What is deliberative democracy?

Deliberative democracy is a field of political inquiry that is concerned with improving collective decision-making. It emphasizes the right, opportunity, and capacity of anyone who is subject to a collective decision to participate (or have their representatives participate) in consequential deliberation about that decision. “Consequential” means deliberation must have some influence.

In other words, if there is a political decision about to be made, you, as a citizen, should have some means of having your say. Of course, in many democracies there are already mechanisms for doing this — from letters to local members of parliament, participation in public consultation, through to protesting. What distinguishes deliberative democracy is the way in which communication (or deliberation) ideally takes place and the way that citizens encounter it. The early days of deliberative democracy saw deliberation couched in terms of a very specific form of rational argument in favour of the common good (public reason). But field has moved on and most deliberative democrats now favour something broader. Just how broad?

Our view is that we should allow pretty much any kind of communication that is non-coercive, capable of inducing reflection, strives to link personal viewpoints to larger principles, and tries to make sense to others who do not share the speaker’s framework. So in this light we can (conditionally) accept the telling of personal stories, rhetoric, humour, ceremonial speech, even gossip, as well as arguments. Threats, lies, abuse, and command have no place.

We should though allow that non-deliberative acts can have deliberative consequences – for example, ridicule of those in positions of power that eventually prompts a public dialogue about what they are doing.

The most important contrast is with modes of communication that actively attempt to mislead. Political ‘spin’, for example, is manifestly not deliberative because it is strategic, rather than communicative. In other words, it is designed to manipulate opinion, rather than inform.

But deliberation isn’t just about how the communicator should act. It is also important for the listener to engage with the message or argument with an open mind; a willingness to engage with alternative positions, attempting to understand any merit that arguments might have. This contrasts with the kind of politics that is often witnessed where protagonists stick to their particular message, whatever the circumstances, refusing to adjust or accommodate.

And deliberation is supposed to change positions – not in every case, but at the least there is some kind of mutual accommodation. What we know from actually observing deliberation in practice (in the form of a minipublic, more on that below) is that, insofar as we can create these ideal kinds of conditions, there is indeed a good deal of change to the positions of individuals. Morever, there is almost a universal increase in satisfaction on the part of participants, in terms of both the process and the outcome.

Deliberative democracy began as an attempt to find ways to transform politics on a wide scale (public sphere). But its most common practical manifestation to date has been the emergence of ‘minipublics’ involving relatively small sub-samples of the affected population (anywhere between 20 and 2000) who come together to learn about and consider ways through a particular issue. The most famous example of these are Deliberative Polls, including one held in Australia on the Republican Referendum in 1999. Another example is the Citizens Parliament held in 2009 and including 150 randomly selected participants from around Australia on the question of parliamentary reform. Other examples of minipublics include Citizens’ Juries, Consensus Conferences, Planning Cells etc. Importantly, these are not a form of focus group — focus groups mainly involve the collection of information from participants during discussion. Deliberation in minipublics involves a multi-directional conversation aimed at improving both understanding and decision making.

While we know the deliberative minipublics can be effective in achieving the kinds of ideals the deliberative democracy aspires to, there is a big challenge in finding ways that these benefits can be achieved in politics more widely. This is the new frontier in deliberative research, finding ways to ‘scale up’ the benefits of minipublics, or achieving a ‘deliberative system’ as part of our politics. The recent experience of the proposed Citizens’ Assembly on climate change in the lead up to the last Federal Election suggests that in Australia there is a way to go. Our research is concerned with finding ways to get there, both within country states and as part of a global deliberative system.

Deliberative democracy has been endorsed by the founder of conservatism (Edmund Burke, who thought parliament should be a deliberative assembly), at least one president of the United States (Barack Obama, who thinks the US constitution establishes a deliberative democracy), and even figures in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party (who think that local deliberative democracy can be allowed without competitive elections).

Deliberative democracy today flourishes in political theory, many social science disciplines, and in a worldwide political reform movement. There has never been a better time to be a deliberative democrat – despite a recalcitrant non-deliberative world, or perhaps because of all the challenges that world presents to us.

John Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer

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