Cover image for Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Edited by Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer

Talking Democracy

Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy

Edited by Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer

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344 pages
6" × 9"
2004

Talking Democracy

Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy

Edited by Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer

“A fine scholarly volume, Talking Democracy is a salutary corrective to any conception of political theorizing as something of a straightforwardly progressive enterprise which has long ago surpassed the wisdom of the ancients, who remain only to be caricatured or pillaged. The editors accomplish this by assembling a diverse collection of essays which draw upon pre-modern political thought in order to assess the idea of deliberative democracy. The contributors illuminate the shortcomings of that present-day endeavor to design the best regime by retrieving an understanding of deliberative practices and democratic realities which deliberative democratic theory forgets or abstracts away from, whether neglectfully or willfully. Above all, the book demonstrates the wrong-headedness of imagining the possibility and supposing the desirability of liberating deliberation from rhetorical persuasion.”

 

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In their efforts to uncover the principles of a robust conception of democracy, theorists of deliberative democracy place a premium on the role of political expression—public speech and reasoned debate—as the key to democratic processes. They also frequently hark back to historical antecedents (as in the Habermasian invocation of the “public sphere” of eighteenth-century bourgeois society and the Arendtian valorization of the classical Athenian polis) in their quest to establish that deliberative procedures are more than “merely theoretical” and instead have a practical application. But for all this emphasis on the discursive and historical dimensions of democracy, these theorists have generally neglected the rich resources available in the history of rhetorical theory and practice. It is the purpose of Talking Democracy to resurrect this history and show how attention to rhetoric can help lead to a better understanding of both the strengths and limitations of current theories of deliberative democracy.

Contributors, besides the editors, are Russell Bentley, Tsae Lan Lee Dow, Tom Murphy, Arlene Saxonhouse, Gary Shiffman, John Uhr, Nadia Urbinati, John von Heyking, and Douglas Walton.

“A fine scholarly volume, Talking Democracy is a salutary corrective to any conception of political theorizing as something of a straightforwardly progressive enterprise which has long ago surpassed the wisdom of the ancients, who remain only to be caricatured or pillaged. The editors accomplish this by assembling a diverse collection of essays which draw upon pre-modern political thought in order to assess the idea of deliberative democracy. The contributors illuminate the shortcomings of that present-day endeavor to design the best regime by retrieving an understanding of deliberative practices and democratic realities which deliberative democratic theory forgets or abstracts away from, whether neglectfully or willfully. Above all, the book demonstrates the wrong-headedness of imagining the possibility and supposing the desirability of liberating deliberation from rhetorical persuasion.”
“This is an excellent volume, not only because the essays recover forgotten sources of profound reflection on rhetoric and the true nature of democratic deliberation, but also because the contributors display a remarkable flexibility in bringing historical perspectives to bear on contemporary issues. Perhaps the greatest virtue of this volume is the service it does in bridging the divide within political theory between the study of the history of political thought and contemporary attempts to construct new theoretical models. The contributors have not merely argued that even premodern sources can shed light on questions central to political theory today—they have demonstrated it.”

Benedetto Fontana is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

Cary J. Nederman is Professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies at Texas A&M University.

Gary Remer is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Deliberative Democracy and the Rhetorical Turn

Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer

1. Rhetoric and the Roots of Democratic Politics

Benedetto Fontana

2. Democratic Deliberation and the Historian’s Trade: The Case of Thucydides

Arlene W. Saxonhouse

3. Deliberation versus Decision: Platonism in Contemporary Democratic Theory

Gary Shiffman

4. Rhetorical Democracy

Russell Bentley

5. Cicero and the Ethics of Deliberative Rhetoric

Gary Remer

6. Disarming, Simple, and Sweet: Augustine’s Republican Rhetoric

John von Heyking

7. The Road to Heaven Is Paved with Pious Deceptions: Medieval Speech Ethics and Deliberative Democracy

Cary J. Nederman and Tsae Lan Lee Dow

8. Deliberative Democracy and the Public Sphere: Answer or Anachronism?

Thomas Murphy

9. Auditory Democracy: Separation of Powers and the Locations of Listening

John Uhr

10. Reading J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women as a Text of Deliberative Rhetoric

Nadia Urbinati

11. Criteria of Rationality for Evaluating Democratic Public Rhetoric

Douglas Walton

Contributors

Index

Introduction:

Deliberative Democracy and the Rhetorical Turn

Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer

I

The literature on deliberative democracy forms a large and ever-growing body of work. Deliberative democrats, as well as their critics, have sought to uncover the principles justifying a stronger and more robust conception of democracy than is on display today in democratic societies. In particular, the theory of deliberative democracy, as often conceptualized, has placed a premium on the role of political expression—public speech, discourse, reasoned debate—as the key to democratic politics. Current debate between liberal democrats and deliberative democrats has, consequently, focussed on the relation between politics as a mode of linguistic activity (symbolic and rational communication) and politics as a technical activity (policy formation and competent decision-making).

