[Paleopsych] Hedgehog Review: Colin Bird: Democracy and Its Nightmares

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Colin Bird: Democracy and Its Nightmares

          Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. Democracy and Disagreement.
    Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1996

          Ankersmit, F. R. Aesthetic Politics: Political Philosophy Beyond
    Fact and Value. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996

          From the beginning, democracy has confronted a recurring
    nightmare. In order to identify and pursue worthwhile collective
    goals, concerted, coherent, and purposive social action is necessary.
    But what if this invariably involves a higher degree of social
    control, discipline, and hierarchy than any recognizably democratic
    social ideal could ever tolerate? Plato was perhaps the first to
    canvas this possibility. If he is right, the circumstances of human
    life render self-defeating (and hence irrational) the democratic
    aspiration to empower and improve society by liberating it.

          Most of the historical and contemporary contributions to what we
    today call "democratic theory" can plausibly be seen as attempts to
    confront, dispel, or cope with particular variants of this nightmare.
    Opponents of the Ancien Regime monarchies needed Rousseau to explain
    how citizens could collectively identify and pursue their own

          Colin Bird is Assistant Professor of Government and Foreign
    Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several
    articles on political neutrality and self-government. His book, The
    Myth of Liberal Individualism, was recently published by Cambridge
    University Press.

          common good better than an enlightened despot who claimed to
    represent them; early Americans needed Madison to explain how
    democratic conflict could be exploited to combat rather than
    exacerbate the perceived instability of democratic self-rule;
    reluctant parliamentary reformers in nineteenth-century Britain needed
    Mill to explain how wider political participation might edify rather
    than corrupt public debate; cold warriors needed Schumpeter to
    redefine democracy so as to reconcile the democratic pretensions of
    the liberal nation-state with its systematically oligarchical reality.

          Convincing or not, these contributions all presuppose some
    interlocutor who charges either that democratic attempts to secure
    important public benefits are typically self-defeating, or that
    non-self-defeating social action must be basically undemocratic.
    Historically, such charges haven't just reflected anti-democratic
    prejudice. This is presumably one reason why we are able to take the
    idea of democratic theory at all seriously: if there were nothing but
    unreasoned fear and prejudice fuelling the democratic nightmare,
    theoretical argumentation would hardly seem a necessary or appropriate
    response. Only reasoned challenges to democratic politics call for, or
    deserve, reasoned apologias.

          The two works of democratic theory under consideration here
    confront, more or less explicitly, and with mixed success,
    contemporary variants of the democratic nightmare. This is harder to
    see in the case of Gutmann and Thompson's Democracy and Disagreement,
    because the authors decline to offer a systematic justification for
    the form of democracy that they recommend (7). Instead, the book
    engages a particular debate among proponents of democratic politics.
    As the authors conceive it, the participants in this debate all
    acknowledge the need to constrain democratic rule in various ways, but
    disagree about the form and location of the appropriate constraints.
    Gutmann and Thompson oppose those who would limit these constraints to
    either (a) a series of rules of a purely procedural nature, intended
    to ensure that the political process is fair and/or (b) a set of
    constitutionally defined and judicially enforced restrictions intended
    to ensure that certain fundamental social values are upheld (27-39).

          Gutmann and Thompson don't deny the importance of these sorts of
    constraints, but rather want to embed them within a braoder and in
    their view more basic set of democratic contstraints (40). They
    formulate these broader constraints as a set of rules of moral
    argument tio guide citizens' (not just judges' or academics' [4-5,
    45]) deliberations about public policy. On their model, principles of
    "reciprocity," "publicity," and "accountability" structure the
    deliberations themselves, and determine what counts as an appropriate
    resolution, while the values of "basic liberty," "basic opportunity,"
    and "fair opportunity" form the subject matter of the deliberation
    (348). According to Gutmann and Thompson, by observing these
    principles citizens can make up a "deliberative deficit" whose
    contemporary symptoms include "communicating by soundbite, competing
    by character assassination, and resolving political conflicts through
    self-seeking bargaining" (12).

