saving relational politics

In the June edition of Perspectives on Politics, I have an article entitled “Saving Relational Politics“* I review Caroline W. Lee’s Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry and Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics and I advance an argument of my own.

I argue that what’s most valuable about activities like public deliberations, planning exercises, and Participatory Budgeting is not actually “deliberative democracy.” Neither political equality (democracy) nor reasonable discussion about decisions (deliberation) are essential to these activities. Instead, they are forms of relational politics, in which people “make decisions or take actions knowing something about one another’s ideas, preferences, and interests.” That makes them akin to practices like one-on-one interviews in community organizing–or Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed.

Relational politics has disadvantages and limitations–it’s not all that we need–but it is an essential complement to well-designed impersonal forms of politics (bureaucracies, legal systems, and markets). And it’s endangered, because genuine forms of relational politics are not valuable to governments or companies. Relational politics still occurs at small scales, but we need strategies for increasing its prevalence and impact against powerful opposition.

Lee’s book is a useful critique of typical strategies for expanding relational politics, which involve developing small models and trying to get powerful organizations to adopt them. Lerner contributes a strategy, which is to make processes more fun so that they are desirable to both citizens and institutions. I review both books positively but argue that they leave us without a persuasive strategy for saving relational politics. After considering some alternatives, I argue that relational politics is most likely to spread as a by-product of mass movements that have political agendas. However, we need some people to pay explicit attention to the quality of the participatory processes.

*Per the copyright agreement, I am posting the “version of record” on my personal web page after its appearance at Cambridge Journals Online, along with the following bibliographical details, a notice that the copyright belongs to Cambridge University Press, and a link to the online edition of the journal:

Saving Relational Politics
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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.