Problem

Your class is allowed to get a pet! Your teacher decides to put it to a vote on whether it will be a lizard, hamster, or fish. You panic because you’ve never cared for any of these critters. How can you possibly be expected to vote on them?  

You talk with your friends about it at lunch, and it turns out that one has a lizard, another a hamster, and another a fish. Everyone explains to you the pros and cons of the kind of pets that they have. To your surprise, your friend who has a fish decides to vote for a class lizard. You agree with her, and when it comes time to vote, you are confident that you’re making the most informed decision possible. That’s deliberative democracy at work. 

Explanation

A deliberative democracy seeks to fully utilize tools already available to the public. The idea is to have a transparent process for decision-making, allowing everyone to become more involved. The public can then debate, educate each other, and make their voice heard. Citizens can then improve the conditions for self-government, and politicians can make decisions that better reflect the people they represent.

Definition of Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy is a theoretical model for a kind of government that emphasizes equal political participation in a public forum. It prioritizes information-sharing. By doing so, political representatives can govern in a way that better reflects the desires of the people. 

History

In the 1980s, American political scientist Jane Mansbridge established the foundations for a deliberative model. However, discussion of the theory didn’t begin in earnest until later in the decade. During this period, many scholars looked to James Madison, the Federalist Papers, and the American Constitution. Some of the most influential theorists argued that deliberation, or open debate between citizens and their government, was set out by the Constitution. However, it wasn’t until the work of Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls in the 1990s that these ideas and beliefs were consolidated into a governmental model. 

Deliberative democracy has been put into action in the form of mini-publics. A mini-public is a group of randomly selected voters who debate an issue relevant to the public. Randomly selecting these individuals ensures the final mini-public represents a wide variety of interests. Theorist Robert Dahl first proposed the mini-public in 1989 as a way to further public understanding and influence political decision-making. Today, its use has steadily increased as there have been more attempts to establish forums that resemble deliberative democracies. Some theorists hope deliberative democracy will prove useful for dealing with issues like climate change and rapid technology growth.

Using It

Deliberative democracy doesn’t require all citizens to cast a vote, like in direct democracies, or small groups to make decisions, like in elitist democracies. Instead, deliberative democracies utilize already existing institutions and public opinion to improve self-governance through debate and deliberation. For public communication to be successful though, both citizens and government officials need to be willing to change their perspectives and beliefs in light of discussions. Conversations require everyone to listen respectfully and allow their views to adapt as new information is discovered.

Forms of deliberative democracy have appeared across the globe. In the United States, some states have established Citizens’ Initiative Reviews. It was first used in Oregon as part of its referendum process, and it’s fairly similar to a mini-public. A randomly selected group of voters comes together to study ballot measures. They create a statement that explains the key facts and critical pros and cons of the measure. This statement is then sent to every registered voter. 

Meanwhile, the French government, led by Emmanuel Macron, convened the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, or the Citizens Convention for Climate, in 2020. The 150 convention-goers drafted legislation to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. In Ireland, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project randomly selected 99 citizens in 2016. Because of their work and deliberation, Ireland repealed its abortion ban. 

These uses of deliberative democracy have brought up concerns. Critics fear that they push public consensus at the expense of ignoring minority groups. However, productive deliberative democracies don’t require complete agreement, but foster varied viewpoints. Recent research also shows that deliberative democracy does limit the power of society’s elites. 

Deliberative democracies increase voter understanding of issues. Furthermore, they can increase communication between government institutions and their citizens. Deliberative democracy might be the answer to restoring the connection between democracies and the people they govern.

    Learn More

    1. Floridia, Antonio. “The Origins of the Deliberative Turn.” The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, by Antonio Floridia, edited by Andre Bächtiger et al., Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 34–54. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198747369.013.25.
    2. “135 | Talking Politics Guide to … Deliberative Democracy.” Talking Politics. www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com, https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/blog/2019/135-talking-politics-guide-to-deliberative-democracy.
    3. “About Involve.” Involve.Org.Uk, 20 Apr. 2018. www.involve.org.uk, https://www.involve.org.uk/about/about-involve.
    4. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project. http://www.citizenassembly.ie/work/#irish-citizens-assembly-2016-2018. 

    Think Further

    1. How is deliberative democracy different from other models of democracy?
    2. What might be some challenges faced by deliberative democracy?
    3. Is a “min-public” adequate representation of deliberative democracy? Why or why not?

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