Adversary Democracy

There’s a long tradition in computer science, largely originating from cryptography, of designing with a generic adversary in mind.

Code should be able to handle the mistaken input of a thoughtless user and should remain robust in worse-case scenarios. The motivation for this approach is simple: programming for ideal users and ideal cases will quickly go awry in the messy world of practical applications. Programming against a malicious or incompetent adversary will make your code better.

This presents an interesting divergence from deliberative theory, where participants are arguably hoped to be as close to ideal as reasonably possible.

If people can be thoughtful, open-minded, and eager to discover the truth through debate, then deliberation can be transformative. If they enter discussion as “tolerant gladiators,” to borrow a phrase from Huckfeldt, and argue with the goal of convincing others and being convinced when it is appropriate, as Mercier and Landemore write, then we can have a rich and robust society.

Skeptics respond that this is too idealistic a vision. People are just not that virtuous and unbiased. At least, not in the numbers required for a functioning deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democrats continually rebuff this claim. Mansbridge, for example, draws a distinction between adversary democracy and unitary democracy. Adversary democrats not only have hesitancies about the capacities of humankind, but more fundamentally, they believe political life can only exist as a zero-sum game.

In every community decision, in every group interaction, someone wins and someone loses. With this epistemic frame, any shortcomings of humanity are actually besides the point: the best you can do is try to make the distribution of wins and loses as just as possible.

Mansbridge and others strongly argue against this framing. Political life – associated living – is not zero-sum. By engaging in deliberation, by reasoning together, people can collectively build new approaches and solutions which remain out of reach in the adversarial paradigm.

It is not about winning or losing; it is not even about compromise. Deliberation transforms the values and beliefs of participants and gives them space to co-create their worlds together.

I believe whole heartedly in this vision. Politics isn’t zero-sum – or at least doesn’t have to be – and deliberation can serve as a powerful vehicle for collective leadership.

But I am left wondering – do adversarial models have no place at all?

This seems somewhat unlikely, given the current inundation of adversarial political relationships. Yet, the prevailing wisdom among deliberative democrats is that current democratic failings result primarily are primarily epistemic in nature – that if we collectively shift how we think about politics we can build the unitary systems Mansbridge describes.

It seems, though, that the computer science model might have some value here. Imagine an adversary who is wholly uninterested in dialogue. Engaging them in deliberation is more challenging than overcoming their biases or social power, rather they actively engage in trying to make deliberation fail.

There are a lot of great frameworks for deliberation, there’s a lot you can accomplish with structure and moderators.

But if someone is deadset on being adversarial – if they actively don’t want to participate and threaten the wellbeing of other participants – I don’t see how deliberation can survive.

That’s not necessarily fatal to deliberation, though – I still believe strongly in the critical role this work has to play in our democracy, and I would still fancy myself a deliberative democrat who sees this approach as the cornerstone for a healthy democracy.

But sometimes you have adversaries who don’t want to play by the rules. Who don’t want to co-create or reason with others. They just want to destroy.

And for that you need a whole other approach of advocacy, protest, and resistance.


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