Agonistic democrats have enriched debates on the political challenge of pluralism by raising awareness for the depth of disagreements and the political potentials of conflict. However, they have so far failed to explore the shape of institutional settings that are conducive to agonism and show how the agonistic stance may, in a very practical sense, strengthen democracies’ capacity to deal with pluralism and conflict. This article argues that this ‘institutional deficit’ of agonistic democracy can be overcome. It develops an approach that reads theories of agonistic democracy as accounts of conflict regulation and uses principles of agonistic politics as measures for a critical assessment of institutional design. A discussion of a test case that is prominent in the recent literature on democratic innovations for pluralist societies—mini-publics—demonstrates that the principles of agonistic conflict regulation as developed by Mouffe, Connolly and Tully provide the basis for both a critique of certain institutions and a development of alternative designs.
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The term agonistic democracy is derived from this emphasis, the Greek word agon meaning ‘contest or strife’ (Wenman 2013, p. 28).
By considering its silence about institutional design an important weakness of agonistic theorizing, I support Lois McNay’s critique of the abstractness and ‘social weightlessness’ of radical democratic theories (2014). My attempt to overcome the institutional deficit of agonistic democracy may be read as an attempt to overcome this abstractness with respect to a specific aspect of politics—its formal rules and structures.
An overview on varieties of agonism can be found in Wenman (2013).
The usefulness of mini-publics is disputed among deliberative democrats. Critical voices argue that the goals of deliberative democracy are better realized in the public sphere for which mini-publics can be no substitute (e.g. Lafont 2015).
At least, it suggests a skeptical stance on an exclusive use of such designs. It is easy to imagine cases where the initial hostility among conflict parties renders it advisable to first employ procedural designs of the sort described on the basis of Mouffe’s theory, and it then becomes possible to continue with designs that encourage a more cooperative interchange in case the initial hostility has been overcome.
For an overview see Owen and Smith (2015).
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This article is a further developed version of papers that were presented at the ‘Agonism and Democratic Innovations’ Panel at the 2014 ECPR General Conference and at the 2015 Princeton Graduate Conference in Political Theory. I thank all participants of these events, in particular Graham Smith and Emilee Chapman, for the helpful discussions and comments. I also thank Oliver Hidalgo, Amanda Machin, Mihai Murariu, Markus Patberg, Jan Achim Richter, Maartje Schermer, Ulrike Spohn, Fabian Wenner and Ulrich Willems for helpful comments on later versions of the draft. I am grateful to the members of the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics, University of Münster, and the members of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, for numerous inspiring discussions on the subjects dealt with in this article. Also, my thanks are due to the two anonymous referees for their comments on the paper.
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Westphal, M. Overcoming the Institutional Deficit of Agonistic Democracy. Res Publica 25, 187–210 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-018-9397-2