Critical Elements of Deliberation

Many democratic theorists take deliberation to be a critical piece of democracy.

Indeed, in his 1989 piece Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy, Joshua Cohen builds off Rawls to define “public deliberation” in the very context of democracy:

When properly conducted, then, democratic politics involves public deliberation focused on the common good, requires some form of manifest equality among citizens, and shapes the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of the common good.

Echoing this sentiment, Centenary Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance John Dryzek argues that “the more authentic, inclusive, and consequential political deliberation is, the more democratic a political system is.”

But what exactly is public or political deliberation?

Cohen writes that “the aim of ideal deliberation is to secure agreement among all who are committed to free deliberation among equals.” That is, deliberation is more than just compromise:

Deliberation, then, focuses on debate on the common good. And the relevant conceptions of the common good are not comprised simply of interests and preferences that are antecedent to deliberation. Instead, the interests, aims and ideals that comprise the common good are those that survive deliberation, making claims on social resources.

People may enter deliberation with their own self-interest in mind, but through the process of deliberation they will reflect on their own interests, listen genuinely to the interests of others, and collective come to recognize the common good.

This process of reflecting on your own self-interest may be critical to democracy: Dryzek  goes so far as to argue that “political systems are deliberatively undemocratic to the extent that they minimize opportunities for individuals to reflect freely on their political preferences.”

A 2010 paper by Jane Mansbridge with an all-star list of co-authors James Bohman, Simone Chambers, David Estlund, Andreas Føllesdal, Archon Fung, Cristina Lafont, Bernard Manin and José luis Martí actively accepts the reality of self-interest and conflicts of interest, and seeks to update the “classic model” of the deliberative ideal to incorporate these realities.


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