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Deliberative Democracy: A Classical Antidote to Democracy’s Modern Ills

Posted by on Monday, April 19, 2021 in Papers.

by Graham Allen, Visiting Professor of Politics, King’s College London

ThemeTo Keep the Republic: Strengthening Democratic Principles at Home and Abroad 

Summary: The gears of democracy seemingly have seized up on both sides of the Atlantic, with members of Congress and Parliament unable to abandon entrenched partisan positions to forge legislative solutions. Deliberative democracy, a method of eliciting specific and informed policy recommendations from the general public, has proven effective in breaking legislative logjams. Rooted in the democratic traditions of ancient Athens, deliberative democracy can inject new lifeblood into the seemingly ossified political systems of Western democracies. 

Democracy is about the reconciliation of views. The deliberate separation of powers and parties in a democratic system establishes and formalizes a permanent structure of conflict. In theory, this tension is resolved through legislative processes engineered to elicit compromise. Unfortunately, in recent years, the gears of democracy have seized up on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Whether wrestling with the transformational changes required by Brexit or seeking solutions for America’s epidemic of gun violence, members of Parliament and Congress all too often revert to oppositionism as a default position when faced with complex policy decisions.  

As a former member of Parliament, I know that it is much easier to dig into your comfort zone and say ‘No’ than it is to engage with political opponents.

As a former member of Parliament, I know that it is much easier to dig into your comfort zone and say “No” than it is to engage with political opponents. Elected officials seem often to be rich in brilliant policy solutions but paupers when it comes to having effective processes to move them forward. By developing informed recommendations through an organized deliberative democratic process, the proverbial man and woman in the street can aid their representatives who, in the words of presidential historian Jon Meacham, all too often find themselves “trapped by base-driven incentives.”[1] Unlike those of their elected representatives, citizens’ viewpoints have not been distorted by the withering heat of the daily political inferno and petty party feuds, and deliberative democracy represents an emerging method of harnessing their collective wisdom that may prove effective in breaking legislative logjams. 

Deliberative democracy is a compliment to—and not a competitor with—modern representative democracy as practiced in the U.S., the U.K. and around the worldThe deliberative democratic process begins with selecting random but representative microcosm of a community that is charged to meet, discuss and propose a path forward from a long-standing policy stalemate. Most often, such efforts take the form of a citizens assembly, and they also have been referred to as “deliberative mini-publics.”[2] Whatever the name, their superpower is the ability to inject new lifeblood into the seemingly ossified political systems of Western democracies.

Importantly, deliberative democracy does not mean bypassing duly elected representatives and subjecting everything to a plebiscite. Likewise, it is not simply commissioning a series of public opinion polls and enacting whichever plan polls highest. Instead, a deliberative democratic process entails convening and investing in a cohort of willing citizens and asking them to deliberate, discuss and propose solutions to a specified policy conundrum.  

Legislators are then free to adopt, amend or even abandon the recommendations, but this “bottom up” solution may provide practical political cover to elected officials who are constrained by the baggage and prejudices of the political party structures endemic in the US and the UK systems. Rather than being labeled (and in some cases libeled) as “Liberal” or “Conservative” ideas from the outset, the policy outputs from a deliberative democratic process are not immediately tarred with customary partisan descriptors. Therefore, legislators are free to debate and discuss plans supplied by thoughtful citizens without raising the hackles of party leaders or loyalists who would cry that support for those plans represents concession or capitulation to the other side. 

The partisan baggage immediately attributed to any proposed plan is not the product of today’s polarized political environment. In the past, Congress and Parliament have tried to end run around entrenched partisan positions by appointing all manner of “blue ribbon” commissions, including the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (better known as “Simpson-Bowles”) created by President Barack Obama in 2010 to forge a bipartisan solution to swelling federal deficits. Likewise, in the U.K., numerous past attempts to reform or memorialize our settlement have always foundered in spite of special commissions or expert committees.[3] However, unlike these stillborn solutions, a plan produced through a deliberate democratic process is not subject to typical populist complaints of being hatched by political elites in Washington or Westminster, by technocrats ensconced in Brussels or by denizens of the academy/university/think tank industrial complex.  

Conducted correctly, the deliberative democratic process yields “democracy in good conditions,” according to Stanford Professor James Fishkin, who directs that university’s Center for Deliberative Democracy. This means providing time, space and likely even compensation to participants. The convening authority should expect to absorb travel and accommodation costs and stand ready to supply fact experts (if requested by participants). Additionally, participants should expect to set aside their smart phones and engage in thoughtful deliberations after receiving some initial instruction from professionals steeped in the science of consensus building and productive dialogue.  

