What does the public really want when it comes to political leaders, or anything else? A deliberative democratic perspective

Anyone in Australia will know that today there was a leadership vote in the governing Labor party at the Federal level. There are more than a few commentators playing to the theme that the victory of the prime-minister over her challenger is one of internal party machinations triumphing over popular will. Her colleagues voted overwhelmingly for her, the public wanted to revert back to the previous leader. Her unpopularity is supposed to reflect the illegitimacy of her tenure in the top job.

But what light does a deliberative perspective put on the issue? Putting aside procedural issues concerning whether the public should have direct say in who is prime-minister (as opposed to the parliament of elected members), let’s ask the question about what processes are forming public opinion on the issue and how a deliberative system might affect the outcome.

The first point is that public opinion might well be different — although this is not automatically the case. We know from running many small deliberative forums that when members of the public come together and engage directly with an issue that many end up changing their positions. The main reason in many kinds of issues comes down to the fact that argument that influence many of them in everyday politics tend to be the emotionally appealing, easily digested ones. When people get the chance to sit down, learn and talk about an issue the dynamics often change very quickly. Many end up engaging with the substance of the issue, rather than the symbols. The same sometimes goes for perceptions about well-known protagonists in public issues who (very kindly) give their time to present to minipublic forums. In other words, the person that they see on television is quite different to the person that they are engaging with in front of them. (This is not only because they get a chance to engage with a public figure, but also because the context of a small group deliberative process tends to put people in an inquisitive frame of mind — seeking to find out more — rather than an attacking one that you sometimes see when politicians hit the shopping malls.)

If we were to run a deliberative process (which is very different to a focus group, by the way, but that’s for another post) involving members of the public on the question of the Labor leadership, would there be a change in sentiment? Possibly. It’s ultimately an empirical question —we can’t actually run such a forum — but one of two things could happen.

Firstly, the participants could basically stick to their original positions, with the ability to directly engage with the contenders and the relevant issues merely confirming their original position. In this case it would tend to confirm that the politics that goes on inside the Labor party is out of touch with the will of the public.

Secondly, participants could find that they identify with the publicly stated experience of many members of the Labor caucus: that the PM is basically an effective leader who works well with colleagues to get things done; the challenger is…well, found wanting.

It’s impossible to know the actual outcome, but that’s the point. There is very little sense that the wider public has a chance to really understand what is going on in the politics that affect them. If there is a chance that they would desire a different outcome under a more deliberative set of circumstances, whatever that may be, then there is a need to look at the way that our system of politics operates. Our research to date (for example here) suggests that what we see in opinion polls is a poor reflection of what the public really wants when they get a chance to engage with the issues. If this is the case, then it represents a crisis of democracy far more serious than the internal machinations of a leadership fight within a political party.

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Welcome to the D2G2 blog

Welcome to the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Goverance (D2G2) blog. The objective of this blog is to provide an avenue for communicating the activities of the centre to a wider audience, as well as provide commentary on issues that are directly related.

All members of the centre will contribute to the blog, so the range of topics will be fairly wide (see post “about D2G2”). But all will relate to how it might be possible to improve the way in which we are governed. This will include ways in which an authentic “voice of the people” can be achieved given the problems that constrain the way in which citizens are connected to politics. We will tend to approach these issues from a ‘deliberative’ perspective (see post “what is deliberative democracy?”) and will apply this perspective to a range of issues, such as climate change, democratization (including in specific countries, such as China, as well as on a global scale).

We very much welcome comments; we are deliberative in orientation after all! However, in accordance with the ideals of deliberative democracy (see “what is deliberative democracy”) comments should be restricted to dealing directly with the topic at hand, using a respectful manner. A wide variety of views are welcome, but we will not accept posts that directly attack individuals or use abusive or defamatory language.

Feedback on how we can improve the blog are especially welcome, as is information about the kind of issues relating to democratic politics that are of greatest interest to the public.

Read on and enjoy.

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About D2G2

The Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance is based at the Australian National University. It is jointly sponsored by the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences (in particular, the School of Politics & International Relations) and College of Asia and the Pacific (in particular, the Department of International Relations). Most of the research conducted by the centre is supplied by the Australian Research Council (see research projects). There is a wide range of research being conducted by the centre’s staff and students, which total one ARC Federation Fellow, one ARC Future Fellow, four postdoctoral fellows and 11 PhD students, as well as a number of associated researchers and a range of visiting fellows.

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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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