Theme Panel: Can We Create a Deliberative Society? Or Must Democracy Do Without One?

Can We Create a Deliberative Society? Or Must Democracy Do Without One?

Co-sponsored by Civic Studies (Formerly Committee on the Political Economy of the Good Society)
Full Paper Panel

(Chair) Jane Mansbridge, Harvard Kennedy School

Session Description:
Democratic theory has long envisioned the need for a society of well-informed citizens who make thoughtful decisions about the policies and candidates they support. Is this just a utopian ideal, hardly to be taken seriously, given what we know about actual voters and their behavior? If the aspiration is utopian, can viable democratic processes make do with the citizens we actually have? One approach is to harness new technologies to stimulate the scaling of mass deliberation via structured discussion or via non-interactive voting aids. Another approach is to use deliberative microcosms of the public to make recommendations to policy makers as well as to the broader public. However, some scholars question this approach as an unacceptable “second best.” The papers by Fishkin et al and by Gastil explore new technologies to scale deliberation. The paper by Hansen presents a unique institutionalization of deliberative mini-publics in Denmark to advise the Parliament on actual policy making. The paper by Lafont attacks the whole idea of a deliberative mini-public as an unacceptable second best.


Piloting Automated Deliberation at Scale: America in One Room-Climate
James S. Fishkin, Stanford University; Joshua Yoshio Lerner, NORC at the University of Chicago; Valentin Bolotnyy, Hoover Institution; Alice Siu, Stanford University; Larry Diamond, Stanford University; Norman Bradburn, University of Chicago

This paper examines a national experiment in deliberation employing an automated moderator that, in principle, could be used with any number of small groups. America in One Room: Climate and Energy was both a national Deliberative Poll and a pilot for mass scaling. It engaged nearly 1,000 deliberators and a separate control group. As a national controlled experiment, with collection of both quantitative and qualitative data (via transcripts of 104 small groups for the weekend) it provides evidence for the quality of the deliberation, the impact of different group compositions (participants were randomly assigned to small groups), and the impact on opinion, on depolarization and on various civic variables compared to the pre-post control group. The paper also discusses the vision of what public opinion would be like on highly contested and polarizing issues if the automated technology could be effectively spread to create a more deliberative mass society.

Can Voters Trust Each Other? An Online Model for Issue Deliberation
John Gastil, Pennsylvania State University

The evidence from the 2010-2018 Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) shows the efficacy of a deliberative mini-public serving as a trusted information source for an electorate that must vote on initiatives and referenda. This paper builds on that model by envisioning a decentralized online process that replicates the function of the CIR without the logistics and expense of convening the mini-public itself. This model draws on experiments in digital deliberation, such as the Living Voters Guide and DecideMadrid, and earlier research on Group Decision Support Systems and non-interactive processes, such as Nominal Group Technique. The result is a scalable online process for generating the same core information found in a CIR statement — key findings about the issue and the best pro and con arguments–without convening a small deliberative body. The model will also address the challenges of doing this without a mini-public, such as ensuring trustworthy and high-quality information and motivating voters to access and consider the information before completing their ballots.

Can Democracies Afford Citizens’ Political Ignorance? Defending against Shortcuts
Cristina Lafont, Northwestern University

The increasing spread of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories points towards an urgent need to improve the quality of public information and deliberation. Indeed, if the current deterioration continues, it is hard to see how democracy can survive. However, within academic debates on democracy, there are influential approaches that argue against this view. They propose institutional “shortcuts” that promise ‘better’ political outcomes without any need to improve the processes of opinion and will formation in which citizens participate. In this paper, I defend the need to improve the quality of public deliberation in democratic societies against two influential lines of argument. Elite democrats claim that citizens’ political ignorance is rational and that, to improve political outcomes, citizens should be encouraged to blindly defer to the political decisions of experts. Similarly, lottocratic conceptions of democracy claim that public deliberation is of such poor quality that, in order to reach better outcomes, citizens should simply trust the participants in deliberative mini-publics to do the relevant thinking and deciding for them. I argue that these proposals are “wishful thinking” that only serve to distract us from the need to combat current threats to the formation of an informed public opinion and political will. Democracies will only have a chance to survive and thrive if democratic theorists and practitioners abandon the search for easy “shortcuts” and work towards proposals for improving citizens’ access to quality information and deliberation.

Institutionalizing of National Deliberative Polls
Kasper M. Hansen, University of Copenhagen

Denmark is one of the few countries in the world that has institutionalized Deliberative Polls (DP) under its parliament. Since the first national DP in 2000 a total of six national DPs on EU-related issues have been completed as well as a few others on different issues. The last five DPs on EU-related are fully funded and carried out directly under the Danish Parliament. There are three main reasons for the successful institutionalization of DPs in Denmark. First, DPs combine the ideals of deliberation and representation, which been part of a classic democratic debate in Denmark over the last 80 years. DPs bridge this democratic debate. Secondly, many elected and appointed officials have long argued for a more nuanced discussion on Denmark’s position within the European Union (EU), which often have been simplified to a yes/no with Denmark’s many national referendums on the EU. The DPs gave access to the people’s voice based on more complete, balanced information, and deliberation on the EU-issues. Third and finally, the Danish dominant public service media have been a central player in many of the DPs, providing clear incentives for stakeholders to take an active part in the DPs as they were broadcasted widely and nationally.