discipline or cooptation?

Here is an issue that arose several times at last week’s Argentine/US

conference on deliberative democracy. Citizens who are given the power

to deliberate and make formal decisions often learn about legal, political,

and economic constraints and recognize the necessity of making changes

one step at a time. They tend to drop their radical ideas and become critical

of outsiders who do not understand the process that they have mastered.

There are at least two ways to interpret this change in attitude:

First, we could say that giving citizens real power is a form of civic

education. Deliberators develop discipline and an understanding of real,

unavoidable constraints. They gain the skills, knowledge, and networks

needed to make tangible improvements in their communities. Civic

Innovation in America, by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland,

is (partly) the story of some "sixties radicals" who gained

civic skills and discipline by working within democratic institutions,

and thereby become highly effective agents of change.

Alternatively, we could say that incorporating citizens into a system

of constrained deliberation co-opts them. The process is biased in favor

of moderate, meliorist policies and cannot embrace radical proposals.

Yet there are good arguments for radical change, especially in a country

like Brazil, where the world’s most interesting experiments in deliberative

democracy take place in the context of massive inequality.