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Why Deliberative Democracy?
By Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson
Princeton University PressAmy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson
All right reserved.
WHAT DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY MEANS
To go to war is the most consequential decision a nation can make. Yet most nations, even most democracies, have ceded much of the power to make that decision to their chief executives-to their presidents and prime ministers. Legislators are rarely asked or permitted to issue declarations of war. The decision to go to war, it would seem, is unfriendly territory for pursuing the kind of reasoned argument that characterizes political deliberation.
Yet when President George W. Bush announced that the United States would soon take military action against Saddam Hussein, he and his advisors recognized the need to justify the decision not only to the American people but also to the world community. Beginning in October 2002, the administration found itself engaged in argument with the U.S. Congress and, later, with the United Nations. During the months of preparation for the war, Bush and his colleagues, in many different forums and at many different times, sought to make the case for a preventive war against Iraq.1 Saddam Hussein, they said, was a threat to the United States because he had or could soon have weapons of mass destruction, and had supported terrorists who might have struck again against the United States. Further, he had tyrannized his own people and destabilized the Middle East.
In Congress and in the United Nations, critics responded, concurring with the judgment that Hussein was a terrible tyrant but challenging the administration on all its arguments in favor of going to war before exhausting the nonmilitary actions that might have controlled the threat. As the debate proceeded, it became clear that almost no one disagreed with the view that the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein no longer ruled in Iraq, but many doubted that he posed an imminent threat, and many questioned whether he actually supported the terrorists who had attacked or were likely to attack the United States.
This debate did not represent the kind of discussion that deliberative democrats hope for, and the deliberation was cut short once U.S. troops began their invasion in March 2003. Defenders and critics of the war seriously questioned one another's motives and deeply suspected that the reasons offered were really rationalizations for partisan politics. The administration, for its part, declined to wait until nonmilitary options had been exhausted, when a greater moral consensus might have been reached. But the remarkable fact is that even under the circumstances of war, and in the face of an alleged imminent threat, the government persisted in attempting to justify its decision, and opponents persevered in responding with reasoned critiques of a preventive war.
The critics are probably right that no amount of deliberation would have prevented the war, and the supporters are probably right that some critics would never have defended going to war even if other nonmilitary sanctions had ultimately failed. Yet the deliberation that did occur laid the foundation for a more sustained and more informative debate after the U.S. military victory than would otherwise have taken place. Because the administration had given reasons (such as the threat of the weapons of mass destruction) for taking action, critics had more basis to continue to dispute the original decision, and to challenge the administration's judgment. The imperfect deliberation that preceded the war prepared the ground for the less imperfect deliberation that followed.
Thus even in a less than friendly environment, deliberative democracy makes an appearance, and with some effect. Both the advocates and the foes of the war acted as if they recognized an obligation to justify their views to their fellow citizens. (That their motives were political or partisan is less important than that their actions were responsive to this obligation.) This problematic episode can help us discern the defining characteristics of deliberative democracy if we attend to both the presence and the absence of those characteristics in the debate about the war.
What Is Deliberative Democracy?
Most fundamentally, deliberative democracy affirms the need to justify decisions made by citizens and their representatives. Both are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another. In a democracy, leaders should therefore give reasons for their decisions, and respond to the reasons that citizens give in return. But not all issues, all the time, require deliberation. Deliberative democracy makes room for many other forms of decision-making (including bargaining among groups, and secret operations ordered by executives), as long as the use of these forms themselves is justified at some point in a deliberative process. Its first and most important characteristic, then, is its reason-giving requirement.
The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject. The reasons are neither merely procedural ("because the majority favors the war") nor purely substantive ("because the war promotes the national interest or world peace"). They are reasons that should be accepted by free and equal persons seeking fair terms of cooperation.
The moral basis for this reason-giving process is common to many conceptions of democracy. Persons should be treated not merely as objects of legislation, as passive subjects to be ruled, but as autonomous agents who take part in the governance of their own society, directly or through their representatives. In deliberative democracy an important way these agents take part is by presenting and responding to reasons, or by demanding that their representatives do so, with the aim of justifying the laws under which they must live together. The reasons are meant both to produce a justifiable decision and to express the value of mutual respect. It is not enough that citizens assert their power through interest-group bargaining, or by voting in elections. No one seriously suggested that the decision to go to war should be determined by logrolling, or that it should be subject to a referendum. Assertions of power and expressions of will, though obviously a key part of democratic politics, still need to be justified by reason. When a primary reason offered by the government for going to war turns out to be false, or worse still deceptive, then not only is the government's justification for the war called into question, so also is its respect for citizens.
A second characteristic of deliberative democracy is that the reasons given in this process should be accessible to all the citizens to whom they are addressed. To justify imposing their will on you, your fellow citizens must give reasons that are comprehensible to you. If you seek to impose your will on them, you owe them no less. This form of reciprocity means that the reasons must be public in two senses. First, the deliberation itself must take place in public, not merely in the privacy of one's mind. In this respect deliberative democracy stands in contrast to Rousseau's conception of democracy, in which individuals reflect on their own on what is right for the society as a whole, and then come to the assembly and vote in accordance with the general will.2
The other sense in which the reasons must be public concerns their content. A deliberative justification does not even get started if those to whom it is addressed cannot understand its essential content. It would not be acceptable, for example, to appeal only to the authority of revelation, whether divine or secular in nature. Most of the arguments for going to war against Iraq appealed to evidence and beliefs that almost anyone could assess. Although President Bush implied that he thought God was on his side, he did not rest his argument on any special instructions from his heavenly ally (who may or may not have joined the coalition of the willing).
Admittedly, some of the evidence on both sides of the debate was technical (for example, the reports of the U.N. inspectors). But this is a common occurrence in modern government. Citizens often have to rely on experts. This does not mean that the reasons, or the bases of the reasons, are inaccessible. Citizens are justified in relying on experts if they describe the basis for their conclusions in ways that citizens can understand; and if the citizens have some independent basis for believing the experts to be trustworthy (such as a past record of reliable judgments, or a decision-making structure that contains checks and balances by experts who have reason to exercise critical scrutiny over one another).
To be sure, the Bush administration relied to some extent on secret intelligence to defend its decision. Citizens were not able at the time to assess the validity of this intelligence, and therefore its role in the administration's justification for the decision. In principle, using this kind of evidence does not necessarily violate the requirement of accessibility if good reasons can be given for the secrecy, and if opportunities for challenging the evidence later are provided. As it turned out in this case, the reasons were indeed challenged later, and found to be wanting. Deliberative democracy would of course have been better served if the reasons could have been challenged earlier.
The third characteristic of deliberative democracy is that its process aims at producing a decision that is binding for some period of time. In this respect the deliberative process is not like a talk show or an academic seminar. The participants do not argue for argument's sake; they do not argue even for truth's own sake (although the truthfulness of their arguments is a deliberative virtue because it is a necessary aim in justifying their decision). They intend their discussion to influence a decision the government will make, or a process that will affect how future decisions are made. At some point, the deliberation temporarily ceases, and the leaders make a decision. The president orders troops into battle, the legislature passes the law, or citizens vote for their representatives. Deliberation about the decision to go to war in Iraq went on for a long period of time, longer than most preparations for war. Some believed that it should have gone on longer (to give the U.N. inspectors time to complete their task). But at some point the president had to decide whether to proceed or not. Once he decided, deliberation about the question of whether to go to war ceased.
Yet deliberation about a seemingly similar but significantly different question continued: was the original decision justified? Those who challenged the justification for the war of course did not think they could undo the original decision. They were trying to cast doubt on the competence or judgment of the current administration. They were also trying to influence future decisions-to press for involving the United Nations and other nations in the reconstruction effort, or simply to weaken Bush's prospects for reelection.
This continuation of debate illustrates the fourth characteristic of deliberative democracy-its process is dynamic. Although deliberation aims at a justifiable decision, it does not presuppose that the decision at hand will in fact be justified, let alone that a justification today will suffice for the indefinite future. It keeps open the possibility of a continuing dialogue, one in which citizens can criticize previous decisions and move ahead on the basis of that criticism. Although a decision must stand for some period of time, it is provisional in the sense that it must be open to challenge at some point in the future. This characteristic of deliberative democracy is neglected even by most of its proponents. (We discuss it further below in examining the concept of provisionality.)
Deliberative democrats care as much about what happens after a decision is made as about what happens before. Keeping the decision-making process open in this way-recognizing that its results are provisional-is important for two reasons. First, in politics as in much of practical life, decision-making processes and the human understanding upon which they depend are imperfect. We therefore cannot be sure that the decisions we make today will be correct tomorrow, and even the decisions that appear most sound at the time may appear less justifiable in light of later evidence. Even in the case of those that are irreversible, like the decision to attack Iraq, reappraisals can lead to different choices later than were planned initially. Second, in politics most decisions are not consensual. Those citizens and representatives who disagreed with the original decision are more likely to accept it if they believe they have a chance to reverse or modify it in the future. And they are more likely to be able to do so if they have a chance to keep making arguments.
One important implication of this dynamic feature of deliberative democracy is that the continuing debate it requires should observe what we call the principle of the economy of moral disagreement. In giving reasons for their decisions, citizens and their representatives should try to find justifications that minimize their differences with their opponents. Deliberative democrats do not expect deliberation always or even usually to yield agreement. How citizens deal with the disagreement that is endemic in political life should therefore be a central question in any democracy. Practicing the economy of moral disagreement promotes the value of mutual respect (which is at the core of deliberative democracy). By economizing on their disagreements, citizens and their representatives can continue to work together to find common ground, if not on the policies that produced the disagreement, then on related policies about which they stand a greater chance of finding agreement. Cooperation on the reconstruction of Iraq does not require that the parties at home and abroad agree about the correctness of the original decision to go to war. Questioning the patriotism of critics of the war, or opposing the defense expenditures that are necessary to support the troops, does not promote an economy of moral disagreement.
Combining these four characteristics, we can define deliberative democracy as a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.3 This definition obviously leaves open a number of questions.
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