Tradition and the Deliberative Turn: A Critique of Contemporary Democratic Theory
By Ryan R. Holston. 
State University of New York Press, 2023.
Paperback, 218 pages, $34.95.

Reviewed by Gene Callahan.

Political theorists have recently devoted a great amount of attention to justifying political decisions based on theories of “public reason” or “deliberative democracy.” The impetus for this focus has been the realization that defending choices simply on the basis that “most people agreed to this, therefore it is okay,” is clearly flawed. For example, simply because the majority in some polity agree that redheads are bad and should be avoided does not render a law to exile all of them just.

To roughly characterize the “deliberative” turn, these theorists have argued that a law or policy is only valid if it can be “reasonably” defended to all those who will be subject to its dictates. This justification cannot call upon traditional dictates for judging such decisions, since the point of the exercise is to reach consensus among people from widely different traditions. Holston sets out to demonstrate that, in fact, there are no reasonable criteria for barring certain opinions as unreasonable, apart from the very traditions that are supposedly ruled out. Liberalism itself is a tradition, with its own traditional answers to such questions.

Holston’s approach to his topic is interesting and important in that it occupies a middle ground between two extremes: On the one hand, many of the followers of Leo Strauss hold that any “historicism,” such as taking into account historical circumstances when considering how some polity ought to be governed, simply leads to surrendering virtue to the seductive song of moral relativism. On the other hand, there are historicists, such as Oswald Spengler or Richard Rorty, for whom historicism does indeed imply moral relativism. But Holston, like his mentor Claes Ryn, argues that, while transcendent moral truths exist, we only can move towards realizing them through concrete historical mores, practices, and cultures.

Holston declares that his approach is historical in two senses. First, “it views this discussion regarding deliberation itself as taking place over time.” Second, his approach is historical “in the sense that it aims to bring to bear on this conversation a sensitivity to the historical nature of deliberation in any society.”

Hoston then traces the genesis of consensus-based democratic theory. He takes Rousseau as his starting point (while acknowledging earlier roots exist); specifically, Rousseau’s concept of the “general will” is clearly a precursor to modern public reason theories. Along the way, Holston argues that Rousseau set himself in opposition to the materialism of Thomas Hobbes, and in particular, “the sanction of the political doctrine that might makes right.”

But did Hobbes really hold that “might makes right”? That seems a rather crude interpretation of his thought. Of course the sovereign possesses might, but that is not what makes it right to obey him: it is rather that this might enables him to call a truce in the war of all against all. If he used his might to, for instance, wipe out his own subjects, Hobbes would certainly not claim that this makes it right.

Another salient precursor to modern deliberative democratic theory, per Holston, is Immanuel Kant. Kant emphasized the role of universal, abstract reason freed from any bondage to custom in making moral choices. This is most famously expressed in his “categorical imperative,” which holds that one should always act as if one’s action were an example of a universal law. Holston notes that “where the ancients had once seen the laws formalism is simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage in the resolution of moral and political questions, Kant saw only the former.” 

Holston continues, “Over the course of the last several decades, the autonomy tradition of Rousseau and Kant has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in contemporary democratic theory.” As mentioned above, this has been due to dissatisfaction with the previously ascendant view that the virtue of democracy lies in its promoting the individual preferences of as many people as possible, since this may permit a majority to run roughshod over the rights of a minority. Holston cites Jürgen Habermas, from the continental philosophical tradition, and John Rawls, from the analytic tradition, as being the two key founders of this renaissance.

Habermas leans towards the deliberation aspect of political justification. He stresses the use of unrestricted deliberation to reach universal agreement, which is clearly akin to Rousseau’s general will. In this process of deliberation, the discussants must “distance themselves temporarily from the normative spectrum of all existing life.” In other words, they must lift themselves completely out of their own cultural background and historical circumstances, and achieve a “view from nowhere.”

Rawls, on the other hand, is more of a child of Kant, as he is more concerned with the justice of outcomes than in deliberation per se. One’s political choices must be defensible in principle to any “reasonable” citizen: it is not as important, as it is to Habermas, that they have actually been so defended. Rawls’s aim is to arrive at political principles that can be agreed-upon by all participants, whatever “comprehensive doctrine” they embrace. (Comprehensive doctrines are worldviews like Christianity, Buddhism, secular humanism, and so on.) The result is abstractions vague enough that different interpreters can use them to justify almost any policies they preferred anyway, so that there are both socialists and libertarians who consider themselves to be applying Rawls’ principles.

Holston rests his case for the utopian nature of public reason theories largely on the work of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer’s theory of “hermeneutics” emphasized the importance of customary practices and mores as the basis for genuine deliberation. If Gadamer is correct, then we can not expect public deliberation to reach any sort of consensus over large populations with fundamentally divergent “comprehensive doctrines.”

A curious phenomenon noted by Holston is the tendency of writers in the deliberative tradition to regard the current moral pluralism exhibited in a country such as the U.S. (where, for instance, some people consider abortion to be murder, while others consider it simply healthcare) as a result of an irreversible jump into “modernity.” For instance, Habermas claims that “[m]odernity sees itself cast back upon itself without any possibility of escape.” What is strange about these claims is that the collapse of a civilizational consensus into pluralism happened before, when the Greco-Roman pagan worldview fell apart and we had the huge proliferation of cults around the Roman empire. But the increase of pluralism was reversed, and the outcome was Christendom.

Holston is neither a dogmatist nor a nostalgic reactionary. He fully recognizes that the conditions faced by a continent-spanning, multi-ethnic republic, like the United States, are very different from those of a Greek polis, or a medieval kingdom; thus, the United States could not be well governed simply by importing the political practice of such polities. But he does argue, and successfully, in my view, that the balance in modern politics has tilted entirely too far toward the cosmopolitan and the universal, and has ignored the local and particular. The result is that our politics is directed largely by a global elite that lays claim to having a properly cosmopolitan and universal point of view, leaving the average citizen largely voiceless.

It is only at a local level that true political deliberation among citizens can take place. Holston’s central message is that, if deliberative democrats are serious about their enterprise, they ought to be working to devolve decision making to the local level as far as possible.

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America, and co-editor of the books Tradition vs. RationalismCritics of Enlightenment Rationalism, and Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism Revisited. He has a PhD in political theory from Cardiff University, and teaches at NYU.

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