Pre-emptive Democracy: Oligarchic Tendencies in Deliberative Democracy



This article examines oligarchic tendencies within institutionalised deliberative democracy in theory and practice. Institutional deliberative democracy consists of deliberations within an institution according to regulations that are enforced and lead to voluntary changes of preferences that conclude in a majority vote. Oligarchic tendencies in deliberative democracy are changes in the preferences of a majority to match those of an interested minority through its control and manipulation of the deliberative process. The usual chain of reasoning with respect to oligarchic deliberative democracy is:

  • 1Democratic majority rule should reflect the common will, what is good for all members of society upon reflection and deliberation.
  • 2When the majority does not vote for the common will, the vote is not truly democratic.
  • 3If the majority does not vote for the common will, special interests or their imposition on the majority by a dominating and oppressive minority are to blame.
  • 4The necessary initial task of managers of deliberative democracy is to overcome domination and oppression, factors that cause voting against the common will such as ignorance, the mass media, religion, class, economic inequality and special interests.
  • 5This overcoming requires homogenisation of the voting public, the elimination of relevant inequalities and their legacies of disinformation by re-education.
  • 6An educated intellectual avant-garde is in charge both of identifying the common will and of homogenising and re-educating the deliberating public.
  • 7When and only when such homogenisation is achieved, real deliberative democracy and its great benefits can finally take place.
  • 8Since the preconditions to deliberative democracy are ideal, indeed utopian, society can never be sufficiently homogeneous or the revolutionary elite sufficiently powerful to bring about the desired homogenisation and re-education.

I demonstrate first the oligarchic elements in the theory. Then I examine oligarchic aspects of really existing deliberative democratic institutions, namely, consensus conferences in Denmark, France and the US. I conclude by considering whether the oligarchic tendencies in deliberative democracy are inevitable.