Do the People Govern? A Look Into the Relevance Deliberative Democracy has in the Modern American Political Climate

The fifth of November of 2012 was a hectic day. It was the day before the Presidential election. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania buzzed with nervous excitement about the re-election of President Obama. For weeks, I had skipped many classes to stuff envelopes in the campaign office of State Senator Daylin Leach. I knocked on hundreds of doors and made hundreds of phone calls on behalf of the Democratic party. It was my first taste of political engagement, and I was addicted from the get-go.

548089_3649594560889_683073894_nThe campaign field director, Carlton, first introduced me to Get Out The Vote (GOTV), the bread and butter of Democratic grassroots organizing. “The point of GOTV is to push that vote at any cost. You do. not. let. anyone. by. without asking if they have a plan to vote or if they have already voted. NO ONE. Now pass that message onto the other interns.” I felt like a little soldier for the Democrats, for equality and freedom and justice. “Yes [sir], Carlton!” I rounded up the college interns and explained GOTV as if I had been practicing it for years.

And so we took to the streets. No door was left un-knocked. No human walked by without being handed a “Plan to Vote” card. No intern would sleep until the job was done. Or so it felt that way. We swept through Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Havertown, and Merion; occasionally stopping at “staging locations” (houses of supporters) to eat a bowl of chili and restock on flyers and canvass packets.

It was an invigorating feeling to be a part of this movement. President Obama’s campaign strategy successfully won the hearts of college millennials like myself.

What happened?


It is now 2017, and the political landscape looks very different from my perspective. In 2008 and 2012, Obama won the presidency through uplifting the public with “Yes We [all] Can” and “There’s Nothing We Can’t Do.” In 2016, however, Donald Trump won essentially by asserting ‘No You Won’t’ to anyone besides wealthy white men. In addition, Trump won the presidency but he lost the popular vote.

Modern American political media bombards us daily with the language of permanent division.  Its lexicon includes words such as “polarization,” “filibuster,” “government shutdown,” and “gridlock.” These words do more than denote division; they reflect the profound disillusionment and sense of powerlessness felt by millions.

The United States purports to be a democratic republic, a representative democracy. Mark Twain once remarked that democracy works better in speech than in practice.  In our modern American practice, individual power is exercised from time to time in plebiscite; but is more often than not diffused beyond recognition in the sieve of representatives who are elected in gerrymandered districts.

How do we solve this?

In today’s American political sphere, the citizenry is left a triviality of political power. Because of the imperfection of our political practice, political scientists have recently begun to theorize a more citizen-centered, practical, and intrinsic form of democracy known as deliberative democracy. According to Dennis Thompson and Amy Gutmann, deliberative democracy is “a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable, and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.” (Gutmann & Thompson 2004)

Deliberative democrats aim to empower citizen voice in communities, organizations, and government through specially designed deliberative forums. These forums must meet a unique set of conditions: all participants are seen as equal and are allotted equal speaking time; participants’ arguments are judged based off of merit; participants must speak to each other with mutual respect; a solution and/or solutions are proposed and voted on. The resolution must not only be enforceable; it must be seen as legitimate by both the community and its government. (Habermas, 1989; Gutmann & Thompson, 2004; Fishkin, 2010; Gastil & Levine, 2012) Deliberative forums thus encourage exposure to oppositional political perspectives, in hope that its participants might be more open to agreeing on a solution for the common good and conversely less likely to continue the practice of profound division

Scholars have praised and scrutinized deliberative democratic theory and practice. In recent years, political scientists have studied whether it is realistic to apply the above listed conditions to real life situations, and whether deliberative practices can actually influence governmental decision-making. (Bonner et al, 2005; Lukensmeyer et al, 2005; Coelho et al, 2005; Sokoloff et al, 2005; Gastil & Levine, 2005; Mutz, 2006; Fishkin, 2010; Leighninger, 2012; Barrett et al, 2012; Gastil et al, 2012) This scholarly debate has uncovered three main schools of thought.