          A critic of democracy might reasonably regard these as chronic
    and perhaps decisive failings of representative democracy. However,
    Gutmann and Thompson aren't ready to give up on democracy, and they
    suggest that deliberative democracy will yield public decisions that
    are "more morally legitimate, public-spirited, mutually respectful,
    and self-correcting." As they concede, this "is more than democracy in
    America now offers most of its citizens most of the time" (51). The
    clear implication is that contemporary "soundbite" democracy typically
    produces morally questionable outcomes, undermines mutual respect and
    fellow-feeling among citizens, and fails adequately to correct its own
    mistakes. It is here that Democracy and Disagreement offers a
    response, albeit tentative, to a familiar contemporary variant of the
    democratic nightmare. Gutmann and Thompson want to convince us that
    their deliberative principles can inject (a currently often absent)
    moral coherence and rationality into the democratic process. By
    encouraging a sense of "collective moral purpose" (62), deliberative
    democracy can express "as complete a conception of the common good as
    is possible within a morally pluralistic society" (93).

          Democracy and Disagreement does not set out to vindicate
    deliberative democracy against all-comers. Instead, Gutmann and
    Thompson aim simply to sketch the outlines and likely virtues of a new
    democratic model and to invite further reflection on its prospects.
    However, the idea that their recommended forms of deliberation can be
    expected to enhance democratic debate and decision-making is open to

          By what standard do Gutmann and Thompson assess the quality of
    debate and decision for the purposes of developing their account of
    democratic deliberation? Throughout the book, they insist that the
    relevant test concerns the degree to which procedural, constitutional,
    and deliberative democracy can "resolve" moral disagreement. But why
    should this be the appropriate barometer of the relative merits of
    these three kinds of democracy? The answer suggested by Gutmann and
    Thompson in several passages is that all three conceptions accept the
    principle that political decisions ought to be justified on the basis
    of reasons that are acceptable to citizens bound by them (26, 39). I
    doubt that this is a sufficient answer. Gutmann and Thompson here
    mobilize a very vague principle of political legitimacy and authority
    accepted by a huge range of theories (democratic and nondemocratic).
    Plausible as it is as a general condition for legitimacy, it
    nevertheless leaves us well short of the demand that citizens publicly
    resolve their moral differences as far as possible.

          Moreover, focusing exclusively on this aim surely reflects an
    oddly narrow view of the point of the democratic project. Far more
    natural criteria by which to judge the merits of different democratic
    forms might include the extent to which they: empower citizens,
    realize the value of self-government, curb the power of elites, make
    society more just, encourage worthwhile forms of life, etc. And why
    would realizing any of these less obliquely salient goals necessarily
    require citizens to aim as far as possible for public "resolutions" of
    their moral disagreements? Perhaps suitably empowered, self-governing,
    just, and worthwhile forms of life are ones in which most moral
    disagreements are authoritatively settled without "minimizing
    rejection" (85) of views held by citizens. Setting aside cases in
    which moral disagreement threatens serious social dislocation or
    instability (which seem irrelevant to the proposed comparison between
    procedural, constitutional, and deliberative democracy), public moral
    reconciliation isn't automatically self-justifying.

          Gutmann and Thompson, of course, aren't expecting citizens to
    reach comprehensive moral consensus on all disputed questions. Still,
    their form of deliberative democracy "imposes obligations on citizens
    to seek moral accommodation when their comprehensive conceptions
    differ" (39). But perhaps democrats, and particularly deliberative
    democrats, might reasonably view this obligation as a liability, not
    an asset. Could they not conclude that the perpetual imperative to
    "economize" on disagreement is likely to constipate the deliberative
    process? Or that sometimes a bit of healthy disrespect is a reasonable
    price to pay for a robust democratic discourse that realizes the value
    of self-government or strives with "collective moral purpose" to
    eliminate injustice? If so, such democrats could reasonably reject
    both Gutmann and Thompson's model of deliberation and the criterion by
    which they favorably contrast it with procedural and constitutional

