Agonism and pluralism

Philosophy and Social Criticism 25 (4):1-22 (1999)
Abstract
This paper assesses the claim that an agonistic model of democracy could foster greater accommodation of citizens' social, cultural and ethical differences than mainstream liberal theories. I address arguments in favor of agonistic conceptions of politics by a diverse group of democratic theorists, ranging from republican theorists - Hannah Arendt and Benjamin Barber - to postmodern democrats concerned with questions of identity and difference, such as William Connolly and Bonnie Honig. Neither Arendt's democratic agonism nor Barber's republican-inflected account of strong democracy purports to include citizens' group-based cultural identities, and so cannot further the claim that agonistic politics is more inclusive of cultural and social differences. Postmodern agonistic democrats such as Connolly and Honig rely upon Arendt's account of the relationship between agonism and pluralism, and wrongly assume that her view of politics is compatible with formal respect and recognition for citizens' cultural group identities. While agonistic democracy helpfully directs us to attend to the importance of moral and political disagreement, I argue that the stronger claim that an agonistic model of democracy could more readily include culturally diverse citizens is simply unfounded. By contrast, recent liberal variants of agonistic democracy that conceive of legal and political institutions as tools for recognizing and mediating citizens' moral and cultural differences may suggest ways to deepen our democratic practices in plural societies. Key Words: agonism • agonistic democracy • Hannah Arendt • citizenship • cultural minorities • pluralism • republican theory.
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