What Does Deliberation Accomplish?

Deliberative theorists seem to face increased pressure to argue that their approach has value. I suppose all who advocate for specific realizations of democracy have this obligation, but – there seems to be less of a demand for, say, get out the vote organizations to prove the worth of their mission.

I suppose that voting as a democratic tool is commonly accepted to be of use. Therefore, getting more people to vote is good, and the only question left for a GOTV organization is whether they are effective at increasing the vote. Specific interests may, of course. also question what kind of vote these organizations are turning out – accusing them of being too partisan or, perhaps, not partisan enough.

But those questions are secondary. They come after accepting the basic premise of the mission: voting is good.

Deliberation has a harder battle. Perhaps it is good but wildly impractical. Perhaps it can be good, but generally doesn’t give a meaningful return for the amount of time and effort that needs to be put into it.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that deliberation, if it could be ideally realized, would be bad, but there seems to be enough standing between this ideal and reality that deliberation is constantly called upon to defend its very existence.

So what does deliberation, real-world deliberation, accomplish? Why does it have value?

There are a number of ways to tackle this question. At the most utilitarian level, deliberation can result in decisions or concrete action.

If there’s an issue in our community, we can deliberate about it. By pooling our knowledge and resources we can ensure that we are making a well informed decision, and by doing it collaboratively we ensure buy-in from stakeholders and legitimacy for the final decision. One can still quibble over whether deliberation is the most efficient way to achieve that outcome, but when deliberation results in tangible action, it seems easy to argue that it is effective.

Another value of deliberation might be seen in communities with deep divisions. While deliberation here may not result in concensus – imagine a community far too divided for that – it may still demonstrate its value as a bridge between communities and a tool for de-escalating tensions.

The Public Conversations Project, for example, specializes in highly structured dialogues within divided communities. They worked with both pro-life and pro-choice groups in Boston after a series of bombings of abortion clinics. Their dialogues didn’t change anyone’s stance on the issue, but it re-humanized both sides to each other and created a joint force that could collectively speak out against the attacks. Similar approaches have been used around topics of same-sex marriage and immigration, and have been utilized as part of truth and reconciliation committees.

Such outcomes aren’t quite as concrete as a collective decision or collective action, but they are still somewhat tangible and a sign of progress in some of the most challenged communities.

I am interested in the argument after that.

What is the value of deliberation that does not result in a decision? In communities without such paralyzing divides?

Implicit in the argument in favor of deliberation is the idea that a community is more than the sum of its parts. That deliberation makes me better, it makes you better, and it makes our community better. A healthy community is one in which residents are in constant deliberation – where they may occasionally use the tool for moments of decision making, but where deliberation is more deeply a way of life.

I’m not sure how to better articulate that and I’m not sure how to quantify that. I find this sentiment hinted out throughout the deliberation literature, but little seems to tackle this question head on.

I am increasingly convinced that deliberation does have this intrinsic value – that it more than just a glorified aggregation tool – but it’s hard to demonstrate that outcome.

Deliberation research shows that participants can be more knowledgable after deliberation, that they may change their opinions after deliberation, and that the process of deliberation may serve as an equalizer between people of different levels of class and education.

But I feel like there’s something still missing from this proof. That ephemeral value of deliberation that makes the whole better as well as the individual, that transforms the way a person acts and the way people act together.

Deliberation does have value. The question is how to measure it.


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