One of the arguments that Knight and Johnson make is that standard ‘epistemic’ accounts of democracy do not provide a good foundation for understanding what democracy actually does. Such accounts argue that democratic institutions can do a good job at capturing and aggregating the knowledge of citizens, so that the collectivity can make better decisions than any individual. For example, Condorcet shows that if everyone is slightly more likely to be right than wrong, and if they make their judgments independently, then the more people who vote on a question, the more likely that they will collectively reach the right decision. Knight and Johnson want to provide an account of democracy which also captures the benefits of collective knowledge, but which is much messier and more rumbustious, and better able to deal with stark disagreements among people with genuinely clashing interests and beliefs. Here, for example, they don’t think that people can or should make their judgments independently – they should and will argue with each other, and try to influence each other before voting. The value of democracy then, comes from its capacity for spirited argument – for exposing individuals, with their quarreling, diverse views, to each other, so that they can better evaluate politics, even if they never, ever converge on a common understanding.
This all seems good to me – indeed it converges with arguments that Cosma Shalizi and I have been making (this is unsurprising, since my share of this collaboration has been deeply influenced by Jack and Jim’s work in the past). What would be nice though, would be an alternative set of microfoundations, which might provide a better understanding of when these arguments will work and when they don’t. To put it another way – it is plausible that Knight and Johnson’s argumentative account of democracy will work better (or perhaps: only work) under certain conditions, just as epistemic arguments for democracy only work under certain conditions. However, while bits and pieces of an argument about these conditions are visible in parts of the book, they aren’t drawn together in any very systematic way. So what I propose to do in this post is to set out a very general set of these conditions, drawing heavily on Cosma’s and my own arguments (while absolving Cosma for blame for any stupidies), as well as Knight and Johnson’s own work. This might or might not reflect Knight and Johnson’s own notion of what their microfoundations might be, but at the least, it should help them to figure out where they disagree …
So what might these microfoundations look like? Most obviously – people can’t murder each other over politics. Slightly less obviously, they cannot be idiots. Less obviously again, there needs to be some bounds on the space of politics – no political system can reasonably handle all problems (there are bandwidth constraints). Finally, even if people disagree vigorously over how to solve problems, they need to agree what the problems are.
First – as Jack and Jim say in the opening pages, the conflicts of democracy have to be constrained. That is, people are going to disagree with each other, but they cannot disagree with each other so much that they are prepared to resort to undemocratic means (i.e. take up arms) in order to pursue their disagreements. Knight and Johnson’s account of how this might arise is more a sketch than a complete picture, although as they note, their argument at least highlights the need for such an account, where other normative accounts might gloss over the problem. One wants sufficient conflict to properly represent the genuine divergence of interests and beliefs in a given society, but this conflict should be entirely channeled through argument.
In some circumstances, this may be a heroic aspiration, but a number of societies seem to have managed (perhaps temporarily, perhaps provisionally) to have figured this out. This condition seems obvious, but it does suggest limits to the benefits of argumentative democracy. Specifically, we can expect rather more benefits from vigorous political disagreement in societies where people are prepared to settle their differences with votes than with knives. There is likely a sound pragmatic case for dampeners on disagreement in societies where democracy and the rule of law are very fragile.
Second, the Knight Johnson account of democracy shares some features with the Condorcet approach, in that it plausibly requires that people not be badly stupid or misinformed if they are to put collective knowledge to good work. Condorcet’s rule suggests that people individually need to be slightly more likely to be right than wrong for aggregation to produce good results. Cosma, relying on machine learning theory, would frame it a little differently – people only need to be weak learners to contribute usefully to knowledge aggregation, but they do need to be weak learners. Different people may have different perspectives, each of which captures a different aspect of some underlying reality- but they have to have some imperfect glimpse of that truth to contribute usefully to democratic learning. If one is so badly misinformed, or confused, or intellectually warped that one’s perspective systematically detracts and distracts from the search for some underlying insight, then one’s participation in argument hurts rather than helps the democratic search for better understanding.
As Melissa suggests in her post, this suggests that a pragmatist account might be read to imply limitation of the franchise if it were shown that other kinds of rule produced better results . One possible response might be to accept this, and to say that a pragmatist account is incomplete because it doesn’t reflect basic norms of equality and the rights of citizens to engage in democratic politics, even if their contribution is wrong headed or obtuse. Another might be to acknowledge this as a theoretical problem, but to argue that in practice, it will be usually impossible to distinguish in advance between useful and not-useful views in any systematic way, given the complexity of major social problems, and the strong likelihood that diversity of viewpoint trumps individual sophistication (Scott Page’s work is very useful here). This would accept the ex post participation of some non-useful viewpoints on the grounds that one can’t be sure in advance that they won’t be useful. Obviously, you want to avoid these voices derailing discussion, but this may be tricky. The most unusual views may sometimes (often?) simultaneously be the most likely to be viewed hostilely by others as irrelevant, and to be the ones that are most valuable to democratic argument, precisely because they provide vantage points (and hence understandings of the underlying problem) that differ sharply from those held by the majority population.
