On October 9, 2015 Christopher Berk presented “Democratic Exclusions: Prisoners, patients, and children in democratic politics” at the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought.
Children, prisoners, and the cognitively disabled present a thorny boundary problem for theorists of aggregative and deliberative democracy. For these schools of thought, custodial populations lack maturity, lack rationality, or lack sociality — all of which are conceptually necessary to decide, deliberate, or participate in the polity. Wrapped in this ‘exclusion thesis’ is an assumption that the boundaries of competence can be determined prior to political contest. Berk demonstrates that this assumption neither stands to reason, nor produces a normatively appealing model of democratic politics. Faced with an analytic impasse, he flips the motivating assumption of the exclusion thesis. Instead of asking about entry and exit from the category ‘competent citizen’ (under what conditions is someone rightfully labeled insane, what criteria ought to be used to assess maturity), he asks what it means to be a self-governing individual in a society where citizens are constantly entering and exiting the category of competence. A society where well over 90 percent of those currently in prison will be released; where children can be tried as adults; where cognitive disability at some point in the life course is an expectation, not an exception. Drawing from a series of extended case studies, and an eclectic group of social and political thinkers, Berk describes how those in custody negotiate and re-imagine the boundaries of democratic politics.
Christopher Berk is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Political Science. His writing centers on the theory and practice of punishment, and his research interests span political theory, public law, and American politics. His dissertation, *On Self Government: Participation in Prisons, Asylums, and Boarding Schools*, is about the social and political dynamics of civic disqualification in democracies.
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