Democratic proceduralism and its limits: From philosophical principles to political institutions

Dannica Fleuss, Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg

Tue 25 February 2020

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


In recent years Western democracies’ legitimacy has been heavily under attack. The decline in public support for democratic institutions manifests particularly in anti-elitism, the rise of populist and post-truth politics. A branch of political science- and public policy-scholars suggested to counteract such developments by strengthening the role of experts in political decision-making (e.g., Brennan 2016, chapter 8; Willke 2007; 2014). Such expertocratic proposals for reforming existing democratic institutions and political practices, however, contradict normative perspectives that consider the equal participation of all affected to be the core requirement of democratic legitimacy.

Proceduralist political philosophy proposes a “genuinely democratic” understanding of democratic legitimacy: Proceduralists argue that the equal inclusion of all affected citizens must be the only criterion for legitimacy (Fleuß 2017; see Peter 2008; Estlund 2007; Christiano 2004). This philosophical stance has so far not been translated into institutional design and application-oriented proposals for political practice. To provide a comprehensive conception of proceduralist legitimacy, I aim at “bridging the gap” between proceduralist philosophy and application-oriented discussions of institutional design. I provide a brief overview of the argumentative path that starts out by abstract philosophical debates and, guided by a meta-theoretical framework, ultimately proposes concrete suggestions for institutions.

Against this background, the lecture focuses on two claims that are at the heart of the book’s approach:

  • A Critical Theory-inspired conceptualization of proceduralist legitimacy can provide a coherent and appealing normative ideal for contemporary democratic politics (and thereby avoids the major pitfalls of “classic” proceduralist approaches).

  • Radically proceduralist institutional devices must be created, criticized and, potentially, changed by the citizens of democratic societies. To realize this ideal in political reality and to create institutional devices for this purpose, we must (a) adopt a systemic perspective on ‘institutional design’ and (b) create institutions that facilitate the reversibility of decisions and procedural regulations.


Christiano, T. (2004). The Authority of Democracy. Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(3), 266– 290.

Estlund, D. M. (2008). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fleuß, D. (2017). Prozeduren, Rechte, Demokratie. Das legitimatorische Potential von Verfahren für politische Systeme. [English Title: “The Normative Legitimacy of Democracies. On the Limits of Proceduralism”]. Dissertation, Heidelberg University. Online:

Peter, F. (2008). Pure Epistemic Proceduralism. Episteme, 5(1), 33–55.

Willke, H. (2007). Smart governance: governing the global knowledge society. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus/Chicago University Press.

Willke, H. (2014). Demokratie in Zeiten der Konfusion. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

About the speaker

Dannica Fleuss is a postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer in political theory at Helmut Schmidt University (Hamburg) and a research associate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. She holds an MA in philosophy and political science and a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University. From 2014 until 2017, Dannica worked as a lecturer at the departments of political science and philosophy at Heidelberg University. In 2018 and 2019, she spent research visits at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance (University of Canberra) and the Centre for the Study of Democracy (University of Westminster). Her research deals with conceptualizations of democratic legitimacy, philosophy of science and deliberative democracy. Dannica’s postdoctoral project aims at developing a measurement of nation states’ democratic quality that is firmly grounded in deliberative democratic theory.