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Citizen assemblies and forums

Some qualifications and caveats need to be aired about experimental forums, however, before drawing the conclusion that they provide an unambiguous model of direct democracy in action. Rather than reflecting the everyday discussions of bar rooms or sitting rooms, forums are conducted according to rules of debate that cover equal voice, inclusiveness and respect for the views of others. They are often handled by skilled and trained facilitators or moderators who try to ensure that proceedings meet the standards of genuine deliberation. Consequently, some feel that forums can take an elitist and perhaps even an anti-democratic turn. Saward (2000: 7, 66, 75) Budge (2000: 199-200) and Rattila (2000) claim that Cohen’s account (1989) of deliberative democracy is based on a model of ‘university seminar’ run by a benevolent professor, preferably a philosopher, or along the lines of ‘a well conducted political debate among elites’.3 This, it is claimed, imposes codes of discussion, reason and logic that might well exclude citizens who are, for whatever reason, incapable of following the high standards of deliberation as it is defined by philosophers and political scientists. For example, as Smith states (2000: 34), it is important that deliberating citizens do not see themselves as representing ‘people like them’. They should transform self-regarding preferences into generalizable, other-regarding positions (Rattila 2000). Should we exclude from the deliberative process those who fail this test of disinterest and virtue? Offe (1997: 98) doubts it, but Dryzek (2000) believes that certain forms of deliberative democracy and deliberative polls can manage it. Perhaps the acid test of deliberative forums is to see how far participants get deliberating the rules of deliberation, rather than having these decided for them by those organizing the forums. But there is something of an infinite regress or catch-22 about this, since an ability to deliberate on the rules of deliberation presupposes agreement about the rules of deliberation.

For the deliberative democracy purist, talk of rules and facilitation may smack of elite manipulation and control that damages their direct democratic credentials. For realists, however, such things are necessary and inevitable if discussion is to meet even the minimal requirements of free debate, much less the strict conditions of pure deliberation. The tension between purists and realists, in this respect, is a different version of that between direct and representative democracy, discussed earlier in this chapter.

Citizen assemblies and forums involve face-to-face meetings of relatively small numbers of people, ranging from discussion groups of 10-20 people, to a maximum of a few hundred people meeting in the same space. Other things being equal, the smaller the numbers involved, the better able they are to achieve equal voice and inclusiveness, and the easier it is for them to meet over the period of time necessary for a full exchange of views and understandings. The smaller the group, the stronger its effects on participants are likely to be and, conversely, the larger the group, the weaker its effects are likely to be. There is a trade-off between size and effects. Therefore, electronic chat rooms and Twitter with their drop-in, drop-out culture and lack of intensive, face-to-face contact, are likely to produce weak effects, although they may involve very large numbers.

One solution is to open discussion forums to all those who wish to attend, rather than restricting them to a small and carefully selected sample. The double problem with this strategy is that increasing the numbers is likely to reduce the impact, and open forums are likely to attract those who are already aware, involved and committed. Another solution is to create target forums for marginal and politically inactive people, but it can be an uphill struggle to maintain the interest of such groups (Smith 2005: 33).

The third problem with small groups that meet regularly over a period of time is, as Talpin points out in this volume, that those who participate may come to form their own world view, so creating a set of new sub-elites that becomes distanced from the groups whose opinions they were supposed to reflect in the first place (see also Pratchett 1999: 623). The paradox is that small groups are supposed to inform and influence each other by deliberating, but may in the process cease to reflect the opinions of the population they were drawn from in the first place.

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