Can deliberation neutralise power?

European Journal of Political Theory 17 (3):257-279 (2018)
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Most democratic theorists agree that concentrations of wealth and power tend to distort the functioning of democracy and ought to be countered wherever possible. Deliberative democrats are no exception: though not its only potential value, the capacity of deliberation to ‘neutralise power’ is often regarded as ‘fundamental’ to deliberative theory. Power may be neutralised, according to many deliberative democrats, if citizens can be induced to commit more fully to the deliberative resolution of common problems. If they do, they will be unable to get away with inconsistencies and bad or private reasons, thereby mitigating the illegitimate influence of power. I argue, however, that the means by which power inflects political disagreement is far more subtle than this model suggests and cannot be countered so simply. As a wealth of recent research in political psychology demonstrates, human beings persistently exhibit ‘motivated reasoning’, meaning that even when we are sincerely committed to the deliberative resolution of common problems, and even when we are exposed to the same reasons and evidence, we still disagree strongly about what ‘fair cooperation’ entails. Motivated reasoning can be counteracted, but only under exceptional circumstances such as those that enable modern science, which cannot be reliably replicated in our society at large. My analysis suggests that in democratic politics – which rules out the kind of anti-democratic practices available to scientists – we should not expect deliberation to reliably neutralise power.

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Samuel Bagg
University of South Carolina


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