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Fr. 773

April 4, 2017

Grim facts and justified misgivings: New configurations of power and authority in Stout’s broad-based organizing

Contemporary democratic theory diverges on how far public discourse should be constrained by discursive ethics, ranging from normalized approaches (e.g. public reason) to anormal (e.g. reason-giving). Among the latter figures Jeffrey Stout’s deliberative democracy as Emersonian perfectionism, pragmatist expressivism and democratic individuality (Stout 2004) and their application in a case-study on broad-based citizens’ organizing (Stout 2010). Stout sees political freedom as “non-domination” (Pettit 1997) or absence of “power-over” (domination), only achieved by exercising “power-to” (empowerment) through free expression and association in broad-based organizations. Therein, persons voice deeply held concerns and reasons in one-on-one and house meetings from which emerge a mandate and an issue around which the organization mobilises: identifying allies and opponents public and private through power-analysis, holding opponents accountable through public hearings, talks and votes, before beginning meetings and legitimizing anew.

Insofar as such organizations set out from expression of difference and dissent, they provide associational tools vital to building voices across social divides into bottom-up democratic coalitions acting as counterweights to public and private discretionary power. Moreover, it becomes clear how such expression may, paradoxically, deepen rather than undermine legitimacy and move beyond normalized discourse approaches centring on consensus. Nonetheless, Stout’s take on broad-based organizing faces its own normative and institutional challenges. Normatively, can one square deep difference with Stout’s perfectionism as “an ethics of virtue or self-cultivation that is always in the process of projecting a higher conception of self to be achieved and leaving one’s achieved self […] behind” (Stout 2004, 29)? Similarly, can an issue emerge from anormal discourse without normalized consensus-building?

Institutionally, one must ask whether broad-based citizens’ organizations admit of horizontal or vertical extension without sacrificing power-to to power-over. If their horizontal extension across communities may prove both egalitarian and exclusive of certain socioeconomic, ethnic or religious groups, their vertical extension to national, international and transnational levels may see them harden into new centres of normalizing hierarchy and power. Undoubtedly, answers to such questions must be found before Stout’s deliberative democracy, embedded in broad-based organizations, proves a viable practice for checking “power-over” by achieving “power-to” in contemporary democratic society.


Works cited:

Pettit (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stout (2004). Democracy and Tradition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Stout (2010). Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

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