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The Possibility of Critical Mini-Publics: Realpolitik and Normative Cycles in Democratic Theory

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Stephen ElstubORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).


Fifty years ago, democratic theory was largely devoid of normative impulse, and was dominated by the realpolitik and positivist approaches of competitive elitism and rational and social choice theory. While the rise of participatory democratic theory in the 1970s brought a halt to this dominance, it was the arrival of deliberative democracy in the 1980s and 90s that cemented the normative revival in democratic theory. However, as deliberative theory itself increasingly emphasised practice-oriented institutional innovations such as “mini-publics”, realpolitik has made a resurgence, rendering deliberative democracy less normative and critical. Yet, although in practice the focus on mini-publics has sometimes resulted in less critical forms of deliberation, we argue that this need not be the case. An important task of deliberative theory today is to find ways in which deliberative democracy can be practically relevant without losing its critical and normative edge. We contend that experimentation with new forms of mini-publics can contribute to this if located within a deliberative system where their deficiencies can be corrected and supplemented by other parts of the system. We conclude by arguing that deliberative democracy has cemented itself as one of the most powerful innovations of democratic theory yet precisely because it can motivate practical innovation on the ground whilst still retaining a strong normative force and critical edge as well. This shows that there need not be an insurmountable divide between theories being either realpolitik or critical, and for democratic theory it is important that both are achieved in the right measure.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Boeker M, Elstub S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Representation

Year: 2015

Volume: 51

Issue: 1

Pages: 125-144

Print publication date: 01/04/2015

Online publication date: 01/04/2015

Acceptance date: 01/01/2015

Date deposited: 02/03/2016

ISSN (print): 0034-4893

ISSN (electronic): 1749-4001

Publisher: Routledge


DOI: 10.1080/00344893.2015.1026205


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