Deliberative Democracy and the Bad Man

During my talk at GW on Friday, one concern emerged as the dominant theme, and I stumbled a bit in responding to it. Basically, it’s a version of the Platonic anxiety about democracy: if deliberative institutions give demagogues and sophists equal time to peddle their emotive rhetoric alongside earnest activists and critical thinkers honestly seeking justice, how can we be sure that these institutions will actually be better than non-deliberative institutions like a secret ballot? We know that most citizens are vulnerable to a number of different kinds of pressure in deliberative contexts: various studies of group polarization in juries and activist groups prove this. So why should we encourage our fellow citizens to submit to deliberative encounters that will likely drive them to either ambivalence or extremism, especially when we may then be handing the reigns to political actors advancing their policies in bad faith?

Part of making this argument stick requires us to evaluate exactly what it is about bad faith deliberation that scares us so. Is it rhetorical skill? Charisma? Or are we scared that the force of the better argument will not always be on our side? The strongest argument against the rhetorician is a version of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr’s “Bad Man” argument: there are sociopaths among us, silver-tongued amoralists who will take positions they don’t support for money or power. Let loose, such bad men will overwhelm the resistances of a deliberative democracy, subverting our reason-responsiveness through appeal to our passions. Like a virus, the bad man turns democracy’s strength against it. Socrates’ death at the hands of the Athenians is all the proof we need that when philosophers tangle with sophists, philosophers lose. To protect ourselves from the ‘bad man’ (and all his weak-minded followers) we need liberal rights to trump majoritarian policy-preferences.

I have a long answer in my dissertation’s first chapter, but here’s a sketch.

We don’t protect ourselves from rhetoricians by forgoing broad deliberation. We don’t sidestep these problems by hiding from politics or our neighbors’ political ideas: bad faith arguments still proliferate in the partisan press (Fox News and The Nation both.)  Bad faith deliberation is most dangerous to non-deliberative populations. Sophistry is like the chicken pox: early exposure is the best vaccination. 

Of course, we all know that even critical thinkers can be led astray when they find themselves on unfamiliar ground. Just think about how long it took us to remember that torture is wrong primarily because it doesn’t work: philosophers and poltiical scientists spent five years debating ticking time bombs with no apparent memory for the very same debates from the eighteenth century. We continually forget why we should prefer a Prince weakened by procedural safeguards when emergencies seem to require a decisive leader rather than legislative squabbling.

At that point, pluralism itself is the best defense against bad reasons. Just as Madison and Hamilton argued that federalism would be a defense against factions, local and active institutions of civic engagement and deliberation supply a crucial resistance to rhetorical infections.  The chattering classes are quickly swayed by class-interests and intellectual fads: we need a broader base for public policy arguments. As such, deliberation needs to include many more divergent viewpoints in order to achieve its goals, even though we know that this will lead many to feel listless and ambivalent, and others to grow strident and obsessive.

Broad-based communal deliberation compartmentalizes the deliberative process so that only views that can garner an overlapping consensus  gain traction. By supplying localities with opportunities to create reason-giving communities, we require that bad men (and bad women, too!) conquer multiple and plural communities who are persuaded of very different kinds of reasons. Perhaps it’s the optimist in me, but that seems like a pretty good defense. Even if it’s not always perfect, it’s probably as good as it gets.

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