          Suppose, however, we concede this point to Gutmann and Thompson.
    Could we then accept their argument that deliberative democracy
    promises to "resolve" moral disagreement more "satisfactorily" than
    its competitors? For this argument to be convincing, we would
    obviously need a fairly clear account of what makes some "resolutions"
    of moral disagreement more "satisfactory" than others. Unfortunately,
    Gutmann and Thompson leave this crucial issue fuzzy. At different
    points, they suggest that more "satisfactory resolutions" (44) are
    those that: increase the likelihood that citizens are able to respect
    each other (43, 51, 56, 80), increase the "justifiability" of outcomes
    (43), promote "moral learning" (93), are fairer (26, 52-3), are more
    likely to elicit citizens' compliance and co-operation (41-2, 67),
    enhance civic virtue and public-spiritedness (42). These aren't
    obviously equivalent or even compatible (perhaps more "justifiable"
    outcomes express "disrespect" toward certain citizens' reasonable
    points of view, and perhaps citizens won't want to comply or
    co-operate with "fair" decisions). Given this, it is difficult to
    extract from Democracy and Disagreement clear reasons for thinking
    that deliberative "public reason" improves on other ways of resolving
    moral disagreement under democratic conditions.

          There isn't space here to examine this question in full, but one
    can appreciate some of the relevant issues by contrasting Gutmann and
    Thompson's own view with an alternative way of addressing moral
    disagreement that they explicitly reject: the model of toleration.
    According to them, "toleration requires majorities to let minorities
    express their views in public and practice them in private" (61). As
    interpreted by Gutmann and Thompson, deliberative democracy goes
    beyond this in two ways. First, citizens are asked to resolve
    discursively, not merely express, their views in the public sphere.
    Second, deliberative democracy requires that citizens aim to respect,
    not merely tolerate, each others' views: the deliberative goal of
    moral accommodation requires citizens to learn the difference between
    "respectable and merely tolerable differences of opinion" and adopt a
    "favorable attitude toward" those with whom they disagree (79, 93).
    Although Gutmann and Thompson aren't clear on this point, it seems
    reasonable to suppose that the model of toleration affiliates most
    naturally with a constitutional conception of democracy. Certainly,
    one very obvious way of institutionalizing toleration is to impose
    firm constitutional restrictions on the rights of majorities to
    interfere in others' ways of life. In any case, Gutmann and Thompson
    clearly oppose this way of dealing with moral disagreement: "mere
    toleration...locks into place the moral divisions in society and makes
    collective moral progress far more difficult" (62-3).

          But is it obvious that this approach to moral disagreement is
    inferior to Gutmann and Thompson's deliberative alternative? Suppose
    we concede to Gutmann and Thompson the claim that "resolutions" of
    moral disagreement are more "satisfactory" insofar as they promote
    greater mutual respect among citizens who disagree. Even judged by
    this standard, it seems to me an open question whether deliberative
    democracy is a better way of coping with moral disagreement than the
    model of toleration. It is true that if "mutual respect" requires a
    strongly "favorable attitude" toward those with whom one disagrees or
    "collective acceptance of individual moral beliefs" (93), then the
    model of toleration doesn't demand or expect citizens to display it in
    the context of political debate. But by itself this claim is hardly
    decisive. A defender of toleration can respond in several ways.

          First, she might deny that Gutmann and Thompson can simply
    arrogate all desirable forms and elements of "respect" to their own
    view. "Respect" and "mutual respect" are vague terms that gesture
    toward a cluster of complex and underspecified moral claims and
    attitudes. Given this, it isn't obvious that one who rejects
    deliberative democracy and opts instead for the model of toleration
    also rejects mutual respect. For example, in the current climate, I
    find it very hard not to regard the views of the NRA and of those who
    oppose strict gun control with contempt. Presumably, however,
    deliberative democracy would impose upon me an obligation to
    accommodate these views when I deliberate with my fellow citizens
    about gun control policy. But suppose I reject this requirement, and
    choose instead to express my intransigent views about the gun lobby
    within the looser terms of democratic debate implied by the model of
    toleration. Gutmann and Thompson might then accuse me of failing to be
    appropriately respectful toward those with whom I disagree. But to
    this I can reasonably reply that the model of toleration has its own
    account of "mutual respect." While under the model of toleration I'm
    not required to affirm the respectability of the NRA's views, I am
    obliged to respect the constitutional rights of the NRA to defend
    them, and those of other citizens to make up their own minds. This
    demands much less than deliberative accommodation, but upholding
    others' constitutional rights does arguably express a kind of respect
    toward them. In the absence of some fuller argument for the claim that
    this constitutionally mediated kind of respect is insufficient, the
    vague concept of "mutual respect" can't automatically serve as a
    tie-breaker between deliberative democracy and the constitution of

