Jürgen Habermas’s theory of ‘discourse ethics’ has been an important source of inspiration for theories of deliberative democracy and is typically contrasted with agonistic conceptions of democracy represented by theorists such as Chantal Mouffe. In this article I show that this contrast is overstated. By focusing on the different philosophical traditions that underpin Mouffe’s and Habermas’s respective approaches, commentators have generally overlooked the political similarities between these thinkers. I examine Habermas’s and Mouffe’s respective conceptions of democratic politics and argue that they cannot be so neatly distinguished from each other. I show that much of Mouffe’s criticism of Habermas’s theory does not hold up to careful scrutiny, and discourse ethics shares important points of similarity with her own democratic theory. By using critical republican theory to show the similarities in their work, I push beyond the agonistic versus deliberative debate, and show that at the heart of both of these approaches is a critical republican emphasis on the need for civic solidarity, on the constructive role of conflict in democratic politics and on the vital importance of self-government. These are crucial ingredients for the regeneration of democracy in contemporary pluralistic societies.
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