Not a single Republican lawmaker attended last week’s 50th anniversary memorial of the March on Washington. Their absence made headlines, stoking the flames of partisan politics, and foreshadowing a moral contest for the 2014 midterm elections. It was nothing less than a perfect opportunity to manipulate a country sold on the promises of deliberative democracy, and struggling to accept the reality that’s unfolded, and we took the bait — hook, line, and sinker.
The absence of Republican leadership at such a high profile, morally charged event signals a fatal flaw in the defining trait of deliberative democratic theory: that it is far too easy to manipulate the goal of rational consensus to advance partisan politics. In our desire to advance public sovereignty, we have sanctified both the practice of deliberation and the promise of moral consensus that it holds. That politicians trade on our belief in this system is obvious in the various claims to right and wrong they make during campaign speeches, and in the presence of Democratic leadership at the March on Washington both fifty years ago and today. That we should continue to accept ‘politics as usual,’ even while their failures are so obvious, is outrageous.
In my frustration with contemporary American politics, I’ve found an ally in democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe. Responding to the global phenomena of people like me who are beginning to question the foundations of democratic government, Mouffe suggests that it’s time to finally admit “the ineradicability of antagonism and the impossibility of achieving a fully inclusive rational consensus.” What we expect from democracy is not what it actually delivers:
This is the view that I criticise: the idea that democracy is about trying to reach a consensus. What I say is that, the main task in a democracy is not to reach consensus but to manage dissensus; to manage dissensus so that it does not lead to civil war or so that it is not going to be repressed in authoritarian ways; to find forms which make co-existence possible and in fact will be conducive to some form of freedom and recognition of differences – this is what I understand by tolerance. — Interview with Chantal Mouffe
The difference between dissensus and consensus is not just made up words. This subtle linguistic divide underscores a vast expanse of political problems:
A well functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. If this is missing there is the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation among other forms of collective identification, as it is the case with identity politics. Too much emphasis on consensus and the refusal of confrontation lead to apathy and disaffection with political participation. Worse still, the result can be the crystallization of collective passions around issues, which cannot be managed by the democratic process and an explosion of antagonisms that can tear up the very basis of civility.
Believing in public sovereignty requires accepting responsibility for the failures of our democratic institutions. To overcome both apathy and antagonism, we must adjust our expectations around politics without succumbing to those same extremes. Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism might help us begin to do so.