Presidential debates – and deliberations

Barack Obama believes in deliberative democracy. As he puts it in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope:

“What the framework of our constitution can do is organize the way in which we argue about our future. All of its elaborate machinery – its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights – are designed to force us into a conversation, a “deliberative democracy” in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.”

I have no idea what Mitt Romney thinks about deliberative democracy. I doubt that he believes in it, but then he seems not to believe in anything  very strongly.

The  televised presidential debates are the antithesis of deliberation. They feature  personal attacks, cheap point scoring, pandering to the perceived distribution of opinion in the audience, distortions of the truth, coded messages to particular groups of supporters. Obviously the candidates care only about winning, and doing whatever they can to facilitate that.

We have three debates between the two major party candidates: why not a deliberation as well? This could be moderated by a facilitator versed in standard deliberative principles. So it would rule out ad hominem attacks; it would encourage reasoned discussion of the issues, respectful listening, sticking to the point under discussion, an effort at reciprocal understanding, and an attempt to persuade.

Now the very point of an election campaign is to win, so it is hard to imagine a presidential deliberation being accepted by either side in the campaign. There is an obvious solution: hold the deliberation after the election. Aside from its potential contribution to reasonable resolution of issues that gets distorted by the unremittingly adversarial nature of the campaign, it could actually contribute to the legitimacy of what whoever is elected subsequently wants to do – because that program will have been subject to a moment of deliberation by someone representing many of those who did not vote for the winning candidate. As a moment of closure, it would be much better than the simple claim of victory by one candidate, and conceding of defeat by another.

John Dryzek

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