other threads (collected entries on recurrent themes)
an experimental high school civics class
Iraq and democratic theory
The Internet and civic life
rethinking the left
advocacy for civic education
moral philosophy


The updated version of this page has migrated to


Please click through to that page


Thursday, January 16

[I had] breakfast with my good friends from the Study Circles Resource Center. They support thousands of local "study circles" around the county—groups of citizens who meet face-to-face to discuss issues. We ate in an Irish-themed hotel restaurant near Dupont Circle and talked about ways to promote a national deliberation for young people on the topic of young Americans' role in public life. As a researcher, I am interested in what would happen if several organizations that promote deliberation in very different ways all conducted a deliberation on the same topic at the same time. For example, there are online deliberation sites like E-ThePeople; grassroots networks of citizens involved in face-to-face discussion like the National Issues Forums; groups that convene randomly selected bodies of citizens for intensive, lengthy conversations; and groups that manage very large summit meetings of citizens all convened together in a single place. I am interested in the differences among these methodologies. However, as a result of the discussion with Study Circles, I realized that the important differences are not really in methods. There probably isn't even a huge difference between online and face-to-face conversations. The important distinction is the way that these groups fit into a larger social context: how they recruit people, who participates, and what outcomes potentially result from the deliberation.

Tuesday, January 14

In the midst of a hectic and bleary day, I participated in a conference call for members of the steering committee. I proposed an idea that seemed to get a lot of support. Sociologists sometimes survey individuals or organizations, asking them with whom they interact most. They create a database showing all the individuals and their mutual relations. They then use "relationship-mapping" software to spit out maps that cluster all the most closely related individuals together and use lines to show how they are linked. If we did this to all the groups involved in the field of deliberative democracy, then we could see which ones work together, which ones are completely separate, and which organizations serve as bridges between clusters of groups. This is the kind of analysis that political organizers have always used; software can help to do it more easily and thoroughly.

Friday, March 14

I have been proposing that several organizations that are members of the should simultaneously convene young people to discuss their generation's role in public life or in "politics" (broadly defined). This idea is building some momentum.

As a general matter, I think the Consortium should organize simultaneous deliberations on the same topic using very different methods and approaches. This is a way of learning about the different approaches and also drawing attention to deliberation as a style of politics. One inherently interesting topic today is the role of young people in public life. The rising generation of youth is less engaged in civic affairs than any previous generation for which we have data. Also, we have been doing intensive research on youth civic engagement, but the research hasn't been interactive enough; young people haven't had enough voice.

On the other hand, there are some drawbacks that became clearer to me during conversations today. Asking young people to discuss their role in "politics" may not be a good way to start a deliberation. Especially for low income kids, the issue may seem very remote and abstract. And there isn't a natural way to connect the results of the deliberation to policies. Thus the conversations may be interesting for research purposes, but not very good as examples of deliberation. (They would be like focus groups in this respect.) If we pull off a set of deliberative exercises, but they don't go very well, that is not a good way to establish the Consortium. It could actually be a damaging start.

Wednesday, April 2

I made a presentation today at the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference at a beautiful rural retreat in northwestern Connecticut. This was my outline:

Deliberation is a hot topic in philosophy, law, and political science, generating shelves of books and articles. I believe that there are three reasons for this:

  1. Until the 1960s, many scholars assumed that politics was mostly a struggle among groups with fixed interests. Often, groups' goals were assumed to be selfish, although the really important point was that they were inflexible. Therefore, discussion, argument, and reason-giving were inconsequential. This was the Marxist view, but it was also the view of "pluralists" and "realists" in political science, many of whom were quite conservative. So it a broad ideological spectrum agreed that rhetoric was politically insignificant. Politics meant the deployment of power in competitive situations.
  2. Then the power of argument, persuasion, and rhetoric was rediscovered. But rhetoric is not always a good thing; people can be persuaded to hate others against their self-interests. Conceivably, a society of rational individuals who maximized their own interests would not be racist, since racism is irrational. People are persuaded to be racists.

    If persuasion is politically significant, but often harmful, then we clearly need to figure out how to improve it. "Improved talk" is a rough definition of "deliberation."

  3. Until the 1960's, the positivist distinction between facts and values held sway in English-speaking countries. Facts were testable and debatable; values were just subjective matters of opinion. There was no debating morality.

    Then, around 1970, moral philosophy was revived, demonstrating that there can be powerful, rational arguments for moral conclusions. However, almost all contemporary political philosophers are democrats. They do not believe that philosophers can decide what is right by sitting in their studies and applying philosophical methods. This approach would be undemocratic; it would also be foolish, since good decisions require the input of many people with different backgrounds, values, and experiences.

