Winston Churchill claimed democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. But it can be improved.
Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (eds), Sciences Po, 2021
Deliberative Democracy, Ian O’Flynn, Polity Press, 2021
Deliberative Mini-Publics, Nicole Curato et al, Bristol University Press, 2021
A few decades ago, a change of paradigm occurred within political science and political theory. While political studies tended to focus attention on power dynamics and electoral results, theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Jane Mansbridge, Bernard Manin, Jon Elster and Joshua Cohen invited us to pay more attention to the formation of political opinion through discussions. Unsatisfied with the prevailing minimalist and elitist understanding of democracy, they thought that democratic procedures acquired legitimacy by allowing for the inclusion and confrontation of a diversity of perspectives before collective decisions were made.
As Habermas emphasised, we talk about politics because we believe that some political options are more desirable than others and because we believe that our fellow citizens could accept our arguments—otherwise, we wouldn’t bother. This easily leads to the conclusion that, ideally, we should all exchange arguments before we reach the best collective decision, and that ideal lies at the heart of the deliberative conception of democracy. Is it, as some critics have argued, a hopeless ideal, founded on a naïve and unappealing understanding of politics, in which people do not have strong political convictions and would prefer consensual decisions over conflict?
Not necessarily. There is clearly a strong idealist impulse behind the deliberative project. Recognising however that ideally citizens should listen to each other does not entail any form of naïveté, precisely because most theorists can easily distinguish the ideal from the actual. And there is something undeniable in the deliberative ideal: a world in which individuals are not merely concerned with their private interests and can recognise others’ good arguments is preferable to the opposite world. Similarly, a world in which democratic decisions would be based on the best arguments heard after an inclusive and egalitarian discussion would be preferable to the kind of political dynamics with which we are familiar.
Believing this is fully compatible with the observation that actual politics is often more about interests and power than the strength of arguments—at state level at least (Mansbridge highlighted in her seminal Beyond Adversary Democracy that the deliberative approach has a basis in democratic practices at a lower scale, as in New England town meetings). And it is compatible with believing that political conflict is healthier than hegemony-hiding consensus.
The interesting question then is what deliberative theory can teach us for the world as it is. A set of recent books take up this question in ways that allow us to appreciate the benefits and limits of this paradigm change: Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin’s edited volume, Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, gathering leading political philosophers and scientists in the field; Ian O’Flynn’s short and illuminating introduction to the debates, Deliberative Democracy, and a collective textbook, Deliberative Mini-Publics, by some of the most active political scientists on the issue. Let us look first at what has recently attracted most of the attention—experimental ‘mini-publics’—before turning to the interesting challenges of deliberation at the larger scale of mass democracies.
The promises and limits of mini-publics
Early in the debates, Habermas characterised deliberations in the public sphere as ‘anarchic’. For those concerned with the take-up of arguments and the logic of reasoned deliberation, this anarchy may be a bit unsettling. Although it is clear that arguments are expressed by many different actors across the public sphere, it is hard to know whether anyone listens and responds, and whether deliberative exchanges have any influence on decision-makers.
From this perspective, deliberative mini-publics gathering randomly-selected citizens to discuss issues of public interest are clearly attractive. They are specifically designed to foster genuine deliberation and hence they allow one to measure empirically whether people do change their minds in light of convincing arguments. For those who want to observe and measure deliberation, they are therefore particularly interesting and many scholars have recently taken this strange political form as their main object of research.
The book collated by Nicole Curato and her colleagues offers a short synthesis of the key characteristics and design features that group and differentiate the diversity of initiatives under the mini-public label. Four essential principles, they explain, are meant to ensure the quality of deliberation:enforcing norms of inclusiveness, creating conditions for the equal consideration of reasons, demonstrating the integrity of the process and enabling informed decision-making based on a variety of credible and independent evidence and testimony from diverse sources.
In addition to this experimental virtue of producing genuine deliberation in quasi-laboratory conditions, mini-publics have generated some enthusiasm because they solve two problems with which deliberative theorists are usually concerned: the difficulty of organising deliberation at a large scale and the tendency for individuals to talk exclusively or mostly with others with whom they are broadly in agreement. The first problem is solved through microcosmic representation: the randomly selected assembly broadly reflects the diversity of the wider population. The second is solved by inviting people from diverse backgrounds to exchange their perspectives and to overcome or at least understand their disagreements in a spirit of mutual respect.
This double solution, however, comes at a high cost—the disenfranchisement of all the citizens who are not selected for the mini-public. This may not be a problem if the process is exclusively experimental (to observe opinion change, as in James Fishkin’s deliberative polls) or educative (to improve the political knowledge of participants or refine their judgements). Yet as soon as we envisage a more political role for mini-publics, with a connection to collective decision-making, many issues arise which are mainly discussed in the French book—by Charles Girard, Manin and Hervé Pourtois in particular.
They argue that a mini-public cannot legitimately speak or make decisions in the name of the citizenry. We have no guarantee that different mini-publics dealing with the same issue would reach similar conclusions, given the contingent nature of the deliberative process. Some arguments might not be expressed in one; some participants might be more influential in another; some alternative options might fail to be considered. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Rémi Barbier and Clémence Bedu in Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, when a properly organised mini-public reaches a quasi-consensual opinion after free deliberation, we do have strong reasons to trust that most citizens placed in similar conditions of deliberation would form the same opinion.
Another reason why a mini-public could not serve as a legitimate form of representation is that the citizens who are not selected are made powerless, to some extent. They are faced with representatives whom they have not chosen and whom they cannot send back home if they are unsatisfied with the way they are represented.
