This is a discussion paper submission.



The true purpose of democracy, as so many thinkers, primarily American thinkers, have told us, is to facilitate the growth of the individual while binding individuals together in the realization of their need for one another.  There are two reasons that voting has become a distract to this purpose: first, through the guise of political realism, voting has become the only means of democratic expression; and second, through the distortions of liberalism, communication has been tossed out of the political process in exchange for strict procedural mechanisms.  Of course, by adhering to these distractions, we forget the transformational effects of democracy and buy into the restrictions that democracy currently imposes on our political will and autonomy.  This paper is an analysis of (1) how political realism and parts of liberalism have shaped our democracy, and (2) how such a governing and social system are blind to the deeply democratic needs of all human beings.


Title: Voting and Other Myths of Democracy

In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, scores of activists crisscrossed the American landscape promulgating an ostensibly important democratic message: Vote or Die!  Of course, the “Vote or Die” folks were not alone in their voting activism; the Christian Right mobilized large “get out the vote” campaigns, as did antiwar activists, African-American and Latino leaders, libertarians, and dozens of other grassroots groups.  From suburban shopping malls to college campuses, activists hurriedly registered voters – Republican and Democrat alike – to ensure the participation of all Americans in this single most important act of democracy.  And voting remained the focus of public attention well after the election when disgruntled voters complained they had been either directly prevented from voting or at least prevented from having their votes counted, thus seemingly stripping them of their democratic voice.  

Sadly, the suggestion that voting equals democracy stands in stark contrast to the views of several renowned American thinkers -- among them Jefferson, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Royce, and Dewey – who paint a picture of democracy much less concerned with voting and more concerned with, as Dewey termed it, the “spirit of democracy.”  Unlike the notion that democracy is the free marketplace of ideas filtered through the procedures of voting and leading to the election of officials who represent the interests of their constituents by making decisions on their behalf, the deeply democratic tradition suggests that democracy is about human flourishing and the cultivation of what Royce called the “beloved community.” For those who adhere to deep democracy, the “Vote or Die” campaign is, unfortunately, one more signal that our democracy is a democracy in name only.[1]  

My suggestion here is that through the confluence of seemingly disparate lines of thinking, American democracy was deracinated from its deep traditions.  I will attempt to explicate this uprooting and the subsequent triumph of American political realism through the unsuspecting help of liberalism.  Consequently, I will argue, on the one hand, for the transformative effects of deep democracy that mere proceduralism eschews, while on the other hand, I will suggest that not only does this proceduralism not work as advertised, but is inherently stifling to the goals of any democracy, participatory or otherwise.   

This is not to say that voting should be abolished or that representative, procedural governance should be completely abandoned.  Rather, we must recalibrate democracy by changing its focus from simple procedures and institutions to pervasive, everyday democratic living.  The paradigm of democracy needs to be adjusted; voting should not be thought of as the primary mission of the democratic citizen.  Instead, voting should become the culminating end to participation.  As it stands now, voting is the Alpha and the Omega, and this distracts from the inherent need for face-to-face interaction, the open exchange of ideas, and real dialogue.  By focusing so much on voting, we have ignored the importance of talking and public participation.   That is, the nature of our communicative being provides a personal, existential rationale for a deeper democracy. 


The heart of deep democracy is direct citizen participation – as opposed to the procedural, representative democratic model we now follow – and has as its bedrock the act of communication and the interconnectedness of individuals.[2]  Deep democracy considers pervasive participation as fundamental to human development; therefore, it considers democracy to be a “way of life,” not simply an isolated public process of governance.  For the deeply democratic thinker, simply voting negates the entire purpose of democracy, which is to transform and grow the individual cognitively, morally, emotionally, and spiritually.

As it happens, however, deep democracy holds very little social capitol today, even though it has “deep” roots in the American political psyche.  Perhaps more now than ever, the American public has come to believe that voting is what needs reinforcement and protection, because voting is what matters most to a democracy – not dialogue or open exchange or pervasive participation in community matters.  This is well illustrated by the outright condemnation of the non-voter.  Those who do not vote are considered cynical obstructionists to the democratic process.  Even greater disdain is given those who do not vote but dare challenge or criticize our political system.  To publicly admit to not voting is tantamount to declaring oneself an anarchist.  And to suggest that one can truly be democratic yet not vote is a silly contradiction that speaks to one’s complete and utter ignorance of the democratic tradition. 

