Deliberative Democracy: A Way to Increase Civic Participation

The Problem: Dropping Civic Participation

We live in a democracy that faces decreasing participation on a dramatic scale.   In many respects, because of our republican form of government, the only real opportunity we have to engage in public decision-making is during periodic elections.

With so little control and distanced from the decision-making process, from the momentous decisions that have lingering effects on their lives, citizens are disempowered, and, as a result, they lose interest.

In contrast, there have been few times in our history when citizen involvement might have been more important. The issues facing our county, as well as our states and our cities, would benefit greatly from higher, and more informed, citizen participation. Our country is facing the prospect of out-of-control entitlement growth, insufficient tax revenues, lingering high unemployment, aging and crumbling bridges and roads, and rising healthcare costs, to name a few problems that affect our nation, states, and municipalities of all sizes.

Oh, and lest we forget that American soldiers are in harm’s way, we’re also engaged in two foreign wars, too.

Yet, despite all these things that can and will affect our future, both collectively and individually, citizen participation in civic decision-making is extremely low. In a few years, we will pay higher taxes, our money will be worth less, and our healthcare will cost more and discriminate against the poor more.

How can participation be improved, then, and increased? How do we get more people engaged in decision-making? And more informed about the decisions, too?

The Idea: Deliberative Democracy

What if, in addition to voting to electing our leaders, we also were more engaged in the actual decision-making process? What if decisions made by elected leaders were better informed by what educated voters want?

It’s what we might call “deliberative democracy.” Rather than just voting for leaders, but getting a lot of the same results, why not engage an informed citizenry in the decisions that will raise their taxes, fix their roads, improve their healthcare, and send their sons and daughters to war. James Fishkin, of Stanford University, has an idea to do just that, and he calls it “deliberate polling.”

 A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

Would it work? And would it help our process? Provide better checks on the myopic swings between left and right in our elective politics, provide for more incentive for people to engage in the political process.

Often, if not usually, citizens are insufficiently informed about public policy issues. Under this “deliberative democracy” model, citizens might be informed, educated, and then engaged in the decision-making. The decisions are theirs, rather than those of a Congress with no incentive to responsibility for the results of their actions.

The very nature of the Congress–dispersing responsibility and decreasing accountability–makes it easier for Congressmen and Senators to give more benefits than to cut them. Why not include the people who are most effected in the decisions and force elected officials to acknowledge and make public policy decisions that are in the public interest, not theirs?

Rather than receiving their information solely from lobbyists devoted to a single issue, interest group, or constituency, why not instead inform their decisions with the participation of educated citizens?


7 responses to “Deliberative Democracy: A Way to Increase Civic Participation

  1. Really interesting idea. I wouldn’t be adverse to trying it. It seems like it would be hard *not* to improve on our current system (though the assumption that, “well, we couldn’t do worse” is all-too-often proven to be untrue).

    But I wonder if the real problem we’ve got is something more fundamental that can’t be solved (or even very much mitigated) by a better process. It may very well be that voter apathy and ignorance are driven primarily by a flawed system that results in citizens feeling disempowered. On the other hand, it may be that most people simply care less about solutions than consistency and ideology or just don’t want to be bothered with the complexities and nuances of our nation’s problems.

    Maybe, like Learned Hand himself said, even the best processes are “false hopes” in the ultimate sense. What would really benefit our nation in its search for solutions to seemingly intractable problems is a spirit of earnest inquiry in the people. It’s that reasoned commitment to the quest for solutions that makes any problem-solving effort meaningfully deliberative. How do you cultivate that attitude in a world of soundbytes, overly simplistic ideology, and political ambition? That’s my question, and I don’t have an answer.

    • Don’t be too cynical about it…

      One problem I do note about it is that it appears to be expensive, not mention require more effort by both the governed and the governing.

  2. Yeah, law school and lawyering probably haven’t been wonderful for my more optimistic side :)

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a bad idea — in fact, I think it’s worthwhile and probably part of “the solution.”. I’m just skeptical that you can (in any meaningful way) manufacture deliberation for people that aren’t interested in it. Deliberation only takes place among people who are committed to really examining alternative perspectives. And that requires someone who’s really concerned about solutions rather than validation of their own strongly held beliefs.

    Maybe a deliberative attitude like that can be fostered somewhat by putting regular citizens together for moderated discussions — it has been my experience that people tend to moderate some of their views when they are in close physical proximity to the person with the opposing viewpoint (i.e. it’s harder to be an unreasonable jerk to someone’s face–this obviously applies to me as well).

    As far as cost is concerned, just imagine if we took a fraction of the money that went to soundbytes and attack ads and put it toward something like this. Effort, well that is a thorny problem . . .

    • RE: Paragraph three and people moderating their views when in proximity to people with the opposing viewpoint. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Isn’t one of the major problems without public discourse that it doesn’t require any type of humility or acknowledgement of differing opinions? And wouldn’t putting those differing opinions, and perspectives, in the same room for a process actually be in the interest of all parties, not just the extremes?

      • I do think that would be a good thing. That’s why I like the idea, despite the fact that I’m a bit skeptical about how much it will change things. I’m especially fond of the idea of professionally moderated discussions, so long as (1) the moderator is objective and really committed to facilitating a thorough discussions of positions and viewpoints (we already have plenty of “moderated” discussions between experts that are almost solely for entertainment . . . and we know how educational those are), and (2) can take the time necessary to actually drill down and get people to think a bit about nuance and ramifications.

        • Yeah, I don’t think it’d work to well if conducted on t.v. Plus, because it would require a substantial time commitment (think something like a jury sequestration) and it would be expensive (and that doesn’t even include bringing in the experts and partisans from each side to brief the issue).

          A pipe dream, perhaps.

          It’s interesting. I found a place, outside of the location used in the study, that is using or testing this idea: communist China. It doesn’t really make them democratic, and in fact, they don’t really take a poll to see what people thing, but it does allow for a little more deliberation with citizens. Ironic, eh?

  3. Pingback: Proportional Representation: A way to increase voter representation and turnout? | What they don't teach in law school

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