Martin Carcasson, Colorado State University

There certainly seems to have been a resurgence in the traditional “citizens can’t handle democracy” argument lately, the most recent coming from Lee Drutman’s Vox article. It can be frustrating how commentators like Drutman often assume that those of us working on improving our democracy by focusing on improving public discussion and citizen engagement simply want “more” public engagement and miss the “better” and “different” public engagement argument. As if we believe that if only more people voted things would work better.  Jessie Conover of Healthy Democracy has already posted a nice response to the article, and I wanted to added some additional thoughts.

The reality is that elections in a highly partisan two-party system with winner-take-all results spark a very weak and polarizing form of engagement (I made that argument here), but there are many other forms of engagement that get away from the polarizing nature of elections and are critical to democracy’s health (see Most typical public engagement is simply one-way, people expressing their (often biased) opinions or voting their individual preference. Deliberation, on the other hand, is designed for interaction, exploration, and the refinement of opinion.

The Drutman article rightly calls for “good intermediation” between publics and experts, but then focuses on political parties and interest groups to play that role. As Jessie explains, those intermediaries are part of the polarization problem and likely cannot be rehabilitated enough, but I for one would certainly welcome those reform efforts. There certainly isn’t an either-or here. Let’s improve the key institutions of adversarial politics (elections, parties, etc.), while also working to better equip citizens for democratic engagement and providing them authentic opportunities to engage productively.

So, while we work to improve those institutions, let’s also support and expand the work of deliberative institutions and practitioners. They are focused on the quality of engagement and explicitly work to both address polarization and address the tensions between the public and experts; between key American values such as freedom, equality, safety, and justice; and between complexity and simplicity. National organizations such as NCDD, the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, Everyday Democracy, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, as well as locally situated centers like CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation that I run (and many others in the National Issues Forum network and the University Network for Collaborative Governance) are focused on reinvigorating our democratic communities by providing capacity for better participation.

Overall, deliberative democracy folks are focused on the quality of communication surrounding democracy and the issues we face, and we work to build capacity to elevate that communication. We believe that the quality of our conversations has a direct impact on the quality of our communities and that democracy requires constant conversation. We are not asking simply for more participation or even more elections (direct democracy and deliberative democracy are very different things), we are asking for better participation. And that is critical not just for better decisions, but also to build the habits and skills necessary in the citizenry as well as our communities overall (see my report on the intended consequences of deliberative engagement here).

Unfortunately, the forces supporting overly adversarial processes are very strong at the national level, and the culture and habits are deeply ingrained. (I nonetheless support Drutman’s call to work to rehabilitate those). At the same time, those of us working at the local level to create capacity for authentic deliberative engagement have a very different and hopeful view of the typical citizen. We know from experience that the local conversation can be changed, and that—while the cynicism and frustration is real—it can be overcome and real people can have tough but productive conversations. So, we see very good reasons for not giving up on the role of the “reasonable, moderate, and civically minded citizen.” We just need to develop processes that ask and equip them to play that role and allow them to do so.

In the end, it is clear that bad process (i.e. hyper-partisan elections) leads to bad decisions, increased polarization, and cynical, angry, and/or detached citizens. This feeds a negative feedback loop that just gets worse and worse. Alternatively, good process can create a virtuous feedback loop, leading not only to better decisions, but more thoughtful and engaged citizens. We need more people at all levels focused on better process. Not just winning at a bad game, but changing how the game works.


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