    A belief in rational moral argument plus a belief in democratic participation yields a commitment to deliberation.

  4. "Civil society"—an old term—suddenly became hugely influential in the 1980s and 1990s, for various reasons. Definitions of "civil society" vary, but a core idea is that societies form "public opinion" in nongovernmental groups such as clubs, civic associations, newspapers, and political parties. This means that no public opinion can form at all where civil society has been suppressed or destroyed (e.g., in Iraq?). It also means that democracy depends upon having a good institutional base for civil society. Thus there has been a lot of research into what institutions support good discussions and valuable public opinion.

These three trends have led to a lot of research on two types of deliberation:

  1. Deliberation in formal, decision-making bodies such as legislatures, official juries, and appeals courts. The research mostly asks: "Do good arguments count in these fora?" and "How could we make them count more?"
  2. Society-wide deliberations occuring in civil society and the media, e.g., America's discussion of gender-roles since the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile, there have been many interesting experiments that involve actual citizen deliberations at modest scales outside of the government. Many of the groups that promote such experiments are now gathered into the . Their work is influenced by the intellectual trends described above, but it also continues an American tradition going back to the Chautauqua Movement, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.

These experiments have not been much studied. We need to ask: What is the point of convening a group of citizens to discuss a public issue, if the group is not a legislature or some other decision-making body? What outcomes should we hope for from such experiments? Are they intrinsically valuable, or only valuable as part of a movement that somehow "goes to scale" or changes official institutions? What are the best ways to structure citizens' deliberations? And what makes them successful?

Thursday, April 3

At the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference on "Discussion, Dialogue, and Deliberation," some of us watched a video advertising a University of Michigan program that involves students in "sustained dialogues" on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It struck me that the video would drive conservatives up the wall, because of the choice of topics, the assumption that the personal is political, the psycho-therapeutic style, and the attempt to raise consciousness by unrooting hidden prejudices even among apparently enlightened students. It also struck me that there were hardly any conservatives at our conference. This is a common experience in my life. I'm a "progressive" on most issues myself; yet almost all my professional projects are defined in strictly nonpartisan, nonideological ways; yet practically everyone I meet and work with is on the left. I raised this issue at the conference, illiciting diverse and interesting responses. I won't try to characterize other people's views of this matter. For myself, I think we have three choices:

1. We could decide that dialogue or deliberation, properly understood and worked out, isn't neutral. It's a form of politics that's inherently more attractive to the Left than to the Right. (For example, some people think that it must deal with racial and gender oppression, because these topics are at the root of most important conflicts.) Thus, although conservatives should be welcomed and respected if they choose to participate, we shouldn't expect them to join in large numbers, nor should we adjust our styles and topics to attract them. To a considerable extent, deliberation (at least on college campuses) will attract the traditional blocks of the Democratic Party: liberal whites, racial and ethnic minorities, gays. They have plenty of diagreements and plenty of hidden mutual animosity to work though, so it is worthwhile to bring them together to deliberate.

2. We could decide that a properly deliberative approach requires the participation of underrepresented groups. In the case of this conference, there was pretty good participation by people of color, but to my knowledge there were no Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people with any current connection to the military. Just as we would act affirmatively to increase the representation of an underrepresented minority group, so we should take affirmative steps to invite the Right to participate. We should make sure we identify potentially interested conservatives and ask them to participate. We should evaluate our public statements and image to make sure that they don't appear hostile to the Right. We should include conservatives as partners from the beginning of our projects, asking them to help us frame our questions and concerns. And we should not presume to speak for them in their absence. I sense, for instance, that they would dislike the University of Michigan's dialogue program, but it is up to them to express their own views of it. I thought some of the characterizations of conservative views at the conference were stereotyped and inaccurate.

3. We should do a bit of both. Some useful exercises (for example, dialogues on racial identity) are going to be dominated by leftish participants, and that's fine. Others will naturally attract conservatives.

Choice #3 seems attractive because it is moderate, but I believe it is impractical. Given very limited energy and resources, the movement for deliberative democracy is going to have to choose between #1 and #2, I believe, and not imagine that we can manage a bit of both.

