Agonism, Democracy, and the Moral Equality of Voice

Date01 February 2022
Published date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2022, Vol. 50(1) 59 –85
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591721993862
Agonism, Democracy,
and the Moral Equality
of Voice
Stephen K. White1
Agonism emerged three decades ago as an assault on the overemphasis
in political theory on justice and consensus. It has now become the norm.
But its character and relation to core values of democracy are not as
unproblematic today as is often thought, an issue that becomes more pressing
as contemporary politics increasingly seem locked into notions of unrelenting
conflict between “friends” and “enemies.” This essay traces alternative
ontological roots and ethical implications of agonism, distinguishing between
“imperializing” and “tempered” modes. The former, exemplified in the
popular Schmitt-Mouffe formulation, is shown to be fundamentally flawed in
its failure to conceive politics in a fashion that does not allow the dynamic
of friend–enemy to imperially trump appeals to democratic norms. In a
world of insurgent white nationalism in democratic polities, this is no small
fault. “Tempered” agonists, such as William Connolly and Bonnie Honig,
offer ontologies where democratic norms can gain traction. Despite the
admirable qualities of these alternatives, their formulations are nevertheless
not fully persuasive. The difficulty lies in their underarticulated accounts of
equality. I suggest an alternative formulation of agonism that embraces a
central role for the idea of the moral equality of voice, a value that resides in
the seam between notions of difference, resistance, and conflict emphasized
by agonists, on the one hand, and the idea of fairness emphasized by notions
of democratic justice, on the other.
1University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Corresponding Author:
Stephen K. White, University of Virginia, 590 Rodes Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA.
993862PTXXXX10.1177/0090591721993862Political TheoryWhite
60 Political Theory 50(1)
democracy, agonism, equality, ontology, communicative action
In recent years, the idea of agonism has found increasing acceptance among
political theorists, journalists, and politicians, some even finding its place
today as a “democratic good” to be “uncontroversial.”1 This means accepting
the legitimacy of greater levels of contestation as a part of democratic thought
and politics.2 For some, this is simply a call to electoral strategies with a
greater emphasis on partisan conflict versus consensus. For many others,
however, such a call entails a deeper philosophical shift in our understanding
of the character of democracy; more specifically, a shift toward one that
decenters the emphasis on values like reason and deliberation that figure so
prominently in theories of democracy and justice tied in recent decades to
thinkers like Jürgen Habermas or John Rawls.
I will argue both that democratic theory should indeed accept a philo-
sophical revaluing of conflict called for by agonists, but that doing so ade-
quately involves a path of reconceptualization that is more difficult than
typically realized. The problem is especially pressing in a popular version of
agonism that is more dangerous for democratic life than some proponents
tend to realize. I call this version “imperializing,” because of the default pri-
macy it implicitly accords to subduing one’s opponent over any other values.
As we have normalized agonism, insufficient attention has been paid to such
difficulties. My goal is to elucidate this problem, as well as show what might
constitute a satisfactory approach to it.
In the first and second sections, I present the case for understanding ago-
nism as falling into two categories, “imperializing” and “tempered.” The for-
mer anchors itself in the work of the early twentieth-century German jurist
and political thinker, Carl Schmitt; the latter tends to emphasize the impor-
tance of Nietzsche. I argue that “imperialists” provide us with an approach
that is toxic for democracy. “Tempered” proponents offer a more promising
path. Here I examine the work of William Connolly and Bonnie Honig.
Despite their impressive contributions to conceiving a defensible agonism, I
suggest that they are not entirely successful, because they do not provide an
adequate account of equality. Such an account, at least if it is a nonfounda-
tionalist one, can be enhanced by portraying it in an “exemplary scene”
whose role is to embody and vivify our most basic commitments. An exem-
plary scene carries a force that is simultaneously ontological, ethical, and
aesthetic-affective. The third section contends that in the present case a per-
suasive scene of this sort will weave together a portrayal of the agonistic
relation of identity and difference with an idea of moral status represented in

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