I come out of the movement for deliberative democracy. My first job was with the Kettering Foundation, which launched the National Issues Forums; and I have also worked with AmericaSPEAKS, Study Circles, and other organizations that promote public deliberations. Deliberative forums vary in size, duration, organization, and methods of recruitment, but all try to draw representative (or at least diverse) groups of citizens. Since people attend to decide what should be done, not to represent interests or advance causes, their statements are presumably sincere. In contrast, participants in negotiations may have ulterior motives. Deliberations usually seem better than “politics as usual”–more civil and constructive, driven by better motivations.
But is this because they are “deliberations”? Or is it because they are low-stakes affairs, with no direct consequences for policy? As the stakes rise, what happens to deliberations and deliberators?
According to Robert Pear in the New York Times, volunteers from the Obama Campaign are organizing 4,200 small meetings (“house parties”) to discuss health care. I wouldn’t call these events “deliberations,” because one side in the debate has set the agenda. But they are somewhat deliberative in structure and intent–and they are open to anyone who wants to come. Whether or not we call them deliberations, they are participatory free spaces for open dialogue, and they have the potential to strengthen neighborly connections. So they are Good Things.
In response, the insurance companies are “encouraging [their] employees and satisfied customers to attend” the Obama house parties. Insurance companies have First Amendment rights to petition and assembly. If someone organizes an open discussion, corporations are entitled to send their members. An obvious counter is to make sure that even more people come who have pro-reform beliefs. At that point, a “house party” starts looking like a conventional democratic assembly, caucus, or election, in which the point is to turn out the greatest numbers. That is not, of course, a bad system: we tend to call it “democracy.” But we already have a structure for it, composed of numerous electoral districts, levels of governance, and rules for open meetings, oversight, judicial review, etc., etc.
My point is not a skeptical or cynical one. I think pure deliberations are valuable, and so are the quasi-deliberative “house parties” that the Obama volunteers are organizing. I also think town meetings and legislative assemblies are good. I simply expect different norms to arise when there are different kinds of stakes. We should not romanticize entirely voluntary events that have wonderful atmospheres but don’t affect policy.