Wednesday, May 14

I have just spent a very interesting two days at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy and the Fundacion Nueva Generacion Argentina on the subject of "Deliberative Democracy: Principles and Cases." Essentially, the conference brought together four groups of experts into fruitful dialogue:

  1. The Fundacion sent Argentines who are deeply embroiled in their country's convulsive political crisis.
  2. Innovative grantmakers and aid experts talked about new approaches to development assistance that help democracy (or good governance) and civil society.
  3. Practitioners who organize human-scale deliberative experiments (e.g., Carolyn Lukensmeyer of America Speaks) talked about their work. Also, Gianpaolo Baiocchi contributed ethnographic research on participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre (which is turning into the Mecca for progessive and populist reformers); and Andrew Selee described participatory and deliberative experiments in Mexico.
  4. Several American theorists and social scientists gave papers on deliberative democracy. Jane Mansbridge argued for the significance of practice for deliberative theory, drawing some theoretical conclusions about the importance of self-interest and passion. Henry Richardson talked about the corrupting effects of being powerless, and the discipline that comes from having to make practical decisions together. Noelle McAfee distinguished three types of deliberative democracy. And Joel Siegel provided evidence that democracy contributes to economic growth in developing countries.

Wednesday, April 23

I have been thinking a little about the contrast between public deliberation and the professional discipline of philosophy. Philosophers like to make and explore novel distinctions. In part, this is because they pursue truth, and an ambiguity or equivocation is an obstacle to truth. Philosophers can do nothing about faulty or inadequate data, but they can show that A is logically different from B, even when it has hitherto been seen as the same.

A second reason is that philosophers, like academics in general, need to say something new. Only original arguments can be published and otherwise rewarded. Since the most obvious distinctions are well known, philosophers get ahead by finding obscure ones.

In contrast, citizen deliberators tend to gravitate toward language that is vague enough to suppress distinctions, when possible. This is because there is always some pressure to gain agreement, and distinctions drive groups apart. Citizens may care about truth, but often their top priority is to reach acceptable agreements, and to that end they may be willing to overlook vagueness. There is even an art to devising rhetorical formulas that can accommodate different positions. (Diplomats speak of "creative ambiguity.") Also, unlike philosophers, deliberating citizens don't care much about novelty or originality. Sometimes a new perspective can have a powerful effect in a public conversation, because it can break a deadlock or reinvigorate the participants. But at least as often, novelty per se is an impediment, because people don't have time to absorb a completely new idea. Besides, a novel argument may be associated too closely with its author, so others will not endorse it wholeheartedly.

Thus it will often be easy for professional philosophers to tear apart a consensus statement issued by a large and diverse group of deliberators. But professional philosophers would not be able to run a democratic community.

Wednesday, May 21

Here is an issue that arose several times at last week's Argentine/US conference on deliberative democracy. Citizens who are given the power to deliberate and make formal decisions often learn about legal, political, and economic constraints and recognize the necessity of making changes one step at a time. They tend to drop their radical ideas and become critical of outsiders who do not understand the process that they have mastered.

There are at least two ways to interpret this change in attitude:

First, we could say that giving citizens real power is a form of civic education. Deliberators develop discipline and an understanding of real, unavoidable constraints. They gain the skills, knowledge, and networks needed to make tangible improvements in their communities. Civic Innovation in America, by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, is (partly) the story of some "sixties radicals" who gained civic skills and discipline by working within democratic institutions, and thereby become highly effective agents of change.

Alternatively, we could say that incorporating citizens into a system of constrained deliberation co-opts them. The process is biased in favor of moderate, meliorist policies and cannot embrace radical proposals. Yet there are good arguments for radical change, especially in a country like Brazil, where the world's most interesting experiments in deliberative democracy take place in the context of massive inequality.

Tuesday, June 10

I spent the day at the semi-annual meeting of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium's steering committee. We were brainstorming about what would compose the infrastructure of a deliberative democracy in the United States—everything from physical meeting spaces, to networks of trained facilitators, to formal mechanisms for injecting the results of citizen deliberations into government decision-making. An interesting philosophical question arose at one point. Assume that you want a fully deliberative democracy. Which path seems better?

  1. Make governmental institutions more deliberative. They alone represent everyone, and they are already committed to egalitarian deliberation (a form of "voice") as a method of decision-making. Allow the market to remain mostly non-deliberative, because it reflects other values (such as efficiency and freedom of "exit.") However, remove any arbitrary constraints that would prevent the state from regulating the market if that's what people want. They may choose market solutions, and that's fine. But we should consider democratic institutions to be plenipotentiary, and leave it up to the public to decide how to use the state.
  2. Try to make market institutitions as well as the state more deliberative. Perhaps even seek to reform other institutions too, such as families, religious congregations, and nonprofits. Do not consider the state to be sovereign or plenipotentiary. Imagine, instead, that power ought to be divided into several distinct sectors (state, market, and civil society), none of which rightly rules the others. But make all these sectors as deliberative and democratic as possible.

In my view, this is really a difficult choice, and there are numerous reasons for and against each option.

Tuesday, June 17

Standards and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile, many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion as possible before any vote.

Educational standards can be beneficial for deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing, on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed by small groups in private. They can't be public documents and still function well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than public judgment.

