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  • Deliberation, Cultural Difference, and Indigenous Self-Governance
  • Jorge M. Valadez (bio)

In this essay I argue that cultural differences between indigenous groups and settler societies are, in at least some cases, of significant importance for granting indigenous groups rights of self-governance. I maintain that the legitimacy of a political community crucially depends on whether none of the groups in that community are significantly disadvantaged in its democratic decision-making procedures. Significant political disadvantages are those that undermine the basic well-being of the members of the disadvantaged group. I contend that even under deliberative democracy, which places demanding conditions on understanding and taking into account the perspectives and interests of all members of the political community, some indigenous groups will find themselves continually losing out when collectively binding decisions are made after democratic deliberation. The primary reason for their losing out will likely be the significantly different cultural views they hold in such areas as empirical beliefs, normative principles and practices, and epistemic procedures for validating empirical and normative claims. These cultural differences will make it difficult for the criterion of political justification proposed by deliberative democracy, namely, the reciprocal giving of reasons that are reasonable from the perspective of other deliberators, to be satisfied. Secondary reasons include economic and social factors that make it difficult for indigenous groups to participate with equal effectiveness in the society's decision-making procedures.

A just democratic society can bear the burden of particular groups being coerced to follow collective decisions with which they fundamentally disagree only if the realistic possibility exists that in future negotiations their point of view will win the day. However, when deep and pervasive cultural differences exist between minority indigenous groups and majority societies, this condition is not likely to be fulfilled. In these cases, it is difficult to maintain that they constitute a deliberative political community in which reciprocity in reason-giving is respected in procedures for making collectively binding political decisions. I maintain that there is an important connection between the principle of reciprocity and political equality and that when this principle is consistently violated in the democratic decision-making procedures of a political community, the legitimacy of that community is seriously undermined. Under these circumstances the just response is to grant the indigenous groups powers of autonomous governance that remove the source of the political disadvantages they face by being forced to be a part of a common civic body with the settler society.

In the first part of this essay, I discuss briefly the criticisms that advocates of deliberative democracy have made of conventional procedures of democratic decision-making. This will help us understand how the legitimacy of political decisions that rely on these procedures can be called into question. In the second part, I discuss the alternative conception of political justification proposed by deliberative democracy and place particular attention on how this conception applies in culturally divided societies like those composed of indigenous groups and settler societies. In the third section, I argue that this conception of political justification—which is designed to produce just outcomes in pluralistic societies—cannot resolve the significant political disadvantages that indigenous groups face by remaining part of a common civic body with the majority society. I maintain that given these considerations, self-governance should be seriously considered as a way of removing these significant political disadvantages.

Political Legitimacy and Deliberative Democracy

In considering whether indigenous groups and majority settler societies can comprise a just political order in which fair decision-making procedures can be implemented, it is useful to examine deliberative democracy, for a central concern of this normative democratic theory is the justification of political decisions.1 For defenders of deliberative democracy, political decisions are justified only if they are reached through procedures that take into account the interests and views of all members of the polity. Since all members of the polity will be subject to the political decisions reached, their preferences should be given equal consideration in an open and uncoerced process of public deliberation. For the deliberative democrat, equal consideration means: (1) that deliberators will understand and take into account the views and interests of others and (2) that deliberators will provide...


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pp. 60-65
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