Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self-Government

Princeton University Press

When the Supreme Court in 2003 struck down a Texas law prohibiting homosexual sodomy, it cited the right to privacy based on the guarantee of "substantive due process" embodied by the Constitution. But did the court act undemocratically by overriding the rights of the majority of voters in Texas? Scholars often point to such cases as exposing a fundamental tension between the democratic principle of majority rule and the liberal concern to protect individual rights. Democratic Rights challenges this view by showing that, in fact, democracy demands many of these rights.

Corey Brettschneider argues that ideal democracy is comprised of three core values--political autonomy, equality of interests, and reciprocity--with both procedural and substantive implications. These values entitle citizens not only to procedural rights of participation (e.g., electing representatives) but also to substantive rights that a "pure procedural" democracy might not protect. What are often seen as distinctly liberal substantive rights to privacy, property, and welfare can, then, be understood within what Brettschneider terms a "value theory of democracy." Drawing on the work of John Rawls and deliberative democrats such as Jürgen Habermas, he demonstrates that such rights are essential components of--rather than constraints on--an ideal democracy. Thus, while defenders of the democratic ideal rightly seek the power of all to participate, they should also demand the rights that are the substance of self-government.

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About the author

Corey Brettschneider is assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University.
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jan 10, 2009
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Law / Judicial Power
Political Science / American Government / Judicial Branch
Political Science / Civil Rights
Political Science / History & Theory
Political Science / Political Freedom
Political Science / Political Ideologies / Democracy
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How should a liberal democracy respond to hate groups and others that oppose the ideal of free and equal citizenship? The democratic state faces the hard choice of either protecting the rights of hate groups and allowing their views to spread, or banning their views and violating citizens' rights to freedoms of expression, association, and religion. Avoiding the familiar yet problematic responses to these issues, political theorist Corey Brettschneider proposes a new approach called value democracy. The theory of value democracy argues that the state should protect the right to express illiberal beliefs, but the state should also engage in democratic persuasion when it speaks through its various expressive capacities: publicly criticizing, and giving reasons to reject, hate-based or other discriminatory viewpoints.

Distinguishing between two kinds of state action--expressive and coercive--Brettschneider contends that public criticism of viewpoints advocating discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation should be pursued through the state's expressive capacities as speaker, educator, and spender. When the state uses its expressive capacities to promote the values of free and equal citizenship, it engages in democratic persuasion. By using democratic persuasion, the state can both respect rights and counter hateful or discriminatory viewpoints. Brettschneider extends this analysis from freedom of expression to the freedoms of religion and association, and he shows that value democracy can uphold the protection of these freedoms while promoting equality for all citizens.

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