From Deliberation to Dialogue: The Role of the I-Thou in Democratic Experience
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This dissertation argues for a dialogic grounding for deliberative democracy. Building on Habermasian theories of communication and discourse, deliberative democrats think better (more just, fair, and rational) democratic politics is possible because communication itself (in whatever form it takes) provides the legitimate mechanism for the transformation of citizens' opinions and political will. However, this is a problematic foundation for unleashing the normative potential inherent in citizen engagement. There are good reasons to suspect that a politics based in rational communication cannot actually produce the kinds of changes deliberativists insist are possible. Practical limitations of scale and scope make deliberative democracy difficult to envision. And the Habermasian claim about the inherent rationality in communication is challenged by postmodern notions of language and by conceptions of the embodied processes of reasoning. However, there is another normative foundation hinted at within the deliberative literature. Some theorists gesture toward a theory of transformation rooted more directly in the experiences associated with interpersonal relations, rather than in the language that is exchanged within these interactions. Following this lead, I turn to the work of Martin Buber to outline a dialogic theory that can better explain the intuitive sense that when citizens meet and speak, they are (at least potentially) opened up to new understandings. This theory, based in Buber's "I-Thou relation" and conception of "genuine dialogue," offers an account of the phenomenon located in an interpersonal relation of a particular type in which partners in dialogue are opened up to one another. I argue that a politics rooted in this dialogic experience provides a better account of the transformative potential in citizen engagement. Building on this new orientation towards dialogue, I then demonstrate some practical institutional innovations that are well equipped to take advantage of a politics anchored in dialogue. Along these lines, the dissertation culminates in a discussion of the Restorative Listening Project in Portland, Oregon, where dialogic meeting was a central focus of the institution's efforts to deal with the problem of gentrification in the city's NE neighborhoods.