Starr_DemTheory_HistCommunications-1 - Democratic Theory...

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1 Democratic Theory and the History of Communications * Paul Starr To argue about the media today is almost inevitably to argue about politics. Similarly, at a deeper level, conflicting views of the history of communications often reflect disagreements about democracy and its possibilities. Much of the foundational thought about communications—from the writings of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s and „30s to the work of Jürgen Habermas and others in recent decades—has held wide intellectual interest because of its implications for democratic theory and politics. Has the media‟s development advanced or devastated democratic hopes? Is the public a mere “phantom,” in Lippmann‟s phrase, or can it be an active force in popular self-government if the media furnish the necessary information and means of criticism and debate? 1 Many of us who study the history of communications do so because of its relevance to the bigger, unfinished political story about the origins of democracy, the struggles over its extension, and the continuing efforts to realize aspirations for a more vital democratic politics. Like journalists, however, historians are often loath to address questions of political theory, and some may believe that just as it is better to travel light, so it is better to do history without any theoretical baggage. But whether or not historians and other analysts of the media make any use of theory, their understanding of democracy influences what they make of the past. Democratic theory comes in many varieties, but here I want only to distinguish three general perspectives, each of which represents not a single position, but a composite of related ideas. None of these perspectives rejects the framework of representative government and rights of free speech and a free press that are embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In that sense, all belong to the tradition of liberal, constitutional democracy, though they interpret the tradition differently. * Forthcoming in Barbie Zelizer, ed., Explorations in Communications and History (Routledge, 2008). Originally presented at a conference at the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, December 2006.
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2 Three Conceptions of Democracy The first of the three perspectives—let us call it “minimalist”—conceives of democracy, in Joseph Schumpeter‟s famous definition, as an institutional arrangement in which individuals acquire the power to make political decisions “by means of a competitive struggle for the people‟s vote.” 2 In this view, the key criterion for democracy is free competitive elections, which serve as a means of adding up voters‟ preferences and holding officials accountable for their performance. The minimalist view may therefore be described as aggregative, adversarial, and majoritarian. In conceptualizing democracy as a contest for individual voting preferences, this version of democratic theory sees politics as analogous to a market. Just as competition in an industry takes
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Starr_DemTheory_HistCommunications-1 - Democratic Theory...

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