For a seminar on democracy and the public sphere that I am taking, I was assigned to summarise ‘Three Normative Models of Democracy’, a chapter of an anthology in which famed theorist-of-everything-I-give-a-damn-about Jürgen Habermas chats political theory. I am sharing that summary here.
Habermas critiques both the Liberal and Republican conceptions of democracy, and offers as an alternative the concept of ‘deliberative democracy’, which he believes to lack the flaws of the other two.
Liberals conceive of government as a mediator between private interests, serving solely as a guarantor of market security and opportunity, such that private individuals may interact safely and effectively according to their will. Democracy in the Liberal vision is a system of institutions which aggregate the collective will of all citizens into proportionally representative blocs, and translates it into policy that compromises or synthesises accordingly.
According to Habermas, this is deeply flawed in that it will not produce a polity; that is, an aggregation of private wills bound together only by institutional process and collective self-interest will never coalesce into a group with shared ethical norms and a unified sense of community. Democracy, says Habermas, requires that a polity exist, and thus the Liberal vision will never be truly democratic.
Republicans conceive of government as the redistributive and activist arm of a unified political community already in possession of a single set of social goals and ethical norms. Government under the Republican vision is essentially teleological: the fundamental role of political institutions in society is not as guardians of the market but as mechanisms for generating social change. Democracy is thus the form of government that legitimately reflects and sufficiently pursues the ends of the Polity.
Habermas appreciates the ethical element to the Republican tradition, but finds it flawed for operating under the presumption that any community could hold in common one set of social goals such that it could comprise a polity with a unitary, stable will. A society without a substantial plurality of blocs pursuing irreconcilable political ends is impossible, says Habermas. Hence Republicanism is hopelessly idealistic, and more likely to produce a ‘tyranny of the majority’ than a democracy.
Habermas suggests that democracy be achieved through the establishment of a formal deliberative sphere, sanitised of the power imbalances contained within society as a whole, in which individuals reach normative consensus based on the principles of reason alone. The outcomes of this discourse can then be translated into policy, and carried out by the institutions of government. This system keeps the Republican focus on communal norms but preserves the recognition of individual rights and evaluative neutrality characteristic of Liberalism – an ideal balance between the two.