By Tyler McLaren, DCI Fellow
John Locke, a founding philosopher of liberalism, offered that, “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, [cannot] be […] subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” Why is it then, that in our American society, which is built upon liberalism and where this ideology is so highly regarded, so many citizens have abandoned their right to make their voices heard, to vote and to engage in civil discourse, when the result is a complete forfeiture of power to a government that does not serve their interests? Why would anyone give up this power and self-agency?
One may advance the common belief that our elected officials in Washington have not listened to the American people for decades, and that political engagement is a lost cause given the government’s complexity and polarization. Simply put, it is not the American people who have given up on democracy—the government has.
Dr. Daniel Layman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Davidson College, offers that there is a favorable alternative to current practice both in Monday’s “Deliberation Nation – Why Deliberative Democracy is our Best Option” lecture and in his peer reviewed article, Robust Deliberative Democracy.
Layman contends that if we choose to deliberate with our fellow citizens on policy issues, instead of participating in the bargaining and bickering which has become the norm, we all have a say in politics, we all exercise our right to be equal and independent, and we are all truly free. Democracy is a team effort, and if we are to save it from apathy, disengagement, marginalization, and polarization, no players can be on the sidelines.
Skeptical? I was too before Layman moved from a utopian depiction of deliberative democracy to expose us to two core problems with deliberative democracy, which he then refuted— restoring faith in his argument, and by extension, the likelihood that we could pull this off.
First, there is a knowledge problem. If the average citizen does not know the name of their senator, what makes us think they have the knowledge to debate about contentious issues in our country? Deliberative democracy, however, does not require excessive knowledge —it is based on moral deliberation. Morals are plentiful and diverse in the American polis. We should therefore be able to define the moral parameters within which acceptable policy can be made.
Second, there is the incentive problem. Many Americans have little incentive to take politics seriously and are disinclined to devote time, energy, and resources to a political process that yields little in their favor. Yet deliberative democracy does not ask citizens to abandon their own self-interest in favor of others. Instead, it asks our citizens to conceptualize their self-interest and their ability to voice their needs as centrally dependent on their freedom from arbitrary government or others’ personal wills. It makes little logical sense, then, why anyone would subject themself to such unfreedom, under this assumption.
With a strong case as to why deliberative democracy is not just manageable, but worth managing, we must begin thinking about how we can make it possible for our citizens to begin “sharing reasons” with one another and accepting others’ offerings to arrive at some common ground first, and then the most rationally supported policy becomes possible. Efforts promoting deliberation are a good start, but are often limited to those fortunate enough to receive a college education. If deliberative democracy is to work, everyone must be invited to the table. Deliberative forums must be accessible, inviting, and come at no cost to the participants. Deliberation cannot privilege those who fit the mold of what politics is “supposed” to look like; everyone must have the ability to express their reason in their own way. For this reason, I’m excited about the DCI’s current efforts and future plans to partner with local organizations to host deliberation opportunities for all members of our community, regardless of their background.
Although there is much work to be done, I have faith in the American people’s ability to find common ground not because they have to, but because it is important to their freedom.