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We have more in common than we think

Coercion is a mainstay of democracy. People cannot consent to everything; as individuals and as a collective, we must be willing to submit to rules forced upon us by political leaders. If we do not, the society in which we jointly govern ourselves will not work. And thus, it is time to devote more interest to understanding under what circumstances, and using what procedures, we accept submission. When the coercion to obey is perceived as legitimate, we can accept the rules engendered in procedures. The gauntlet has been thrown by Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School, and she is aiming it at political scientists everywhere. Political science, she argues, is about helping us get better at governing ourselves. While other disciplines can certainly provide worthwhile contributions in that direction, only political science focuses on governance.

Jane Mansbridge is the winner of the 2018 Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science. She wins the “Nobel Prize” of political science for “having shaped our understanding of democracy in its direct and representative forms, with incisiveness, deep commitment and feminist theory.” Mansbridge is a political thinker, theoretician and empirical scholar who has for many years wrestled with the central questions of how democracy works and what is required to maintain and develop it so that human beings can increasingly govern themselves and do so increasingly well.

Mansbridge launched the concepts of “adversary democracy” and “unitary democracy” in Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980). The book has not been translated to Swedish, but its arrival heralded a new orientation in thinking in political science, that of “democratic theory” as it is called in the field. Since the breakthrough of capitalism, and partially as a consequence thereof, adversary democracy has come to dominate western understanding. Interests in a community are fundamentally conflicting, just as they are between buyers and sellers in the market: a zero sum game of getting the most good for the money. Unitary democracy, which seeks and, not least importantly, creates common interests in dialogue, has fallen by the wayside in modern times. Through two studies, one of a town meeting in Selby, Vermont where the citizens of the small town meet twice a year to discuss and make decisions about their common affairs, and one of workplace democracy at Helpline Inc., a crisis center, she observed over a long period how unitary democracy can work in practice. What it can give, the conditions upon which it depends, and its inevitable difficulties: people are seldom easy to deal with; feelings bubble over and get in the way of discussion, one person is affronted, the other angry. Living conditions in Selby are too varied for the residents to make an earnest attempt to find a common ground, but the circumstances are better at Helpline Inc, where the employees – many of them inspired by the collective vision of the 1960s – insist on meeting and deciding everything together. That zeitgeist now feels terribly remote. Economic liberalization has characterized the western world since the 1990s and the market as thought model is setting the tone in more areas than ever, including universities, where collegial governance has been a peculiar form of deliberative democracy that has guaranteed participation and collective responsibility. Disparities in cognitive, social and economic respects are reflected, both in Selby and at Helpline, in those who speak up and those who refrain from speaking. It is reflected in who gets listened to and thus gains more influence over decisions. And so it is everywhere, for that is the way of the world. But if the interests are relatively aligned, according to Mansbridge, the inevitable inequalities created by liberty, biology and personality matter less. In that case, the talkative are also representatives of the taciturn in the assembly. This is why democracy is under serious threat in the US, as the population has been growing apart since the 1980s in a way that puts bitter conflicts of interest, rather than consensus, at the heart of politics. In this situation, the voluble speak only for themselves, and those with fewer resources – who often need someone to speak on their behalf – are abandoned to their fate.

In Why We Lost the ERA (1986), Mansbridge analyzes the American “women’s liberation” movement and its attempts to bring about an amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sex (the Equal Rights Amendment, ERA). She traces the failure back to the movement’s diminishing elements of deliberation and argumentation. It is characteristic of Jane Mansbridge that it is the “we” of the title who lost the battle. She is deeply engaged as a scholar and committed to influencing developments through the knowledge that her research contributes. That dedication is also evident in her achievements as a teacher over many years. Mansbridge is among only a few teachers recognized by students as innovators at Harvard, that finest of the finest institutions. At age 78, she is still in the lecture halls and at the seminar table and still pursuing deliberative teaching in which the original authors – an Aristotle, a John Locke, a Jean-Jacques Rousseau – “talk” to the students through their own texts, with Mansbridge acting as the bridge. The students “deliberate” based on their own national and other experiences.

Gathering in the square as in Ancient Greece or in town meetings as in Selby to make common decisions on matters that concern the collective is rarely possible when national issues are to be determined. While constantly referring issues to the people in referendums is more the rule than the exception in regionally oriented countries like Switzerland, it is far from ideal elsewhere. To date, Sweden has held six national referendums. Instead of direct democracy, the citizens elect their representatives: the people who are to represent us in parliament and ultimately in the government. But what, political scientists ask, is supposed to be represented? Opinions? If such is the case, then an all-male parliament could theoretically represent all women – which was historically the case for a very long time – as long as their opinions coincide. Would that be legitimate? Are women prepared to submit to the decisions made by such a unilaterally composed assembly? In the spirit of English political scientist Anne Phillips, who argued in The Politics of Presence (1995) that representation is a matter of physical presence as a group, Mansbridge has constantly returned to the complex issue of group representation – for women, for minorities, for people of various sexual orientations – in a system where the individual (often the male individual) has long been the default.

Like her work on direct democracy, Mansbridge’s research on representative democracy has had profound influence. In a famous article, “Should Blacks represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes” (1999), she concludes that group representation – where the focus is on who you are in certain defined respects – is sometimes legitimate and justified in democracy and may increase the actual power of the formerly powerless. If lack of trust in representatives from outside the group, such as the trust of Blacks in Whites in the US, is explicit, the presence of members of the group can reduce distrust of political institutions. Likewise, it is justified when the interests are uncrystallized, not fully articulated and need to be carved out in discussion and dialogue to become distinct. In that case, the presence of members of the group within the institutions is vital to the conversation. It is partly this type of thinking that is behind quotas to parliaments around the world, whether in relation to women, certain minorities or, as in India, the Untouchables.

How do you determine whether what is important in politics is not only your convictions, but also who you are, the group to which you belong? Critics have noted such a perspective would also allow political mobilization based on characteristics like hair color, height or left- or righthandedness. Mansbridge’s response is: when belonging is relevant to a decision or a deliberation. If the experiences and perspectives of a group – and it is difficult to get around that this always applies to both men and women – are often relevant, they must be included. The same often applies to the minority groups in a society.

The politics of presence has commonalities with that currently referred to as identity politics. Identity politics has several important things to say, but it has also been vulgarized almost beyond recognition, insofar as that it now tends to deny that anyone who is not a member of the group can be its representative, period. Alive to the subtleties as always, Mansbridge also discusses the risks that arise when you allow that group affiliation might be justifiable under certain circumstances. This can lead to essentialist thinking and may fray the ties of unity upon which democracy is ideally based.

Beyond Adversary Democracy was published in 1980. The concept of deliberative democracy began to make its mark on scholarship in political science in the 1990s. The central importance of deliberation, that which Mansbridge personally observed in the United States of the 1970s, was increasingly emphasized. The citizen dialogues and citizen panels that evolved around local decisions in various areas of the world are a practical expression of that insight.

Jane Mansbridge builds bridges between discrete traditions in political science that often live separate lives. Such scholars are worth their weight in gold in an increasingly specialized academic world, where herd mentality and territorial thinking often limit the view and prevent creativity in any authentic sense. Mansbridge is a persistent, thoughtful and constructive innovator who is driven by her faith in our ability to meet, deliberate, seek and create common interests that increase democratic legitimacy.

The original version of this prize motivation letter was published in Svenska Dagbladet on April 5, 2018

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