Political liberalism, deliberative democracy, and the public sphere
Theorists of democracy emphasize the importance of a public sphere, distinct from the apparatus of the state, where citizens can freely associate, deliberate, and engage in collective will formation. Discourse ethicists and deliberative democrats locate the public sphere within civil society and the manifold associations that comprise it. For Seyla Benhabib, the public sphere is constituted by the anonymous "public conversation" of civil society. By contrast, John Rawls has a much more limited conception of the public sphere. For Rawls, public reason, which establishes norms for democratic discourse, applies to a limited domain. I defend Rawls's view against the charge that it depends upon an untenable distinction between the public and nonpublic spheres. I argue that Rawls's more limited "liberal" conception better guarantees the heterogeneity of associational life in civil society. I then argue that Rawls violates his own principles by partially collapsing the public-nonpublic distinction with potentially illiberal consequences.
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