why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me

In some ways, I came of age in the field of deliberative democracy. I had an internship at the Kettering Foundation when I was a college sophomore (when the foundation defined itself more purely in deliberative terms than it does today). By that time, I had already taken a philosophy seminar on the great deliberative theorist Jürgen Habermas. In the three decades since then, I’ve served on the boards of Kettering, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. I wrote a book with “deliberative democracy” in its subtitle and co-edited The Deliberative Democracy Handbook with John Gastil. I was one of many co-founders of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and have served on its steering committee since the last century.

None of these groups is committed to deliberation in a narrow sense (although opinions differ within the field). For me, these are the main limitations of focusing on deliberation as the central topic or unit of analysis:

Deliberative values are worthy ones, but they are not the only worthy ones. My own values would also include personal liberties and nonnegotiable rights, concerns for nature, and virtues of the inner life, such as equanimity and personal development. Stating my values doesn’t substitute for an argument, but it may suffice to make the point that deliberation is not the only good thing, and it’s in tension with other goods. A deliberative democrat will reply that I should discuss my values with other people. And so I should–but that doesn’t mean that the norms intrinsic to deliberation trump all other norms. Nor are fellow citizens the only sources of guidance; introspecting, reading ancient texts, consulting legal precedents, and conducting scientific experiments are helpful, too.

By the same token, deliberative virtues are not the only civic virtues. Deliberation is about discourse–talking and listening–so its virtues are discursive ones: humility and openness, empathy, sincerity, and perhaps eloquence. (The list is contested.) But a good citizen may be hard-working, physically courageous, or aesthetically creative instead of especially good at deliberating. The people who physically built the Athenian agora were as important as the people who exchanged ideas in it.

Deliberation depends on social organization. In order for people to have something that’s worth discussing, they must already make, control, or influence things of value together. That requires social organization, whether in the form of a market, a commons, a voluntary association, a functional network, or a political institution. Discussion rarely precedes these forms, because people can’t and won’t come together in completely amorphous groupings. Discussion is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance. Often a small group of founders chooses the rules-in-use that create a group in which deliberation can occur.

Thus we should ask about leadership and rules, not just about deliberation. Another way to put that point is that deliberation is often a good rule for a group to follow, but it is only one of the rules that they need. Indeed, some functional groups wisely choose rules that limit deliberation or that keep excessively divisive topics off the agenda.

A good argument for deliberation is that people gain practical wisdom and make better judgments by exchanging ideas and information. I see enough potential in that process to disagree with Austrian School economists who think that there is no way to make informed decisions without the data provided by prices in an unregulated market. But the ideas that arise in a deliberation (just like the prices that emerge in a market) are highly fallible. We ought to consider as much information as we can, including market signals and scientific findings as well as other people’s ideas and values. This is an argument for deliberation, but only as one source of guidance. In an ideal deliberative democracy, where “the people” governed through discourse alone, there would be no price signals, and so groups would make poor decisions.

The logic of deliberative democracy suggests that every institution should be a mini-public in which equal members exchange reasons. Moreover, there should be no rigid barriers among institutions: One Big Deliberation is the implicit goal. That goal has been challenged by “difference democrats” like Nancy Fraser, who writes, “public life in egalitarian, multicultural societies cannot consist exclusively in a single, comprehensive public sphere.” Fraser favors “a multiplicity of publics” over a “single public”; and she particularly celebrates “subaltern counterpublics,” meaning “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (“Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 1994). I’m for that, but I would go further. We need not only “subaltern counterpublics” in which minority groups hold their own deliberative conversations. We also need non-deliberative institutions: hierarchical churches, efficient markets, massive social networks, and laboratories. That is because a plurality of power-centers–polycentricity—is essential to maintain liberty. 

Finally, deliberation by itself has limited power, and especially limited power to challenge dedicated opponents, such as authoritarian states and metastasizing markets. Authoritarian states can be persuaded to organize deliberative fora: see Baogan He & Mark E. Warren, “Authoritarian Deliberation in China,” Deadalus (summer 2017). Deliberative processes help the Party manage complex problems that would undermine its authority if left unaddressed. But deliberative fora don’t challenge illiberal regimes or powerful companies unless they are “free spaces” (Evans and Boyte) within social movements that can deploy power.

Because deliberative values are genuine values, it is absolutely worth giving them attention–in both theory and practice. But because deliberation depends upon so many other values, virtues, institutional forms, and political configurations, it is best not analyzed or pursued on its own.

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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  • Leo Casey

    It may be useful to distinguish between varieties of deliberative democracy. The problem of the Habermasian model, as I see it, is the idea of the ideal speech situation — that is, that is possible and desirable to achieve something close to perfect consensus on the common good. It is, if you will, a reformulation of the utopian strain of Marxism. One can conceive of an important role for deliberative practices in a politics which acknowledges that difference, even antagonism, is at the core of politics.

  • Great article. Thanks. I appreciate the inclusion of various kinds of institutions and communities which, by their very nature, are not deliberative in a broad way, yet do incorporate gathered widsom… if sometimes VERY slowly. (One big drawback of religion, for example, though I participate in a church, and try to help move it along.)

  • I thought that the most compelling counterpoint to deliberation, which you put forward in the Institute for Civic Studies was the work of Arendt, Horton, and Alinksy. Surprised you didn’t mention them in this excellent synopsis of your position.

    • PeterLevine

      Thanks, Kevin. Those authors are behind this: especially Ostrom.