  The great irony, of course, is that many activist movements envision themselves as something deeper than the status quo, something standing over-and-against the “machine” of democracy.  To them especially the pronouncements of deep democracy must seem odd and somewhat disturbing, even sacrosanct.  

So how did this ironic situation develop?  In an Orwellian twist, the political realists succeeded in getting the American public to buy into the “myth” of voting.  Hence, the “Vote or Die” activists were simply following a long established theory that participatory, direct democracy is untenable and must be replaced by the procedures of voting.  Even more, the realists have fostered the perception that being democratic means just voting, for under their empirical analyses of politics, it is “realistic” to conclude, like Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, that human nature precludes the rule of the masses.

This empirical analysis of politics, however, profoundly concerns those like Robert Westbrook, whose brilliant text on Dewey ends with a condemnation of the present state of democracy in America.[3]  Westbrook ponders the role of political realism in post-war America – as championed by Walter Lippmann and others – and the decline in importance of Dewey’s philosophy of democracy.[4]  He writes that, “unlike Dewey, who believed that ‘the world has suffered more from leaders and authorities than from the masses,’ realists continued to fear most the threat they believed an ignorant and irrational public posed.”[5]  As a result, the realists promoted the myth of “public participation” and even encouraged apathy as a “functional feature of an effective democratic polity.”[6] As Westbrook adds, “the most significant revision that democratic realists made in democratic theory was… [to] narrow the issues of democracy to those of political machinery.”[7]  For the realists then, and their progeny the neoconservatives, the social coordination produced by democracy outweighs the personal growth and individual stability that Dewey places at the center of democratic life.[8]  

As critical theory notes, modernity is signified by its dialectical reversibility of principles, i.e., reason becomes irrationality, communication becomes rule by fiat, and democracy becomes fascism.  This reversibility is poignantly reflected in the realist’s duping of the American public, especially political activists.


            One has to be rather naïve today to believe that voting amounts to having one’s voice heard.  With the corporatization of the voting process, it is really not one person, one vote; clearly, he who has the most money has the loudest voice.  Even worse, the structure of our present political system strips the public of any actual choice of candidates. 

 Voting is a mechanism, as Thoreau reminds us, that actually eliminates our desires, so surely we are not casting our “whole” votes in our present democratic process.  Thoreau, like his Transcendentalist brethren Whitman and Emerson, demanded a more invigorated public, one willing to speak and be heard rather than to listen and choose.  And this is especially important for traditionally disenfranchised groups, to whom corporate America and the controlling political parties continue to pay only feeble lip service.  These groups cannot idly bide their time while their choices are given to them; to gain real legitimacy, these groups need to help formulate the entire political process up to and including voting.  But as it stands, most of us “give only a cheap vote and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by” us.[9]

            If democracy recapitulates those capacities that allow us to develop and grow as communities of interconnected, diversity respecting individuals, then our present democratic system needs some serious repair.  If communication is a vital balance to the political process, because it allows for the sort of honest and open exchange that continually evaluates the conditions of democracy, then any democratic system that is purely procedural devalues communication and its balancing effects. 

Where We Went Wrong

According to deep democracy, “the triumph of realism in American democratic theory” has several sources, primarily liberalism.[10] Liberalism was foundational to the development of modern democratic states, so it contributed to the paradigm of our present democratic situation.  To be sure, deep democracy does not condemn liberalism in toto, just those parts that have attenuated democracy and stripped it down to very narrow public discourse and bare procedures.  The history of this problem stretches back to the Kantian self and culminates with Rawls. 

The way deep democracy tells the story, liberalism is based on a legalistic, homo economicus conception of the subject, which in turn truncates the act of public communication.  Subsequently, this curtails the function of participation in public decision-making.  By narrowing the role of communication and erecting a wall between our private and public lives, liberalism severally limits the scope of democracy.  As a result, this leads to a false dichotomy separating the individual from the community.  Worse, it stymies the development of those capacities that lead to identity stabilization and formation, moral imagination and development, and self-reflection and self-building. 

