Habermas and the American Context: Toward a Theory of Substantive Democracy

Dissertation, The Florida State University (2001)

Recently a variety of commentators have criticized Habermas's deliberative democracy because the theory is considered "utopian" because of the abstract ideals that provide its normative foundation, and it is "incomplete" because it fails to include the relevant social and political obstacles facing marginalized groups in our society . If were true, Habermas's theory would be at best inapplicable and at worst unintelligible. If were true, then an exclusion of such a significant portion of the population would violate not only the "principle of inclusion," found in Habermas's ideal formulation of discourse ethics, but also the condition of social solidarity needed for political stability---both necessary aspects of Habermas's validity/facticity distinction. In this dissertation, I argue that Habermas's philosophy is able to withstand these persistent criticisms and provides not only a defensible articulation of social freedom, but also a normatively superior conception of democracy than the one practiced in the United States today. The key objective of my dissertation is two-fold: I advocate an interpretation of Habermas's political theory that acknowledges its important contribution to the conversation of democratic reform, yet recognizes that certain modifications will be necessary to clarify the parameters of his project, and I examine the context of the U.S. political system in order to suggest possible institutional reforms that ensue from the modified Habermasian perspective I advocate. My conceptualization of a "substantive democracy" corrects the abstract nature of Habermas's theory and makes alterations to his model. The main alteration is the recognition of the "incompleteness" criticisms' force and the incorporation of necessary topics of deliberation to combat the exclusionary tendencies of contemporary political arrangements. Specifically, without addressing patriarchy and other social inequalities, Habermas's theory would lack important elements of solidarity and would not be fully realized. It is on these grounds that I claim it is a necessary condition of applying Habermas's theory to incorporate these topics into "deliberative initiatives" and other alternative deliberative designs in order to raise the facticity of present social conditions closer to the ideal validity claims of discourse
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