          Second, while it is true that toleration doesn't demand that
    citizens strongly affirm the respectability of views they reject, or
    impose obligations upon citizens to reach binding accommodations
    through public deliberation, that doesn't mean that it prevents
    dissenting citizens from developing strong attitudes of mutual respect
    in other ways. All that it means is that we shouldn't necessarily
    expect public debate about social policy to foster appropriately
    respectful attitudes toward those with whom one is arguing. Sometimes,
    Gutmann and Thompson seem to imply that if citizens fail to develop
    attitudes of mutual respect in this context, there are no other venues
    or ways in which citizens might learn to respect each other's moral
    views. Thus they say that under the model of toleration, "[c]itizens
    go their separate ways, keeping their moral reasons to themselves,
    avoiding moral engagement" (62).

          However, such claims are almost certainly exaggerated. Political
    debate that aims for an authoritative resolution of moral disagreement
    is only one arena within which I interact with my fellow citizens and
    can learn about their "moral reasons" and beliefs. Indeed, the
    proponent of democratic toleration might plausibly suggest that this
    is a particularly unsuitable arena for fostering attitudes of mutual
    respect. Perhaps the highly charged context of debate over public
    policy, in which entrenched social interests are playing for high
    political stakes, and where individuals often become psychologically
    invested in their positions, tends to exacerbate antagonism and
    contention. If so, it might turn out that the model of toleration
    actually indirectly promotes greater mutual respect, by encouraging
    deliberative encounters among dissenting citizens to take place in
    less polarizing environments.

          These counterarguments may not be decisive, but I hope they
    suggest some of the issues that need to be addressed if Gutmann and
    Thompson's project is to be carried forward. It's worth noting that
    answering these questions would require at least some consideration of
    the practical viability of deliberative public reason. Although
    Gutmann and Thompson consider an impressive array of actual political
    disputes, they do so mainly to illustrate the moral content of
    deliberative democracy, not to assess its viability empirically (7).
    Until the empirical preconditions for successful deliberative
    democracy are addressed, however, doubts of the sort canvassed here
    will remain.

          This raises a final question about Democracy and Disagreement:
    how is it possible for Gutmann and Thompson to intervene in these
    actual debates and recognize appropriately "reciprocal" resolutions
    without actually directly consulting the participants, and in the
    absence of empirically informed assessments of how one might
    reasonably expect deliberations to proceed in practice? The answer to
    this question highlights a fundamental feature of their theory:
    ultimately, the standard of "justifiability" that deliberative
    democracy uses to determine whether an appropriate "resolution" has
    been reached is nonempirical. That is, it isn't a question of what
    citizens have accepted or likely would actually accept, but of what
    they could, and should, accept if they think through the relevant
    issues in the appropriate fashion. Whether or not we agree with
    Gutmann and Thompson that the institutionalization of deliberative
    public reason would be a good thing, it is clear from their own
    discussion that one doesn't need to institutionalize it in order to
    recognize the sorts of public policies it is likely to recommend. This
    is what allows Gutmann and Thompson to enter debates (about, for
    example, abortion, paternalism, affirmative action, and environmental
    protection) as hypothetical deliberative participants and identify
    resolutions that citizens should accept as binding. Gutmann and
    Thompson's discussions of these and other cases form the most valuable
    parts of their book, and taken as direct theoretical analyses of the
    issues, they are always lucid and often thought-provoking. It would be
    an excellent thing if citizens deliberating about public policy could
    match the standard of argument set by the discussions of such issues
    in Democracy and Disagreement.

