asking Congress to vote on Syria was a deliberative act

(Sacramento) President Obama’s decision to ask Congress for authorization to bomb targets in Syria may have been wise or foolish. It had  military and diplomatic repercussions that I cannot judge. But when the president asked legislators to discuss the issue and then make a decision, he used a deliberative style of leadership that we ought to recognize, at least. It is a style that reasonable people use when they lead ordinary associations and communities, and the founders expected it when they created Congress as a deliberative body.  So I wrote on Sept. 10, and the Boston’s Globe’s Farah Stockman picks up the theme in today’s opinion piece:

Of course, Obama got called a lot of names for the delay that made that outcome possible: “weakling,” “ditherer-in-chief” and  – nastiest of all, in some corners –  “community organizer.” I must admit that even I thought he was crazy for going to Congress, which often seems more eager to tar and feather him than to approve of anything he wants.

But political theorist Dennis Thompson, co-author of the book “Why Deliberative Democracy?” says Obama’s moves mirrored a style of leadership he taught at Harvard. Thompson believes that, in a true democracy, a leader ought to explain the reasoning behind the course of action he or she wants to take. But in the end, wherever possible, the group itself should debate it and have the final word.

… So, why then were Americas so infuriated that Obama took the issue to Congress?

“It is as if we expect decisions of war and peace to be made by the president rather than society as a whole,” said Archon Fung, another Harvard professor who had studied the virtues of “deliberative democracy.” “Decisions about when to use military force . . .involve killing as a state act. If any decision should be made democratically, then it’s this one.”

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, sees the public reaction as a sign of the times. Americans have grown less interested in the public deliberations that that make democracies work. Participation on juries and PTA meetings are at an all time low, he said. Voters expect their elected leaders to solve their problems. Debates over the best way to go about it are seen as a sign of failure or weakness.

“Our system is supposed to be deliberative,” Levine said. “But we live in a profoundly anti-deliberative moment.”

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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.