Purpose - Noting that discussions of public participation and priority setting typically presuppose certain political theories of democracy, the purpose of this paper is to discuss two theories: the consensual and the agonistic. The distinction is illuminating when considering the difference between institutionalized public participation and contestatory participation. Design/methodology/approach - The approach is a theoretical reconstruction of two ways of thinking about public participation in relation to priority setting in health care, drawing on the work of Habermas, a deliberative theorist, and Mouffe, a theorist of agonism. Findings - The different theoretical approaches can be associated with different ways of understanding priority setting. In particular, agonistic democratic theory would understand priority setting as system of inclusions and exclusions rather than the determination of a consensus of social values, which is the typical deliberative way of thinking about the issues. Originality/value - The paper shows the value of drawing out explicitly the tacit assumptions of practices of political participation in order to reveal their scope and limitations. It suggests that making such theoretical presuppositions explicit has value for health services management in recognizing these implicit choices.