Deliberative democracy (also called discursive democracy) is a form of democracy in which public deliberation is central to legitimate lawmaking. It adopts elements of both representative democracy and direct democracy and differs from traditional democratic theory in that deliberation, not voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy.
“Deliberative democracy” was originally coined by Joseph M. Bessette, in “Deliberative Democracy: The Majority Principle in Republican Government,” in 1980, and he subsequently elaborated and defended the notion in “The Mild Voice of Reason” (1994). Others contributing to the notion of deliberative democracy include Jon Elster, Jürgen Habermas, David Held, Joshua Cohen, John Rawls, Amy Gutmann, Noëlle Mcafee, John Dryzek, Rense Bos, James Fishkin, Dennis Thompson, Benny Hjern, Hal Koch, Seyla Benhabib, Ethan Leib, David Estlund and Robert B. Talisse.
Joshua Cohen, a student of John Rawls, most clearly outlined some conditions that he thinks constitute the root principles of the theory of deliberative democracy, in the article “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy” in the book The Good Polity. He outlines five main features of deliberative democracy, which include:
1.An ongoing independent association with expected continuation.
2.The citizens in the democracy structure their institutions such that deliberation is the deciding factor in the creation of the institutions and the institutions allow deliberation to continue.
3.A commitment to the respect of a pluralism of values and aims within the polity.
4.The citizens consider deliberative procedure as the source of legitimacy, and prefer the causal history of legitimation for each law to be transparent and easily traceable to the deliberative process.
5.Each member recognizes and respects other members’ deliberative capacity. This can be construed as the idea that in the legislative process, we “owe” one another reasons for our proposals.
Cohen presents deliberative democracy as more than a theory of legitimacy, and forms a body of substantive rights around it based on achieving “ideal deliberation”:
1.It is free in two ways: 1.The participants consider themselves bound solely by the results and preconditions of the deliberation. They are free from any authority of prior norms or requirements.
2.The participants suppose that they can act on the decision made; the deliberative process is a sufficient reason to comply with the decision reached.
2.Parties to deliberation are required to state reasons for their proposals, and proposals are accepted or rejected based on the reasons given, as the content of the very deliberation taking place.
3.Participants are equal in two ways: 1.Formal: anyone can put forth proposals, criticize, and support measures. There is no substantive hierarchy.
2.Substantive: The participants are not limited or bound by certain distributions of power, resources, or pre-existing norms. “The participants…do not regard themselves as bound by the existing system of rights, except insofar as that system establishes the framework of free deliberation among equals.”
4.Deliberation aims at a rationally motivated consensus: it aims to find reasons acceptable to all who are committed to such a system of decision-making. When consensus or something near enough is not possible, majoritarian decision making is used.
Association with political movements
Deliberative democracy recognizes a conflict of interest between the citizen participating, those affected or victimized by the process being undertaken, and the group-entity that organizes the decision. Thus it usually involves an extensive outreach effort to include marginalized, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results. In this form it is a complete theory of civics.
The Green Party of the United States refers to its particular proposals for grassroots democracy and electoral reform by this name.
On the other hand, many practitioners of deliberative democracy attempt to be as neutral and open-ended as possible, inviting (or even randomly selecting) people who represent a wide range of views and providing them with balanced materials to guide their discussions. Examples include National Issues Forums, Choices for the 21st Century, study circles, deliberative opinion polls, and the 21st-century town meetings convened by AmericaSpeaks, among others. In these cases, deliberative democracy is not connected to left-wing politics but is intended to create a conversation among people of different philosophies and beliefs.
In Canada, there have been two prominent applications of deliberative democratic models. In 2004, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform convened a policy jury to consider alternatives to the first-past-the-post electoral systems. In 2007, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform convened to consider alternative electoral systems in that province.
Similarly, three of Ontario’s Local Health Integration Networks (LHIN) have referred their budget priorities to a policy jury for advice and refinement.
Strengths and weaknesses
A claimed strength of deliberative democratic models is that they are more easily able to incorporate scientific opinion and base policy on outputs of ongoing research, because:
Time is given for all participants to understand and discuss the science
Scientific peer review, adversarial presentation of competing arguments, refereed journals, even betting markets, are also deliberative processes.
The technology used to record dissent and document opinions opposed to the majority is also useful to notarize bets, predictions and claims.
According to the proponents, another strength of deliberative democratic models is that they tend, more than any other model, to generate ideal conditions of impartiality, rationality and knowledge of the relevant facts. The more these conditions are fulfilled, the greater the likelihood that the decisions reached are morally correct. Deliberative democracy has thus an epistemic value: it allows participants to deduce what is morally correct. This view has been prominently held by Carlos Nino.
A failure of most theories of deliberative democracy is that they do not address the problems of voting. James Fishkin’s 1991 work, “Democracy and Deliberation” introduced a way to apply the theory of deliberative democracy to real-world decision making, by way of what he calls the deliberative opinion poll. In the deliberative opinion poll, a statistically representative sample of the nation or a community is gathered to discuss an issue in conditions that further deliberation. The group is then polled, and the results of the poll and the actual deliberation can be used both as a recommending force and in certain circumstances, to replace a vote. Dozens of deliberative opinion polls have been conducted across the United States since his book was published.
The political philosopher Charles Blattberg has criticized deliberative democracy on four grounds: (i) the rules for deliberation that deliberative theorists affirm interfere with, rather than facilitate, good practical reasoning; (ii) deliberative democracy is ideologically biased in favor of liberalism as well as republican over parliamentary democratic systems; (iii) deliberative democrats assert a too-sharp division between just and rational deliberation on the one hand and self-interested and coercive bargaining or negotiation on the other; and (iv) deliberative democrats encourage an adversarial relationship between state and society, one that undermines solidarity between citizens.
Social choice theory presents deliberative democracy with a distinct challenge. Critics of deliberative democracy have pointed to Arrow’s impossibility theorem as limiting the use of deliberative democracy. Deliberative theorists (in particular Christian List/ cf. http://personal.lse.ac.uk/list/ ) have responded with a recent body of research in support of the claim that deliberation actually makes the conditions necessary for Arrow’s Theorem to apply less likely.