Critics of Deliberative Democracy

In this post, I will outline the five main criticisms of deliberative democratic theory and practice.

Equality does not exist.

The first major criticism of deliberation is that it fails to guarantee equality for all participants. To some, deliberative democracy is considered to be anti-democratic at worst, and unequal at best. (Sanders 1997; Young 2000; Bell 1999) Deliberative democratic theory necessarily places an emphasis on mutual respect and a concern for the common good. Critics argue, however, that the process swallows the interests of minorities, such as women and people of color. This assumption, if true, serves the negative argument. Centuries of slavery, discrimination, marginalization, prejudice and patriarchy require that we afford special attention and concern to the interests of minorities. (Sanders 1997)

Deliberative democracy is an egalitarian plea to reason. The politics of personal identity are an anathema to its core.  In her piece, Against Deliberation, Lynn Sanders argues that egalitarianism is an unrealistic pursuit. She writes, “Prejudice and privilege do not emerge in deliberative settings as bad reasons, and they are not countered by good arguments. They are too sneaky, invisible and pernicious for that reasonable process.” (4) It cannot be guaranteed that participants will respect and accept arguments only based on merit. Prejudice, critics argue, is permanently woven into society and often too subtle to distinctly point out.

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In addition, some individuals tend to dominate conversation in all settings. Deliberative forums may aspire to equal speaking time; but forum facilitators have no power beyond the confines of their skill and personality.  They cannot stop an individual from interrupting, speaking loudly, speaking aggressively, or speaking with high status persuasion. (Sanders 1997; Young 2000)

Honoré de Balzac once wrote that, “Equality may be a right but no power on earth can ever turn it into a fact.” Sanders highlights studies of citizen juries and jury trials. These studies show that wealthy white men tend to dominate conversation. White men are more often than not chosen as the jury foreman. (Hans & Vidmar 1986)

Even when women are present as a higher percentage in meetings and deliberative venues, men still tend to usurp a larger share of speaking time. (Karpowitz & Mendelberg 2014) In essence, critics of deliberative democracy do not believe it is possible to achieve the equality upon which deliberation rests.

Many citizens are incapable of participating in intelligent debate.

Another major criticism claims that citizens lack the capacity to engage in intelligent and respectful debate. (Bell 1999; Sanders 1997) Knowledge is a power that derives from education and experience.  People of unequal education and experience are incapable of enter the discussion with unequal levels of power. (Sanders 1997)

Critics also voice concern that large groups of people will gravitate to a mob mentality or otherwise become too passionately violent during deliberative forums. The promise of deliberative democrats that forum facilitators will keep participants in check during forums gives little comfort to the critics.

Our polarized two party system, tends to drive Americans into isolated political silos. Many citizens choose to live and work around like-minded people; homogenous political communities amidst us all. Many people are oblivious to politics and are unaware of the everyday struggles of Americans living outside of their bubbles. Deliberative democrats would argue that a deliberative forum would help alleviate this condition but critics assert that people are content in their ignorance and uninterested in the pursuit of communal deliberation (Mutz 2006)

Some problems require expert knowledge.  A weakness in the deliberative process lies in the difficulty in bringing all participants to a common understanding of complex facts.  (Bell 1999) For example, the complexity of healthcare system cannot be grasped without considerable study. Of course, many citizens could surely undertake this course; but most would demur.  The overwhelming majority of people cannot and do not wish to spend so much time and energy learning about the healthcare system, or about clean energy, or about the public water system of a city. Most people would rather use their free time for entertainment or spending it with family and friends; not reading for hours about the little details of a complex healthcare system. Forums could not present enough time for adequate education, either. Therefore, most citizens are not truly educating themselves on an issue to make a knowledgeable and reasonable decision. These types of issues seem more appropriate for experts to handle. (Gutmann & Thompson 2004)

People are not empowered to participate in politics.

Critics also challenge that deliberative democracy fails to foster a highly participatory citizenry. (Mutz 2006) Most people choose to live among politically like-minded people. Mutz refers to these relationships as political networks, “the people who a given person communicates on a direct, one-to-one basis.” (10) Living among like-minded people tend to intensify people’s original positions; and citizens who live in a politically diverse social network are less likely to discuss politics with those of opposite views. (Mutz 2006; Sunstein 2016) “As the society becomes more diverse, the individual’s’ own social networks become less diverse.” (Fischer 1999)

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There are too many preconditions to deliberation.

The fourth major criticism is that deliberation (Mutz 2006; Sanders 1997; Bell 1999) requires an extensive list of conditions, such as to have free and equal discussion, to exchange mutually respectful dialogue, to propose solutions for the common good, to avoid strategizing during forums (no bargaining or alliances), to adequately educate oneself on an issue, and to have the ability to take a day off of work or step away from one’s children in order to attend deliberative forums. Deliberative democrats claim these conditions must be in order for deliberation to succeed. These variables, critics are convinced, are impossible to assure. In Mutz’s book, Hearing the Other Side, she writes, “It is one thing to claim that political conversation has the potential to produce beneficial outcomes if it meets a whole variety of unrealized criteria, and yet another to argue that political conversation, as they actually occur, produce meaningful benefits for citizens.” (5) Due to the extensive list of preconditions, scholars struggle to test deliberative theory. (Schauer 1999; Mutz 2006)

Ian Shapiro complains that deliberative democrats lack evidence. Deliberative democrats cannot name a project or event in which all of the conditions were met. In fact, most events named by deliberative democrats, such as Thompson and Gutmann, fall well below the ideal. There is no evidence of a successful practice of deliberative theory. (Shapiro 1999)

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