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Deliberation and democracy

Deliberation, understood in this way, is by no means a trivial matter. If it occurs at all, it will be in small and homogenous groups rather than in large settings with highly different actors promoting strong and vested interests. But it may even fail in small groups when the participants are willing to act in good faith but, for whatever reasons, are unable to reach a consensus. Still, some political philosophers and social scientists are propagating the idea of deliberation at a large scale: the idea of a deliberative democracy (Cohen 1989; Bohman 2000; Dryzek 2000; for an overview: Chambers 2003; Thompson 2008; see also Fishkin and Smith in this volume). And, of course, there are also political groups who not only wish to practise deliberation among their own ranks but strive, though not necessarily using this term, for a deliberative democracy.

Even when we have a reasonably clear idea what deliberation means, what deliberative democracy is still remains open. This uncertainty does not only result from the different definitions and empirical variations of democracy, but also from the different weight of deliberation in various forms of democracy. In most conceptions of democracy, deliberation is not mentioned or plays only a marginal role. In others, it is a constitutive element and, in the words of a nongovernmental group Tomorrow’s Europe, ‘the lifeblood of democracy’.5 A similar view is expressed by Cohen (1989: 144) who states: ‘When properly conducted, democratic politics involves public deliberation focused on the common good, requires some form of manifest equality among citizens, and shapes the identity and interest of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of common good.’

Some authors, for example Gerhards (1997), broadly distinguish between a representative-liberal and a deliberative (or discursive) concept of democracy, often implying that the latter is based, or even identical with, broad and extensive citizen participation. Habermas (1996) identifies three models of democracy. He argues that the deliberative model can overcome some of the deficiencies of the liberal and the republican models. Ferree at al. (2002), focusing on the role assigned to the public sphere in different conceptions of democracy, identify a representative liberal, a participatory liberal, a constructionist and a discursive (or deliberative) strand.

On a closer look, however, it is not so easy to distinguish a deliberative type of democracy from other types. Even in an elitist concept of democracy, deliberation may play an important role, even though deliberation is restricted to small circles of highly educated, well-informed and allegedly competent people. Second, a participatory concept of democracy does not necessarily imply extensive deliberation. Hence participatory and deliberative democracy should not be equated (Mutz 2006). Granting people a say in the form of voting for representatives or participating in a referendum does not require a preceding deliberation. And even when deliberation is considered to be crucial in a democratic system, one needs to specify its role relative to non-deliberative forms of interaction.

In response to these considerations, it might be useful to distinguish between a strong and a weak version of deliberative democracy. In the former case, all fundamental and controversial political matters are a subject of extensive and intensive deliberation that, ideally, includes all interested and/or concerned citizens. In this perspective, political decision making is not just preceded but ultimately guided and enlightened by an open and participatory process in which the better arguments prevail, as opposed to other criteria such as status, threat or sanction. Consensus almost naturally flows from such a process. However, I would argue that such a democratic system is a utopian ideal that can serve as an orienting principle but which will never be met in large political communities such as nation-states. Whatever form and no matter how much time deliberation takes, there will always remain conflicts of interests and values that cannot be settled by exchanging views and arguments.6 No wonder that some mechanisms beyond the ‘forceless force of the better argument’ are applied in order to reach, usually by a majority vote, a decision that is binding even though not everybody has agreed (see also Flynn 2004).

More likely is the possibility of establishing a weak version of deliberative democracy. Even in large political settings, a political community may move towards a modest version of deliberative democracy, that is a representative political system (with more or less participatory elements) in which the final act of decision taking is preceded by a phase of deliberation over conflicting matters. This may occur in various arenas, for example a parliamentary assembly, a public hearing or an extended discourse in mass media where facts on the issue are presented, guiding interests and norms are spelled out, and, above all, a free exchange of arguments is secured (Bohman 2000). It is assumed that this exercise is not performed as an act of window dressing. Rather it is an open process in which the original views are not set in stone but can be modified. So some initial assumptions and affirmations may turn out to be definitely wrong, some interests as purely idiosyncratic and selfish, and some arguments as evidently weak so that the initial differences gradually shrink and common ground grows. While some conflicts may be settled by such a deliberative process so that the final act of decision making is not only unanimous7 but full-heartedly agreed upon, there remains the probability that deliberation is simply impossible with regard to other matters.8 Nevertheless, as long as there is at least the habit or an even an institutionalized attempt to deliberate within a democratic system, we may characterize such a system as a weak version of deliberative democracy.

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