“Decisions, Decisions: Why Deliberate if Leaders hold all the Power?” by Jonathan Kuyper

Politics is fundamentally about power. Determining who we are as political animals and how power shapes societal interactions are perhaps the most basic questions in the study of politics. This, at least, is my intuition. For a long time, I will admit that reading the deliberative democracy literature left me wanting. I couldn’t understand how a programme of political theory could ground its ideal in the absence of power.

The more I read, the more problematic this disjuncture appeared. For Habermas, discourse ethics is a case of ideal speech in which deliberators come to an uncoerced understanding of each other’s arguments and position. The only permissible force is that of the ‘better argument’. The ability of actors to hash out reasons and reach decisions without coercion became the touchstone of deliberative theory.

My concern is obvious. The political sphere is characterised by power differences, with actors running amok trying to get their lot in life. So, why establish a deliberative conception of political legitimacy which is not only unattainable, but seemingly contrary to reality?

Over time, I came to realise that the gap between ideal deliberation and political power is ineliminable. Power asymmetries will always exist, some people won’t be included in deliberation, and decisions always require leadership.

It is this last element which has most occupied my recent thought. Leadership is not simply a buzzword used to sell self-help manuals. It is a real phenomenon which exists in all societies at all times. Military units, African tribes, religious congregations, and the workplace all require leadership to make decisions and implement action. So, how can meaningful deliberation occur if, at the end of the day, leaders are required to make the tough decisions?

I am reminded, as so many political scientists seem to be at tough moments, of Alice in Wonderland. On one of her travel, when she comes to a fork in the road, Alice asks the Cheshire cat which road to take. The Cheshire cat asks where Alice wants to go. When Alice replies that she doesn’t know, the Cheshire cat replies that the direction is therefore irrelevant.

In the same way, deliberation requires a purpose. We all require a sense of direction to ground our thought and establish parameters for decisions. If 100 people came together with 100 different agendas, even given eternity, no decision would be reached and we would have no metric to determine whether good or reasonable deliberation had occurred.

It is my feeling that persuasion and deliberation are essential elements of what makes us political animals. However, if discussion is going to bring about democratic outcomes, the role of leaders requires a more detailed treatment. How can leaders be constrained to allow good deliberation between citizens at one moment, but enabled to make deliberative outcomes a reality? If leaders always get the final say, then what good is a reasoned consensus?

The counter-intuitive solution to this problem of leadership might be more leadership. If in deliberative events several leaders play key roles, these leaders can check-and-balance each other, deliberate with each other over issues, and dilute their own coercive power by spreading the load. This minimizes the possibility that any one individual can co-opt a deliberative event and simultaneously reduces the likelihood of leaders coercively framing discussion. Whilst this might not be a perfect solution, it is a step in the right direction.

Deliberative democrats, for the most part, have done a poor job of explaining whether deliberation can be legitimate or meaningful when combined with leadership in the real-world. I am hopeful that a system-wide analysis of deliberation will bring into sharp relief the importance and necessity of leaders. How leaders can form a legitimate part of deliberative democracy is thus up for future discussion…

For a more comprehensive treatment of leadership and deliberative democracy, see http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol8/iss1/art4/.

Jonathan Kuyper is a PhD student in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance interested in developing a working theory of global deliberative democracy that accounts for, and sythesises, ideal theory, non-ideal theory and applied thinking. Jonathan is specifically interested in institutional design and how this limits and creates opportunies for transational deliberative experiments. His PhD project is entitled ‘Institutionalising Deliberative Democracy into Global Institutions: From Theory to Practice’, under the supervision of Professor John Dryzek and Professor Lorraine Elliott as the Chairs, and Dr Terry Macdonald and Dr Chris Reus-Smit as external supervisors.


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