1. Demarchy assumes that enough people will engage in the complex of serious activities it is supposed to work on to convince people that the outcome of those activities can claim to represent public opinion.
Looking at the way in which public opinion is in fact formed in our society that seems an absurd assumption.
Even if we go back to Habermas’s beloved 18th century coffee house it is utterly unrealistic. Public opinion emerges from a host of conversations in which what is going on or what is proposed is talked about in terms of familiar images. What is prized in conversation in all sorts of social contexts, from groups of labourers on lunch break to elite dinner parties is wit, the remark that encapsulates a way of looking at a subject in a new light that is at least in some respect plausible.
The cardinal sin in conversation is to insist on spelling out in detail just where that slant on the subject is misrepresented. People are not expected to take casual remarks seriously. That is utterly boring and destructive of conversation. Nevertheless there is overwhelming evidence that people are very strongly influenced by the cumulative effects of the caricatures that prevail in representations of ideas and states of affairs and come to be seen as expressing public opinion.
Even very sophisticated people succumb to this sort of conversation, because they are very aware that political affairs are usually so complicated that there is little chance of arriving at a rationally justified analysis and verdict on them. One just despairs or hopes that the obscure processes of social change will tend towards decisions one can live with. But there is no prospect of getting reliable decisions about political matters by discussion. So Demarchy is nonsense.
Reply: I concede there is a great deal of truth in this picture, but as a generalisation it is too sweeping. At the risk of being boring I shall try to explain why. There are several aspects to it.
The fundamental point is that practically everybody does understand rational discussion and use it and appeal to it in contexts where they realise that getting what they want depends on getting the relevant considerations right.
But not in all contexts. Not where they think that getting it right is important and achievable. And that is in matters people think they understand and can argue about, usually practical matters where the main issue is how likely certain possible consequences of an action are and how desirable or undesirable.
Faced with the claims of a religion that it has the key to eternal life, surely something it is important to get right, some of us think we are in a position to decide rationally whether or not to accept those claims. Very many others think that it is far too deep a matter to be decided by rational argument, perhaps settling for loyalty to the religion they have inherited or relying on some personal intuition. Others will view the whole matter with scepticism.
Similarly, faced with very sweeping political claims and asked to accept or reject them as a package, people are often reduced to treating them as demanding global faith or global scepticism. They may see themselves as perfectly capable of rational evaluation of certain components of the package, but most of the time there is no point in trying to do so, since one’s decision is insignificant . The influence one person’s decision can have in a decision process where millions of others are involved is so small that it hardly justifies investing the serious work needed to arrive at a considered decision on it.
What I am suggesting is that most of us most of the time must be content to leave many collective deliberations on many matters that affect us to a process of public discussion in which anybody can participate, but only relatively few will on any particular matter. We should see the process as identifying and sorting out the relevance of the various considerations people want to urge in favour of their own preferences hopes and fears about the matter. The hope is that the process can come to a consensus about how realistic those various hopes and fears are and how well grounded are the reasons for the preferences various people have.
There can be no conclusive rational process that weighs up objectively all the considerations advanced on any disputed practical matter. The actual shape of the proceedings in particular matters will need to be worked out in the light of experience and subjected to public appraisal.. Whether people can in fact arrive by public discussion at generally satisfactory solutions to certain problems they all share remains to be shown in practice. I is all very well to talk of deciding how realistic certain hopes and fears are, but hopes and fears often derive their force from deeply irrational sources. People in many instances are not going to be persuaded to downgrade their relevance on the basis of some rational assessment of how realistic they are.
Often such hopes and fear are big in scope. They affect a particular issue because it is seen as a particular instance of some pernicious force some people are inclined to see as pervasive. It is hardly possible to disabuse them of that fear, but it may be possible, by careful attention to the specifics of a particular problem, to convince them that the sort of proposals that seem to offer the best solution to the problem are not really pernicious or perhaps even that tackling the matter rationally weakens the forces they fear.
2. Even conceding that most people are quite capable of rational deliberation where getting the decision right is important and they are in position to understand the relevant considerations, there is a second practical difficulty in the sort of discussion I am advocating. That discussion is supposed to be completely open, easily accessible to anybody who wants to have a say in it. If it is posted on a single well-known site, anybody can express an opinion on anything s/he takes as relevant to the problem under discussion.
The problem is that many people who are quite capable of rational discussion are not particularly good at saying precisely what they mean. In the context of face-to-face friendly interactions with others they can often rely on others understanding the reasons that they have for what they say. So, failing to arrive at the exact expression of their concerns, they can say confidently enough: You know what I mean. In public discussion among strangers that is not possible. It is hard enough to get people to give you credit for what you are actually saying. You cannot expect them to interpret correctly what you intend by some statement that fails to express what you intend. To do that with ease requires a mastery of language that not everybody possesses. So many of us are not equipped to take an active role in a public discussion of the kind I am advocating.
My main suggestion in response to this problem is that the discussion is likely to be better if submissions pressing particular views are made by informal groups of people who share those views rather than by individuals, and that in working together on a submission a group of people none of whom are very good at it are likely to arrive at a clearer and better formulation of it than any member of the group could achieve. People participating in or observing such public discussions will soon learn to recognise the differences between clear expression and confused ramblings., but that does no necessarily help them to achieve clarity on their own.
I have suggested that to expedite discussion it is desirable that their be editorial assistants who group together submissions that express a certain point of view and single out a few that they judge to be the best formulations of that point of view. This editorial process could well have a constructive aspect. An editor might suggest to a contributor that their submission might be improved if they collaborated with another contributor with similar views, at the same time explaining where such collaboration might eliminate obscurity or other weaknesses in their case. Of course, it is up to the contributors to decide whether or not to take such advice, or contest the editor’s judgement.
I believe that in our very complex societies, where everybody has to make difficult choices in most of their activities, most people will accept that in getting things right there is no substitute for deliberation about the relevant considerations. They deliberate privately all the time. They will easily be convinced that sound deliberation is the key to good collective decisions provided that they can be shown how to ensure that the considerations important to them get due consideration in public discussion. The best guarantee of that is that they themselves can, if they so choose, take an active part in that discussion.
If I am right about this the implications for our political culture are enormous. It is worth trying.