Why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me

Essay by Peter Levine: “In some ways, I came of age in the field of deliberative democracy. I had an internship at the Kettering Foundation when I was a college sophomore (when the foundation defined itself more purely in deliberative terms than it does today). By that time, I had already taken a philosophy seminar on the great deliberative theorist Jürgen Habermas. In the three decades since then, I’ve served on the boards of Kettering, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. I wrote a book with “deliberative democracy” in its subtitle and co-edited The Deliberative Democracy Handbook with John Gastil. I was one of many co-founders of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and have served on its steering committee since the last century.

None of these groups is committed to deliberation in a narrow sense (although opinions differ within the field). For me, these are the main limitations of focusing on deliberation as the central topic or unit of analysis:

Deliberative values are worthy ones, but they are not the only worthy ones. My own values would also include personal liberties and nonnegotiable rights, concerns for nature, and virtues of the inner life, such as equanimity and personal development. Stating my values doesn’t substitute for an argument, but it may suffice to make the point that deliberation is not the only good thing, and it’s in tension with other goods. A deliberative democrat will reply that I should discuss my values with other people. And so I should–but that doesn’t mean that the norms intrinsic to deliberation trump all other norms. Nor are fellow citizens the only sources of guidance; introspecting, reading ancient texts, consulting legal precedents, and conducting scientific experiments are helpful, too.

By the same token, deliberative virtues are not the only civic virtues. Deliberation is about discourse–talking and listening–so its virtues are discursive ones: humility and openness, empathy, sincerity, and perhaps eloquence. (The list is contested.) But a good citizen may be hard-working, physically courageous, or aesthetically creative instead of especially good at deliberating. The people who physically built the Athenian agora were as important as the people who exchanged ideas in it.

Deliberation depends on social organization. In order for people to have something that’s worth discussing, they must already make, control, or influence things of value together. That requires social organization, whether in the form of a market, a commons, a voluntary association, a functional network, or a political institution. Discussion rarely precedes these forms, because people can’t and won’t come together in completely amorphous groupings. Discussion is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance. Often a small group of founders chooses the rules-in-use that create a group in which deliberation can occur.

Thus we should ask about leadership and rules, not just about deliberation….(More)”.