The Lost Art Of Democratic Argument

Here Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher, tests out some of the ideas in his new book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do? His premise: that democracy thrives on, in fact requires, civil debates on the big moral and political issues governments are wrestling with. We are seeing more and more discussion of what ails democracy and what institutional reforms may be required. But a huge part of what ails politics in the U.S., Sandel argues, is that civil debate is a lost art and democracy suffers for it. I’m glad that Sandel is out there on You Tube and other media flogging his book and approach because otherwise the very things he’s worried about – the almost violent polarization in American political culture – will drown out his quiet plea for some adult conversation.

The book and his approach have, I believe, great relevance for us in Canada too. We sometimes take false comfort in our quieter approach to public policy. We usually try to avoid the fierce polemics we witnessed in the U.S health care debate. Instead, we have silence – even when we need to be making tough choices. For one thing, many of us are simply too busy with our everyday lives. We haven’t the time to become expert in these tough policy areas. But we have also lost trust in the so-called experts and that makes informed debate difficult. Maybe too we Canadians avoid talking about the tough issues as a way of managing our diversity, our fragile federation. But in these times of change, with governments facing pretty bleak choices about cuts and priorities, we ought to be having these debates. The risks of inattention are too high, the choices too stark. If we don’t get involved we will be shaped by drift or decisions made by others with little visibility and therefore no accountability for their choices. Whatever our views on the future of health care in Canada, the system is changing, in different ways from province to province, but generally towards more private coverage and worse health outcomes and pretty much without debate. Our silence on climate change will mean we lag where we could lead. Absent a good argument, circumstance or cunning shape our future.

When we do engage, however, it seems different from political discussions in the past, more like those fierce debates we often criticize, more polarized, readier to demonize those with whom we disagree. We too seem to be adopting the inflated language of villains, victims and fools. Worse than that, the political parties – some more than others – now have these big political machines that kick in with well researched and devastating negative ads when a political foe tries to launch a reasoned discussion. The rules of the game have changed. Wedge politics and negative ads work alright. How long will it be, for example, before a politician will have the courage to discuss a carbon tax again? Or any tax? Politicians know that the big ad machines are primed – “tax and spend”, “soft on crime”, “friends of the Taliban”, “hidden agenda”, “racist” – and issues fall off the table and only the easiest sell gets talked about.

When is the last time we heard substantive debate or even anything remotely civil coming out of the House of Commons ?

The media, with a few notable exceptions, re-enforce the preoccupation with winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, political tactics over purpose.

And we ourselves, if we aren’t avoiding the issues, increasingly play according to the new rules. Have you checked out the comments sections in the on-line versions of mainstream media? Are you not struck by how they seem hijacked by partisan politics, and filled with anger and invective?

Aristotle (some time back I admit) distinguished two kinds of rhetoric or public discourse, one largely ceremonial that touched our sentiments about good and evil, good guys and bad guys, and another that actually dealt with trying to define our shared goals and the best means for achieving those goals. In ways that Aristotle could never have imagined, ceremonial or symbolic debate is now usually negative and always trumps substance. The rules of the game have indeed changed. More and more books are being written about political marketing, emotions and politics, all more or less asking how we break the cycle, most recognizing the huge threats to our democracies if we don’t.

Sandel is not just making a plea for more moral leadership from our politicians and honest debate, he is also saying that if citizens don’t re-engage we are all the losers, and he is offering an approach and a set of rules for doing so – pretty much building on old rules that we need to restore – respectful listening, openness to new information, civility, and the courage to take hard issues on in the face of sharp disagreement.

I don’t know but I think there’s a hunger for this kind of thing or at least a general feeling that there must be a better way. More and more social media sites are popping up to foster policy dialogue on tough issues, not waiting for leadership from Ottawa, but often the conversations are among more or less like-minded people. These have great value but it’s time we create a space for the kinds of civil argument that Sandel is proposing where left and right take part. Have a look at what he is doing at Harvard. Have a look at The Mark News, an important online forum for just such discourse. For what it’s worth this is the goal of Glendon’s fledgling Centre for Global Challenges, though obviously this is one small player in what I hope is a bigger enterprise. (Warning: not only is this a shameless plug but the site is still under construction.) How much appetite is there for an open dialogue on the tough issues, where we seek common ground on ends and means and sometimes agree to disagree, where we are unapologetic for our biases but don’t let them obstruct discourse?

Wishful thinking? In any case, this age of crisis with oil spilling and economies melting down and climate changing demands that we get engaged somehow. And holding governments to account has got to mean more than a focus on MPs’ travel or the goings-on of Guergis-Jaffer or even the costs of a fake lake. Surely the most important accountability is for the policy choices our governments are making, choices that will determine our future competitiveness and quality of life. This kind of accountability requires our sustained engagement.

In fact I wonder if there may be more room for honest and substantive argument in our politics too. Most people I talk to are sick of politics and of government for that matter. Just maybe – I do say maybe – a politician who tries to engage us despite the negative ads and gotcha media will win enough of us back even if we don’t always agree. Maybe such a politician could regain some measure of trust too. It’s not like anything else is working.

8 Responses to “The Lost Art Of Democratic Argument”
  1. Alexandre says:

    Michael Sandel’s 12 part course, “Justice”, is one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history. It’s also available online at:

  2. Wandering Wonderer says:

    I couldn’t agree with this more and found it very thought provoking. It makes me wonder: does civil discourse go in cycles? Or is this kind of thing, perhaps a signal of decline? Or maybe even a signal of a weird kind of equilibrium? are there historical examples we could learn from I guess what I’m wondering is: what does it mean that discourse has reached this condition? Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

  3. Himelfarb says:

    Hey “wandering,” really good questions.

  4. Alexandre says:

    Another philosopher engaging actively with current poltical debates is Canadian James Tully.

    See his latest (2008): Public Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge, Cambridge University Presss.

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