In a heated debate among me, Ezra Zuckerman, and Kieran Healey, Ezra argues that
purity in one’s constructionism… means forswearing political action, or at least any political action that is justified in terms of a critique of social valuations and the institutions that support them.
I disagree, on the grounds that political action is adequately grounded in perceived self-interest, moral valuation, etc., and depends essentially upon persuasion and power, not Truth. I use the word “agonistic” to describe this claim, borrowing from Chantal Mouffe’s approach.
As I was pondering this question this morning, driving to work (I didn’t bike today because it’s raining), I was listening to my favorite morning talk show. Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert was on, discussing Ann Coulter’s latest outrage as well as, more to the point, the latest in a series of studies demonstrating, as Boehlert puts it, that “the more you watch Fox News the less they [sic] know.” Essentially: Fox News viewership is negatively correlated with current-events knowledge across several domains.
Now, as a partisan I find this finding delicious, and as a democratic theorist I find it horrifying, since it means many people are making moral decisions without access to accurate information with which to evaluate these decisions. And I think, of course, Fox News should be very embarrassed about it, since their theoretical mission includes “presenting news in what it believes to be an unbiased fashion, eschewing ideological or political affiliation and allowing the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions about the news.”
I do not, however, think that it follows that Fox News viewers would hold the same positions I do if they were adequately informed. That would imply what we might call epistemic democracy: in the context of equivalent information, disparate citizens would be likely to converge on a single position because that position is rooted in the true volonté generale.
A similar theory underlies the UNC Young Democrats’ tee shirt from a few years back: “Fighting incompetence since 1939” (I may have the year wrong). Really? Incompetence? Again, as a partisan, I’d prefer my Republicans a little less competent!
In both of these cases, I think the urge toward an epistemic grounding for democracy – truth for Ezra, competence for the UNC-YD – forecloses the possibility of a deliberative or agonistic form of democracy. In this view, political claims are made as more or less convincing statements about more or less contested values and preferences in politics. Importantly, these claims are anchored in never-fully-shared and often internally inconsistent systems of preferences. They refer to (hopefully widely) shared understandings of facts (hence the concern over the Fox News findings) but their convincingness, or lack thereof, is far from exhausted by these facts.
 Is there any other kind?