          But what is necessary to make this possible? Again, Gutmann and
    Thompson draw back from systematically addressing this question.
    However, they make some telling remarks en passant. In one passage,
    they concede that certain "background conditions" must be met in order
    to prepare citizens for worthwhile deliberative participation, and
    they mention: "the level of political competence (how well informed
    they are), the distribution of resources (how equally situated they
    are), and the nature of political culture (what kinds of arguments are
    taken seriously)" (42). Later on, they discuss the kind of "civic
    education" that is necessary to sustain deliberative democracy: such
    education, they say "would teach children not only to respect human
    dignity but also to appreciate its role in sustaining political
    cooperation on terms that can be shared by morally motivated citizens"
    (66). These aren't insignificant conditions, and realizing them might
    require considerable institutional reform. Gutmann and Thompson
    sometimes recognize this. For example, they say that cultivating the
    appropriate "moral character" is "likely to require some significant
    changes in traditional civics education" (359). How might civics
    education be re-organized so as to cultivate the appropriate kinds of
    civic virtue? Gutmann and Thompson say "it would be pedagogically
    self-defeating if schools were to teach this lesson dogmatically or
    through indoctrination. But they are not bound to remain neutral on a
    question that affects the nature of democracy itself" (66).

          This tantalizing formulation raises difficult questions. What
    would "not remaining neutral" actually mean in practice? When schools
    punish students for cheating or stealing are they neither "remaining
    neutral" nor indoctrinating them about good moral behavior? If so,
    would the required civics education authorize the punishment of those
    who refuse to acknowledge "human dignity" and the values of
    deliberative civic virtue? When one asks such questions about this and
    all the other preconditions for deliberative democracy mentioned by
    Gutmann and Thompson, the democratic nightmare returns to haunt us.
    Even if a deliberative, civically virtuous, and mutually respectful
    polity is a worthwhile collective goal, it may be that achieving it
    would require forms of discipline and social control that are hard to
    reconcile with the freedom and equality that democrats
    characteristically prize.

          It is difficult to imagine a work of democratic theory more
    antithetical to Gutmann and Thompson's book than Ankersmit's Aesthetic
    Politics. Apart from the fact that he emphatically repudiates the
    tradition of Anglo-American analytical political theory within which
    Gutmann and Thompson operate, Ankersmit also explicitly rejects many
    of the assumptions that underlie their deliberative model. In contrast
    to their claim that moral and civic engagement are conditions for
    political accommodation, Ankersmit asserts that it "is only because we
    do not personally care about every problem confronting society and are
    indifferent to a large number of issues that political compromise is
    possible at all" (103). And unlike Gutmann and Thompson, Ankersmit
    believes that "political debate is positively antidialectic...[T]he
    argument of one's opponent has to be rendered innocuous, shown [to be]
    not worthy of serious consideration" (106). Such claims illustrate the
    deliberately provocative and unconventional tone of this often
    dazzling, but profoundly muddled, book.

          Ankersmit's goal is to introduce and defend a form of
    "aesthetic" political philosophy. He believes that this is a necessary
    task because he thinks that almost all mainstream forms of political
    analysis remain mired in the bankrupt assumptions of what Richard
    Rorty and other so called "postmodern" writers call "the metaphysical
    tradition." According to Ankersmit, we can fully escape the pervasive
    "neo-stoicism" of these modern modes of thought only by embracing
    completely his alternative "aesthetic" approach (119). Instead of
    trying to excavate foundational political truths, "postmodern
    aesthetic political theory" artfully reconstructs political reality in
    the manner of painters or composers (161). The chief intellectual
    resource on which this alternative kind of political understanding
    draws is the practice of historical interpretation, which Ankersmit
    also takes to be essentially aesthetic. This is one reason why the
    centerpiece of Aesthetic Politics is an extended meditation on the
    historical predicament of modern representative democracy (350).
    Ankersmit chooses to illustrate the modus operandi of aesthetic
    political philosophy by offering a challenging and marvelously erudite
    historical interpretation of representative democracy in Europe and

          Ankersmit has an additional reason for using representative
    democracy as a testing ground for aesthetic political theory, and it
    is here that the democratic nightmare again comes into view. He
    believes that contemporary democracy is in trouble: "we all know that
    there is something fundamentally wrong in the relationship between the
    citizen and the late twentieth-century democratic state that we all
    want to mend--but we simply do not know how to mobilize our collective
    will." For Ankersmit, this situation is exemplified in the "unchecked
    reign of unintended consequences that is the major political problem
    of our age" (12). Though Ankersmit concedes that the problem of
    unintended consequences is a generic feature of human affairs (and
    compares it to Machiavelli's Fortuna), he nevertheless believes that
    this problem has been greatly exacerbated in recent history. He cites
    environmental exploitation, overpopulation, and the self-defeating
    character of much modern welfare policy as examples of the failure of
    democratic states to control the forces they have deliberately
    unleashed (13, 220, 370). Such problems expose the debility of
    contemporary democratic government, and for Ankersmit the "greatest
    challenge for the future will be how to deal with this kind of problem
    without falling back into new forms of feudalism and autocracy" (152).
    Ankersmit thinks that contemporary political theory, still hopelessly
    snarled in the "inevitable fiascoes" of neostoicism, has been blind to
    the predicament of representative democracy and is unable to recommend
    appropriate responses. Only his own aestheticized political theory is
    up to the task of saving democracy from itself.