Scholars such as Lynn Sanders, Diana Mutz, Ian Shapiro, and Frederick Schauer argue in the negative.  They assert that deliberative democracy is not a viable practice of democracy and that it cannot influence decision-making in government. Other scholars such as John Gastil, Peter Levine, and James Fishkin argue from the opposite pole. To them, deliberative practices comprise effective and feasible methods to solve community problems and directly influence politicians’ subsequent decision-making. Lastly, scholars such as Jane Mansbridge and Matt Leighninger take the middle ground.  They believe that deliberative democracy does not necessarily have a direct influence on decision-making; but that its institutions indirectly promote a more mobilized citizenry and thus a more responsive legislature.

Why am I telling you about Deliberative Democracy?

I believe that our nation is in trouble. Ideological polarization is at an all-time high. Large portions of both the Democratic and Republican parties see their opposition as “a threat to the Nation’s well-being.” Public trust in government has continued to plummet since the 1950s. Political participation has also been on the decline. The 2016 election witnessed the lowest voter turnout in twenty years.



I strongly believe that deliberative practices are effective in resolving these problems. Deliberative institutions have been proven to educate citizens as well as increase feelings of mutual respect across ideological divides. There is, however, a lack of literature concerning the impact deliberation has on decision-making. Do the results of citizen forums influence policy-makers? Can the people truly govern? Many think “no way” to both questions.

In my opinion, deliberation can have a positive and empowering influence on decision-making, given that the appropriate conditions are in place: an engaged participant pool, decision-makers are present at the time of the deliberation, significant media attention on the event, and a macro-political uptake of the results. Although it is certainly not always possible to assure that these conditions are present, I believe that these are the elements that will make or break the impact of deliberative democracy.

Operationalization of Terms.

            By engaged participant pool, I mean that participants chosen for the forum express at least somewhat of a concern for the topic of the forum during debates. Engaged participants also express an interest in continuing to discuss the topic, or see what becomes of the results, after the forum has concluded.

By decision-makers, I mean any person of authority or leadership who has the power to change policy, rules, and/or codes. Examples of decision-makers are elected officials, heads of departments, the President of a college or organization, etc. By “presence,” I mean that decision-makers must witness the deliberation of participants for a substantial amount of time. To add, decision-makers must be mentally present and open to questions by the participants.

By significant media attention, I mean that the forum must receive enough media attention that a community knows of its existence. In essence, the internet or local newspapers recognize the importance of the event and publish extensively about the event.

By macro-political uptake, I mean that the results of the forum are then handed to a larger body of the population for response and consideration. This could include the publication of a pamphlet of the forum results which is made accessible to all citizens before election day, such as a Citizens’ Initiative Review. This could also mean that the results/proposed solutions of the forum are then brought to a vote among the entire community, such as in a plenary.

Okay, so what now?

In light of these troubling times in politics, I decided to write my senior political science thesis around the impact of deliberative democracy. I will use this blog to publish arguments, case studies, and design processes as I encounter them. I plan to convene my own deliberative forum on Bryn Mawr’s campus in March. I hope that this blog will operate as a practice of transparency– so that Bryn Mawr students can be completely informed about the purpose and structure of the on-campus forum, if they so desire. In addition, when I first began this process almost a year ago, I really struggled with finding specific sources of information. So, I will publish links and suggested readings for any other undergrad researching deliberative democracy who might need some guidance on literature to read.

The next blog post will discuss the arguments for and against deliberative democracy.


  • Fishkin, James S. 2009. “Making Deliberation Consequential.” In When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. essay, 106–58.
  • Fishkin, James S. 2009.When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gastil, John, Katherine R. Knobloch, and Robert Richards. 2015. “Empowering Voters through Better Information: Analysis of the Citizens’ Initiative Review, 2010-2014.” Democracy Fund.
  • Habermas, Jurgen. 1989.The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Lukensmeyer, Carolyn J, Joe Goldman, and Steven Brigham. 2005. “A Town Meeting for the Twenty-First Century.” In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. essay, 154–63.
  • Mathews, David. 2002. For Communities to Work. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press.
  • Schauer F. 1999. Talking as a decision procedure. In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, ed. S Macedo, pp. 17–27. New York: Oxford
  • Sokoloff, Harris, Harris M Steinberg, and Steven N Pyser. 2005. “Deliberative City Planning on the Philadelphia Waterfront.” In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. essay, 185–96.

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