deliberation depends on social movements

Why would people deliberate? Here I’ll argue that citizens will only come together to exchange reasons if they are empowered to make decisions. In turn, it often takes a social movement to  change institutions so that any particular group of citizens has power. And social movements cannot be (fully) deliberative.

In an important passage in Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen argues that it’s an error to assume that speakers “enter [any] deliberative forum already mutually well-minded toward one another.” She writes, “If they do so enter, the battle to achieve a reasonable policy outcome is already 75 percent won. The hard part is getting citizens to that point of being mutually well-intentioned.”

Allen proposes rhetorical solutions to this problem: ways of communicating that encourage other people want to hear your reasons and respond with good arguments, rather than walk out or shout you down. For example, you can begin a conversation by making an unsolicited sacrifice, which is “the most powerful tool for generating trust.” You can also “aim to convince 100 percent” of the audience instead of trying to build a mere majority, and you can look for ways to “ameliorate the remaining disagreement and distrust” after a decision has been reached. These are techniques for creating the conditions under which people will exchange reasons about what is right to do.

The rhetorical techniques that Allen suggests manifest political friendship, in Aristotle’s sense. First you act like a friend; then people will trust you enough to deliberate with you. The good news is that many people exhibit a desire for such friendship that makes deliberation possible. In 1982, my friend James Youniss, a developmental psychologist who had studied with Habermas, wrote:

Persons enter discussion, debate, negotiation, and so on … to clarify uncertainties, check doubts, receive criticism, justify views, gain different opinions, or explore novel ideas. But that is not all. Persons who respect one another seek to maintain their relation, and they communicate voluntarily for this purpose. They want to understand and to be understood. They want to show that they care and want to be cared for in return. In the reciprocal cooperation epitomized in friendship, each retains freedom of thought by acknowledging freedom in the other and, thus, communication is essential so that the respective parties do not lose the opportunity for truth seeking in common. [“Why Persons Communicate on Moral Matters: A Response to Shweder,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, 1982]

These relational motives make deliberation seem plausible. Talking can be its own reward, if and when people value friendship. However, the mode of discussion may have to be emotional and personal and may have to involve speech-acts like making sacrifices. Abstract arguments will fall on deaf ears unless trust has been built.

Allen’s rhetorical suggestions are valuable as long as relevant citizens have chosen to gather together at one time and place in order to communicate. But most people allocate their time and energy to purposes other than meetings. Those who stay away may be foolishly renouncing their influence, or selfishly free-riding on others’ efforts–but both behaviors are predictable.

If group exists, we can try to invite, entice, cajole, or reward people to participate. But we cannot just assume that a group exists that has the capacity to make decisions. To be sure, once a group forms, then (almost regardless of its assets) it can empower itself by creating goods that it allocates. A Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) raises money at a bake-sale, which gives it a budget to deliberate about. In such cases, the deliberation depends on a prior solution to a collective-action problem: getting parents to contribute goods for the sale.

In many circumstances, the problem is more difficult than that. It’s not just a matter of generating a resource that can be discussed, but of capturing it from someone else. For instance, if the municipal government sets the city budget, then a public meeting about priorities is not really a deliberation; it is just a forum for talking to power. Forcing or persuading the city to share ts power would require an organized political effort that would precede a citizen deliberation about taxing and spending. But how to get people involved in that political effort is again a problem of motivation and coordination.

The broader point is that any reasonably decent conversation depends on rules, which must not only cover the speech itself (e.g., by giving everyone an equal chance to talk) but must also create groups that have the power to make decisions that are worth talking about. Since power rarely yields voluntarily, the main way to change unacceptable rules is to organize social movements. Such movements may harbor some internal deliberations, but they cannot be deliberative fora. They must aim for specific reforms that then create groups that are worth deliberating in.

This is why I think that “Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.” See also: Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II) and how to get a deliberative democracy.

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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