Support for Deliberative Democracy

Today’s post focuses on the arguments for Deliberative Democracy. You can scroll to the bottom to read the conclusion if you want a “Spark notes”type version. Discussion and feedback is welcome!

Deliberative democracy is merit-based.

Deliberation is, by design, a merit-based practice. Most often, supporters of deliberative democracy rave that forums have a “reason-giving requirement.” (Gutmann & Thompson 2004) Participants can voice any opinion, as long as they explain the reasoning behind their opinion. David Held asserts in his book, Models of Democracy, “No set of values or particular perspectives can lay claim to being correct and valid by themselves, but they are valid only in so far as they are justified.” (233)

Any judgement or decision must be tested by its merit; participants and facilitators must practice “passionate impartiality”: passionate about the democratic process, but impartial about the views expressed during such process. (Held 1987) In practice, passionate impartiality uncovers prejudices of thought. (Held 1987; Carcasson & Sprain 2013)

Passionate impartiality and merit-based argumentation highlights the intrinsic prejudice, logical fallacies, and misinformation of citizens’ thoughts. James Fishkin writes that merit-based arguments are a means to creating a safe space for participants. “We want to create a safe public space where the merits of the reasons are considered rather than the prestige or social standing of the articulators of those considerations.” (Fishkin 2009) Of course, no one can guarantee complete equality and safety, as critics often remark. Some people are better educated and are more persuasive than others. Prejudice, furthermore, is too interwoven into society. Fishkin, however, challenges: is deliberation really a worse alternative than the current system?  “If I simply defer to experts or prominent people, am I deliberating? Am I thinking for myself if I simply vote for a candidate endorsed by my local newspaper rather than considering the merits myself?” (41)

In addition to uncovering prejudiced attitudes and thought, Martìn Carcasson and Leah Sprain believe passionate impartiality to be the Sherlock Holmes of discovering logical fallacies. Often times, citizens oversimplify complex problems. Citizens are likely to make assumptions that there is only one solution to a complex problem (“magic bullets”), or they assume that the problem is caused by one person or entity (“scapegoats”), or they attempt to address the problem by focusing on one side of a paradox, while ignoring the other side (“paradox splitting”). (Carcasson & Sprain 2015)

There is also often a significant gap between public assumptions and expert knowledge. It is a well-known fact that most Americans are grossly misinformed about policy issues. In a questionnaire about government spending, a majority of respondents answered that over fifty percent of the federal budget is allocated to foreign aid. In reality, less than one percent of the budget funds foreign aid. (NPR 2015) Citizens likely receive incorrect information from exaggerated media sound bites and selective exposure to only like-minded people.

Deliberative forums filter out incorrect information through the reason-giving requirement. When a citizen attempts to corroborate an opinion with false information, forum facilitators and experts present are able to correct the citizen with the real facts. By evidence of deliberative polls, participants leave forums significantly more educated on policy issues and government facts than when they entered. (Fishkin 2009)

In sum, deliberative democracy’s plea to reason has proven to be of benefit to participants. Passionate impartiality exposes the prejudice attitudes and thought, highlights logical fallacies of arguments, and corrects false information. Participants of forums thus learn to develop arguments that can withstand scrutiny: void of prejudice, fallacy, and myths. (Gutmann & Thompson 2004)


Deliberative democracy is inclusive.

            Deliberative forums are designed around inclusivity.To be democratic, deliberation must be widely inclusive of the major interests, opinions, and social perspectives of differently situated groups.” (Fung 2004) In their paper, A Conceptual Definition and Theoretical Model of Public Deliberation in Small Face-to-Face Groups, Stephanie Burkhalter, John Gastil, and Todd Kelshaw list the requirements for democratic deliberation. “Public deliberation is a combination of careful problem analysis and an egalitarian process in which participants have adequate speaking opportunities and engage in attentive listening or dialogue that bridges divergent ways of speaking and knowing.” (Burkhalter et al. 2002) In order for the process to be egalitarian, a deliberative system must offer a vast array of information from diverse sources and media. Participants must offer a broad range of solutions. Participants must be made aware of the tradeoffs for each proposed solutions. Participants must be given a sufficient opportunity to speak and they must demonstrate adequate comprehension of what others are saying. (Burkhalter et al. 2002)

James Fishkin is perhaps the most prominent scholar of political equality in relation to deliberation. Fishkin acknowledges that it is difficult to apply a standard of political equality to a large mass of people; a point that scholars such as Iris Marion Young and Jane Mansbridge have criticized. (Fung 2004) American practice allows citizens the right to vote on an issue and assures that each vote will be counted equally. This is today’s process of equality in American politics.

