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May 21, 2003

discipline or cooptation?

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.

Posted by peterlevine at May 21, 2003 11:00 AM

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