          Why is traditional democratic theory ill-equipped to respond to,
    and indeed detect, this new variant of the democratic nightmare?
    Ankersmit's answer is that neostoic metaphysics encouraged generations
    of theorists to construe democratic representation mimetically. On
    this view, the goal of democratic politics is for representative
    institutions to act in accordance with some putatively independent and
    objective entity like "the public interest" or the "will of the
    people." But such a project presupposes that we can objectively
    measure the degree of correspondence between (say) the wishes of the
    represented and the actions of the representative, an assumption that
    cannot survive the postmodern assault on all notions of objective
    correspondence (38). In order to supersede this alleged confusion we
    must understand democratic representation along aesthetic lines.
    Instead of aiming for photographically accurate depictions of that
    which they represent, aesthetic representations offer creative
    reconstructions that "substitute for reality" (45-51).

          As should by now be clear, Ankersmit is a (high) priest of
    (high) postmodernism: he wants to do for postmodern democracy what
    Schoenberg did for chromaticism. Aesthetic Politics is the most
    substantial and ambitious contribution to democratic thought that
    "postmodern theory" has yet offered. As such, it affords a unique
    opportunity to assess the usefulness of postmodern paradigms for
    democratic theory. Unfortunately, Ankersmit's attempt to marry
    democracy and postmodernism is deeply problematic.

          To begin, why is it obviously useful to project debates about
    democratic representation onto the characteristic postmodern
    distinction between discourse that tries to "mirror" reality (the
    "metaphysical" tradition) and discourse that aims at aesthetic
    redescription? Even if we concede (for the sake of argument) the
    validity of the postmodern assault on traditional epistemology, it's
    not clear that the point carries over unproblematically into the arena
    of democratic representation. Perhaps there is a rough analogy between
    the aspiration to reflect accurately some mind-independent reality and
    the attempt to disclose the real will or interest of the people for
    the purposes of impartial political representation. But there are
    several disanalogies that Ankersmit doesn't adequately address.

          One very basic disanalogy can be brought out in the following
    way. In the second context, the relevant standard of "impartiality" is
    a moral one, whereas in the first the operative criterion of
    "objectivity" refers to some nonmoral measure of accuracy or
    correspondence. Even if we accept the postmodern argument that no
    viable measure of correspondence is available for those seeking to cut
    nature at its joints, why would that show that moral impartiality is
    similarly problematic? Consider, for example, the case of a corrupt
    military regime that uses force and intimidation to maintain the rule
    of an unaccountable, self-serving cabal of oligarchs. The oligarchs
    and their military associates claim to represent the best interests of
    the public, but actually they exploit their power to subsidize their
    own lavish lifestyle and to protect themselves against popular
    insurgency. Most of us would be inclined to say that this regime's
    claims to be genuinely representative are transparently spurious. Is
    it clear that when we do so, we automatically fall into naively
    mimetic understandings of representation, as Ankersmit suggests (38)?

          I don't think so: when we indict this regime's
    unrepresentativeness, we aren't claiming that the regime is
    inaccurately depicting the interests of the citizens, or failing to
    perceive objectively the "will of the people." The problem is rather
    that the regime simply disregards any considerations other than its
    own partisan interest, and that this is unfair. The appropriate remedy
    for this would not be an optimally accurate representation of the
    public interest (whatever that might mean), but rather a regime in
    which the partisan interests of the current ruling elite don't enjoy
    an arbitrary and unjustified privilege. The issue here isn't accuracy,
    but fairness. This kind of representation is more or less "impartial"
    insofar as it gives due weight to all relevant social interests. It is
    this ethical standard of representation, or something close to it,
    that I take to be primarily relevant to democratic theory. But
    identifying this with the goal of reflecting "the people represented
    as accurately as possible" (28) seems to me to miss its point.