Deliberative democrats have also looked back to the history of Western political thought and practice to seek validation for the plausibility of their framework. The Habermasian invocation of the public sphere of eighteenth century bourgeois society and the Arendtian valorization of the Greek (especially Athenian) polis are perhaps the two best known examples of the contemporary appropriation of historical antecedents. In the quest to establish that deliberative procedures are more than “merely theoretical,” and have instead a practical application, historical inquiry takes a central place in the conceptualization of democratic relations.

Given the emphasis on the discursive and historical dimensions of democracy, it is surprising that commentators have almost universally failed to consider the potential contributions of the history of rhetorical theory and practice to the understanding of democratic processes. Conceived in classical terms, rhetoric is the study of the art of persuasive expression; it addresses public as well as private speech, written as well as oral language. During ancient, medieval, and modern times, mastery of rhetorical techniques was considered an essential element of basic education, and especially crucial for individuals seeking a career in public affairs. Yet rhetoric was also a highly controversial field: throughout Western history, the association of rhetorical learning with popular rule, and even demagoguery, led to its criticism and condemnation by some authors. Historically, rhetoric was often viewed as particularly amenable to democratic values and beliefs. In sum, it seems especially apt that the literature on deliberative democracy ought to show cognizance of the long-standing tradition of rhetorical studies.

The purpose of this book, therefore, is two-fold. First, it focusses on the conceptual and theoretical relation between talk (speech, language, and conversation) and democracy by looking at the ways in which deliberation and rhetoric inform each other, and, in turn, together influence democratic politics. Second, it examines the relevance of the history of rhetoric for understanding the strengths and limitations of recent deliberative democratic theory. Its essays show that theories of deliberative democracy are seriously imperiled by their unwillingness or inability to take into account the rhetorical dimension of expression, a point which has often been recognized and analyzed by earlier thinkers in the history of classical and European political philosophy.

II

Before discussing the scope and range of the essays presented herein, it might be useful to review briefly previous notions of legitimate government and earlier versions of democratic theory. Since the advent of the modern world, with the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois social order, and with the concomitant transformation of politics and government, questions concerning the nature and bases of political power, the boundaries and limits that may legitimately circumscribe it, and the uses to which it may legitimately be put, have been addressed and contested by numerous writers and thinkers. Thus, one reading of the classical modern thinkers contrasts the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke with the civic republicanism of Machiavelli, Harrington, and Rousseau. Debates over the interpretation of the American Revolution and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution revolve around their relatively liberal or republican character. The problem of state power and its legitimation is intimately connected to the emergence of people (or of the “mass”) as an active agent in history and politics. The modern world, beginning with the English, American, and French Revolutions, is characterized by the emergence of the people as a force in history and in politics. Political theory, since Machiavelli, has been compelled to address the role of the people in the power equation, and thus to formulate ways in which this new political power of the people may be organized, channeled, and deployed.

With respect to liberal and democratic theories of popular government, the last hundred years, up to at least the middle of the twentieth century, have seen three basic frameworks or theories of democracy: the elite, the economic, and the pluralist. The first is based on the sociological theories of Pareto, Mosca, and Michels, who all viewed with intense suspicion the active participation of the people in politics and in public arenas. Theorists such as J. Schumpeter, H. Lasswell, and A. Kaplan viewed the people as a passive mass, controlled and manipulated by leadership elites. The economic theory of democracy, propounded by Anthony Downs, weds empirical and sociological observations about people’s socio-economic preferences with an economic model of rational behavior. It reduces the citizen to the category of consumer, and political action to economic utility. The third, Robert A. Dahl’s pluralist theory of democracy (“polyarchy”), is based on Madison’s notion of multiple factions, and thus conceives democratic politics as competition among a plurality of groups and interests. Dahl tries to minimize the elitist and anti-popular aspects of Mosca and Schumpeter, but retains their emphasis on democracy as a method and an “institutional arrangement.” Although Dahl has tried to move toward a more egalitarian and participatory perspective, democracy conceived as “polyarchy” retains Hamilton’s and Madison’s anti-majoritarian suspicion of the people. All three theories, though different in method and in purpose, nevertheless share certain basic features. First and foremost they deny the possibility of arriving at any notion of the common or public good. Indeed, politics is not about the coming together of public citizens in order to arrive at a shared understanding of the common good; it is rather the competitive struggle for advantage among private interests and economic utilities. In effect, what underlies these three theories of modern democracy are notions of voting, interest aggregation, and interest competition. As such, notions of the public good, and of the public arena in which such a good may be engendered, are seen as illusory, though instrumental to the struggle for interest and advantage.

