Democracy as a Meaningful Conversation

By Bennett, Robert W. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Democracy as a Meaningful Conversation


Bennett, Robert W., Constitutional Commentary


Much discussion of democracy in the United States, popular as well as scholarly, employs simple, descriptive models of that democracy. The most commonly encountered of these is what I call the "vote-centered" model of democracy. Under this vote-centered model the public policy outcomes produced by legislatures are traceable to equally weighted voter inputs. Another model that makes frequent appearance in the literature about democracy is an "interest group" model, under which democratic outcomes are depicted as "equilibrium" states in struggles among competing powerful, organized groups. For a variety of reasons, I do not think that either of these models(1) does a very satisfactory job of integrating the phenomena of American democracy. I will have something to say later about the interest group model, but the deficiencies in the dominant vote-centered model are particularly glaring and, because of its dominance, particularly important. The vote-centered model will be my principal foil in this Comment, as I advance another possibility, what I call "democracy as meaningful conversation," under which the citizenry is engaged by ongoing public conversation about public policy, and it is this engagement that is the stabilizing force in the system.

The existing descriptive models are not typically referred to as "models." They are not in any sense formal models. Indeed, they are usually implicit in discussions of democracy, rather than explicit. Even if implicit, however, they are models in the sense that they encapsulate American democracy by reference to certain central features. And they are simple models by virtue of the fact that the features they employ are few in number. As these simple models are made explicit, certain difficulties in the modeling process come into focus that are probably best highlighted from the outset.

Models can be descriptive or normative, or even both at once. While the line between the two is in principle tolerably clear, it is also difficult to heed. Descriptive models describe what is, frequently ascribing causal connections among parts of what is modeled, and even predicting results to be expected if changes are made.(2) In contrast, normative models provide an ideal to be strived for, or perhaps only dreamt of, but that need not now exist, or even be attainable. Still, models advanced as description are often likely at least to insinuate normative judgments. For all descriptive models are selective. They choose some features of the system they purport to model to the exclusion of others. The simpler the model, the more selective it will be. And if what a model identifies as encapsulating the modeled system is seen as a desirable feature rather than an undesirable or a normatively neutral one, then the model perforce has a normative twist.

Holding the line between descriptive and normative models is additionally complicated by the fact that models consciously designed as normative are seldom greatly divorced from the reality they seek to instruct. If the distance is too great, the task of bridging it will likely seem too substantial to justify the bother. For this reason there will typically be a high degree of correspondence between normative models and the portion of the real world in view, so that even normative models may easily be mistaken for description--by the consumers of commentary based on models, but also on occasion by the commentators.

The difficulty of holding the line between description and prescription is especially acute when modeling democracy,(3) probably because the appeal of democracy in the modern day is at once so great and so badly in need of explanation. Whatever the reasons, the descriptive and the normative are thoroughly intermixed in existing uses of the vote-centered model. My criticisms will largely be on a descriptive plane, but it may occasionally be that the criticisms unjustifiably mistake for description what was intended as prescription.

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