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May 14, 2007

new article on activists' views of deliberation

Rose Marie Nierras and I have just published "Activists’ Views of Deliberation", Journal of Public Deliberation (vol. 3, no. 1, article 4). We interviewed more than 60 practitioners from more than 20 countries to explore the tension between activism and deliberation and to propose some compromises.

We define an "activist" as someone who tries to advance a substantive political or social goal or outcome. A clear case would be someone who seeks government money for a new health clinic. Activism is always an attempt to exercise power, yet some activists' motivations are highly altruistic. They try to develop and employ power for ethical ends. To complicate the definition, we note that many activists feel constrained by democratic procedures or principles. For example, they may drop their demands when they see that they have been outvoted or have lost a public argument. They may be sincerely interested in learning from rival perspectives; and they may try to help other people to become independent political agents with goals and interests of their own. In all these respects, activists can be democratic, not merely strategic.

Meanwhile, an organizer of a public deliberation is someone who helps people to decide on their collective goals and outcomes. A clear case would be someone who organizes a forum to discuss how much money the government should raise in taxes and how the funds should be spent. To organize such a deliberation means suppressing or deferring one’s own views about state spending in the interests of promoting an open-ended conversation.

Nevertheless, organizing a deliberation is also an exercise in power. It requires making substantive decisions that can be controversial. Even to invite people to a deliberative session, one must give oneself the right to define the scale and scope of the community, to identify certain issues as important, and to select a method or format for discussion. Even if the process is very open-ended, organizers may rationally predict that a particular outcome will emerge. In such cases, they may use deliberation as a tool to obtain support for the outcome they want.

In short, activists and organizers of deliberations are not sharply distinguishable. It is not only activists who have agendas, desired outcomes, and some degree of power. However, the two groups cluster at opposite ends of a spectrum. At one end, politics is strategic and oriented toward policy goals (albeit constrained by procedures or ethical principles). The main evidence of success is achieving the desired outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, politics is open-ended; the main evidence of success is a broad, fair discussion leading to a set of goals that may be unanticipated at the outset.

If one stipulates that an activist has the right agenda and fully appropriate plans, then it may seem unfair to saddle him or her with the norms of deliberation, which require listening to other people, providing neutral background materials, sharing control of the process, etc. But it is generally unwise to assume that one's own agenda is right. The value of deliberation lies as much in the listening as in the speaking; as much in the opportunity to learn as the chance to persuade. Learned Hand said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias." That is the best argument for deliberation, although there is certainly also a case to be made for forceful political action.

May 14, 2007 7:03 AM | category: deliberation | Comments


From Harry Boyte, via email:

Your invocation of Learned Hand's "spirit of liberty" is in the important tradition of John Dewey and his conception of science as an open-ended,experimental, provisional and profoundly social process of creating knowledge. But another key line of thinking, questioning, and acting can complicate and further bridge the contrasts between deliberative, open-ended public judgment-making, on the one hand, and "instrumental," strategic, goal-oriented activism on the other: ongoing interrogation of the goal itself, and the creation of broad goals rich with cultural and value dimensions.

More closed and instrumental approaches brook little deliberation because they take goals as a given. They are a product of the technocratic, efficiency oriented modes of thought that characterize so much of our world today, asking little or nothing about the big picture of action, how particular issues and problems are interrelated. Rather activism tends strongly to focus on efficiency of means. I would argue that such instrumentalism impoverishes contemporary public policy and public goals -- a key reason for the overwhelming emphasis on economic goods, narrowly and privately defined, as the measure of wealth and well-being. Perhaps even more significantly, instrumentalism, or technocratic approaches attenuate human agency, making the point "problem solving" rather than the continuous, ongoing co-creation of our contexts and cultures. This dynamic is at the heart of the technicism that has spread across modern societies, Max Weber's "Iron Cage" of bureaucratic rationality, or Michel Foucault's disciplinary discourses.

In the world of "civic activism," there are important innovations that break open this iron cage of closed and instrumental modes of thinking. These innovations encourage deliberative processes as part of a broader mix of democratic capacity building -- skills and habits of work with a mix of people of different interests and backgrounds (what we call public work).

For instance, the best of what is called "broad based organizing" networks like the Industrial Areas Foundation have long emphasized that the most important goal is not a particular objective -- say, a low income housing project. Rather the point is a larger process of community revitalization, informed by values such as concern for the poor, participation, pluralism, and public life. Andres Sarabia, the first president of the Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio, a Mexican American church based organization that became a model for broad based organizing, described this realization in an interview some years ago when I asked him the key to COPS' success. As he put it, "we learned after the first year that issues are the dessert, not the main meal. The main meal is keeping in mind our larger objective -- rebuilding healthy communities." That realization allowed COPS leaders to have a strong focus on what they call "public leadership development," developing ways for people to learn the habits of listening to many points of view, and also to develop capacities for dealing with people that they had long seen as enemies, such as Anglo business interests.

I would argue that democratic "movement building" has this quality of developing broad, open-ended goals that cultivate a broad set of civic capacities, deliberation among them. Especially this is true for populist movements such as the 1930s popular front against fascism (the roots of the modern broad based organizing approach). The popular front (for all its ironies -- dictated by the Comintern) prompted an enormous shift in progressive approaches, strategies and organizing. Activists changed from narrow battles to long term alliance building, across party and other lines, on themes such as economic and social justice, defense of democracy, and culture change. For a time, this had immense impact around the world. For instance, the Freedom Charter movement in South Africa, for the first time bringing together a great diversity of cultural and ideological groups, emerged from this shift, and created the non-racial organizing approach of the subsequent anti-apartheid movement.

Today in the US, the National Wildlife Federation's new movement building culture changing mission of "instilling an ethic of conservation citizenship" is an example of a new populist approach. Many issues, campaigns, and organizing efforts will be needed -- and all can be held in tension with this very large and open ended cultural goal.

May 16, 2007 3:51 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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