III

Beginning in the 1960s critiques of liberal democracy began to appear and alternative frameworks for a democratic politics were offered. Criticisms centered on the elitist, inegalitarian, and anti-participatory character of liberal and pluralist theories of democracy. Critics questioned the fundamental propositions of liberal democratic theory: interest aggregation, economic utility, rational choice and game theory, methodological individualism, and, most important, the reduction of political activity to economic behavior. As a result, the public and open space crucial to political activity is constricted.

Two major schools of thought have emerged from the criticism of liberal and elite democratic theory. One is civic republicanism, the other is deliberative democracy. Both share the classical commitment to a politics that looks to the common or civic pursuit of the public good. Both see political activity as an important element in developing a well rounded and educated citizen. Civic values, traditions, and ends are seen as important to the constitution and maintenance of a public space or forum in which the business common to all citizens may be conducted. And both recall the ideals of political virtue and political participation first enunciated by Plato and Aristotle, and later elaborated by Machiavelli and Rousseau. Civic republicanism and deliberative democracy, in highlighting such values as the common good, virtue, common action, political education, and in inquiring into the conditions (theoretical and political) necessary for the emergence and expansion of a public/political space, reflect a profound dissatisfaction with pluralist and (neo)liberal theories of democracy. While the latter present a theory of democratic politics based on market and rational choice models, the former want to recover the original and more profound sense of political activity, as one that transcends the immediately private and economic.

An important element in both civic republicanism and deliberative democracy is the focus on liberty and equality. Civic republicanism devotes much thought and space in elaborating the connection between these two values and popular self-government. Fundamentally, as Arendt, Skinner and Pettit (among others) have shown, civic republicanism sees liberty and equality in terms of non-domination and in terms of the distinction (originally Aristotelian) between private space and public space. On the other hand, it remains unclear in deliberative democracy whether its presuppositions about liberty and equality are republican (in terms of non-domination) or whether they are liberal (that is, based on a notion of rights). This is an important distinction between civic republicanism and deliberative democracy. Theorists of the former, such as Pocock, Skinner, Viroli, Pettit and Nederman, locate the origins of republicanism (in theory and in practice) in ancient Rome (positively, in the Roman republic, negatively, in the fall of the republic and the advent of the imperial monarchy), discover significant elements of it in the writings of Marsilius of Padua, Nicholas of Cusa and others, see its rebirth in the humanist writers of Venice and Florence, and culminate with the English and American republicans (Harrington, Sidney, Locke, Jefferson).

In addition, Roman republicanism may be usefully contrasted to Athenian democracy: whether in practice or in theory, ancient political institutions and ideas are useful sources for modern theorists of popular self-government. As stated above, fundamentally the ideology of civic republicanism, with its stress on self-control, self-government, and self-determination, re-conceptualizes and modernizes the Aristotelian distinction between the liberty and equality that exist within the polis and the slavery and domination that prevail within the despoteia. In the same way it reformulates the Roman political and legal distinction between the dominatio exercised within the domus and the dominium, and the libertas and the imperium exercised within the political/public space of the civitas. In democratic Athens and in republican Rome this public space is itself the realm of liberty and equality. And the polis or the civitas is nothing but the association of free and equal citizens as they deliberate and act together. Deliberation and action, moreover, take place openly within a political space constituted by the people organized legally and formally into popular assemblies.

Arendt is surely right in pointing out the central role that speech and language, discussion and discourse—what Gorgias, Plato, Isocrates, Aristotle call the logos—assume in the political life of the ancients (especially in Athens). She, however, fails to distinguish properly between the various forms of political expression. In a sense, the differences among Plato, Gorgias, and Aristotle over the nature of the logos form the background to a major theme of this book: namely, the question of the nature and status of deliberation and rational discussion. That is, is the logos the vehicle of philosophic reason, as Plato would want it, or is it merely a technical rhetorical instrument used to sway the masses? Is public discussion as viewed by deliberative democrats the only (or, alternatively, the most important) substantive method by which equal and free citizens may arrive rationally at a public good? Or is the formulation too narrow to encompass other politically (and democratically) important forms of public talk? In any case, in both it is significant that in republican Rome and in democratic Athens forms of public interaction other than discussion and speech are equally important: processions, ritual, religious festivals, games, theater, recitals. In effect, the public space is constituted by both speech and language (in the sense of public deliberation in the assemblies and in other political institutions) as well as by public performances and displays linked to the social, economic, cultural, and religious life of the community.

