90 • Democracy After Liberalism
of deliberative democracy have retained precisely the element which rendered the adversarial model unsatisfactory, namely, the view that citizens come into the political arena distinct, independent entities with competing and irreconcilable fixed interests. The "conversational restraints" imposed upon public discussion among them serves to divert attention from the "absolute depth" of their "irreconcilable conflict" (Rawls 1996, xxvi). More specifically, the prior restraints liberals impose on public debate establish a framework within which otherwise divided citizens can find and work from common ground. However, liberals cannot give citizens non-question-begging reasons to accept those prior constraints on their public discourse. Why should, for example, a Catholic opponent of abortion accept a conception of public debate that explicitly disqualifies his way of framing and deliberating about the abortion issue? Why should he agree to participate in a deliberative procedure that requires, as a condition of participation (and reasonableness), that he leave his true reasons for opposing abortion unexpressed? William Galston has written,
It is difficult to imagine that any liberal democracy can sustain conscientious support if it tells millions of its citizens that they cannot rightly say what they believe as part of democratic public dialogue. (1999,43; cf. Iohnson 1998, 167-170)
Liberals will want to respond that the Catholic's way of framing the issue, his very conception of what the abortion question is, is derived from his comprehensive doctrine, and therefore, contestable by reasonable persons. Hence, questions about when fully human life begins, and other questions with regard to which there is "no common ground" (Nagel1991, 166) upon which a decision can be reached, are removed from the agenda of public debate. It is in this way that liberal deliberative theories retain the basic premise of the adversarial model; rather than recommending that citizens try to cooperatively discover or even forge common ground at the deepest levels, the liberals understand deep conflicts to be unresolvable and permanent. Disagreements are thus construed as stark differences; differences which cannot be overcome, which are unanalyzable and pervasive .:
Recognizing that democratic politics requires cooperation at some level, liberals propose a deliberative model that requires citizens to ignore their differences.
Michael Sandel's response here is entirely reasonable: "Whether it is possible to reason our way to agreement on any given moral or political controversy is not something we can know until we try" (1998a, 210-211). We cannot determine a priori which of our disagreements stem from irreconcilable differences; accordingly, we cannot establish a priori "percepts of
The Deliberative Turn in Democratic Theory. 91
reasonable discussion" (Rawls 1989a, 478) with which to constrain public discourse. Moreover, the liberal presumption that all deep philosophical, moral, and theological disagreements cannot be settled through the public use of reason, and hence, should be removed from the public agenda, is it- self a controversial claim about which reasonable persons may disagree.
A consistent liberal theorist would, therefore, allow public deliberation itself to determine what should count as "public" reasons. Further, the lib- eral strategy of placing constraints upon the public deliberative process, which render all debate about the basic commitments of liberalism nonpublic, presumes that current understandings and interpretations of those commitments are final, complete, and beyond revision. However, it is rea- sonable to expect that liberalism has not yet received its final expression." Again, the liberal strategy presumes that current interpretations and understandings of the principles of liberalism are not themselves subjects of widespread contention. But the interpretation of the basic commitments of liberalism is indeed contentious business! The current literature is rife with disagreement between fellow liberals concerning the precise nature of the liberal commitments to such ideals as equality, liberty, and fair opportu- nity." Moreover, as Seyla Benhabib notes,
All struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by redefining what had previously been considered private, nonpublic, and non political issues as matters of public concern, issues of justice, and sites of power that need discursive legitimation. (l992b, 84)
Liberal deliberativism is thus unsatisfactory. Recognizing the need for a theory of democratic citizenship and participation, liberals turned away from the aggregative/adversarial conception of democracy with which their doctrine has been associated. However, in framing a conception of public deliberation, the liberals wanted to ensure that their basic commitments to equality, liberty, and fairness could not be overridden by or revised in pub- lic deliberation. They accordingly promoted a view of deliberation that places disagreements regarding liberal basics permanently off the agenda of public debate. They thereby retained the principal feature of the view they sought to abandon: The idea that political agents are not essentially cooperative participants joining in a shared undertaking, but adversaries, strategic competitors, and combatants. Liberal appeals to public reasons, the percepts of reasonable discussion, and conversational restraints are devices instituted to generate common ground. However, as this common ground depends upon persons agreeing to leave their private doctrines-that is, what they truly believe-out of political discussion, it is artificial, plastic, and fragile.