Correspondingly, the realists, it appears, merely followed the clear trajectory liberal democracy defined.  In our pluralistic nation, we have come to embrace the liberal notion that the procedures of democracy give us a voice while also allowing us to follow distinctly different versions of the good life.  A democracy of procedures, where public reason is closely circumscribed to block the influence of competing metaphysical and religious worldviews, is used to prevent the tyranny of the good over justice.  If we have differing worldviews, say liberalists, we must speak through the filter of voting, for communication that moves beyond this simple mechanism of choice is messy at best, destructive at worst. 

 Of course, historically there has always been a fear that the ignorant, ignoble masses would turn democracy into mob rule.  Aristotle warned against this, as did Plato before him.  Thus, founders like James Madison – properly reared on a classical education – declared that there must be a buffer zone between the uneducated masses and the “virtuous” representatives of their interests.  Furthermore, Madison suggested, unlike in Ancient Athens, America is too large to conduct direct participation in the government, so we need a representative democracy. 

More recently, liberalism has been commandeer by an economic worldview, making dialogue a zero sum game, campaigning a competition between powerful monopolies, and voters essentially consumers.  Strict representative proceduralism sees democracy as a reflection of the procedural market place of interests, where the vox populi is heard only in votes that are cast for elite representatives as they battle for the interests of the people – elites who shelter decision-making from the irrational conceits of the hoi polloi.  Furthermore, the economizing of democracy turns it into a savage competition.  Communication, it seems, has been displaced by the voting booth on the one hand, and the process of contentious, partisan debate on the other.  Indeed, perhaps it is best that voting has usurped the role of communication, because what talk does occur is nasty, vicious and obstinate.  Today, discourse is not about engaging the interlocutor in a dialogue; it is about winning the discussion, at all costs, even if that means a result unlikely to benefit either party.  We live, as Deborah Tannen writes, in “an argument culture,” where we approach the world with “an adversarial frame of mind.”[11] The importance of Greek parrhesia (or public outspokenness), of dialogue and open exchange, has truly been lost.    

Liberalism, Procedural/Representative Democracy, and Atomistic Subjects

The self of deep democracy is an encumbered subject, a view shaped by the thinking of communitarians and feminists on the one side, and pragmatists and critical theorists on the other.[12]  As such, deep democracy’s theory of the subject is not exclusively communitarian; it is what Seyla Benhabib calls egalitarian communitarianism, or what Judith Green calls left communitarianism.[13]  In essence, it respects the tenets of liberalism, but only to a point.

In the first chapter of her book Deep Democracy, Judith Green highlights the characteristics of the deeply democratic self by taking issue with the argument of Iris Marion Young in her essay, “The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference.”[14] Following a postmodern line of thought, Young claims that the communal self that seeks to be part of an “ideal” community is playing into the longstanding Western dualism of “fixed essential kinds.”[15]  For Young, communitarians, of any variety, erase difference and totalize fixed identities in order to counteract liberalism; while the communitarians hold that the self is relational, liberalists hold that it is “separated.” As Young asserts, both views are not only binary and fixed as opposed to multiple and unfinished, but also without time or place.

As Green asserts, however, Young has made a few critical errors in her assessment.  First, communitarians, like Michael Sandel, see community as the common nexus of individuals because individuals are relational; but community never becomes one large individual into which we all dissolve.[16]  The problem is that Young is placing on Sandel and other communitarians the binary oppositions of Western philosophy she opposes, thus assuming that if on one side we have Rawls and the separated subject, then on the other side we have all communitarians and the totally unified subject.  Yes, Sandel takes opposition with Rawls, but that does not lead to a community devoid of difference.  Second, and following from the first point, there is no logical contradiction between individual and community, even though there is certainly an historical and theoretical opposition between the two.  For communitarians, “the community has a primary ontological status as part of a multiplicity of equally primary relational entities,” whereas for liberalism, “only the atomic individual has primary ontological status, and the community is understood as an epiphenomenon that springs from many selves’ conjoining willingly.”[17] Young’s suggestion that there is an opposition between individual and community misreads the debate.  Left communitarians like Green see the individual as embraced by the community because of the individual’s difference, not despite it.

Green reasons that Young is actually describing left communitarians, rather than disagreeing with them, when she says that the individual and community are bound to one another in a dialectical relationship – something akin to what Dewey speaks of as the organic dialectical relationship between self and community.  Young, however, still takes issue with the dialectical intersubjectivity of the left communitarians when she writes: “Persons will cease to be opaque, other, not understood, and instead become fused, mutually sympathetic, understanding one another as they understand themselves.”[18]

In a diverse community, as deep democracy promotes, such “caricatures” of the individual/community relation are untenable.  The process of intersubjective communication does not lead to a “smoothing out” of difference, but rather leads to conditions whereby such differences can exist in harmony and under mutual respect, so that individuals and community can grow together. 

