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Deliberative democracy

The theme of citizen competence is the central feature of the second part of the book, which deals with deliberative polling, deliberative democracy and minipublics, and includes a case study of the way in which deliberation is practised within a social movement. James Fishkin investigates whether random samples of citizens can overcome their rational ignorance if they are properly and carefully briefed by impartial experts and then presented with an opportunity to deliberate calmly and reasonably with others holding different opinions. He bases his conclusions on a long series of deliberative polls carried out around the globe - from Britain, the USA and Australia to China, Bulgaria and Greece - and asks whether citizens are able to participate in discussions on an equal basis. Are they able to change their minds when presented with argument and evidence? Can they avoid the polarization of opinions that some claim characterizes group debate? And can they engage in debates about public matters in a public-spirited manner? These concerns of Fishkin’s experimental studies fit neatly with the questions posed by Kriesi in his study of Switzerland.

Graham Smith broadens the scope of discussion of deliberative polls to cover a family of similar democratic innovations that he terms ‘mini-publics’ and which Lang (2007) terms ‘randomocracies’. In addition to deliberative polls, these include the citizens’ juries, examined by Beetham in this volume, as well as planning cells and consensus conferences. Just as Fishkin poses the question of the extent to which his deliberative poll participants can really deliberate, so also Smith asks: ‘To what extent do mini-publics live up to the expectations of deliberative democrats?’ He answers this question by examining the evidence about how mini-public innovations have actually worked in practice. He then discusses how this reflects back on the theory of deliberative democracy and suggests how we can design better deliberative forums. In this way, he opens up questions that have been overlooked in the abstract discussion of deliberative theory.

The discussion of deliberative democracy continues in the following chapter with Dieter Rucht’s examination of how it actually works in practice in the case of a new social movement, the Global Justice Movement - a network of loosely linked transnational groups opposed to neoliberal globalization. This concentration on particular groups of self-selected activists tackling highly controversial issues is a useful complement to the previous chapters dealing with a total population (Switzerland) or randomly selected mini-public (deliberative polls and citizens’ juries). Rucht asks to what extent does discussion and debate in his new social movement live up to the pure model and in what respects does it fall short. The Global Justice Movement may be regarded as an extreme case study: if an international and multicultural group of self-selected activists and ideologues can engage in deliberation on a highly controversial topic like neoliberal globalization, then there is reason to believe that ordinary people with shared cultural understanding will be able to do so when they discuss issues that generally have a lower salience for them.

 
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