be concerned primarily with the processes that occur within the heads of individual voters, rather than within the formally political realm. Various elements of the democratic process (free speech, free association, free entry of new parties, and such like) have always been regarded as essential elements of the democratic competition. What are less often noticed, and to which I shall here direct most of my attention, are the more ‘internal reflective’ concomitants of democratic political discussions. [11]

Robinson Crusoe democracy

One of my central arguments in this book is that inputs themselves can be more democratic or less democratic. To the extent that people practise ‘democratic deliberation within’, their own inputs will encapsulate the concerns of many other people as well. A person who has internalized the perspectives of others, balancing them with her own, will have already partially performed the bottom-line democratic aggregation inside her own head. Her own input will therefore be ‘more democratic’, even just in the standard vote-aggregating sense of the term. [10]

How do we get everybody to participate?

If we want to make the deliberative ideal practical in those circumstances, we apparently face an unpalatable choice. Either we have to reduce the number of people deliberating, thus involving less than the entire community; or else we have to reduce the breadth or depth of the deliberation, thus making the deliberation less meaningful in some sense or another. Representative institutions (parliaments or citizens’ juries or deliberative polls or planning cells) are flawed in the first respect. Mechanisms channelling public attention (such as mass media or referenda) are flawed in the second.

Thus, the problem with which democratic elitists began at the turn of the last century returns to haunt democratic theory in its most recent incarnations. How can we constructively engage people in the public life of a mass democracy, with­out making wildly unrealistic demands on their time and attention?

That problem becomes particularly acute when we appreciate that we are inevitably dealing with people who often take no direct interest in political affairs, as such. Furthermore, they have no rational reason to do so, at least from a narrowly instrumental perspective. After all, the odds are minuscule that any one person’s vote or voice will make any great dif­ference to the ultimate outcome among a large group of people; so it is perfectly rational for voters not to go to any great trouble or expense informing themselves. [5]