Fishkin (2009), however, proposes an alternative to achieving political equality: random sampling. “There is a lottery among all voters to select a microcosm and the microcosm votes and those votes are then counted equally.” (44) Fishkin proposes that a limited number of citizens are randomly chosen through a lottery, and then given good conditions to deliberate a political or policy issue. Those participants then vote on a binding decision. These small, face-to-face deliberation groups accurately represent the makeup of the community, as they were chosen randomly. The votes of participants in the microcosms are just as equal as the votes in modern elections.

The microcosmic process of deliberation, however, adds legitimacy to one’s vote; “a representative mini-public of participants becomes informed as they weigh competing arguments on their merits.” (Fishkin 2009) Citizens who vote in these mini-publics have thoroughly been educated, discussed the issue, and reflected on the rewards and consequences of different decisions. Therefore, these votes represent what the aggregate population would vote on if all citizens were informed and had deliberated. (Fishkin 2009)

Examples of microcosmic deliberation institutions are Citizen Juries, Planning Cells, Consensus Conferences, and Televote. Citizen Juries are a group of citizens who have been randomly selected to form a type of “jury” to deliberate over a policy issue that will affect a community at large. Members of the jury are educated of all relevant information surrounding the issue and they deliberate about the best solution to suggest to a representative or lawmaking body. Members in Citizen Juries typically type out a report, which is delivered to the relevant official. (Environmental Protection Agency 2016) A limitation of Citizen Juries, however, is that they are too small and short-lived to prove representative of an entire community. (Fishkin 2009)

Deliberative Panels seem to make up for the shortcomings of Citizen Juries. “Small groups are convened in the same location for successive weekends, each for a day of deliberation on the same topic. After seven or eight of these, the numbers may be large enough for statistically significant conclusions to emerge.” (Fishkin 2009) In essence, these institutions attempt to make deliberation as inclusive as possible while still being feasible. It is agreed by most scholars that large groups will fail to meet the standard of political equality simply because they are too large to control. (Sanders 1997; Schauer 1999; Shapiro 1999; Mutz 2006; Fishkin 2009) Fishkin, thus, concludes that inclusiveness can be achieved on a smaller scale that is representative of the larger society.

Deliberative democracy reduces political polarization.

Especially considering the 2016 Presidential election, the polarization of political positions in the modern American political arena is a very popular topic in the media and within the everyday talk of ordinary Americans. Despite the country’s diverse social context, most citizens have homogenous political networks, meaning that they live and work around mostly like-minded individuals. (Mutz 2006) Diana Mutz calls this “self-selective exposure.”

People are unlikely to live amongst those with opposite views. Why would a liberal citizen want to live next to a conservative citizen or vice versa? This creates a trend where people are not exposed to views outside their own, and they become incapable of considering the lives of those different from them. In fact, living around like-minded individuals is proven to only solidify viewpoints, even in the face of counter-facts. (Sunstein 2016)

Deliberative democrats argue that deliberation reduces political polarization by exposing citizens to diverse viewpoints. (Habermas 1989; Gutmann & Thompson 2004; Fishkin 2009) Many argue that the citizen of a deliberative system should contribute to the common good of a community by being willing to let go of one’s own tensions or competing values. (Carcasson & Sprain, 2015; Matthews, 2002; Held, 1987; Young, 2004) Martìn Carcasson and Leah Sprain believe that Americans are not defined by the values they hold but by how they rank their values. (9) They explain that most citizens tend to share the same American values: freedom, equality, justice, and security. The difference between citizens of the left and citizens of the right how they prioritize these shared values.

Carcasson and Sprain thus suggest that deliberative practitioners guide citizens to realize the inherent tensions between these ranked values; “citizens realize that wickedness is inherent to the problem and its competing values rather than assigning wickedness to opposing groups.” (10)

The debate over building the Keystone XL Pipeline is a good example issue of how participants in a deliberative forum would be challenged to understand. The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed pipeline that would travel from the oil sands of Alberta Canada to the Midwest of the United States. It would carry hundreds of thousands of oil a day. President Obama eventually vetoed this very contested issue. Supporters of the pipeline saw it as a way to free the country of dependency on oil in the Middle East. It was also thought that the pipeline would lower the cost of petrol. Those against the pipeline believed that it would harm vulnerable ecosystems across Canada and the Midwest, as well as destroy small communities. (BBC 2015)

