Democracy & Analogy: The Practical Reality of Deliberative Politics

Dissertation, Columbia University (2015)
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According to the deliberative view of democracy, the legitimacy of democratic politics is closely tied to whether the use of political power is accompanied by a process of rational deliberation among the citizenry and their representatives. Critics have questioned whether this level of deliberative capacity is even possible among modern citizenries--due to limitations of time, energy, and differential backgrounds--which therefore calls into question the very possibility of this type of democracy. In my dissertation, I counter this line of criticism, arguing that deliberative democrats and their critics have both idealized the wrong kind of citizen deliberation. Citizen deliberation should not be concerned with the indeterminate project of "translating" abstract democratic principles and values into everyday cases of political problem-solving. Instead, deliberation should take the form of analogy, just as we already find it in everyday politics and affairs. When ordinary citizens use analogies, they do not derive decisions from general principles or values, but they still reason nonetheless. Seen from this analogical perspective, deliberative democracy is already a practical reality to a large degree. When an election is on the horizon, a campaign season arises in which debates, forums, and "barstool" dialogues exponentially increase the amount of citizen deliberation. In these settings, citizens can readily be seen to be mapping analogous past candidates, elections, issues, and problems onto those currently on the ballot so as to reason about them. Consequently, analogical reasoning allows citizens to treat the majority rule mechanisms that proliferate in real politics as "deliberative outlets," which is to say, as catalysts of deliberation akin to the "creative outlets" that catalyze self-expression in the arts. While citizens may recognize majority rule mechanisms as catalysts of deliberation, many democratic theorists will hesitate to embrace this vision of the practical reality of deliberative politics. Isn't analogical reasoning too low in rigor to be placed at the heart of the deliberative ideal? I develop two arguments to explain the foundational role analogy plays in deliberation and to counter such critics. First, I draw on the explosion of research on analogical reasoning over the past two decades to show that it is far more rigorous and systematic than many suppose. Second, I argue that to the extent that citizen deliberation is concerned with rational planning, rather than just reasoning in general, analogical reasoning is logically superior. When we reason about what to do, we make plans that incorporate predictions about what is likely to ensue when a given course of action is selected. However, as soon as predictions enter into deliberation, its underlying logic changes as well. The reason for this change in logic is that as our probabilistic reasoning expands, the probability of its conclusions degenerates. Therefore, when assessing probabilities, we no longer should seek decisions derived from long, elegant chains of reasoning that connect our various options to generalities like values and principles. Instead, what we need is "short and sweet," or terse, humble lines of reasoning, which are more congruent with this form of deliberation. Thus, to the extent that democratic deliberation is involved in rational planning, it calls not for the elegant, deductive kind of reasoning idealized by proponents and critics of deliberative democracy alike. Instead, democratic deliberation calls for the "short and sweet," analogical kind of decision-making we associate with ordinary citizens already. After all, as research has shown, analogies are a much preferred and rigorous way by which even experts engage in probabilistic reasoning. By focusing on analogical reasoning, I therefore conclude that the practical reality of deliberative democracy should be recognized in ways that might ordinarily be dismissed.

Author's Profile

Michael Seifried
Columbia University (PhD)


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