Another interesting question concerns neurodiversity – neurodiverse people will often view the world in non-orthodox (and potentially very valuable) ways, that could have particular advantages for democratic debate. It is at least possible that some forms of diversity are more cognitively valuable than others. Certainly, there is only a partial fit between cognitive diversity and the more conventional kinds of diversity that institutions such as universities conventionally try to promote.
Third – and I can’t do more than to sketch out the problem here – the political issue-space needs somehow to be bounded. That is, there is a potentially very large number of possible problems that democracy might engage with, but an actually relatively small set that it is capable of handling, given institutional limits, the patience of people involved (the Oscar Wilde problem) and so on. The bandwidth of the political system is going to be limited. The problem is, of course, that decisions over which issues get on the agenda of politics, and which do not, are inherently political decisions. If one takes seriously the arguments of a variety of political scientists, stretching from policy scholarship (Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues) through historical institutionalism (Pierson and Hacker) to various agenda setter models in rational choice, the choice of a small set of issues to be debated from the vast space of possible issues is likely to be just as politically tricky as argument within the issue space. The Knight-Johnson framework points towards this problem but doesn’t, as I see it, resolve it.
One possible external source of insight here might be Nancy Rosenblum’s arguments about partisanship. Adapting her claims a bit loosely, Rosenblum makes a good case for how partisanship (when it works properly) can organize issue space usefully. Parties seek to respond to their beliefs about what the electorate wants or might want by bringing forward new issues and problems, and seeking to organize politics around these problems. They do so in a competitve arena, where other parties may seek shamelessly to steal their solutions, to redefine the problems in ways more congenial to them and so on. And they respond (when partisanship works properly) to voters, gradually abandoning issues which are vote losers. This has useful implications. First, it suggests how the issue space of politics may be bounded, so that it is not completely chaotic. Second, it suggests how it may be bounded in ways that are at least roughly responsive to the broader wants and needs of society.
Of course, this is neater in theory than in practice. Actual parties in the US are less electoral coalitions responding to voters, than policy coalitions working in a context where voters impose an outside bound on what they can get away with (the new party organization literature is good on this). In this world, the policy space will be bounded in ways that sometimes are intended specifically to frustrate the desires of majorities. However, this also provides a specific place where pragmatists might want to get to grips with institutional reform that could have salutary benefits for democracy. Making parties more responsive will make democracy better able to identify salient problems and, perhaps, to solve them.
Finally, there needs to be some consensus on what problems are for argumentative democracy to work well in problem solving. If, to take a contemporary example, a large segment of the voting population think that human-caused global warming is not a problem, and are sufficiently well-entrenched, then the problem solving capacities of democracy aren’t going to be worth squat. Either the issue is never going to get political debate, or it will be possible for people who refuse to believe that this is a problem to block any action taken on the basis of debate. I don’t see how this can be solved within the limits of the democratic system itself. What it suggests to me is that the pragmatist agenda, if it is to be pursued, needs to look to institutions of knowledge formation outside of democracy proper, and how they can best intersect with democratic institutions. Philip Kitcher’s work is one obvious reference point, which pragmatist political theorists might want to grapple with, either to agree or to disagree with. But the more general point is that (a) passionate argument will only work well to reveal solutions to problems when a sufficient number of the arguers are well acquainted with reality, and (b) that this knowledge of reality is unlikely to be generated by democratic institutions themselves. The intersection between this condition and the second ‘people cannot be complete idiots’ condition above is too obvious to be worth belabouring at length.
Obviously, these conditions are not stated as precisely as they might be (this is a blogpost, not a philosophical treatise). They are not exhaustive, and are certainly open to challenge. Even so, I think that the Knight-Johnson approach needs to identify scope conditions, and these are as good as any. First, and much less importantly, clear statement of such conditions will make it much easier to organize debate between this approach and others (such as epistemic democracy). Second, and far more importantly, figuring out these conditions will make it easier to figure out precisely when this account is going to be useful in guiding thought and reform, and when it will be less useful, or even perhaps fail.