          Ankersmit's determination to assimilate these two forms of
    representation results in a caricatured account of traditional
    theories of democracy. Ankersmit claims that on the traditional,
    nonaesthetic view, "the identity of the represented and the person
    representing is the ideal of all political representation" (28). In
    one sense, Ankersmit is right; democrats' characteristic (and in
    Ankersmit's eyes misplaced) enthusiasm for popular sovereignty and
    forms of direct democracy supports this assertion. But Ankersmit
    interprets this in a misleading way. It's not true that democrats have
    advocated narrowing the gap between representatives and represented
    because they aim for mimetic accuracy. Rather, they have argued that
    narrowing this gap increases the likelihood that citizens' interests
    and points of view will be given a fair hearing, and guards against
    the possibility that certain social groups enjoy unjust privileges.
    Again, the argument centers on norms of justice and fairness, not
    standards of mimetic correspondence.

          These points can be reinforced by reflecting on the practice of
    democratic representation. From the perspective of traditional
    democratic theory, it seems eccentric to think of democratic
    representatives, like senators or ministers of state, giving
    descriptions of their constituents and the citizens they represent in
    either mimetic or aesthetic terms. The relevant relations of
    representation are wholly different. They involve, for example,
    interpersonal practical relations of authority, delegation,
    accountability, and trust that just don't naturally map onto the model
    of intellectual reflection that is in play in the epistemological
    arguments that have made postmodernism famous. It's true that senators
    and other public officials need to "know" what their constituents want
    from, and expect of, them. But the activity of representation doesn't
    consist in gathering this information (38-9), but rather in being
    authorized to act upon it in various complicated,
    institutionally-specified ways.

          Ankersmit's obsession with the slogans of postmodernism, then,
    cause him to beg all the important questions against ethical theories
    of democratic representation. But even if his criticisms of
    traditional democratic theory are misguided, it is still possible that
    Ankersmit's alternative analysis of democracy contains important
    insights. Does postmodern, aesthetic political theory provide valuable
    hints as to how representative democracy can survive and flourish in
    the "Age of Unintended Consequences"?

          The key to Ankersmit's nonmimetic theory is the idea that
    representative democracy is essentially a device for controlling a
    particular kind of social conflict (123). According to Ankersmit,
    representative democracy originated as a way of negotiating an
    historically specific conflict between post-Enlightenment ideologies
    of tradition and revolutionary reform (137f). Democracy deals with
    this enduring legacy of the French revolution by channeling
    revolutionary and reformist aspirations through the party political
    system. But this way of taming the revolutionary impulse requires
    maintaining a delicate balance, a "juste milieu," between the state
    (which instinctively resists change and seeks to avoid conflict [110])
    and elements of civil society (which seek in various ways to capture
    the state to further some reformist agenda [138]). But in the "Age of
    Unintended Consequences," the state is constantly tempted to address
    macro-social problems (e.g., the degradation of the environment,
    welfare policy) in neofeudal or autocratic ways, and this threatens
    the equilibrium between state and civil society on which
    representative democracy depends (150-154, 194-211). This brief
    summary of Ankersmit's characterization of modern democracy doesn't do
    justice to the richness of his discussion. His account of the nature
    and historical predicament of representative institutions is largely
    independent of its problematic postmodernist setting, and it deserves
    to be taken seriously.

          However, Ankersmit's aesthetic response to this predicament is
    another matter. It's not just that Ankersmit regards all ideals of
    direct democratic control and popular sovereignty as obsolete and
    delusive, though this will be bad enough for many democrats. There are
    deeper worries. For one thing, Ankersmit effectively concedes that
    problems like environmental degradation are more effectively dealt
    with autocratically than democratically (150-153). Again and again,
    Ankersmit calls for a stronger state, and he makes it clear that this
    is likely to require insulating complex policy arenas from direct
    democratic influence. It will be better for all of us if (for example)
    the environmental issue is dealt with by experts. This is not the sort
    of job for which representative democracy is best suited. What role
    then is left for aesthetic representation, and how will it help us to
    "mobilize our collective will"?

