Compromise and Dissent: Toward a Model of Imperfect Legitimacy

Farr, Evan, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
White, Stephen, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Balfour, Katharine, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Bird, Colin, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Brewer, Talbot, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I offer a theory of imperfect democratic legitimacy founded on the reality of dissent and the normative goal of political compromise. In the dissertation, I argue that under conditions of deep dissent, consensus cannot function even as a regulative ideal; because new identities and forms of disagreement emerge constantly, democracy cannot achieve the type of stability that is necessary for a full theory of legitimacy even for brief time slices. Instead, I urge that democracy should be refocused around compromise. I understand compromise not in the traditional sense of difference-splitting between intransigent adversaries, but as a decision procedure that continually defers democratic closure into the future. This understanding—which I believe lies at the center of both the practice of and common intuitions about compromise—conceives instability and futurity as the most important elements of democratic legitimacy: for legitimacy to be (provisionally) achieved, deciders must be attentive to the ways in which future disagreement will undermine the terms of any political arrangement that is agreed to. The dissertation itself is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, I explain the concept of deep dissent, which I define as a challenge made by the politically powerless to the self-understanding of the democratic constitutional order. Because such challenges emerge unpredictably and disrupt the popular legitimacy of the status quo, they require an alternative to consensus. In the second chapter, I present my conception of compromise as an alternative. Legitimate compromise, I argue, is based on what I call the “next affected” principle: all democratic decisions are rendered illegitimate upon the objection of the next affected party. In the third chapter, I argue that despite compromise and dissent’s agonistic tinge, it remains a theory of deliberative democratic legitimacy, albeit an imperfect one. In the fourth chapter, I argue that “compromise and dissent” can incorporate the powerful critiques of agonistic and radical democracy into the deliberative democratic framework. In the fifth and final chapter, I present a historical example to illustrate this model of legitimacy in action. It focuses on the emergence of the Brazilian Left during the right-wing dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the bolsa familía and fome zéro programs of the Lula administration—successful programs which have nevertheless been called into question by a resurgent movement of deep dissent.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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