deliberative democracy and tolerance

Last Friday, I heard a colleague present a good paper on tolerance and deliberation. I don’t want to summarize his position here, but I think that mine would be different. I see a tension between public deliberation and tolerance. In a true “deliberative democracy” (which, in practice, we can only approximate), everyone who is potentially affected by an issue discusses it together, without limitations as to topic or outcome, giving reasons and considering underlying values and principles. Deliberation can increase tolerance as people come to understand one another’s perspectives; but that’s hardly guaranteed. Such conversations often reveal profound differences of principle, which are closely connected to identity. Karl Mannheim argued that “political discussion” characteristically turns into a fundamental attack “on the whole life-situation of the opponent.” He exaggerated, but he had a point.

If you want people to get along, to “live and let live,” then you may want to take certain issues off the table. For example, the Constitution bans state-sposored religion. This narrows the range of serious discussion but probably increases tolerance. You may also want to create mechanisms for reaching decisions without direct interaction among people who disagree. Elections and markets provide such impersonal interactions.

Many proponents of deliberative democracy are upset by the profound gap in values between, for example, Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi. They’d like these two “communities” to sit down together and come to understand each other’s values. I also favor diverse and inclusive conversations, but not because I expect them to increase tolerance. I think the best way to help Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi to coexist peacefully is to keep them separate and allow their elected representatives to logroll and compromise their way to a deal. Some federal money can go to arts subsidies, some can go to farm supports, and both sides can purchase goods on the same market. If they don’t deliberate, neither group has to think too hard about the other.

By bringing disagreements to the surface, deliberative democracy threatens tolerance, but it also depends on it. Without a basic willingness to put up with people who disagree, conversations will go badly. Thus, if we are committed to public deliberation (perhaps because we believe it will create better policies and help people to develop and refine their own opinions), then we’re going to have to work hard to keep the peace.

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