By appealing to an ideally diverse community, deep democracy “includes multiple, partially overlapping, shared social identities that are also some of the constitutive elements of personal identities.”[19] The social, situated subject of deep democracy is certainly opposed to the Rawlsian subject, but not at the expense of difference and dissention.  Dissention is an essential part of what it means to develop in a community, for only when we can, as Charles Taylor claimed, respond when questioned about our actions, can we claim any sense of autonomy.  Though such responses may lead to disagreements, disagreements that, over time, can change the nature of the community, they simply suggest that through the search for self the community also grows.[20] 

Perhaps reflecting the Aristotelian legacy of certain communitarian influences, there is a sense in deep democracy that considering the individual without the community is ontologically impossible.  Of this, Taylor writes: “[Aristotle] puts the point in terms of the notion of self-sufficiency (autarkeia).  Man is a social animal, indeed a political animal, because he is not self-sufficient alone, and in an important sense is not self-sufficient outside a polis.”[21] Deep democracy, however, does not fully side with this position, for deep democracy suggests that while community and individual are coeval, they are not identical. 

But it is Rawls, not Young, who is at the center of deep democracy’s attack on liberalism.  Why?  As Robert Talisse puts it, because Rawls sees democracy as “the formally fair procedures by which a majority will is formed from the aggregation of individual preferences as expressed in voting booths.”[22]  Even though we can consider Rawls’s political philosophy deliberative – because he sees consensus as important to legitimizing democracy – his democracy is “strictly formal.”[23]

To be clear, Rawls becomes a “proceduralist” to deal with pluralism.  In the midst of competing views, Rawls places the legitimacy of decisions on the process rather than the substantive outcome.  The process for Rawls is embodied in an overlapping political consensus that is the collective action we can all agree on because it does not interfere with any particular life plan.[24] 

The overlapping consensus that Rawls builds in his Political Liberalism, however, is really quite devoid of specific community connections – in fact, that is his point in calling it a “political” conception of justice, for it abstracts from our particular worldviews.  As a result, if the self of the original position is a “rational egoist,” who chooses according to principles of disconnected self-interest, then the parties in the original position  “are incapable of achieving, within the bounds set by their rational egoism, the reciprocal perspective-taking that the citizens they represent must undertake when they orient themselves in a just manner to what is equally good for all.”[25]       

Accordingly, the problem for Rawls is that his original position does not explain (if so, only thinly) the communal relations of growth and development and the importance of the Other as other; it is a theory of self that is arbitrarily universal and disconnected.  Benhabib remarks that, “in his attempt to do justice to Kant’s conception of noumenal agency, Rawls recapitulates a basic problem with the Kantian conception of the self, namely, that noumenal selves cannot be individuated.”  If we are detached from everything that makes us actual selves – our families, traditions, personal histories, cares, etc. – “then what we are left with is an empty mask that is everyone and no one.”  More importantly, as Benhabib notes, how can we possibly be moral beings if we are cut off from our individuating personal characteristics – for this affects our ability “to be constituents of the moral point of view.”[26] 

This detachment from the world is precisely what Carol Gilligan has criticized about Kohlberg’s levels of morality, and what feminists in general have said about liberalism.  The kairos of the concrete self is obfuscated by the detached, unencumbered, noumenal self of Kantianism.  In Rawls’s original position, “individual men [and women] are decontaminated of the special psychologies and particular interests by which we understand them to be men [and women], so that a political theory of justice can develop from an antiseptic starting place.”[27]   

            Now, at first blush it would seem that to disagree with Rawls and his procedural liberalism would lead deep democracy on the path to civic republicanism – or integrationist communitarianism, as Benhabib calls it.  Deep democracy, however, finds a middle path between procedural liberalism and integrationist communitarianism, where the individual retains her “complete” communal self while also being individuated and protected as such.  For that reason, the stand against Rawls is mainly against his conception of the self.  As a result, deep democracy embraces much of his thought, from his call to respect human dignity and pluralistic worldviews, to his search for an “Archimedean point” between blank universalism and heavy concretism.  But this does not condone his view of the self or his endorsement of limited public discourse.