Finally, one aspect left aside in Deliberative Mini-Publics is the lack of motivation for participation on the part of many citizens who are randomly selected. The acceptance rate is usually very weak—often less than 10 per cent—and it is unclear yet that the majority of citizens want to take part in such processes. Furthermore, as the acceptance rate varies with some socio-demographic characteristics, statistical representativeness is very difficult to achieve, even with quotas.
As a result, the normative weight that should be given to recommendations produced by mini-publics is unclear. Curato and her colleagues report that in the great majority of cases the device plays a purely advisory role in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, they argue that mini-publics must be somehow connected both to deliberations within the public sphere and with decision-making forums. Yet these imply two very different outcomes: in one case, mini-publics just feed public deliberations; in the other, they influence decision-making. While the first scenario hardly faces any opposition, the second continues to be the source of theoretical disagreements.
Deliberation beyond mini-publics
Deliberation, however, is not reducible to mini-publics—a point which Curato and her colleagues recognise but is sometimes forgotten. And it is one of the main merits of Blondiaux and Manin’s book, as well as O’Flynn’s, to make that clear. Le tournant délibératif includes the translation of a now famous article by Mansbridge and colleagues inviting deliberative theorists to take a ‘systemic’ turn. One of their key ideas is that no single institution can realise the aims of deliberative democracy. The other is that some institutions or practices which are not directly deliberative themselves can play a deliberative role (or can be valuable for other purposes).
Take parliamentary debates, for example. They are meant to express predefined party positions on a legislative issue, not offer arguments with the hope that the opposition will take them up. (Clément Viktorovitch observes in Le tournant délibératif that genuinely deliberative sequences—where the arguments of some are taken seriously by others, even if it implies amending one’s position—do occur occasionally in parliaments, especially in the French Senate or behind closed doors, but these are ‘a few islands in the ocean of parliamentary exchanges’.) Yet prepared exchanges can help citizens acquire a better understanding of the different positions on an issue before forming their own judgement.
What matters is therefore not so much whether genuine deliberation occurs in a part of the system—in a mini-public, for example—but whether the democratic system, taken as a whole, encourages the confrontation of a wide diversity of opinions before decisions are made. As O’Flynn explains, this was always the ambition of the first-generation deliberative theorists, such as Habermas and Cohen. Yet it was occluded by the rise and influence of mini-publics.
An interesting result of shifting away from micro-deliberation in mini-publics is to pay more attention to one of the main ways in which political judgements are formed—via the media. The segregation of audiences into impermeable information bubbles is a well-known problem. As Girard, Manin and Mansbridge and her colleagues argue in Le tournant déliberatif, it is also one of the central problems that a theory of mass deliberation has to address.
If the media are to be a place for the confrontation of contradictory views and opinions, ways must be found to ensure that all citizens are exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. One can obviously not force them to watch the same channels or read quality newspapers, but there are certainly ways of regulating the media landscape that can still be invented. Manin takes as an historical example the ‘fairness doctrine’ which, from 1927 to 1987, obliged the US media to offer a diversity of viewpoints, in a fair way, on controversial issues. This solution wouldn’t work in the age of ‘social media’. Yet there may be functional equivalents to be found.
This challenge also reminds us of the democratic value of publicly-financed, yet independent, media. If we want journalists to have the resources and motivation to offer information that is both entertaining and smart, capable of reaching a diversity of audiences without just adapting to their preferences, there do not seem to be many alternatives to public financing.
Beyond the media, political parties also play a pivotal role in the deliberativeness of a democratic system. Yet their relationship to deliberation is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are needed to make political debates accessible and comprehensible for citizens. As the books by Blondiaux and Manin and O’Flynn highlight, deliberation, to be democratic, must involve the whole citizenry.
Hence even if technocratic institutions such as the European Commission were found to be deliberative, to some extent, that would not support the aims of deliberative theorists. What they want is not that some political actors, in some places, exchange arguments and judge on the merit of the cases. They want political decisions to be as much as possible based on reasons citizens can identify and accept, which can be traced back to debates within the public sphere. To make that possible, parties linking civil society with state institutions seem indispensable.
It is no breaking news, however, that parties increasingly struggle with this linking function and are sometimes more concerned with keeping the benefits they obtain from reaching positions of power. What is more, the logic of partisan discipline is deeply at odds with the logic of deliberation, as emphasised by Dominique Leydet in Le tournant délibératif. If party members never deviate from the party line—and, worse, if the line is hierarchically determined rather than being the result of intra-party deliberation—good arguments will never be heard, positions will never change and the political system will lose much wisdom.
It seems, therefore, that some changes need to occur for our democratic systems to become more deliberative. First, internal deliberation, pluralism and contestation must be promoted within political parties. States which spend millions financing parties have the power to impose some conditions and to regulate the internal working of parties. Parties remain partly private associations whose freedom should be respected but some degree of internal pluralism could at least be encouraged by state regulation. In addition to this, parliamentary rules could be adapted to reduce party discipline in legislative deliberations and votes.
Yet besides these different ways of making parties more hospitable to deliberation, it seems there must also be places in the democratic system where the logic of partisan conflict gives way to more open and deliberative public exchanges of arguments. An increasing number of people praise the innovative idea of randomly-selected second chambers with that aim in mind. In the context of the European Union, that would entail the creation of a second, more popular assembly working beside and in collaboration with the European Parliament.
Compared with mini-publics of low visibility or somewhat obscure processes such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, a permanent institutionalisation of that sort would make deliberation among European citizens more visible, while making room for a more inclusive and less elitist form of representation for EU citizens. No doubt many of the authors involved in the books reviewed here would reject such a proposal but, along with the regulation of media, parties and parliamentary rules, it is certainly a path worth exploring when looking for ways to make our democratic systems more deliberative.