In some ways, deliberative democracy is nourishing slow cooked politics—the antithesis of today’s digitized fast food political culture.

This process is neither quick nor easy. In some ways, deliberative democracy is nourishing, slow-cooked politics—the antithesis of today’s digitized, fast-food political culture. While this practice represents a potential cure for current frustration with seemingly “do nothing” legislatures, its pedigree goes back to ancient Greece. If done correctly, deliberative democracy can reaffirm the connection between a disenchanted public and the seemingly distant political class, counteracting the false populist narrative promoted by demagogues of various hues in the U.S. and across Europe.  

Deliberative democracy is no longer just a hopeful theory. It is now hard, evidence-based practice. Across the globe, citizen deliberators armed with balanced briefings and professional facilitation are taking on and solving seemingly intractable problems. For example, in Texas in 1996, deliberative democracy enabled the Texas Utility Commission to dramatically broaden energy choice, including promoting wind energy in a state famous for its petroleum production. In Ireland, a citizens’ assembly developed a consensus position on abortion, an issue that had divided the country for decades, which was eventually approved as a constitutional amendment by the Irish parliament and voters in a referendum. 

Likewise, deliberative democracy is being embraced by U.K. politicians of various partisan persuasions. Two parliamentary select committees [4] commissioned citizen assemblies to develop policies to address social care for the elderly, and most of the resulting recommendations were then forwarded to the government with the recommendation that they be adopted. Additionally, six select committees with overlapping jurisdiction united to fund and convene a citizens’ assembly to formulate a plan on how the U.K. can reach its net zero carbon target and are now discussing with the government how the assembly’s recommendations are to be incorporated into official policy. A similar story is being repeated in the national parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where national assemblies have created all-party common ground on democratic reform, social care and climate change. Finally, The Citizens’ Convention on U.K. Democracy, on which I serve as a convener, has made a formal proposal to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and we remain in active discussion with his government on its adoption.[5]  

As an elected member of Parliament for 30 years, I imagine that most current members will see the output of the citizen deliberators as a legislative lifeline as opposed to an effort to subvert or undermine parliamentary authority. I imagine that many of my colleagues in the U.S. Congress feel similarly hamstrung by the various causes of our sclerotic political processes, including whips, tribal party loyalties, electoral short termism, lobbyists and campaign fundraising.

The mutually respectful pre-legislative partnership epitomized by deliberative democracy may allow representatives to break free of some of these shackles, enabling them to get back to doing the jobs they were elected to do. 

The mutually respectful pre-legislative partnership epitomized by deliberative democracy may allow representatives to break free of some of these shackles, enabling them to get back to doing the jobs they were elected to do. 

Over 2,000 years ago, Pericles, one of the founders of Athenian democracy, remarked, “We are unique in considering the man who takes no part in public affairs not to be apolitical, but useless.” Viewed from London, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, provided a stark reminder of the fragility of both America’s and my own country’s democratic institutions. Hopefully, by looking into the ancient past for inspiration, modern democracies can chart a new path forward. 

 

About Graham Allen

Mr. Allen is the Convener of Citizens’ Convention on U.K. Democracy (https://www.ccukdemocracy.org/) and Visiting Professor of Politics at King’s College London. He was member of Parliament for Nottingham North 1987-2017, chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, architect of the Written Constitution for the U.K. and author and frontbench spokesperson on democratic renewal. 

Further reading: 

  • Fishkin, James S. Democracy When the People Are Thinking: Revitalizing Our Politics through Public Deliberation.Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2018.  
  • Farrell, David M., and Jane Suiter. Reimagining Democracy: Lessons in Deliberative Democracy from the Irish Front Line. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.  
  • Van Reybrouck, David, and Liz Waters. Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. London: The Bodley Head, 2016

[1] CNN (April 4, 2021) https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/04/04/exp-gps-meacham-ferguson-on-biden-covid-relief-and-infrastructure-bills.cnn 

[2] https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/11/26/new-wave-of-deliberative-democracy-pub-80422 

[3] For example, party programme commitment of the incoming Conservative Government in 2019 to create a Commission on UK democracy did not even survive until 2021 before being quietly shelved.  

[4] “A select committee is a cross-party group of MPs or Lords given a specific remit to investigate and report back to the House that set it up. Select committees gather evidence from ministers and officials, the public and organisations outside Parliament. Their reports are published and the Government must respond to their findings.” https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/documents/commons-information-office/brief-guides/select-committees.pdf

[5] See www.ccukdemocracy.org  

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