The Prospects & Limits of Deliberative Democracy

Introduction by  and  of Special Issue of Daedalus:Democracy is under siege. Approval ratings for democratic institutions in most countries around the world are at near-record lows. The number of recognized democratic countries in the world is no longer expanding after the so-called Third Wave of democratic transitions. Indeed, there is something of a “democratic recession.” Further, some apparently democratic countries with competitive elections are undermining elements of liberal democracy: the rights and liberties that ensure freedom of thought and expression, protection of the rule of law, and all the protections for the substructure of civil society that may be as important for making democracy work as the electoral process itself. The model of party competition-based democracy – the principal model of democracy in the modern era – seems under threat.

That model also has competition. What might be called “meritocratic authoritarianism,” a model in which regimes with flawed democratic processes nevertheless provide good governance, is attracting attention and some support. Singapore is the only successful extant example, although some suggest China as another nation moving in this direction. Singapore is not a Western-style party- and competition-based democracy, but it is well-known for its competent civil servants schooled in making decisions on a cost-benefit basis to solve public problems, with the goals set by elite consultation with input from elections rather than by party competition.

Public discontent makes further difficulties for the competitive model. Democracies around the world struggle with the apparent gulf between political elites who are widely distrusted and mobilized citizens who fuel populism with the energy of angry voices. Disillusioned citizens turning against elites have produced unexpected election results, including the Brexit decision and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The competitive elections and referenda of most current democracies depend on mobilizing millions of voters within a context of advertising, social media, and efforts to manipulate as well as inform public opinion. Competing teams want to win and, in most cases, are interested in informing voters only when it is to their advantage. The rationale for competitive democracy, most influentially developed by the late economist Joseph Schumpeter, held that the same techniques of advertising used in the commercial sphere to get people to buy products can be expected in the political sphere. On this view, we should not expect a “genuine” public will, but rather “a manufactured will” that is just a by-product of political competition.

Yet the ideal of democracy as the rule of “the people” is deeply undermined when the will of the people is in large part manufactured. The legitimacy of democracy depends on some real link between the public will and the public policies and office-holders who are selected. Although some have criticized this “folk theory of democracy” as empirically naive, its very status as a folk theory reflects how widespread this normative expectation is.5 To the extent that leaders manufacture the public will, the normative causal arrow goes in the wrong direction. If current democracies cannot produce meaningful processes of public will formation, the legitimacy claims of meritocratic autocracies or even more fully autocratic systems become comparatively stronger.

Over the last two decades, another approach to democracy has become increasingly prominent. Based on greater deliberation among the public and its representatives, deliberative democracy has the potential, at least in theory, to respond to today’s current challenges. If the many versions of a more deliberative democracy live up to their aspirations, they could help revive democratic legitimacy, provide for more authentic public will formation, provide a middle ground between widely mistrusted elites and the angry voices of populism, and help fulfill some of our common normative expectations about democracy.

Can this potential be realized? In what ways and to what extent? Deliberative democracy has created a rich literature in both theory and practice. This issue of Dædalus assesses both its prospects and limits. We include advocates as well as critics. As deliberative democrats, our aim is to stimulate public deliberation about deliberative democracy, weighing arguments for and against its application in different contexts and for different purposes.

How can deliberative democracy, if it were to work as envisaged by its supporters, respond to the challenges just sketched? First, if the more-deliberative institutions that many advocate can be applied to real decisions in actual ongoing democracies, arguably they could have a positive effect on legitimacy and lead to better governance. They could make a better connection between the public’s real concerns and how they are governed. Second, these institutions could help fill the gap between distrusted elites and angry populists. Elites are distrusted in part because they seem and often are unresponsive to the public’s concerns, hopes, and values. Perhaps, the suspicion arises, the elites are really out for themselves. On the other hand, populism stirs up angry, mostly nondeliberative voices that can be mobilized in plebescitary campaigns, whether for Brexit or for elected office. In their contributions to this issue, both Claus Offe and Hélène Landemore explore the crisis of legitimacy in representative government, including the clash between status quo – oriented elites and populism. Deliberative democratic methods open up the prospect of prescriptions that are both representative of the entire population and based on sober, evidence-based analysis of the merits of competing arguments. Popular deliberative institutions are grounded in the public’s values and concerns, so the voice they magnify is not the voice of the elites. But that voice is usually also, after deliberation, more evidence-based and reflective of the merits of the major policy arguments. Hence these institutions fill an important gap.

How might popular deliberative democracy, if it were to work as envisaged by its supporters, fulfill normative expectations of democracy, thought to be unrealistic by critics of the “folk theory”? The issue turns on the empirical possibility that the public can actually deliberate. Can the people weigh the trade-offs? Can they assess competing arguments? Can they connect their deliberations with their voting preferences or other expressions of preference about what should be done? Is the problem that the people are not competent, or that they are not in the right institutional context to be effectively motivated to participate? These are empirical questions, and the controversies about them are part of our dialogue.

This issue includes varying definitions, approaches, and contexts. The root notion is that deliberation requires “weighing” competing arguments for policies or candidates in a context of mutually civil and diverse discussion in which people can decide on the merits of arguments with good information. Is such a thing possible in an era of fake news, social media, and public discussions largely among the like-minded? These are some of the challenges facing those who might try to make deliberative democracy practical….(More)”