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Evaluating Deliberative Democracy

Josh Gartland

The potential advantages and disadvantages of a deliberative democratic body have been

the subject of a number of works of political theory. Its likely rationalising influence has

been referenced as the possible solution to deep social disputes, while the inclusion of

regular citizens in the deliberative process could potentially help re-enfranchise those

disillusioned with purely representative politics. Nevertheless, a number of possible

obstacles to such a body have been identified, from impracticalities of scale, to the

distorting effect of the media, the commitment required by citizens, and the possible

domination of deliberation by rhetoric.

It has been argued that generating rational debate of an issue is impossible, due to the

difficulty in separating the interests and relative positions (social, economic, religious,

moral, etc.) of the deliberators from the subject at hand (Hague and Harrop, 2007, p.46).

Clearly this is a important thought, considering it is evident that only contentious issues

would be worth subjecting to deliberation. Consociational democrats (consensus builders),

have suggested that the use of deliberative democracy in a divided society could exacerbate

differences rather than resolve them (Dryzek, 2005, p.222). Simultaneously, agonists

(majoritarians) – in placing value in vibrant clashes of passion which lead to mutual

positional respect – have argued the opposite point, namely that to attempt to neutralise

the discussion is to irreparably undermine its utility with regards to a realistic, externally

applicable solution (Dryzek, 2005, p.220).

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Fishkin, in response to the claim that impartial debate is impossible, argues that citizens are

in fact much less motivated by interests than politicians who view every issue in the context

of its effect on their potential re-election (by relatively uninformed citizens) (2000, p.10).

John Dryzek, meanwhile, as editor of the Australian Journal of Political Science and

Professor of Political Theory at the Australian National University, is well qualified to

counter the theories of agonism and consociationalism as he recently did in the established

Political Theory journal (now in its 33rd volume). Unadulterated agonism, he argues, rarely

produces useful, critical analysis of problems and is difficult to execute in divided societies

without flirting with social disintegration (2005, p.238). Moreover, pure consociational

democracy may provide stability, but only at the expense of meaningful engagement with

contentious issues. Nevertheless, although the singular execution of either approach is

undesirable, both have aspects of merit that can be incorporated into a deliberative


In answering criticism, Dryzek argues any institutionalised deliberation should be conducted

in the public sphere and separated from the decision-making apparatus of the state. This

separation, he argues, would prevent the subversion of discursion by the pressure for a

decision (2005, p.226). This would facilitate a thorough discussion of the issue, as the focus

is shifted from the outcome of the discussion to the depth of the discussion. Such a

separation would simultaneously neutralise passions and rhetoric that could become

inflamed were a decision to be based on the discussion, countering Hague and Harrop’s

criticism that deliberation could easily be dominated by rhetoricians (2007, p.47). A

separation of deliberative apparatus from government would therefore readily conduce to

thorough and rational debate.

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A considerable criticism often levelled at deliberative democracy relates to its relevance and

utility in the context of large nation-states. As Hague and Harrop point out, even a sizeable

proposal such as Leib’s, involving separate debates of 525 different individuals on each

topic, would only engage a tiny proportion of the population directly (2007, p.46). The

media has often been recommended as the solution to this difficulty. By televising the

discussions for example, the opinions of people could be shaped through the logical

weighing of options (Parkinson, 2006, pp.176-177). As such, televised deliberation could

offer a shortcut to the Jeffersonian ideal of the informed citizen. In short, the debates come

to represent ‘what the public would think if it were more informed’ (Fishkin, 2000, p.6).

Nevertheless, doubt has been raised regarding the reliability of the media to present such

important discussions neutrally and in their totality. Parkinson points out a number of

barriers to the transmission of the deliberative process. Firstly, the reliance of media on

advertising revenue means that outlets are inherently biased towards commercial interests

(2006, p.177). This reliance on advertising revenue also motivates outlets to appeal to large

audiences causing them to favour entertainment over information (p.177). This could well

lead to a sensationalist focus on the drama of the discussion, at the expense of the moral

complexities of the issue (p.179). There are also physical limits, especially with regards to

television, that prevent outlets from conveying the discussion in its totality (p.177). This can

be a particular problem when, as with Leib’s proposal, a large number of deliberative

sessions are held. Any decision relating to the editing of the broadcast could affect the

viewers’ understanding of the track of the discussion and thus undermine the whole

process. The role of the internet as a deliberative medium has been debated, though as

Mendoza notes in the Guardian, Internet polls, considering that only a portion of the

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population has access to the internet, are often misleading representations of public

opinion on narrow subjects (2 July 2009).

Another potential benefit of deliberative apparatus within a democracy could be the re-

enfranchisement of the large numbers of people that have become disillusioned with

mainstream politics. This disillusionment is reflected by dwindling voter turnouts (UK

Political Info, 2005) and what Anthony Downs, cited in Fishkin’s article, terms ‘rational

ignorance’, the arguably logical neglect of citizens to inform themselves of issues due to the

negligible effect of an individual vote on the outcome of a poll (2000, p.5). Burton argues

that increased participatory democracy would be a genuine recognition by the state of the

value of its citizens and would consequently empower and motivate them to act pro-actively

and educate themselves on issues (2009, pp.265-266). If deliberation were to be conducted

in the public sphere, as Dryzek advocates, it would likely evolve into a sort of democratic

‘opposition’ to the state, involving regular citizens in discussions that could well affect

government policy. This empowerment of the citizenry would allow the government to

better serve its people and the people to better choose their government.

At the same time there is always the argument that citizens will be either unable or

unwilling to commit the time and intellectual effort required to further democracy. Burton

argues, however, that the lack of participatory and deliberative apparatus in the typical

democratic system sends a powerful, negative message about citizens’ civic worth,

encouraging them to assume a passive role (2009, pp.265-266). How much public

indifference is irremediable and how much it is a product of the current political system is a

matter for debate.

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To conclude, there is definitely a strong case for a supplementary, deliberative, citizen based

body to address divisive issues, rationalise debates, re-establish the notion of an informed

citizenry and address the arguably inherent democratic deficit of representative regimes.

Nevertheless, practical obstacles to the establishment of such a body, such as the role of the

media, continue to obstruct progress, and there will always be questions raised concerning

how much time and intellectual effort people are willing to invest in the construction and

maintenance of a truly democratic society.

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Anon., UK Political Info., 2005. General election turnout 1945 – 2005. Available at [Accessed 23 November 2009].

Burton, P., 2009. Conceptual, Theoretical and Practical Issues in Measuring the Benefits of
Public Participation. Evaluation, 15(3), pp.263-284.

Chomsky, N., 2002. Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky. Edited by Mitchell, P.
and Schoeffel, J. New York: Vintage.

Dryzek, J., April 2005. Deliberative Democracy in Divided Societies: Alternatives to Agonism
and Analgesia. Political Theory 33(2), pp. 218-242.

Fishkin, J., 2000. Deliberative Polling and Public Consultation. Parliamentary Affairs, 53,

Hague, R., Harrop, M., 2007. Comparative Government and Politics. 7th Ed. Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, pp.46-48.

Mendoza, A., 2 July 2009. Democracy by internet. Available at
[Accessed 7 December 2009].

Parkinson, J., January 2006. Rickety Bridges: Using the Media in Deliberative Democracy.
British Journal of Political Science 36, pp.175-183.

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