Arguments Against Deliberation

I spent much of the day yesterday reading about how deliberation is critical for democracy.

John Dryzek, for example, argues that fundamentally, it is the presence of deliberation which determines whether a state is truly a democracy. “…Democratic legitimacy,” he writes, “resides in the right, ability, and opportunity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in deliberation about the content of that decision.”

But while there seems to be much agreement that deliberation is a nice ideal, it is far from clear that such a theoretical ideal is attainable.

To be fair, most advocates of deliberation don’t argue that it is the only mode of democracy. Whether imperfect or inefficient for some tasks, a democracy must reasonably use other tools as well.

“Certain non-deliberative forms and mechanisms that intrinsically employ coercive power are legitimate and necessary procedures of democracy more broadly conceived,” Jane Mansbridge argued in a 2010 paper, adding that these additional forms are only acceptable “to the degree that they and their procedures emerge from and withstand deliberative, mutually-justificatory, scrutiny.”

But what if deliberation is actually bad for democracy? What if deliberation served to reinforce power dynamics rather than over come them?

That’s essentially the argument Lynn Sanders makes in Against Deliberation.

She begins with a jab at the deliberation community: “To begin, one might be suspicious of the near consensus among democratic theorists on its behalf. It isn’t clear, after all, that this wide endorsement has itself emerged through a genuinely deliberative process: democratic theorists are a select group who cannot and do not claim in any way to represent the perspectives of ordinary citizens.”

In my experience, the deliberative community is largely white – a point that comes up often as proponents of deliberative democracy actively work to address this shortcoming by recruiting speakers of color and seeking to engage diverse groups in conversation.

Deliberation as democracy doesn’t work if only some views are in the room.

But Sanders doesn’t end her critique there. A diverse group of participants may not be enough to ensure the ideal dialogue of deliberation.

“If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators,” she writes.

I imagine the room where “the boss” asks for feedback and nobody speaks. Where power dynamics have led to a culture of silence and quiescence – so whoever’s in charge can say the right things and do the right things, while all those without power have internalized the unmistakeable subtext: your view doesn’t matter.

John Gaventa compellingly captures this dynamic in Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, as he tracks the history of power dynamics in poor Appalachian communities. In democratic elections, people would vote against their interests for “the company man.” They didn’t have to be threatened – they knew what happened to people who didn’t.

“Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining,” he wrote. That is, a stranger dropped into a situation might see people autonomously choosing to act in a given way, but a historian of local power dynamics would see that there was something much more insidious at work.

Sanders takes a similar line of argument in warning against deliberation:

Even if democratic theorists notice the inequities associated with class and race and gender, and, for example, recommend equalizing income and education to redistribute the resources needed for deliberation – even if everyone can deliberate and learn how to give reasons – some people’s ideas may still count more than others. Insidious prejudice may be unrecognized by those citizens whose views are disregarded as well as by other citizens.

Prejudice and privilege do not emerge in deliberative settings as bad reasons, and they are not countered by good arguments. They are too sneaky, invisible, and pernicious for that reasonable process.

That’s a challenge that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by deliberation advocates. I think it’s a challenge most advocates are aware of, and no doubt its the sort of concern that keeps them up at night.

To be fair, the problem isn’t just one for deliberation. Given such pernicious prejudice, other democratic tools might find themselves equally unmatched. Deliberation may even be one of the most potent tool in combating that prejudice.

For example, pointing to successful truth and reconciliation activities around the world, Dryzek argues that “deliberation also can play a part in healing division.” Perhaps deliberation, while flawed in a flawed world, is a critical tool to slowly chipping away at those divisions and prejudices. Perhaps deliberation, while ideally requiring equalization, is ultimately a path to equalization itself.

Sanders concerns aren’t a reason to throw out deliberation – merely a reason to be continually, productively critical of how it is realized. Perhaps less than the ideal is still enough.

The question this raises for me is one of measurement. How can you tell the difference between a truly good deliberation and one that merely looks good on paper while masking the deeper quiescence of oppression?


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