The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism by Jack Knight and James Johnson. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. 336pp., £20.95, ISBN 9780691151236
Article first published online: 10 JAN 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Political Studies Review © 2013 Political Studies Association
Political Studies Review
Volume 11, Issue 1, page 87, January 2013
How to Cite
Banai, H. (2013), The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism by Jack Knight and James Johnson. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. 336pp., £20.95, ISBN 9780691151236. Political Studies Review, 11: 87. doi: 10.1111/1478-9302.12000_20
- Issue published online: 10 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 10 JAN 2013
This book, as the authors emphatically declare in the preface, is intended as ‘a robust defense of … what we believe to be the fundamental aspect of the democratic project – political and legal institutions that instantiate the practice of democratic decision-making’ (pp. ix–x). With the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey as their guide, the authors offer a theory of democratic legitimacy that seeks to deal seriously with ‘the persistence and ubiquity of disagreement and conflict’ in politics. This is indeed a novel and promising line of inquiry since, as the authors correctly note, much of normative thinking in democratic theory often tends to begin with the assumption that debates about the efficacy of institutional decision making ‘take place exclusively among participants already committed to the nonviolent resolution of disagreements and differences’ (p. 5).
The institutional case for democratic legitimacy is built over nine chapters, organised in three parts. The first part of the book largely consists of framing arguments; here the authors set out to explain the pragmatist approach to problems of institutional design, arguing that ‘the task of deciding exactly which institutions work best, where, and to what end is, for a pragmatist, context-specific and a subject for ongoing experimentation and contestation’ (p. 49). Accordingly, they demonstrate how market-based and ‘decentralized’ models of institutional design do not deal adequately with the consequences of social action. In the second part, the authors offer their account of ‘the priority of democracy’: ‘namely, that it has important cognitive or conceptual effects, that it is adept at coordinating socially dispersed knowledge, and that it is reflective in an especially crucial way’ (p. 95). The last part of the book takes up the challenges to this view and considers the ‘necessary conditions for the effective performance’ of the kind of institutional democratic decision making the authors advocate.
Overall, this study is a deeply considered, well-argued contribution to contemporary debates about the relationship between democratic processes and context in normative political theory. The authors make a convincing case for a pragmatist reconsideration of democratic decision making by taking seriously both the irreducible fact of value pluralism and the necessity – perhaps even the moral obligation – of devising just institutions to handle their consequences.