Deliberative democracy

A deliberative democracy is a system in which people discuss before they make decisions. In order for the system to be democratic, people must have reasonably equal power over decisions, which usually means that they each have one vote (although small groups may not using voting). In order for their discussions to qualify as deliberative, their communication must meet certain criteria. The precise criteria are debated but typically include equitable participation, lack of coercion and censorship, and interactions among people who disagree. Some would include civility, but that word can be defined in many ways and has critics.


In the mid-20th century, most political scientists presumed that individuals and organizations wanted things. People made political choices to get as much of what they wanted as possible. For instance, citizens in a democracy voted for what they wanted. Harold Lasswell’s famous textbook was entitled Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (Laswell 1936/1958).

Starting about 1970, deliberative democracy became increasingly influential, growing into the dominant paradigm for political theory in the English-speaking world. Two important proponents were John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, the most prominent post-War political philosophers in the USA and Germany, respectively (Rawls 1997; Habermas 1987). A major younger theorist in this tradition is Danielle Allen (Allen 2004). 

[See this video by Peter Levine on Jürgen Habermas.]

Deliberative democrats argue that we should not be satisfied when individuals and groups try to get what they want. People may not want good things, their power is starkly unequal, and some of their tactics are unethical. Besides, people often don’t know what they want until they have communicated with others. Although our opinions about matters very close to our own lives may emerge from private experience, we do not know what to think about most issues until we have heard others’ opinions and formed responses. We don’t even know who we are (in a political sense) until we have communicated. 

Therefore, talking and listening are politically important. Listening should–and does–precede acts like voting. 

The definition of a deliberation cannot be a conversation that reaches the correct outcome, because that would be circular. Instead, for deliberative democrats, the intrinsic qualities of the conversation are what mark it as valuable. Typically, those qualities include the diversity of the participants, their equality of influence, freedom of speech, openness and transparency, reasonableness, and civility.

Google Scholar finds more than 16,000 books and articles about “deliberative democracy.” In parallel with that academic work, there has been a flood of practical experiments. Typically, a finite group of citizens who somehow represent a larger public is convened for a moderated discussion and asked to produce a decision or statement of some kind. Caroline Lee argues that the field of “dialogue and deliberation” attracts more than $100 million annually in the USA alone and employs thousands of specialist professionals. She asserts that organizers and proponents of deliberation are influential; indeed, they have “influenced democratic politics and work and community life beyond their wildest dreams.” Their models have “metastasized across sectors and among vastly different groups of people” (Lee 2015)

For instance, James Fishkin has pioneered Deliberative Polls, randomly selected panels of citizens who meet for several days, deliberate intensively, and then issue guidance to formal institutions that have empaneled them and sought their input. Study Circles, a Scandinavian format imported to the United States by the organization Everyday Democracy and others, take the form of small voluntary discussions organized throughout a community. Participatory Budgeting (PB) originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has since spread to more than 1,500 cases around the world. In PB, municipal governments or other institutions (such as colleges) agree in advance to allocate public funds to projects that citizens develop and choose in large deliberative forums. (For overviews of the field, see Fung 2003; Gastil & Levine 2005; Nabatchi & Leighninger 2015).

Many practitioners nowadays distinguish between deliberation and dialogue. Deliberation is a discussion that produces a group decision. For instance, a jury deliberates to reach a verdict in a trial; participants in Participatory Budgeting decide how to spend money. Dialogue refers to other kinds of discussion, where the goals may be mutual understanding, empathy, learning, or something else rather than a collective decision. Sometimes dialogue is presented as a necessary precondition for deliberation, although this is debatable.


The following critiques are now common, although there are possible responses to each one.

  1. Public support for deliberative democracy is weak or inconsistent, and many electorates explicitly favor political leaders who disparage deliberation, e.g., Trump and Bolsonaro (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 2002) 
  2. People are psychologically incapable of the kinds of reasoning required to deliberate, e.g., such as being able to recognize and critically assess their own motivations (Graham, Nosek, Haidt, Iyer, Koleva, Spassena, & Ditto, 2011; Haidt 2012; Swidler 2001; Thiele 2006)
  3. Deliberation has been overwhelmed by mass media and social media, which favor misinformation, propaganda, and outrage (e.g., Lazer et al 2018; Zollo & Quattrociocchi 2018; Berry & Sobieraj 2016). Even if deliberative democracy was a realistic theory for the 1900s, its day has passed.
  4. Formal bodies that claim to be deliberative are always hypocritical about it. For instance, legislatures are sites of power that merely pretend to deliberate.
  5. Deliberation implies a kind of calm, “rational” discourse that is biased in favor of some cultures and social classes or is simply unhelpful when people are suffering (Sanders 1997; Young 2001).
  6. Actual deliberations are systematically unequal because of characteristics, such as gender and race, that people bring with them into the room (Karpowitz & Mendelberg 2014).
  7. People who deliberate with diverse peers are less likely to take political action, probably because the conversation reduces their confidence and sense of certainty (Mutz 2006). Thus there is a tradeoff between deliberation and participation.
  8. Conversations go better when people who share common experiences can talk amongst themselves. That is especially true for marginalized or oppressed people; pulling them into one deliberation with powerful people generally suppresses their voice (Fraser 1994).
  9. Deliberative democracy events set up a contrast with regular democratic processes, such as elections, that makes the latter look bad. But deliberative democracy is an unrealistic ideal, and the effect of deliberative events is to delegitimize aspects of democracy that deserve defenses (Lee 2015, Lafont 2017)
  10. There is no plausible “theory of change” for making scattered small-scale deliberative experiments important in a society as a whole. Albert Dzur has asked, “Who will spark public deliberation, where will it take place, [and] how will the strong counterdeliberative forces in American political life be kept at bay? (Dzur 2008). Some people believe that these are rhetorical questions; no one with power has incentives to promote deliberation.
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