            In short, the Rawlsian subject is the most prominent and influential formulation of procedural liberalism, so he is often the target of deep democracy.  By portraying man as homo economicus, as a “solitary seeker of material happiness and bodily security,” Rawls and liberalism set the stage for our procedural liberal democracy of today, where the modern homo economicus is the consumer, and the political system is arranged like a market place of goods from which the voters select.  Procedural democracy creates “great empty spaces between Self and Other,” which ends up promoting “a definition of consciousness as self-consciousness only,” thereby shackling “liberal imagination to the narcissistic ideals of self-preservation, self-interest, and self-determination.”[28]

One outspoken critic of this condition is Benjamin Barber.  He is particularly critical of liberalism because it views voting, self-government, rights and values, as the “terminus” of democracy rather than the beginning.  He finds the mere proceduralism of our representative democracy to be a misplaced “conception of the individual and of individual interest [that] undermines the democratic practices upon which both individuals and their interests depend.”[29] As he sees it, “liberal democracy is a “thin” theory of democracy, one whose democratic values are prudential and thus provisional, optional, conditional – means to exclusively individualistic and private ends.”[30] Proceduralism sees community as instrumental rather than intrinsic, so it holds the “idea of participation in disdain.”[31]

The Madisonian Influence

As we have seen, deep democracy criticizes proceduralism and the anemic democracy of contemporary America, but the story of the evolution of both deep democracy and proceduralism is revealing.  According to Jack Crittenden, who follows the work of the esteemed historian Gordon S. Wood, there are two historical branches to American democracy: on the one hand, there is the representative branch championed by James Madison; on the other, there is the more deeply participatory branch propagated by Thomas Jefferson. Madison, for one, suggested that ordinary men are distracted by their passions, side-tracked by their factional alliances, and generally without virtue in a country too vast to allow for direct participation; he suggested that there be a system whereby elites of virtuous character compete for the votes of the masses, whom the elites would then represent.  By placing a buffer between government decisions and the irrational masses, Madison envisioned virtuous men having the will of the people at heart. 

Of course, there are problems with this democratic vision.  First, even virtuous men “are not angels,” so the system would have to be developed in such a way that competing interests would negate the desires of these elites to seek their own gain.[32]  Second, there is the problem with representing someone else’s interests.  How can self-interests be guarded by anyone except the person herself?[33]

Jefferson, however, saw things differently, for contended citizens have the “right to regulate and control” their society.  He believed in a more “pure” or direct democracy, whereby education for the masses and small groupings of people – or wards – would solve Madison’s problems with direct citizen participation.  Wards would be collections of 100 citizens, “with a central school for all children, with a justice of the peace, a constable and captain of militia…these little republics would be the main strengths of the great one.”[34] As Crittenden emphasizes, Jefferson saw wards as part of the natural fabric of America, from the town halls of New England to various and sundry rural meeting places.[35]  And as Cornel West has recently lamented, the loss of such meeting places in our time, because of urban sprawl and the decimation of city centers, prevents the free association of citizens to exchange ideas and to meaningfully interact with one another.[36]

 As it turns out, Jefferson’s argument did not win, and so we live in a type of Madisonian democracy, where citizens are now allowed “to turn away from politics” altogether and leave the politicking to the elites.  And because these elites cannot be expected to be disinterested – as Madison had once hoped – we must elect those who will fight for our interests against the interests of others.[37] As Crittenden reasons, “by limiting participation to the periodic casting of votes, the Framers left the bulk of society’s members as the Framers found them,” unimproved by democracy.[38] Hence, Crittenden sums up procedural democracy with one rhetorical question: “If people’s attention is directed to the private sphere, and simultaneously, we want an egalitarian system in which all citizens are competent to take part, then what could be better than limiting participation…to voting for representatives?”[39]

Questioning the Vote: Not Something New

Perhaps no American writer has been as incisively vocal against the shortcomings of mere voting as Henry David Thoreau.[40]  His “Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849, is even more powerful than Jefferson’s words seventy-five years earlier. 

