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Problems with liberal proceduralism in normative democratic theory

Quinlan Bowman, University of Canberra

Tue 2 May 2017

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


Reflection on lived experience seems to indicate that when we reason intelligently about how to craft a “democratic” process, we recognize the need to reason about procedures, virtues, and cultural practices in conjunction. And this would seem to suggest that the role of normative democratic theory should partly be to help democracy’s participants to engage in such reasoning. Yet, a close consideration of the prominent normative democratic theories of Robert Dahl, Joshua Cohen, and Jürgen Habermas reveals that none of these theorists has explicitly depicted the role of normative democratic theory in this way. Part of the explanation for this concerns the kind of “liberal proceduralism” that characterizes their respective theories. A related concern is that in each case it is either unclear how, if at all, the author views his theory as having emerged out of empirical inquiry or how he expects it to guide further such inquiry (or both). Correspondingly, none of these authors presents the “proper” status and function of normative democratic theory in the way that I believe we should: as emerging out of reflection on lived experience with the values of treating persons as free and as equal and as guiding further inquiry into the procedures, virtues, and cultural practices that, in some particular context, are most apt to promote the realization of those values.

About the speaker

I joined the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance as a Postdoctoral Fellow in 2016, after completing my PhD in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Currently, I am working on a book project, based on my PhD dissertation, entitled “Deliberative Democracy as Reflexive Social Inquiry.” The project juxtaposes selected aspects of the literature on deliberative democracy with ideas drawn from pragmatist approaches to ethics and social inquiry. Broadly speaking, pragmatists theorize by explicitly drawing on the resources provided to us by our actual practices and by reflecting on the consequences they have for actual lives. I deploy pragmatist ideas to develop a normative theory of the democratic process, meant as a contribution to a public philosophy for citizen participation in democratic governance under conditions of significant cultural diversity. The theory is developed through what I refer to as “anthropological-interpretive inquiry” into lived experiences with “treatment as free and equal in joint or collective decision-making.” The theory is basically a deliberative one; yet, my pragmatist orientation makes me critical of certain depictions of deliberative democracy.

While at the Centre, I will also be collaborating with John Dryzek on his Australian Research Council Fellowship project, Deliberative Worlds: Democracy, Justice and a Changing Earth System. In particular, we will be collaborating on the topic of “deliberative cultures.” Cognitive science suggests that deliberation manifests a universal human competence to reason collectively. Yet, the character of deliberation varies considerably across space and time. Cross-cultural studies of political deliberation thus promise to provide new insight into the various forms that deliberative practices can take and the various circumstances in which they can flourish.

A third project, jointly undertaken with Mark Bevir at the University of California, Berkeley, is entitled “Innovations in Democratic Governance.” The book project, based on a previously published book chapter by the same name, explores how direct citizen participation can feature throughout the varied stages of the public policy cascade. It discusses a range of democratic innovations for public participation. Drawing on case studies from all over the world, the project investigates how public participation can operate at multiple geographical scales – ranging from the neighborhood level all the way up to the transnational – and illustrates how participation at different levels might be linked up. The discussion explores ways that citizens might craft their own rules for participation; monitor those rules and the policies they help generate; and cooperatively implement their own local policies. It also investigates ways in which the role of experts and officials might be transformed into one of largely supporting and facilitating public participation.

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