Democratic Self-Determination and the Intentional Building of Consensus


This paper defends two fundamental but under-theorized insights coming from the theory of deliberative democracy. The first is that consensus is valuable as a precondition of democratic collective self-determination, since it ensures that democratic decisions display an adequate degree of integrity and consistency and therefore that the polity can act as a unified agent. The second is that consensus in this integrity-building role is essential if citizens need to act as decision-makers; it ensures that the decisions that issue from the exercise of their political rights are meaningful, and that they are so as the intended result of their joint agency.

Aggregative approaches, which do not acknowledge this role of consensus, offer an atomistic account of voting and other political rights, and model the outcomes of democratic decision-making as unintended aggregative consequences of individual votes. In these models, democratic political agency and the decision-making power of citizens are curtailed, because citizens do not exert any intentional control on the final outcome of the decision-making process in which they participate.

Although the insight on these shortcomings comes from the deliberative camp, I show that the most prominent accounts of how deliberation is supposed to further consensus in its integrity-building role can be subject to the same criticisms. In fact, in these models consensus is achieved as a by-product of people's engaging in deliberation. Although interactive, these approaches are still atomistic and unintentional. As an alternative, I propose a model of democratic decision-making that acknowledges the role played by the citizens' intentional consensus-building through the strategic use of their political rights.


deliberation, democracy, self-determination, Consensus

How to Cite

Ottonelli V., (2019) “Democratic Self-Determination and the Intentional Building of Consensus”, Journal of Public Deliberation 15(1). doi:







Valeria Ottonelli (University of Genova)



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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0


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