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Democratic Self-Determination and the Intentional Building of Consensus


Valeria Ottonelli

University of Genova, IT
About Valeria

Valeria Ottonelli is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Genova, Italy. Her main research interests are in the normative theory of democracy and in the theory of justice in migration. Her work appeared in Political Studies, The Journal of Political Philosophy, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, International Migration Review and Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

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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.

How to Cite: Ottonelli, V. (2019). Democratic Self-Determination and the Intentional Building of Consensus. Journal of Public Deliberation, 15(1), 15. DOI:
Published on 23 Apr 2019.


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