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Deliberative democracy and mini-publics

Deliberative democracy remains the most influential development within contemporary democratic theory in the last couple of decades, generating a powerful theoretical critique of, and corrective to, the tendency within both democratic theory and practice to focus on the aggregation of preferences as the primary mode of legitimation. For deliberative democrats, the process of formation of preferences is fundamental to any account of democratic legitimacy. As James Bohman states, ‘Deliberative democracy, broadly defined, is ... any one of a family of views according to which the public deliberation of free and equal citizens is the core of legitimate political decision making and self-government’ (Bohman 1998: 401). Amy Gutmann offers a similar construction: ‘the legitimate exercise of political authority requires justification to those people who are bound by it, and decision-making by deliberation among free and equal citizens is the most defensible justification anyone has to offer for provisionally settling controversial issues’ (Gutmann 1996: 344).

A few years ago, it was an accurate diagnosis of the deliberative democracy literature that it was strong on theoretical prescription, but had relatively little to say about institutional design (Smith 2003: 79). In a much cited review article published in the late 1990s, Bohman argues ‘there is still a surprising lack of empirical case studies of democratic deliberation at the appropriate level and scale’ (Bohman 1998: 419). The intervening years have witnessed a burgeoning literature that evaluates the deliberative qualities of various institutional arrangements, from the courts and legislatures of advanced industrial democracies (Gutmann and Thompson 1996), to the more informal networks and organizations of civil society (Schlosberg 1999; Dryzek 2000).

Mini-publics have been a growing focus of attention (e.g. Smith and Wales 2000; Gastil and Levine 2005; Parkinson 2006; Chambers 2007; Warren and Pearse 2008; Fishkin 2009), not least because they appear to realize a compelling combination of two democratic goods: inclusiveness and considered judgement. Inclusiveness - or political equality - is typically conceptualized by deliberative democrats in terms of both presence and voice: not only should the politically excluded be present in the political process, they should also have equal substantive opportunities to express their perspectives and influence decisions. Given our extensive knowledge of the uneven rates of political participation across social groups, achieving equality of presence is challenging enough;

responding to differentials in political skills, confidence and efficacy to ensure equality of voice raises the bar even higher. The practice of mini-publics attracts deliberative democrats because of their use of random sampling techniques that aim to ensure the presence of a diverse body of citizens, and active facilitation that encourages fairness in proceedings, in particular, support and encouragement for less confident and politically skilled participants to voice their perspectives.

Realizing considered judgement generates further pressures on institutional design in two senses. First, to counter critics of a Schumpeterian disposition, citizens need sufficient technical knowledge and understanding to make a sound decision. In all mini-publics, participants are exposed to competing expert viewpoints on the matter under consideration: witnesses offer their evidence and are cross-examined by participants. But, deliberative democrats ask even more of citizens: not only technical competence, but also an openness to and appreciation of the views of other citizens with quite different social perspectives and experiences (Offe and Preuss 1991: 168). Mini-publics are explicitly designed so that participants gain a level of technical understanding of the issue at hand and hear the perspectives of a diversity of fellow participants. Mini-publics create a ‘safe haven’ in which citizens are able to learn in both senses, away from the social and political pressures that typically shape our prejudices.

The encounter between the practice of mini-publics and deliberative democratic theory is productive on two fronts. First, it provides a theoretical perspective from which to evaluate a challenging mode of citizen engagement. To what extent do mini-publics live up to the expectations of deliberative democrats? At the same time, the actual practice of mini-publics enables us to interrogate the commitments and evaluative claims of democratic theorists and to open up areas for theoretical consideration that may have been overlooked in more abstract theoretical discourse. The analysis that follows will be ordered around a number of institutional characteristics of mini-publics that generate insights for both democratic theory and practice, namely:

  • • random selection
  • • facilitation
  • • decision rules
  • • publicity
  • • popular control.
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