Deliberative Democratic Theory and Empirical Political Science

Harvard Political Science professor Dennis F. Thompson writes in 2008:

* Citizens and their representatives are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another by giving reasons for their political claims and responding to others’ reasons in return.

* The most insistently skeptical work in this mode is Hibbing & Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy (2002). Reviewing the results of their own focus groups and other studies of discussion in settings they consider deliberative, they argue that “real life deliberation can fan emotions unproductively, can exacerbate rather than diminish power differentials among those deliberating, can make people feel frustrated with the system
that made them deliberate, is ill-suited to many issues and can lead to worse decisions than would have occurred if no deliberation had taken place”

* In a survey of French citizens about government assistance for the unemployed, Jackman & Sniderman (2006) found that deliberation does not lead to “better grounded judgments—that is, judgments that reflect one’s considered view of the best course of action all in all” (p. 272). Deliberation leads “many people to ideologically inconsistent positions.” A study of discussions about race in five town meetings in New Jersey
(Mendelberg & Oleske 2000) found that in the integrated meetings (which had the diversity that deliberative democrats seek) the deliberation failed to lessen conflict, increase mutual understanding and tolerance, or reduce the use of group-interested arguments. The meetings with all white participants produced consensus, but consensus against school integration—not the result that deliberative democrats presumably favor.

* The objection prompted by these studies—that deliberative theory is not realistic—has never impressed normative theorists.

* When confronted with findings that seem to confute his theory, Habermas is unfazed. He reads the “contradicting data as indicators of contingent constraints that deserve serious inquiry and. . .as detectors for the discovery of specific causes for existing lacks of legitimacy” (Habermas 2006, p. 420). His article is pointedly subtitled “the impact of normative theory on empirical research.” It implicitly relegates empirical research to the job of being merely a helping hand. In that role, it poses no risk of becoming a disruptive voice in the deliberative project.

* Groups such as juries that are charged with reaching consequential decisions often polarize…

* The most systematic study of the capacity of deliberation to produce just outcomes in actual political settings finds no significant relationship between the quality of the discourse (as measured by the index cited above) and weak egalitarian decisions (as indicated by the extent to which they help the least well off). The outcomes seem to be best explained by the pre-existing preferences of the majority, which may suggest that the distribution of power has a greater effect than the quality of the reasoning.

* In many cases, politicians who deliberate in private are more inclined to make candid arguments, recognize complexities, and offer concessions (see Chambers 2004, 2005). Moreover, even if private discussions present more opportunities for capture by special interests and for collusion among parties against the public interest, greater transparency often does not help, simply because most citizens do not pay attention…

* Publicity can promote (a) rationality—justifying one’s beliefs, articulating premises and conclusions, taking account of opposing points of view; (b) generality—appealing to the common good or the general interest; and (c) plebiscitary reason—appealing to what seems to be the common good, but with “shallow, poorly reasoned pandering to the worst we have in common” (p. 260). Public forums, she suspects, are more prone to irrationality and plebiscitary reason, whereas private discussions are more vulnerable to capture by special interests and may not even avoid plebiscitary reason completely…

* Deliberation is less successful when opinion is extremely polarized, as on the question of abortion. But for many other important issues, institutional conditions are significant. Among the conditions favorable to deliberation are coalition cabinets, multiparty systems, proportional representation, veto provisions,
and second-chamber debates.

* Some cultural consensus on the value of settling disputes by mutual accommodation is probably necessary. That would suggest deliberation is not possible in segmented societies and in many international disputes, where the parties are divided by deep cultural differences about how to deal with fundamental disagreements.

* The benefits of deliberation are presumed to go together: As citizens engage in deliberation, they learn more about the issues, gain respect for opposing views, employ more public-spirited arguments, and so on. Or if citizens fail to deliberate, they learn less, disrespect more, pursue self-interested goals, and so on. We miss the complexity and power of deliberative democracy if we do not recognize the possibility that its elements may conflict with one another, that not all the goods it promises can be secured at the same time, and that we have to make hard choices among them.

* the more citizens discuss politics with people whose views differ from theirs, the less likely they are to engage in political activity (pp.˜89–124). The more they deliberate, the less they participate. The moderate attitudes encouraged by deliberation weaken some of the most powerful incentives to participate. Opponents seem less like enemies; mobilizing to bring about their defeat seems less urgent. Unlike citizens who talk mostly with like-minded compatriots, deliberating citizens find themselves cross-pressured, and their views challenged rather than reinforced.

* Consensus systems (grand coalitions, multi-party structures, veto powers) tend to produce better deliberation than competitive systems, but at the cost of less transparency in policy making and less accountability of officials…

* how to incorporate the need for expertise and technical administration in a deliberative democracy….

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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