Institutions and the problem of trust: A Bahá'í perspective on the premises of Multiparty Adversarial Democracy

Multiparty Adversarial Democracy (MAD), the form of democracy that dominates political practice in the modern world, is proving to be an inadequate model for political institutions grappling with humanity’s ever-complexifying challenges. This presentation focuses on two of MAD’s premises – the non-perfectibility of the human being, and the untrustworthiness of institutions – that limit both the effectiveness of institutions, and the quality of individuals’ and communities’ democratic participation in MAD. That party system, which conceptually might mitigate these consequences, ends up creating further pathologies. The deliberative conception of democracy presents a plausible alternative to MAD. It will be argued that in order for it to displace MAD, institutionalized deliberative democracy must be rooted in a cultural lifeworld conducive to its flourishing; however, MAD itself contributes to the eradication of such a lifeworld. This presentation first explores Gandhian swaraj as a means to creating a lifeworld that radically rejects the first premise of MAD by centering the moral development of the individual. We next turn to the experience of the Baha’i community, rooted in a conceptual framework in which both premises of MAD are radically rejected, to show how such a lifeworld can ground an institutional system that is culturally and procedurally democratic.

Deepening questions
  • How might we respond to the concern that a perfectionist view of human nature risks leading to a coercive kind of politics, where those in positions of power / authority try to impose a monolithic understanding of the good?
  • Can the attitudes of love and mutual support between individuals, communities, and institutions, that are stressed in the Bahá'í context exist in contexts where there is no specifically religious faith in the institutional structure?
  • The presentation suggested these responses to the two premises of MAD:
  1. “Institutional design and norms can create a culture of truth-seeking deliberation.”
  2. “Institutional design and norms can curtail power-seeking and self-advancement, making trust rational.”

    What are the underlying spiritual/educational processes in the Bahá'í context that make this possible? Are they “translatable” in our participation in wider discourses?

  • Political Science
  • Governance

  • Michael Sabet

    Michael Sabet is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto. His research involves putting a Bahá'í framework for governance into dialogue with political philosophy. He is a lawyer by training, having practiced constitutional litigation in Ottawa after clerking at the Supreme Court.


46th Annual Conference


The views expressed in this recording are those of the presenter and do not necessarily represent the views of the Association for Bahá’í Studies, nor the authoritative explications of Bahá’í writings.