Pre-Emptive Democracy: Oligarchic Tendencies in Deliberative Democracy

Date01 March 2008
Published date01 March 2008
Subject MatterArticle
Pre-emptive Democracy: Oligarchic Tendencies in Deliberative Democracy P O L I T I C A L S T U D I E S : 2 0 0 8 VO L 5 6 , 1 2 7 – 1 4 7
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00676.x
Pre-emptive Democracy: Oligarchic
Tendencies in Deliberative Democracy

Aviezer Tucker
Queen’s University Belfast
This article examines oligarchic tendencies within institutionalised deliberative democracy in theory and
practice. Institutional deliberative democracy consists of deliberations within an institution according to
regulations that are enforced and lead to voluntary changes of preferences that conclude in a majority
vote. Oligarchic tendencies in deliberative democracy are changes in the preferences of a majority to match those
of an interested minority through its control and manipulation of the deliberative process. The usual
chain of reasoning with respect to oligarchic deliberative democracy is:
Democratic majority rule should reflect the common will, what is good for all members of society
upon reflection and deliberation.
When the majority does not vote for the common will, the vote is not truly democratic.
If the majority does not vote for the common will, special interests or their imposition on the
majority by a dominating and oppressive minority are to blame.
The necessary initial task of managers of deliberative democracy is to overcome domination and
oppression, factors that cause voting against the common will such as ignorance, the mass media,
religion, class, economic inequality and special interests.
This overcoming requires homogenisation of the voting public, the elimination of relevant
inequalities and their legacies of disinformation by re-education.
An educated intellectual avant-garde is in charge both of identifying the common will and of
homogenising and re-educating the deliberating public.
When and only when such homogenisation is achieved, real deliberative democracy and its great
benefits can finally take place.
Since the preconditions to deliberative democracy are ideal, indeed utopian, society can never be
sufficiently homogeneous or the revolutionary elite sufficiently powerful to bring about the desired
homogenisation and re-education.
I demonstrate first the oligarchic elements in the theory. Then I examine oligarchic aspects of really
existing deliberative democratic institutions, namely, consensus conferences in Denmark, France and the US.
I conclude by considering whether the oligarchic tendencies in deliberative democracy are inevitable.
Deliberative democracy has been the most promising new idea in academic
political theory since the collapse of communism. It promises a better-informed
and more rational method for democratic decision-making, in the common good
rather than in sectoral interests. Deliberative democracy is presented as a panacea
for a host of contemporary political ills: political apathy; low rates of participation
in elections and membership in political parties; manipulation by the mass media;
alienation of democratic representatives from their voters; exclusion or under-
representation of unorganised minorities and over-representation of well-
organised and privileged minorities; and the effects of irrational political passions.
I also find deliberative democracy to be an interesting and promising idea. Its
potential alleviation of at least some of the ills of modern democratic politics is
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Political Studies Association

reason enough to explore the idea. However, the extensive scholarly explorations
of deliberative democracy have overlooked some of its potential drawbacks.
This article examines oligarchic tendencies in institutional deliberative democ-
racy in theory and in practice. Its title paraphrases Robert Michels’ Political Parties:
A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy
Michels was writing before any of the European socialist parties gained political
power. Yet he foresaw many of the problems that would emerge when socialist
parties gained power: the alienation of the party bureaucracy and hierarchy from
working people, its emergence as a new ruling class and its cooption within the
old ruling class. The emergence of the top hierarchy of the socialist party as a new
ruling class and its alienation from the working class underlie the tragedy of
communism in Eastern Europe. The cooption of the leadership of the socialist
parties by the existing ruling classes facilitated the pursuit of the First World War.
Although some subsequent versions of democratic socialism managed to limit
some of these oligarchic tendencies within pluralist open liberal societies,
Michels’ study is a timeless prophetic warning. Similarly, I examine oligarchic
tendencies in theoretical expositions of deliberative democracy and some really
existing deliberative democratic institutions.
The abstract, even utopian, characteristics of purely normative discussions of
deliberative democracy have led some of its advocates to shift their research to the
examination of really existing deliberative democratic practices and institutions.
Instead of deducing deliberative democracy a priori from normative first prin-
ciples, it is sensible to build from the ground up, by looking for deliberative
democratic practices, trends and potentials embedded in existing institutions and
to consider which deliberative democratic institutional designs are better in
different social contexts. The empirical research that led to this article emerged
out of this approach. During 2004 I conducted an empirical comparative study of
deliberative democratic fora in Denmark, France and the US through interviews
with politicians, activists, journalists and academics. Following the discovery of
oligarchic tendencies in all these deliberative democratic fora, I returned to
re-examine some of the theoretical inspirations to deliberative democracy and
found the same oligarchic tendencies, only more so.
Deliberative democracy takes place within an institution according to enforced
regulations and leads to voluntary changes of preferences expressed by a majority
vote. Oligarchic tendencies in deliberative democracy are changes in the preferences of
a majority to match those of an interested minority that manages the deliberation
and uses the selection of voters, control of the flow of information to them and
the rules of deliberation to manipulate the results.
Deliberation can occur only if someone pays for it. Deliberation can be effective
only if there is inequality, either of access to specific information or of calculating
capacity. Add a dose of self-interest, and the mixture will reek of ‘manipulation’,
‘indoctrination’,‘brainwashing’, whatever one wants to call it (Przeworski, 1998, p.
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Political Studies Association

P R E - E M P T I V E D E M O C R AC Y
Oligarchic deliberative democracy is pre-emptive since it attempts to pre-empt
anarchic democratic deliberation that it cannot control.
Oligarchic deliberative democracy reintroduces in a new guise one of the oldest,yet
most seductive,programmes in political philosophy:the transformation of the polity
into a school.Pedagogues have dreamed at least since Plato of transforming the state
into a grand educational institute directed by teachers like themselves. Plato
imagined turning the state into an exclusive selective school. ‘Rousseau’s adored
Legislator is nothing but the great Educator’ (Talmon, 1970, p. 31). The Bolsheviks
attempted to turn society into a kind of strict reform school for delinquents,
emphasising discipline over academic achievement. Habermas’s deliberative
democracy endorses the research seminar as a new model for the polity.
Ideally, the research seminar is a democratic institution for the expansion of
knowledge, where scholars deliberate critically as equals not only about their
results but also, and more significantly, about their methods. However, as most
former students who took advanced seminars know, academic reality rarely quite
matches this ideal. Research seminars devolve too often into a sophisticated tool
for indoctrinating advanced students in the tenets of a particular school or
approach to their field. Students read a selective list of publications that should
direct them ‘logically’ to the opinions, methods, even dogmas of their teacher,
which they are expected to develop, apply or polemically defend in seminar
papers. Some, perhaps most, academics who practise this sort of homogenisation
in the guise of deliberation, honestly believe they convince their students by the
power of their arguments, rather than by their authority, selection of readings and
moderation of the discussion. Since seminar leaders disagree with each other,
significant correlations between their opinions and those of their students are not
likely to emanate exclusively from deliberation. If the seminar fails to convince
some students, it is tempting to explain dissent by ignorance, the baneful influence
of other bad teachers or wickedness, to be neutralised by more re-education or
bullying, respectively. If the state is a grand seminar, re-education should be
applied to overcome the irrational views citizens have accumulated through their
interaction with bad politicians, the media, religion, the market or, most signifi-
cantly, their own interests. Society must be homogenised, re-educated and its
prior loyalties and convictions obliterated, as a precondition...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT