Populism and Democracy: The Realist Challenge to Deliberative Democracy

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Theorists of democracy have long grappled with the question of how to uphold the promise of popular government while restraining populist excesses. The deliberative conception of democracy proposes to do so by subjecting power to collective decision-making through procedures of free and equal public deliberation. Critics of this idea often target its realizability. Though valid in theory, they claim, deliberative democracy is hopelessly utopian. The paper argues that, given a proper understanding of the deliberative approach and its underlying ideal of collective self-government, this line of criticism not very potent. However, another line of criticism, less pronounced in the contemporary debate, is more effective, questioning the very cogency of pubic discussion, even by a competent public, as a means of collective self-government.