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If There Is a Single Good, Why Bother with Deliberation At All?



Thomas B. Cotton '98 makes the mistake of identifying a certain type of dialogue as uniquely legitimate in the framework of deliberate democracy ("Habermas Has Descended," Column, Dec. 5). According to Cotton, only those individuals who are capable of excluding their own passions and interests from their expressed opinions and who are able to achieve some kind of objective conception of the common good should be allowed to participate in that dialogue. For the rest of us, we are left to decide who the participants in that dialogue should be based on our assessments of the quality and the content of the arguments that each participant puts forth.

This model is fundamentally an elitist one, one that misunderstands and degrades the content of what those outside the "chosen" circle have to say. It is even untenable as an elitist model: since no person's arguments can be free of personal interest, and no one is capable of fully conceiving some objectively defined version of the common good, Cotton is effectively calling for the establishment of an elite whose membership would consist of the empty set. Moreover, the very idea that there exists some singular and objective idea of the common good is contradictory to the idea of democratic government--if any one person or group of people is capable of conceiving of the common good, why have deliberation at all?

I would argue, in response, that a dialogue is degraded to the extent that it is exclusive, and that the establishment of a discourse in which conflict is the norm, in which the rules for engagement are constantly called into question, and yet which is at the same time geared toward solving problems is not merely conducive to discovering the common good, but to some extent is the common good. That is not to say that leadership has no place in a democratic society--in fact, it is fundamental to it, especially in its capacity for establishing and protecting public discourses and mounting challenges to dominant ideas. But that leadership is not to be selected by the mass of people according to some objective criterion (such as the ability to understand Jurgen Habermas); rather, it has to be self-motivated and has to persist as an ever-humming potential waiting to emerge--and blossoming from--within a democratic political process that is accessible to all.

One of the problems with leaving debate on substantive issues to elected officials is that, ultimately, they are unable to talk about them in a substantive way, at least while they are still actively pursuing their political careers. Discourse among politicians in Washington is extremely suppressed because the expression of dissent has a political cost. One must trade expression for power. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about American government today. But it simply means that the dialogues going on outside of Washington become that much more important. Those of us not in office must engage in deliberation because it is our words and ideas that establish the parameters within which political debates can occur.

As Cotton implies in discussing the national dialogue on race, talk can be cheap. But talk can also be powerful if everyone is involved in the discussions as both speakers and listeners, and if everyone takes their own and others' ideas seriously. Dialogue is distinguished from chatter by its ability to force the participants to undergo self-examination at the same time that they are making attempts at persuasion. It would be nice to see the national dialogue on race materialize into some form of practical action. But to distinguish dialogue (as opposed to chatter) from action, or to suggest that action be pursued in the absence of dialogue, is to degrade the power of communication that makes deliberative democracy worth pursuing. Look deeply into the national dialogue on race: there is some intense power latent in those discussions--a power that President Clinton should be praised for grappling with. --Joel B. Pollak '99

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