Deliberative Democracy Events: Broad Consensus or One-Off Failures?

On the surface, attempts at “deliberative democracy” events look impressive. These are events that bring together large groups of everyday Americans to talk about the problems facing our country.

Certainly a lot of work goes into making deliberative democracy events happen: creating briefing materials, recruiting the participants, handling all the logistics and, not trivially, footing the multi-million dollar bill.

But what does deliberative democracy actually accomplish?

We can all agree that educated citizens should decide the course of government, but is packaging this process into a singular staged event the right way to ensure democracy?

In my book Mass Informed Consent, I argue that deliberation can only achieve lasting success when power is vested in the participants. Simply put, when the deliberators actually make decisions, the process works; when they act in an “advisory” capacity—absent real stakes—the process is more gimmick than governance.

The productive role public deliberative processes can play in local government has yet to be fully explored, though the people at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute  are off to a good start. They work with municipal governments to create opportunities for citizens to make decisions on local issues. In this era, for example, they work with communities to allocate cuts in order to balance local budgets.

The prospects for public deliberation at the national level are much bleaker. Let me focus on an event I attended:  the AmericaSpeaks’ deliberations on the federal budget that occurred on June 26, 2010.

This process aimed at addressing the budget deficit with public input. Given the fact public opinion is often dismissed for being ill informed, AmericaSpeaks concentrated on bringing people together to educate and discuss before rendering judgment.

The tradeoff in this process is that the organizers concentrated on thousands, rather than the hundreds of millions, who are American citizens. For this reason, while we can acknowledge a direct effect on the participants themselves, the net political impact that AmericaSpeaks expects must be realized through publicity in the form of elected officials’ and pundits’ reactions.

The endgame of this process has power players swayed by the moral force of the conclusions (that may well be the result of selected Americans learning and talking about a certain way about the issues). To assess this critical part of their strategy, let us imagine the reactions of a Congressional representative, the player at the focal point of AmericaSpeaks’ efforts.

We start when a glossy report lands on their desk (assuming it passes staffer’s rigorous screening).  Skimming the report reveals its promise to overcome gridlock and solve a thorny public problem –  in this case, the federal deficit. It goes on to detail the carefully orchestrated procedures, offering common sense solutions that have been endorsed by informed citizens.

As it turns out, the conclusions are not so different from those offered by the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan commission. Now consider what might happen in the most favorable case, that is when the report’s recommendations agree with the member’s own position. It seems likely that the member of Congress would want to use the results to bolster their argument. But before taking this step, they have to make a simple calculation—do they think the report adds value or is it going to be more trouble than it is worth? They must anticipate what critics will say if they tout the report.

We can envision several potential responses from those who have a stake in disagreeing with the findings:

Response #1: Ignore

Public discourse is filled with proposals for solving problem that opponents can overlook as another piece of defective ammunition.

Response #2: Dismiss

Another likely stance has opponents rejecting the findings as the residue of propaganda. AmericaSpeaks emphasizes their practice of educating panelists in the course of their deliberations; indeed, that is the centerpiece of their process. But no briefing is without bias, especially in an age when even the most scientifically rigorous conclusions (consider global warming) can be maligned. Such bias can be taken as evidence of indoctrination that could deceive citizens into supporting proposals they “really” don’t want.

In short, opponents might as well say “let me prepare the briefing materials, and they will reach my conclusions.” To see an example of this kind of argument, take a look at the Center for Economic and Political Research’s “America Speaks’ Misguided Federal Budget 101.” By rejecting the notion that framing is inherent in all materials and debates, and by ignoring the fact that this framing does not have to be conscious or intentional, the deliberative discussions are based on a false premise, namely that “bald” facts can be digested in an unbiased manner so long as participants seek some resolution.

Response #3: Rebut

Opponents may also use the circumstances surrounding the deliberation to challenge the veracity of the conclusions. For example, the striking thing about these events is that they are fun. They combine the best features of a political convention with a neighborhood picnic. In this festival atmosphere, participants are flattered, treated to lunch, encouraged to see themselves as patriotic Americans and pointedly seated with others who share this loyalty (although they may amiably disagree about the particulars). The atmosphere prioritizes reasonableness and compromise.

At my table, for instance, a senior citizen eagerly agreed to trim social security benefits in exchange for a tea partier’s support for increasing certain taxes. If only government were so easy.

This zero stakes process is open to all sorts of charges, ranging from the mundane—that the recommendations are illegal, to the universal, namely that the daily grind of partisan politics admits no such compromise. While the others and I were happy to engage in the hypothetical discussion, we had to park our personal attachments, like partisanship or my political science training, at the door when we bought into the event’s premise.

In retrospect, it seems that the force of these critiques would make it difficult for a prudent representative to embrace the deliberative democracy process, if only because it makes it so easy for those who disagree with the conclusions to dismiss or contest them. Hence, the attempt to short cut the politics of governance runs into a dead end. Put more obviously, the work of governance—persuading a majority of the “rightness” of an idea —is hard.  Confusing a one-day event for the arduous task of citizen participation does not help us achieve this goal.

At FrameWorks we specialize in one aspect of this challenge –  the careful preparation and testing of message frames that are designed to incrementally build public support. The heavy lifting comes as advocates wield these reframes over and over with their colleagues and fellow citizens, in direct contact as well as in social and mass media. This steady hammering makes new policy directions easier to envision over time and can bring about real and lasting change.

We readily acknowledge that the promise of a “silver bullet,” a one-time investment in framing or citizen participation is false. Ultimately, we recommend the tried and true approach of issue advocacy, creating winning messages that can steadily build networks and change minds from the ground up. In this process, designing frames, messages, and arguments that can be strategically injected at crucial points of leverage is instrumental to public rethinking. Reframing, then, is a key and critical tool for advocates to build a legitimate and broad-based consensus among Americans across social issues.

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One thought on “Deliberative Democracy Events: Broad Consensus or One-Off Failures?

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