Thoreau considered that “all voting is a sort of gaming…with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong.”  Moreover, “the character of the voters is not staked” when one casts a vote, for one is not “vitally concerned that that right should prevail.” Voting for Thoreau seemed nothing more than a quick tool to tally one’s likes and dislikes, a passing comment on the most important issues of the day.  As he says, “its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency.  Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.  It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”  But “doing” is risky, so we apathetically cast our votes rather than commit to perilous action.  And so of slavery Thoreau said, “when the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.” [41]

How deftly sensitive he was to spot the problems of the modern political system, problems that continue to plague us today.  As corporate America has merged with the political process, the pool of candidates is far smaller now than ever, because the concessions one must make to become a political party’s candidate outright preclude most of us.  As a result, voting can hardly be the free exercise of choice for one’s choices are few and far between by the time the actual election takes place.  Thoreau saw this coming during his own age when he declared, “Can we not count upon some independent votes?  Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions?”[42]

By focusing on the vote, we ignore all of the democratic processes leading up to it.  For instance, by the time the “Vote or Die” campaign was mobilized, the political candidates were in place.  Consequently, voting was essentially the choice of available candidates, not worthy ones.  As Thoreau reports, he who votes merely chooses “one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue.”[43]  For this reason, public discourse is vital, for it curtails the influence of money by demanding justifications – something voting alone cannot do.  By promoting communication within and between communities of individuals, deep democracy expands the opportunities for public influence beyond political parties and corporate denotations.   

Communication and Self-Transformation

Thus far, I have provided the theoretical and historical framework for deep democracy’s mission, thereby establishing several reasons we should begin to move beyond mere voting.  But there is one other compelling, fundamental reason to make our democracy pervasively deep; it is the notion that communication – if universal, unforced, and reciprocal – facilitates the development of those capacities that give us moral reflection and stable identities.  To make this argument, I rely on Jurgen Habermas’s discourse theory and Mark E. Warren’s interpretation of it as self-transformational.    

For Habermas, there is an interesting link between the structure of post-traditional societies and the need for more democratic participation.  Our post-traditional world has led to the fracturing of traditional means of forming and establishing one’s identity.  As our world becomes “more complex, individuals find themselves inhabiting multiple and pluralistic roles for which traditional identities are unsuited.”[44] By de-centering democracy, and coupling it with a sociology of self-development that emphasizes the transformative effects of discourse, Habermas insinuates a view of democracy that is meant to (a) restore authority in communities as opposed to state agencies or multinational bodies and corporations; (b) provide a pathway for reaffirming, establishing, and developing identities; and (c) restore the bonds between self-development and concrete communities as embodied in solidarity.[45]

For this thesis to work, Habermas must rely on a structure of discourse that (1) is universal, (2) has pragmatically presupposed constraints, and (3) is sociologically grounded in the nature of identity formation, self-development, and growth.  In short, he must show there is a link between political participation through discourse and the transformative features of discourse that lead to self-development and the like.  In essence, this is a connection between the public sphere of autonomy and will formation, and the private sphere of autonomous individuals and their particular lifeworlds.

For our purposes here, let me briefly outline the core of Habermas’s discourse theory.  As inherently communicative beings, we have embedded in our comportment to the world and others, as well as ourselves, a communicative rationality that is geared towards understanding and consensus building, for this is an innate feature of language.  That is, the pragmatic presuppositions of communication imply reciprocity between interlocutors, for the nature of communication is not primarily to deceive someone but rather to share and understand.[46]  Language is social by nature, thus it is meant to link us in agreement, not split us apart. 

The pragmatic presuppositions of language suggest that we can (1) acknowledge that an utterance is intelligible, (2) recognize that someone is speaking sincerely, (3) demonstrate that someone’s intentions are understood, and (4) appreciate that someone has used words that we can both agree are acceptable.  However, it is important to look below the surface of these presuppositions.  As it happens, when we engage in communication, we are attempting to link ourselves with the interlocutor in our search for mutual agreement.  This means we are capable of (a) anticipating the interlocutors response, which means (b) we can see things from her perspective.  This is why G.H. Mead pointed to the development of the self through communication, for we learn to step outside our particular perspectives when we converse, thus allowing us to see ourselves like objects for revision, because language is a game always played by more than 1.  This game has rules – presuppositions – that we all obey.  Consequently, as Mead noted, language adheres to conditions of anticipation and expectation on the part of both interlocutors because of its social/public strictures.  Such anticipation and expectation draw out an affinity for consensus in all speech acts.  Therefore, the act of anticipating someone’s response is the act of stepping into the other person’s shoes; when we do this, we are stepping away from ourselves and gaining perspective.  For Mead, this is how we gain reflective distance and develop a conscience.

