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Cotton Can Learn From Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action



As one of those social studies concentrators "versed in deliberative democracy," I was a bit surprised to read senior Thomas B. Cotton's column ("Habermas Has Descended," Dec. 5). It's not every day one reads about the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas in the newspaper. Unfortunately, my surprise did not lead to gratification in this instance, because it seems to me that Cotton's understanding of Habermas, leaving much to be desired, has led him to some stray conclusions.

Essentially, Cotton concludes that deliberative democratic theory conflicts in a strong sense with representative democracy. After summarizing Habermas's vision of society as "a debating society in which everyone talks incessantly about everything," Cotton informs us that asking everyone (including the most unvirtuous of souls) "to deliberate continually on the most fundamental issues is not just impractical and irrational--it is dangerous."

To escape the inevitable "vicious" and/or "imbecilic" outcomes of this process, Cotton advocates a system of elected representatives who will "likely possess the virtues necessary to deliberate well." Sounds like a representative democracy is a great deal: the masses shed the burden of thinking about those weighty issues (about which they have nothing intelligent to say anyway), and let the politicians do all the dirty work. Why would Habermas be so silly to as to argue against such a wonderful system?

But there are some problems with Cotton's formulation. For one, nowhere does Habermas say that we should abandon elected government. As he writes in "Further Reflections on the Public Sphere," "Discourses do not govern. They generate a communicative power that cannot take the place of administration, but can only influence it. This influence is limited to procurement and withdrawal of legitimation. Communicative power cannot supply a substitute for the systematic inner logic of public bureaucracies" (in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, 1992).

In other words, Habermas is all for maintaining the institutions of representative government-including the politicians. What concerns him is their source of legitimacy in society. Habermas believes that our institutions should derive their authority from a vibrant public sphere in which individuals communicate with one another as equals, putting their private interests aside and allowing the best arguments to hold sway. Anything less--for example, a "public sphere" in which might makes right, or where certain voices aren't listened to--would seem to violate the cherished liberal, democratic principle that human beings are free and equal.

Interestingly enough, the election of politicians is a good example of a public activity to which Habermas's criteria may be applied. Ironically, Cotton himself seems to support the idea that politicians should gain their authority via the deliberation of a rationally engaged electorate. He writes, "They [most Americans] may lack the talent needed to persuade others or the sophistication to avoid demagogues, but they surely possess the ability needed to hear politicians, ingest their arguments and vote according to their opinions." Habermas would likely agree with much of this statement.

However, we live in a society where candidates are "sold" to voters by political consulting firms, where the electorate is actively manipulated by sound bites and empty catch phrases, and where an increasing number of individuals have become so cynical about the political process that they don't even bother to vote. That space where politicians communicate arguments to citizens and citizens develop their own opinions is in serious jeopardy. If Cotton is genuinely committed to his "true model of deliberative democracy," then it seems that he has much to learn from Habermas after all. --Jared H. Beck '99

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