This book is about deliberative democracy. I began working on it because of a significant gap that I saw in this promising new direction in contemporary democratic theory. Everyone was talking about deliberation, but no one was saying what it is or how it could work under real social conditions. The current theories are primarily procedural, and they base their accounts on ideal rather than actual conditions. On my view, this ideal approach is a mistake, since it makes it difficult to connect normative political theory to the practices of actual democracies and to real possibilities for democratic reform. It also only heightens the increasing skepticism in the social sciences about the practicality of democratic norms and ideals. In this book I want to answer the skepticism about the possibility of democratic politics that is now finding resonance even among proponents of Critical Theory and radical democracy.
Political skepticism has also found its way into everyday politics.
While I was writing this book, Sheldon Hackney, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, proposed a series of "town meetings" in which Americans could rethink the possibilities of a shared civic culture even while recognizing their new diversity. This proposal was met not only with skepticism but with virulent criticism from the Left and the Right. Soon after the proposal was made public, Richard Sennett called it "deeply wrongheaded" and even "a Serbian solution to the challenge of living with one another" (New York Times Op-Ed page, January 30, 1994). I want to show that such fears about the public sphere are not only ~s exaggerated as Sennett's rhetoric but are themselves deeply mistaken about how to meet the challenges of living together in a pI uralist democracy. The opposite is true: it is through public deliberation that we can best preserve a cooperative, tolerant, and democratic form of pluralism. I will also show how public deliberation can go some way toward meeting other fundamental challenges to democratic politics, including the widening of social inequalities and the increasing complexity of social life.