Democratic Self-Criticism and the Other in Classical Political Theory



Postmodern democratic theory proposes an ethos of critical pluralism, supporting democratic institutions that encourage nonconforming experiments in living. This political culture converts threatening “otherness” into stimulating difference. Yet postmodern democratic theory also recognizes a need to guard against political forms of otherness that threaten democracy. It therefore divides its attention to the other into a welcoming of the different and an exclusion of the truly threatening. In so doing, postmodernism suggests that healthy democratic politics requires a prior solution to problems concerning the other and the human. In insisting on this sort of closure, postmodernism is surprisingly similar to the fundamentalisms it opposes. This article uses texts from Thucydides and Plato to suggest that the problems connected with the other and the human are permanent features of political life. As such, they are not barriers against, but principal concerns of, democratic politics. In providing this insight, the texts of Thucydides and Plato seem more connected with the concerns of democratic citizens than do either postmodernism or its fundamentalist adversaries.