By Will Friedman, Public Agenda What does it mean, this chaotic, disturbing, unpredictable electoral season? We'll know more after the dust has settled, but we can't afford...
Before the whirlwind of the holidays, my friend and democracy- hero, Peter Levine, published a blog post entitled “why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me.”
It made me a little prickly given that I am the director of an organization with “deliberative democracy” right in the name. And yet, I understand. My personal corollary is a visceral reaction to the relentless calls for more “civility” in public life. For all sorts of reasons—some rational and some emotional—the very word makes me cringe. It’s not that I am opposed to civility, but it is sometimes deployed in a way that makes feel like I am being sent back to Girls State, raising the flag at dawn in my navy-blue skirt and white gloves under the watchful eye of the ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary. It makes me feel like I am being shushed in Mass. Though that’s an argument for another day, I digress around that pole to say: I get it. I understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, and clearly what we have been doing hasn’t been enough. And sometimes they call for us to start turning over tables.
I also know that I wouldn’t still be thinking about Peter’s proclamation if it didn’t hit home in some important way.
And yet, there are a few places where I want to bring my quibbles with Peter out into the light. The crux of his argument is this: “The logic of deliberative democracy suggests that every institution should be a mini-public in which equal members exchange reasons. Moreover, there should be no rigid barriers among institutions: One Big Deliberation is the implicit goal. “
I hope that is not the goal, explicit or implicit. First of all, I outright detest the expression “mini-public.” I understand what it means and why people use it. But it feels both demeaning (when is “mini” ever used as an honorific?) and strangely clinical. But beyond that, I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing that we all should be gliding through the calm waters of one tepid, socially engineered pool of deliberation except maybe Habermas himself, and he gets a pass.
In fact, I think one of the trends suggesting that the deliberative democracy movement is maturing is the cross-pollination with the theory and practice of fields like community organizing and journalism and social movements. Though we could always improve more, I think we are getting better at discerning right action in context. We should know when it is appropriate to block airport roadways with our bodies. Or donate to a Congressional campaign or to a grass-roots organization. We should know when it is essential that we drive folks to polling places or step back so that others can lead. We should know when to file a lawsuit and also when to sit down for an eight-hour knock-down-drag-out conversation about all we hold dear. I think we can do all of those things and still maintain our commitment to a more deliberative democracy.
Peter goes on to argue: “Deliberative values are worthy ones, but they are not the only worthy ones.” I also agree with that. And so would most everyone I know. For we—even we deliberative democrats—contain multitudes. Or at least we should. But we are a long way from reaching even our most modest goals vis-á-vis creating a more deliberative society, even in constitutionally chartered deliberative settings like, for example, the United States House of Representatives. The most basic deliberative virtues—generous listening, ideological flexibility, sincerity—are in question, and I think it is critical that we continue to advocate for them.
As I see it, it is the ACLU’s job to focus on threats to civil liberties and The Washington Post’s job to report on government corruption and Black Lives Matter’s job to monitor police misconduct. And I will rely on any one of those organizations to issue a call for help if they need me as a protestor or a letter writer or even—in my case—as a volunteer lawyer. But it is my job to consider the deliberative aspects of our democracy—both the internal ones and the external ones—and to cry for help where help is needed. And maybe that’s what Peter is saying—he no longer wants to sound the alarm on behalf of deliberative democracy. And that’s fine. I will respond to Peter’s call for help in any democratic arena that he claims as his own.
I have reason to believe, however, that Peter and I are not that far apart in our hopes for a more democratic society. I love this part of Peter’s post: “Nor are fellow citizens the only sources of guidance; introspecting, reading ancient texts, consulting legal precedents, and conducting scientific experiments are helpful, too.” I am deeply attracted to the notion that deliberation is an internal process as well as an external one. Deliberation, in the broadest sense of the word, is also reflection, is also contemplation, is also perseveration over the things we care about and wonder about and fear. So, like a good generalist, I would propose that we sweep a lot of these virtuous practices into our deliberative bin and recognize that the others, like conducting scientific experiments, are also essential even if we don’t personally engage in them.
My absolute favorite part of Peter’s essay is this: “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.” That is true and inspiring and provocative. I don’t have an easy answer for how to expand the tent of deliberation to include those whose skills and passions are not verbal or conversational or even connective. But I love the challenge. And I am eager to work alongside Peter and others to celebrate public work in all its forms and to stretch deliberative democracy all the way to bursting with wild and creative possibilities.