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  • Democracy’s Deliberations
  • Michael T. Gibbons
Jurgen Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg, (MIT Press, 1996)
Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard, 1996)

I. Democracy Endangered

Democracy is in serious trouble in the late twentieth century. Increasingly, political-administrative decisions are driven by the (perceived) imperatives of economic investment and by externalities generated by regional, national and global economies. And yet, instead of expanding the range of issues addressed in the public sphere, this intrusion of the economic into the political has narrowed the scope and depth of public discourse. Increasingly, laws and policies are made in the context of the emergency state, i.e. the presumption that there exist direct, immanent, and fatal threats to average citizens that can only be countered by state actions that curtail the civil liberties, freedom and the range of permissible behavior of citizens. Connected to the above are moves designed to transform social and political institutions into instruments of surveillance and/or to limit opportunity or political-social space for political dissent. Welfare reform, referenda directed at immigrant populations, attacks on affirmative action, the inflated rhetoric of the “war on drugs,” attacks on Social Security and Medicare, the transformation of education into the passive reception of information under the euphemism of “distance learning,” proposals to limit the time students may remain in universities, attacks on tenure—all these function as disciplinary controls on populations perceived as economically inefficient and/or on those populations not sufficiently disciplined by the necessities of economic insecurity.

The two predominant responses within the mainstream of American political thought are unlikely to counter these trends and in fact provide much of the rationale for them. This is in large part because neither sees much intrinsic value in the practice of democracy. Neo-conservative movements and political theory see the problems addressed by these developments as things that could be obviated if we could only recapture the idea of transcendental moral truth and the virtues that accompany it. Rational choice theorists disqualify themselves from identifying these trends as problematic. For them democracy is simply a set of procedures for the selection of rulers (or even less ambitiously, simply as a means of guaranteeing the changing of those in authority), who then market their influence to the highest bidders. Neither neoconservatives nor rational choice theorists find much intrinsic value in the practice of democracy.

The response from some post-Nietzscheans, including some of those indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, has also been less than encouraging to some radical democrats. They see little point in trying to retrieve democracy for a number of reasons.

First, the attempt to reconstruct democracy is seen as dangerous, as implicating one in the existing system: “to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.” 1

Second, one of the overriding concerns of some Foucauldians has been the tendency in modern politics to construct tight relationships between the self and prevailing networks of power and political order. 2

From this perspective, democracies and democratic theory are the worst offenders, the most dangerous form of this identity politics. Traditionally, democracies have been underwritten by the fiction that political order is traceable to some act or form of political consent or authorship. What has really been the case, from this Foucauldian perspective, is that the political order constructs practices of individualism and collective identity compatible with existing practices of disciplinary society. Subsequent fictions of authorship and consent emerge to rationalize the arbitrariness of democratic practices.

Third, given the dangers of democracy outlined above, at best democracy can serve as the institutional site for the contest of political and social identity and difference. The idea is not to replace democracy with a better, more just social order or to redeem the promise of democracy but to use whatever space is available within democratic regimes to challenge the conventional landscape of identity, difference and the accompanying disciplinary techniques. But even here, the aspirations and goals must be measured; one cannot expect more emancipatory, liberatory or more pluralizing democratic politics to emerge. 3

Neither consensual politics...

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