But we must also note that agreement can only be mutual if it is uncoerced.  Therefore, the pragmatic presuppositions of communication also imply that we allow the interlocutor to speak freely; we must be “free and equal participants.”[47]   When I ask you a question, I do not respond with the answer, for that would defeat the purpose of questioning you in the first place.  I wait for you to respond on your own, for I know you contain this capacity.  This intimates two points: one, communication is innately reciprocal; two, engaging in talk assumes the interlocutor’s humanity and the need for reciprocal recognition from the interlocutor. 

One might say that the act of communication allows everyone to step outside of particular perspectives to take a larger perspective that we all share, and need, by the fact of our communicative orientation.  This perspective-taking, or ideal-role-taking, is integral to the formation of an identity and a moral conscience, because when we engage in talk we are relying on, and strengthening, those capacities that allow us to gain self-realization and cultural distance.

Therefore, because we are developed socially, we are particularly vulnerable to having our identities destabilized by the disruption of communication.  As a “being who can develop an identity only through externalizing himself in interpersonal relations,” I must not only protect myself, but also those with whom I communicate.[48]  Interestingly, I need you as much as you need me.  There are two things we can glean from this: first, we are all part of a larger community of language users that needs protection; second, this protection can lead to the respect for individual values, for if you do not respect my values, and in turn I do not respect yours, the system we rely on for development crumbles.        

How does this relate to democracy?  Warren says that Habermas’s “self-transformation thesis can be reconstructed from his view that democracy and discursive reasoning are contingent upon one another, and developmentally linked.”[49]  That is, “when viewed from the perspective of the self, we might say that democratic discourse develops the autonomy of participants – that is, their capacities to engage in critical examination of self and others, engage in reasoning processes, and arrive at judgments they can defend in argument.”[50]  More precisely, the capabilities that participatory democracy builds and needs – like perspective-taking, mutual recognition, open exchange, reasoning, self-examination, etc. – are also the capabilities necessary for the development of autonomous individuals.  Hence, participatory democracy reflects the process of autonomous self-development because both rely on communication.[51]  Our coming to recognize ourselves as projects for construction comes through communication; and what better process of communication is there than that which is required within a deliberative democracy?   

 The reflexive distancing of the autonomous subject from itself comes through a process of critical self-examination as if from the outside, and this develops through intersubjective interaction, i.e., communication.  That is, the autonomous subject develops a “measure of responsibility, simply because autonomy means that one has the capacity to relate intention and behavior, and thus to give reasons for behaviors to others” -- or, as Habermas says, the act of speech implies the ability to defend what one says.[52]  Such a claim to validity requires that each speaker assume the listener has the same capacities as oneself; in short, the speaker must assume the listener is just like her.  Therefore, my learning to understand myself through communication is simultaneously a process of learning to understand you.  This is the beginning of all moral development: I begin to see you like me, and I impart to you the treatments I want back in return. 

Consequently, we have the moral capacity to resolve post-traditional disputes through discourse because of the sheer fact of our communicative nature of development.  The reciprocal recognition needed for participatory democracy arises out of our conversations.  How?  Through the fact that autonomy and language both rely on the capacity to take the perspectives of others.  As Warrens says, “when one must explain oneself to others, Habermas holds, individuals come to understand why they feel as they do in justifying their needs and interests to others.”[53]  

In a sense, we can argue for the therapeutic and developmental aspect of deep democracy in the following way: only when we can anticipate being recognized by an Other, through communication that assumes mutual recognition, can we be individuated and modify our behavior.  As Habermas insists, one of the major presuppositions of communication is that we expect the other to take what we say seriously; otherwise, we cannot expect to be understood.  This expectation implies that we see the other as autonomous, like me, for how else can we expect a serious “yes” or “no” answer?

    By appealing to the self-transformation thesis, we glean a very personal, existential motivating factor to deep democracy.  Participatory democracy, under this theory, recapitulates and reconstitutes what is already the case for self-development, especially moral development.  In addition, because we must stabilize our identities through communication, participation becomes a democratic expedient that we already possess and need.  Moreover, in a post-traditional world of competing values and ethical perspectives, the discursive process within deep democracy offers us a universal, though concrete, manner of coming to agreement.  In other words, deep democracy is needed now more than ever.

