A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment
by Bryan Garsten
Harvard, 290 pp., $45
There is a storyline that underlies much contemporary teaching of the history of political thought.
In the beginning were the Greek philosophers who, while subtle and profound, nevertheless at the end of the day were unreconstructed elitists. Plato, for one, viewed democracy as a form of mob rule and urged, instead, governance by specially-trained phil osopher-kings who had superhuman abilities to discern and apply the solutions for the problems of cities. Aristotle, if apparently more sympathetic to democracy, begins by excluding broad swaths of people from citizenship, including slaves, women, and "vulgar mechanics"--blue-collar workers, in a manner of speaking. By the time you account for all the excluded classes of people in Aristotle's "democracy," what's left of the citizenry looks increasingly like Plato's elites.
As the story continues, the Greek view held sway for much of human history, essentially until the Enlightenment and the rise of a kind of "democratic faith" expressed by such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and, at times, John Stuart Mill. If occasionally expressing reservations about democracy, such thinkers nevertheless inaugurated an era marked by growing belief in the moral progress of humanity from brute existence to increasing refinement and even "perfectibility." Such thinkers rejected the dour Greek view of human capacity for rational self-rule and increasingly endorsed democracy as not only practicable, but the only justifiable form of political organization.
As our enlightenment has continued, we rejected not only the ancient pessimism about democracy, but even the residual reservations about democracy of the early modern period, and have now reached an age in which democracy is universally recognized as the only justifiable form of government. Today's academy, where inheritors of Rousseau, Kant, and Mill reign, is the locus of defenses of more extensive democracy--in John Dewey's words, a belief that the cures for the problems of democracy lie always in more democracy.
A dominant school of thought in today's academy seeks to extend "deliberative democracy" in all instances, articulated and advanced by such thinkers as the late John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. We have come a long way from the cramped ancient view, now having achieved an enlightened rejection of elitism and an embrace of democratic egalitarianism and supreme confidence in the democratic capacities of the people.
So the story goes, and students are rarely advised that the evidence may not fit the narrative.
Putting aside cant (if not Kant), clear-eyed thinkers cannot avoid noticing that the apparent contemporary confidence in democracy, in fact, masks a deep and pervasive mistrust toward broad swaths of the citizenry which might, in an open democratic setting, introduce to the public square what modern "deliberative democrats" regard as "unreasonable" arguments. Modern academic democrats offer extensive and elaborate criteria for what arguments and reasons can be admitted into political discourse. Designating ac cept able arguments as ones that clear the bar of "public reason," today's most ardent democratic thinkers seek to ensure that a mechanism is in place to prevent the inclusion of arguments--or citizens who make them--that might question the basic liberal orthodoxies of the day.
Through this predefinition of what constitutes "reasonable" arguments, such thinkers ensure that there will be very little disagreement among pre-screened "deliberative" citizens. Unreasonable arguments include any that appeal to religious grounds; arguments that can be deemed to be based upon unreasoned prejudice, such as those based upon tradition or custom; and, essentially, any arguments that would limit the contemporary assumption that "democracy" means thoroughgoing individual autonomy. Restrictions on abortion, divorce on demand, gay marriage, or any other arguably debatable issues are regarded by contemporary "democrats" as beyond the pale of acceptable democratic discourse.
Today's democrats are, all too often, highly self-satisfied in their felt sense of intellectual superiority to previous thinkers who expressed concerns about democracy, yet often even more restrictive about who is permitted full democratic access than those previous thinkers they excoriate.