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Democracy without Shortcuts. The Democratic Ideal of Self-Government and the Problem of Blind Deference


Speaker: Cristina Lafont, Northwestern University

When: Apr 05, 2019 - 03:30pm - 05:00pm

Where: TBA



In reaction to growing discontent in democratic societies, many contemporary conceptions of democracy offer reform proposals that are supposed to be helpful “shortcuts” for solving difficult problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation within the public sphere. In this paper, I examine the institutional proposals offered by deep pluralist, epistocratic and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. I show that, for all their conceptual and political differences, these conceptions promise to help us reach better political outcomes ‘faster’ by relying on citizens’ blind deference to the political decisions of others. However, an expectation of blind deference is quintessentially incompatible with the democratic ideal of self-government. As I show in detail, by expecting citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control, these competing conceptions accept the possibility of a permanent misalignment between the beliefs and attitudes of the citizenry, on the one hand, and the laws and policies to which they are subject, on the other. As a consequence, none of them can explain how citizens can identify with the laws and policies to which they are subject and endorse them as their own, as the democratic ideal of self-government requires. In addition, these proposals naively assume that a political community can reach better outcomes if it bypasses the actual beliefs and attitudes of its own citizens. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to make a political community better than its members, nor can a community achieve progress ‘faster’ by leaving its citizens behind. Against these views, I conclude that the only road to better political outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective political will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. Commitment to democracy is the realization that there are no shortcuts.