          Ankersmit's answer centers on the aesthetic category of "style."
    The role of the democratic "stylist" is artfully and creatively to
    "represent" public policy to civil society (voters) (54). On this
    view, the state assumes the role of a canvas or "scene" (372), on
    which creative politicians paint (and thereby politically organize) an
    aesthetically appealing portrait of how civil society's conflicting
    aims, fears, and desires are reconciled with each other and with
    public policy. Just as artistic "style" permits painters to produce
    compelling portraits, so political "style" enables the skilled
    politician to "organize political knowledge" (39) in a powerful and
    stabilizing way (157). As the picture is painted (and presumably
    endlessly repainted), the state assumes a "representation" that
    reflects civil society to itself (191). The institutions that
    facilitate this ongoing process are political parties, as they vie for
    the allegiance of voters and craft manifestoes and platforms (370).
    Ankersmit maintains that using the medium of party politics to effect
    this sort of aesthetic self-representation is a desirable substitute
    for the traditional but defunct democratic goal of self-government.

          Such puns on the word "representation" are presumably the
    essence of aesthetic virtù, but what would aesthetic democracy
    actually look like? Ankersmit's proposal suggests a dualist view. The
    responsibility for addressing large-scale social problems will be left
    to a stronger, less accountable state (360), and its decisions will
    likely be made extrademocratically (151-152). Meanwhile, the party
    system (which Ankersmit regards as part of the state, a sort of
    ministry of ideological conflict resolution) will work on civil
    society's self image. Through skillful aesthetic redescription,
    citizens will be led to recognize themselves in the "representation"
    of the state disseminated by party political "stylists." On this view,
    citizens learn to see the state's actions as their own, but only in
    the "hyper-reality" of rhetorical self-representation (150, 210). It
    turns out, then, that for Ankersmit the democratic future lies not in
    increasing citizens' control of public policy, but rather in
    politicians like Ronald Reagan (Ankersmit's paradigm of the political
    "stylist" [158]) and institutions like advertising companies, already
    quite adept at using aesthetic techniques to reduce consumers'
    cognitive dissonance. But to see these agencies as the vanguard of
    democratic renewal strikes me as perverse. Today, while key political
    decisions affecting our livelihood and future are made in secret by
    unaccountable organizations like central banks, political parties seem
    obsessed with issues of political style ("spin") to the exclusion of
    substance. It is hard to see how democrats could possibly be
    enthusiastic about these developments, but Ankersmit's theory implies
    that democrats should welcome and embrace them. If this is the best
    future for which friends of democracy can hope, who needs the
    democratic nightmare?

          Democracy and Disagreement and Aesthetic Politics are both
    attempts to redeem the promise of democratic politics at a time when
    its recent successes around the world ring strangely hollow. But their
    diagnoses and proposed remedies move in opposite directions. Like many
    today, Ankersmit is tempted by the cut-price radicalism advertised by
    theorists of the "postmodern." This drives him to view such
    traditional democratic values as self-government and fair
    representation as useless relics of a now defunct "metaphysical
    tradition." Whether or not that tradition (if it really exists) is
    worth defending, I fail to see the utility of associating it with such
    perfectly reasonable social ideals as fair representation and
    self-government. The idea that these values are merely the idle
    daydreams of a certain foolish philosophical culture is an insult to
    those who have fought to realize them. Moreover, Ankersmit's aesthetic
    remedies seem less a solution than a surrender to the more problematic
    features of modern representative democracy.

          By contrast, Gutmann and Thompson's work is both more compelling
    and more promising. But this is at least partly because it is
    difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to oppose wholeheartedly the
    idea that democracy should become more deliberative. The reason for
    this is that those attributes of which we humans are typically most
    proud (intelligence, forethought, consideration, magnanimity,
    fair-mindedness, detachment, etc.) are already built into our concept
    of deliberation. Gutmann and Thompson have made a useful start on
    reconciling these deliberative virtues with democratic ideals and
    procedures. But can their sort of deliberative democracy shift the
    burden of proof back onto the shoulders of those under the sway of the
    democratic nightmare? Is it likely that deliberative ideals and
    democratic practice can cooperate rather than endanger each other?
    Readers of Democracy and Disagreement will find that these remain open

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