Consequently, that we have abandoned deep democracy for mere voting is more disconcerting now as we continue to export proceduralism to the rest of the world and package it as “genuine” democracy.  In addition, while we concentrate on making other nations more democratic, we fail to recognize the lack of democracy in our own backyard.  Perhaps even worse, like prisoners in Plato’s cave, most Americans swear they live in a full-blooded democracy and defend it against “detractors” like Green, West, and Barber.  It seems that for deep democracy, the trick will be to convince the public that voting is antithetical to personal and social wellbeing.


[1] See Bimal Jalan: The Future of India: Politics, Economics and Governance.  (India: Penguin Press, 2005). 

[2] See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?  (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 30-31.

[3] Robert Westbrook.  John Dewey and American Democracy.  (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[4] For a list of political realists, see Westbrook p. 550.

[5] Ibid., p. 544.

[6] Ibid., p. 545.

[7] Westbrook, p. 546.

[8] Ibid

[9] Thoreau, p. 5.

[10] Westbrook, p. 543.

[11] Tannen, Deborah.  The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue.  (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 3.

[12] See Diana T. Meyers.  Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytical Feminism and Moral Philosophy.  (New York: Routledge, 1994). Also, Seyla Benhabib’s essays in Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse.

[13]  See Jurgen Haberms.  Between Facts and Norms.  William Rehg, trans.  (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1996), p.21,  and Seyla Benhabib, ed.  Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political.  (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p.7.

[14] Iris Marion Young.  “The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference,” in Feminism/Postmodernism.  Linda J. Nicholson, ed.  (New York: Routledge Press, 1990).

[15] Judith Green.  Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity, and Transformation.  (Lanham, MD.: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), p. 2.

[16] See Michael Sandel, Liberalism and The Limits of Justice.  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[17] Green, p. 4.

[18] Young , p. 309 as quoted in Green, p. 5.

[19] Green, p. 6.

[20] See also Mark E. Warren.  “The Self in Discursive Democracy,” in Stephen K. White, ed.  The Cambridge Companion to Habermas.  (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 179.

[21] Charles Taylor.  “The Politics of Recognition,” in Amy Guttman, ed.  Multiculturalism.  (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1994) p. 32.

[22] Robert Talisse. “Can Democracy be a Way of Life?  Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXIX: 1 (Winter, 2003), p. 1.

[23] Ibid, p. 6.

[24] Joshua Cohen, in Benhabib (1996), p. 96ff.

[25] Jurgen Habermas.  “Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on Rawls’s Political Liberalism,” The Journal of Philosophy, XCII:3 (March, 1995), p. 112-113.

[26] Seyla Benhabib.  Situating the Self. (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 161-162. See also Seidel.  Kant, Respect and Injustice: The Limits of Liberal Moral Theory.  (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1986).

[27] Benjamin Barber.  Strong Democracy.  (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press,  1984), p. 51.

[28] Barber (1984), p. 37.

[29] Ibid, p. 5.

[30] Ibid, p. 5.

[31] Ibid, 7.

[32] Jack Crittenden.  Democracy’s Midwife: An Education in Deliberation.  (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2002). 

[33] Ibid, pp. 14-20.

[34] Jefferson as quoted in Crittenden (2002), p. 20.

[35] Ibid., p. 22.

[36] Cornel West.  Democracy Matters (New York, NY.: Penguin Press, 2004).

[37] Crittenden, p. 24.

[38] Ibid., p. 26. 

[39] Ibid., p. 27. 


[41] Thoreau, p. 5. 

[42] Thoreau, p. 5.

[43] Ibid, p. 6.

[44] Warren (1994), p. 168.

[45] See Warren (1994), pp. 172.

[46] See Jurgen Habermas.  The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society.  Thomas McCarthy, trans.  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), pp. 286-301.

[47] Jurgen Habermas. (1995).

[48] Jurgen Habermas.  The Inclusion of the Other.  (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1998), p. 30.  Also see Jurgen Habermas.  “Justice and Solidarity: On the Discussion Concerning ‘Stage 6’,” Philosophical Forum 21 (1989), p. 47.

[49] Warren (1994), p. 172.

[50] Ibid. 

[51] See Anthony Kwame Appiah.  The Ethics of Identity.  (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[52] Warren (1994), p. 172.

[53] Ibid, p. 179.