The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e., those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control, and cannot even debate, their content.

Such tests are bad for public deliberation. Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don't know how to enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good for either education or democracy.

Monday, July 7

The Senate has passed a bill that would represent a very important experiment in public deliberation. It is the Wyden-Hatch bill, now section 620 of S. 1, the Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003. If this provision survives the rest of the legislative process, it will "provide for a nationwide public debate about improving the health care system to provide every American with the ability to obtain quality, affordable health care coverage; and .... provide for a vote by Congress on the recommendations that result from the debate."

A large and diverse commission of stakeholders, experts, and citizens would be appointed that would hold hearings; issue a public "Health Report to the American People"; hold facilitated public deliberations across the country (based on the Report); and then generate final recommendations. The President would be required to comment formally on the results, and Congress would have to hold formal hearings. The bill embodies the most advanced thinking about how to organize public deliberations, and it would be a wonderful showcase.

Wednesday, July 16

A new book is causing quite a stir among people who work for in civic and democratic reform. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that the public doesn’t want a bigger role in government and politics. In fact, people would like to have a smaller role, but they suspect that elites are corrupt, so they believe that citizens must periodically intervene just to prevent sleaze. These are some of the themes of Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

I've posted a full review of Stealth Democracy here.


Wednesday, Oct. 22

I'm on my way to the National 4-H Center for a meeting organized by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. We're calling it a "Research & Practitioner Meeting," because it combines leading scholars who study public deliberation with practitioners who run actual public discussion forums. Our goals are to set an ambitious research agenda for the field, and also to pick some small projects that can be funded out of our existing money. I was on the planning committee for the conference, so I'm excited about it.

Connected to this conference is a proposed book that John Gastil has organized, although I'm the co-editor. Anyone who might like to write a chapter on a particular approach to public deliberation should check out the Call for Papers that John has written.

Thursday, Oct. 23

We are now two days into the "Researcher & Practitoner" meeting that I described yesterday. We tried to get consensus (among 40 people) on a set of factual statements about public deliberation that we could post on a website for public use. For the most part, the academics in the group rejected the statements that the practitioners proposed, on the ground that the research base was too weak. Therefore, we harvested a very long list of plausible, informed hypotheses about deliberation. This may be a more useful product than a set of consensus propositions.

The conversation has generally been very rich and disciplined (and hard to summarize). Instead, I'll report the following thought that occurred to me. We seem to have a choice between two general approaches. We can randomly select people to deliberate on a public issue (giving them incentives to participate, as if in a kind of jury); or we can try to motivate a large and diverse segment of the population to seek out voluntary opportunities for deliberation. Both approaches are widely used by practitioners in the field of Deliberative Democracy.

Randomly selecting a small sample cannot change the habits or skills of the overall population, who are not involved. Furthermore, if a random group is given the power to make public decisions, then other citizens may feel that they have no right or means to influence the results. And the random group must get its power as a grant from some authority, which can always withdraw that power. In short, deliberation by randomly selected groups generates very interesting results, but it cannot change the overall dynamics of a society.

Mobilizing people to attend (or demand) various kinds of public meetings can change the overall power structure. However, this approach is subject to manipulation. Special interests can make sure that their people show up and speak from a script. Voluntary participants tend to be privileged, because deliberation is easier for people with more education and higher status. Therefore, good organizers deliberately work to increase the participation of disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, if it's possible to influence who attends, then it's possible to stack the deck in favor of one's own position.

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Along with Rose Marie Nierras of LogoLink, I'm applying for a small grant to interview political activists and people who promote public deliberation, to get some sense of the differences between these approaches.

On a simple definition, “deliberation” means convening a diverse group of citizens and asking them to talk, without any expectation or hope that they will reach one conclusion rather than another. The population that is convened, the format, and the informational materials are all supposed to be neutral or balanced. There is an ethic of deference to whatever views may emerge from democratic discussion. Efforts are made to insulate the process from deliberate attempts to manipulate it. In contrast, the simple view of “advocacy” implies an effort to enlist or mobilize citizens toward some end. At their best, advocates are candid about their goals and open to critical suggestions. But they are advocating for something. To be sure, there are versions of advocacy that incorporate genuine deliberation, just as there are deliberative exercises aimed at policy goals. Nevertheless, there is at least a potential tension between the two approaches. Many advocates for disadvantaged populations explicitly say that deliberation is a waste of their limited resources. And some proponents of deliberation see organized advocacy as a threat to fair and unbiased discussion; hence their efforts to protect deliberative forums from being “manipulated” by groups with an agenda. Our full proposal is available online, and comments are welcome on a dedicated website.