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  • Democracy and the Extended Republic:Reflections on the Fishkinian Project
  • Sanford Levinson (bio)

When holding a "town meeting" during a visit to Strasbourg early in his term of office, President Obama told a German student, "We spend so much time talking about democracy—and obviously we should be promoting democracy everywhere we can."1 One might, of course, write a full essay about the extent to which we should or, perhaps more to the point, can, promote democracy throughout the world, but that is not my concern in this essay. Instead, I take it as a given that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, broadly support such a commitment, even if there might be differences of opinion over the limits suggested by the "we can" at the end. If "ought implies can," after all, then perceptions of practical possibility might well temper the enthusiasm for what I would label the international "democracy project" conducted by American presidents, with various degrees of enthusiasm, at least since Woodrow Wilson (and domestically by their predecessors going back most famously to Abraham Lincoln).

The obvious issue presented by the "democracy project," whether foreign or domestic, is what counts as its achievement. If, as is patently the case, "democracy" is a model example of what political theorists have grown to call "essentially contested concepts," then different definitions may have considerably different ramifications, not only for actual effectuation but also for the normative evaluation of what is achieved. So consider President Obama's own elaboration of what he meant by "democracy":

But democracy, a well-functioning society that promotes liberty and equality and fraternity, a well-functioning society does not just depend on going to the ballot box. It also means that you're not going to be shaken down by police because the police aren't getting properly paid. It also means that if you want to start a business, you don't have to pay a bribe. I mean, there are a whole host of other factors that people need to—need to recognize in building a civil society that allows a country to be successful. ...2

A number of things might be said. One is that Obama rejects a "procedural" version of democracy in favor of a stunningly substantive one, where the values of "liberty, equality, and fraternity"—one wonders what the domestic reaction in the United States would have been had he said these words in their original French!—seem to dominate the undoubted good of being able to go to the "ballot box." This, too, could be the subject of an independent essay, for it is difficult indeed to disagree with the President's comment and its reminder that a "well-functioning society," which we might describe as "democratic" requires an honest police force and civil service, in addition to the ability to participate in elections. That being said, it is also worth noting some important additional limitations of focusing on "going to the ballot box" as an index of "democracy," even if one has the boon of living in a corruption-free society that respects a wide variety of important rights. And here is where the work of James Fishkin takes center stage.

One of the major contributions of Fishkin's new book, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation, is to underscore the extent to which a robust conception of popular government cannot stop with "going to the ballot box" (and, presumably, having one's votes counted honestly). That may be a necessary condition of democracy, but in no sense should it be viewed as even close to a sufficient condition even in a regime that features an honest constabulary and civil service. Rather, as he eloquently writes, a model of "Competitive Democracy," which focuses almost exclusively on the occurrence of elections by which oppositional political parties can mount plausible challenges to the maintenance of power by current political insiders, "keeps the mechanism of democracy without its soul."3 It is unacceptable to limit "the decision-making capacity that is supposed to animate the democratic process" to "whatever competitive efforts, exercised in whatever way happens to win in a mostly unrestricted adversary process" or, even more so...


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