If there had been a deliberative forum on this topic, facilitators would have asked both sides to reflect on the values behind both positions. People who supported the pipeline value independence and safety. By building the pipeline, the US could ween off its dependence with the Middle East and perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary to deploy troops to the Middle East any longer. People who were against the pipeline value the health and safety of agriculture, the environment, and the local communities that would be negatively affected by the pipeline. When one looks at the values of both sides, it’s difficult to claim one side as “wicked.” Instead, citizens could begin to see that it is not people who are wicked, but that the problem is wicked. This practice within deliberation is a good method at promoting mutual respect across political divides. “Deliberation cannot make incompatible vales compatible, but it can help participants recognize the moral merit in their opponents’ claims when those claims have merit.” (Gutmann & Thompson 2004)

Deliberation also appeals to the values of both liberals and conservatives. People of liberal persuasion like that deliberation concerns itself with the disenfranchised and appeals to reaching a consensus. Conservatives like that deliberation emphasizes the power of citizens to control public decisions and spending. (Nabatchi & Munno 2014)

In sum, deliberation is said to be the cure to polarization of American politics. Deliberative democracy forces citizens to step outside their homogenous political networks and expose themselves to different viewpoints. It appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. Finally, deliberative democracy encourages citizens to abandon combative dialogue with those of opposite views, and instead see these tensions as natural rankings of common American values.

Deliberative democracy is legitimate.

Finally, deliberative democracy increases the legitimacy of official decisions. Tina Nabatchi and Greg Munno explain that deliberative practices are often used by government officials and local organizations when a difficult decision needs to be made and held as legitimate. “Induced participation,” as Nabatchi and Munno call it, is when a government or an official decision-maker sponsors a deliberative forum. Officials typically do this “in reaction to frustrations with the policy-making process and to address difficult issues.” (Nabatchi & Munno 2014) Examples of induced participation include participatory budgeting practices in Brazil, local forums on race and diversity issues, and forums for local groups such as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (Los Angeles).

Nabatchi and Munno also define “organic participation”; civic groups sponsor deliberative forums independently of the government. Organic participation attempts to promote transparency, legitimacy, and to achieve concrete goals; generate support on a challenging issue, make decisions/invoke actions, and to get closure on an issue. “Deliberative civic engagement is sometimes used by civic leaders and civil society organizations to help them and to influence and transform the larger political process.” (Nabatchi & Munno 2014)

While deliberative democracy does produce binding decisions, it also a dynamic process; it guarantees that a topic and decision can and will be open for discussion and change in the future. (Mathews 2002; Gutmann & Thompson 2004; Leighninger 2012; Carcasson & Sprain 2015) “It is provisional in the sense that it must be open to challenge at some point in the future. […] Decision-making processes and the human understanding upon which they depend are imperfect.” (Gutmann & Thompson 2004) People are more likely to accept a decision, even if it is not the decision they agree with, because they know that they will be able to legitimately challenge it in the future. Decisions are, therefore, more legitimate in the eyes of the deliberative citizen.

As mentioned earlier in the paper, deliberative democracy has a reason-giving requirement. Every argument must be justified by reason. This means that every decision made in the deliberative process has also been justified by reason. Even if one does not agree with the decision, they understand why the decision was made; the decision is easier to accept. (Gutmann & Thompson 2004)

Conclusion/ TDLR;

In closure, deliberative democracy has proven to effect change in citizens and in government. Deliberative democracy is a merit-based practice in which all opinions must be substantiated with reason. Citizens learn to develop arguments that are devoid of prejudice and fallacy; arguments that withstand scrutiny.

Deliberative democracy is also inclusive. Despite the challenges of a large-scale democracy, such as the United States, deliberative democrats utilize random sampling for deliberative microcosms, which assures a representative and diverse range of perspectives. Deliberative facilitators are also trained to assure that every participant has equal speaking time and that no one person dominates conversation.

Deliberative democracy reduces political polarization. By design, deliberative forums force citizens to briefly abandon their small, homogenous political networks to discuss complex issues with those of different viewpoints. Participants are also challenged to view an oppositional perspective by its shared values, which promotes a greater mutual understanding.

Finally, deliberative democracy is legitimate. Officials can use deliberative forums to reduce the backlash of a difficult decision, or to survey his or her constituents before making a difficult decision. Even when undesirable decisions are made, deliberative democracy offers the opportunity to revisit the debate at a later time and possibly make a new binding decision. In addition, all decisions are proven to be merit-based, rather than prejudiced.


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