Rhetoric and the Public Sphere:
Has deliberative democracy abandoned mass democracy?
The pathologies of the democratic public sphere, first articulated by Plato in his attack on rhetoric, have pushed much of deliberative theory out of the mass public and into the study and design of small scale deliberative venues. The problem that Plato’s discussion of rhetoric points to is this: while it is possible to enhance and promote deliberative encounters throughout civil society (i.e., Socratic dialogues), it is not at all clear that the broad informal public sphere can be deliberative. It cannot be deliberative because it cannot be dialogical. It would appear that a great deal of deliberative democracy literature has come to the same conclusion. The mass public is abandoned in favor mini-publics, that is, designed settings that can achieve and maintain standards of critical dialogue or that can be modeled to do so (Fishkin 1997, Fung 2003, Goodin and Dryzek 2006, Brown 2006).
The move away from the mass public can be seen in a growing split in deliberative theory between theories of democratic deliberation (on the ascendancy) which focus on discrete deliberative initiatives within democracies and theories of deliberative democracy (on the decline) that attempt tackle the large questions of how the public or civil society in general relates to the state. I argue that only the latter and not the former offers a way out of the Platonic dilemma. In an effort to grapple with Plato’s challenge, I outline, using Habermas’s two-track model of democracy (which is a theory of deliberative democracy and not a theory of democratic deliberation), the features that make the mass public fertile ground for Platonic type rhetoric or what I call plebiscitary rhetoric. I then suggest that the mass public can become more deliberative not by making it more dialogical but by promoting deliberative over plebiscitary rhetoric.
I begin, however, with a discussion of what I do and do not mean by rhetoric. A growing number of normative theorists are challenging the strict division between rhetoric and deliberation. They are challenging the idea that even ideally rational deliberation ought to be a rhetoric-free zone (Bohman 1996, Young 2000, Richardson 2002, Garsten 2006, Yack 2006). While I agree with most of the arguments being put forward to rehabilitate rhetoric, I claim that many of these arguments fail to see what was objectionable about rhetoric in the first place. By going back to Plato we will see that the strongest objection to rhetoric is not that it appeals to passion over reason. The strongest objection to rhetoric is that it is monological rather than dialogical. Furthermore, Plato drew a close connection between rhetoric and democracy, arguing that democracy by its very nature always suffers from too much rhetoric and too little dialogue. When we look at rhetoric from this angle it raises some interesting and very challenging questions about deliberation as a model of mass democracy.
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