Deliberative democracy recognizes the ancients’ contribution to public democratic deliberation. But it differentiates itself from civic republicanism in two crucial ways. First, the logos it recognizes is the speech and language informed by reason and argument; it relegates all other forms of talk (such as rhetoric) to the extra-rational or to the non-rational sphere. Moreover, not only is rhetoric for deliberative democrats ill-suited to public deliberation, but alternative forms of public action such as displays and performances are also excluded from the sphere of rational activity. Second, it reproduces the old distinction between the ancients and the moderns, and thus dismisses the contemporary use of Roman and Athenian forms of popular self-government as ahistorical and anachronistic (though still recognizing their value as historical but not political sources).

These two points—that public deliberation is the only meaningful and rational vehicle toward civic virtue and the common good, and that public deliberation is conceptually and historically different from the ancient understanding of logos—underline the major rupture between civic republicans and deliberative democrats. They also suggest that although deliberative democracy emerged as a critique of pluralist and liberal democracy, it is still indebted to the language of rights and the moral/ethical presuppositions of liberalism and the Enlightenment.

Of course, public deliberation and public discussion require a public space or public arena (or “square”) within which they can take place. And beginning with Jürgen Habermas, up to contemporary writers such as Benhabib, Elster, Cohen, and others, the public space is associated with what has come to be known as “civil society,” a complex of associations, institutions and practices deliberative democrats understand to have emerged at the dawn of the modern era, that is, during the transformation of feudal and medieval society into bourgeois society. They understand civil society as consisting of associations—cultural, social, political, educational, perhaps religious —not directly embedded either within the administrative/bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or within the corporate and business organizations of the economy. Thus, to these thinkers pre-bourgeois, pre-modern communities lacked a civil society, and consequently lacked a public space, which thus precluded public deliberation about public ends. What this means is that the communes of the Italian city-states, as well as the democratic polis of Athens and the republican civitas of Rome, did not, and could not, possess a public space for public discussion because, obviously, civil society as understood by Habermas, Cohen, and others, had not yet emerged. Chapters in this book will show, however, that pre-modern polities did indeed engage in public discussion within a public space. Though the term civil society emerged with the social contract theorists, and was later elaborated in various ways on the liberal side, by Kant, Hegel, J. S. Mill, and, on the socialist side, by various Marxists (famously by Gramsci), there existed within the polities of the ancient and medieval Italian city-states associations, institutions and practices that together might be analogous or equivalent to those that prevail within today’s civil society. For obviously what is important is not so much the term, but the practice and the concept to which it refers.

Deliberative democrats return to the pre-Hegelian and pre-Marxian understanding of civil society. Whereas Hegel and Marx see it as the realm of economic struggle and market competition, where particularistic interests and unfettered appetite reign, the former view it as precisely the sphere where appetite is overcome by reason, where speech tainted by interest may be transformed into “pure speech” (to use Habermas’ formulation) and into a kind of “deliberative universalism” (in Gutmann and Thompson’s phrase). As with Plato and Kant, so too with theorists of deliberative democracy: reason, once it comes into close contact with interest or appetite, degenerates into mere rhetoric. It is in and through the ensemble of independent, secondary associations of civil society that a rational consensus on the common good may be attained. It is in this sphere, too, where Rawls’ public reason is located. In addition, where in Locke and other social contract theorists (Grotius, Pufendorf) politics and the political are legitimated (indeed, come into being) as a result of individual calculations of self-interest and of personal/material security, in deliberative democracy consent is (or, at least, should be) the product of rational discussion.

Jürgen Habermas famously analyzed the consequences to public deliberation and to the public sphere when, as a result of social, economic, and cultural forces, the system originally established by the liberal and bourgeois revolutions expanded its social base, and the liberal foundation of government and politics was compelled to democratize because of pressure from below. The transformation of liberal politics into mass politics, the rise of mass parties and mass elections, mass communication, and mass media, not only destroyed the exclusive class basis of the public sphere, but made it more difficult to devise mechanisms by which public deliberation would not be distorted or manipulated. Thus the concern with the integrity of the public sphere, and with the integrity of the means (procedural and substantive) by which public deliberation is conducted, is a reflection of the fear that mass politics and mass democracy may de-stabilize the liberal constitutional order, and lead to authoritarian or despotic regimes.

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