how to get a deliberative democracy

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference ended on Saturday–and my thanks to the 150 dedicated and skillful participants. It’s billed as a gathering of people committed to various forms of democratic reform, but it tends to draw colleagues from one of the fields in which I also proudly work: deliberative democracy. Two thirds of the 100 people who completed a pre-conference survey said they work on dialogue and deliberation. Of those (about one third) who said that they are active in social movements, more than 60 percent also said that they specialize in dialogue and deliberation. That means that many participants organize and/or study events and processes that aim to be representative, balanced, transpartisan, inclusive, equitable, “civil” (in some version of that word), and discursive. Openly contentious forms of politics are not widely represented at the conference. Just over one quarter of attendees are interested in government reform, but since the vast majority of those also said they work on deliberation, I think the reforms they support tend to be public deliberations–rather than, say, voting rights.

I believe in deliberative values, although I don’t think they are the only values we need in a complex modern democracy. For me, the question is whether to pursue values such as deliberation directly–by organizing deliberative spaces and projects–or to promote changes in the political economy that might generate better deliberation as a byproduct.

For instance, I asked participants to consider eight possible responses to the current political crisis, of which two involved “winning the next election.” Half a dozen participants have told me they object to this option. For some, the framing is too partisan, implying that Donald Trump is the problem and that a Democratic victory in 2018 would be a solution. For others, the framing is too conservative, in the sense that it reflects support for our basic process of adversarial, representative democracy. Can’t we move beyond elections to become a deliberating (if not a beloved) community?

I sincerely welcome this feedback, which prompts a valuable discussion. Speaking just for myself, I would raise doubts about the strategy of promoting deliberation by being explicitly and directly deliberative. It’s plausible that Donald Trump represents a clear and present threat to deliberative democracy, not because he’s identified with the right and the GOP, but because he is opposed to truth, civility, inclusion, equity, and constitutional limitations. (I have argued that he is anti-conservative in fundamental ways). Further, it may be that when deliberative values are threatened by very powerful politicians, the pressing need is to defeat them decisively at the next election. Finally, it may be the case that the only plausible agents capable of defeating Donald Trump are Democratic candidates and never-Trump Republican candidates (including true conservatives). In that case, “winning the next election” is an essential and urgent step to defend deliberative democracy.

Likewise, it may be that the best way to revivify a moribund public sphere is to support contentious social movements that resist the two powerful “systems” of state and market and thus compel discussion of overlooked issues. These movements will not be deliberative. In fact, they may gravitate to occupations, boycotts, and other adversarial modes. But their byproduct is a more deliberative democracy.

My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.

But I don’t see a political strategy for taking such work to scale. I don’t see who would pay for it or what would motivate most Americans to participate in it. (And I think the disproportionately white, middle-class makeup of the Frontiers participants reflects the limited appeal of this approach). Professional proponents of dialogue and deliberation will succeed when–and only when–powerful grassroots political movements, including parties, force changes in our basic political systems. It’s their work that increasingly draws my attention.

See also: three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; saving Habermas from the deliberative democratssaving relational politics.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • John Gastil

    Winning the next election is crucial. Elections have consequences. I hope everyone understands that now, more than ever.