Plebiscitism is Compatible with Authoritarian Politics

In the worst case, as Elshtain warns, “plebiscitism is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with the connivance of, majority views. That opinion can be registered by easily manipulated, ritualistic plebiscites, so there is no need for debate on substantive questions”.

These warnings now seem strikingly prescient, especially as exemplified by the US presidential debates leading up to the election of Donald Trump – a reality TV star who is clearly adept at manipulating media attention to his advantage – in 2016. By the same token, the risks to democratic debate and deliberation posed by such electronic plebiscitism are further manifest in various forms of fake news “going viral” (perhaps with intentional manipulation) and thereby gaining the appearance of truth or popular consensus.

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Responding to these early critiques, scholars and theorists interested in the democratization potentials of computer-mediated communication frequently turned to the theories of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas’s account of democratic forms of debate and dialogue focus on an “ideal speech situation” that would ensure equal voice to all participants in the decision-making that directly affected them. While highly contested, some version of Habermasian deliberative democracy has remained an important theoretical alternative to more plebiscite notions of democracy. In particular, Habermas’s early emphasis on exclusively rational (if not simply masculine) forms of debate was effectively criticized and amplified by a number of feminists. So Seyla Benhabib and Iris Marion Young, for example, affirm from feminist perspectives and experience the core intuition that democracy involves free and equal debate that should shape the decisions that affect us. But they go on to argue that such equality requires precisely the inclusion of the voices that an excessively rational (if not bluntly masculine) model of debate has historically excluded, namely the voices of women and children. Part of Habermas’s response to early critiques along these lines was to emphasize solidarity and (empathic4) perspective-taking as necessary conditions for (ideal) democratic discourse – the practice of attempting empathically to understand and take on board not only the (largely) rational arguments but also (sometimes more affective or emotional) experiences of those with whom we engage in dialogue. Such (empathic) perspective-taking then serves as a bridge leading to more forthrightly feminist insistence that our notions of democratic debate must conjoin (often more affective) narrative with (often more rational) argument. Finally, as with earlier, more plebiscite visions, proponents of these more Habermasian and feminist understandings of participatory dialogue likewise hope that these ideals of egalitarian dialogue and debate can be more fully realized by exploiting the multiple forms of communication and interactivity made possible through networked digital media. In particular, May Thorseth helpfully documents how these more inclusive understandings of what is required for fair and equal dialogue are taken up in contemporary notions of deliberative democracy and a number of important efforts to realize such ideal speech situations and deliberative process in online environments.