Deliberation or Denunciation?
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 3.5
No individual or single group can judge what is best for a society. One of the basic claims of superiority that can be made for actual democracy over oligarchy (whether hereditary or elected), monarchy, etc., is the notion that deliberation among many members of society can lead to better decisions. Hélène Landemore at Yale University, in her book Democratic Reason, Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many, seeks to uphold democracy on this basic epistemic ground — the collective intelligence of the many allows decision making that is in general superior to the decisions of even expert elites, who lack cognitive diversity.
Deliberation might entail joint fact-finding, or the weighing of information by many individuals, or the give-and-take of arguments that bring different perspectives to the fore. The benefits and hazards of various methods of deliberation will be examined in subsequent chapters. But for now it is sufficient to state that deliberation is distinct from mere negotiation or debate, as it involves political equals engaging to learn from each other, and change their minds if warranted, in the search for optimal solutions. Unfortunately, electoral politics in America is nearly devoid of meaningful deliberation. As Kevin O’Leary points out,
“Most political decisions are based on power calculations having little to do with reasoned debate by free and equal citizens: they are based on arbitrary power…”
The partisan election process, which constrains and shapes how members of an elected chamber behave, is the underlying impediment. There is a lack of deliberation both during campaigns, and within legislative chambers. During most “debates” in Congress, the chamber is virtually empty. Attendance would be a waste of time, since the party whips have usually already done their work and the outcome is known in advance. Congressional staffers monitor the proceedings so that the members can show up just in time to cast their votes in case of a roll call. When the chamber isn’t empty, what passes for “debate” is almost never intended to persuade other members, but rather a performance for cameras and the press. While less extreme at the committee level, this dynamic is still at play.
What little deliberation actually occurs generally takes place out of sight, among members of the same party, and more commonly, among their staffers and lobbyists. When so-called “bi-partisan” compromise exits, it is rarely the result of actual deliberation. It typically consists of either non-controversial items on which there was already agreement, or splitting the difference between prior positions that were adopted in discussions limited to each party’s insiders and lobbyists. Compromise in the sense of seeking a genuine win-win synthesis that brings in new ideas and new perspectives is virtually nonexistent. Floor “debate” is widely understood to be political theater, intended to score points for the next election – with posturing, patronizing and grand-standing. In a November 2018 article in The Atlantic magazine, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R - Wisconsin) wrote,
“The reality is that Congress cannot get anything done because it is not equipped to get anything done. It is no longer a tool suited to its original purpose of making laws and providing oversight. It has instead become a theater used by both parties to stoke the outrage of their base.”
When I served in the Vermont legislature, I witnessed, and indeed participated in, such theatrics on a regular basis. While nominally trying to persuade my fellow legislators about some amendment in a floor speech, I knew that in the large majority of cases their votes were already locked up one way or the other. I still researched facts, and tried to prepare compelling arguments. My speeches might cause the rolling of eyes, but rarely the changing of minds. But it wasn’t personal vanity, nor merely liking the sound of my voice that prompted me to play my part in these sham debates. My intended audience was the reporters and residents across the state whom I vainly hoped would hear my arguments and as a result understand the necessity of voting the opposition legislators out of office. And, this behavior is even more extreme at a national level. Members of Congress use floor speeches to shore up their partisan political base, rather than engage in a serious fact-finding or problem-solving effort with their colleagues. The use of floor debate as a means for consolidating core constituency support rather than for bona fide debate was exemplified in 2011 in a floor speech by Republican whip, Senator Jon Kyl (R - Arizona) In a Senate floor “debate” about defunding Planned Parenthood, Sen. Kyl said that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” When it was later pointed out that abortions account for just 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget, his office issued an honest yet astonishing statement simply dismissing the complaint, and explaining that
“His remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”
What little inter-party discussion does occur, is more likely to consist of bargaining and negotiation based on vote trading, or “log-rolling” in which the merits of particular pieces of legislation are hardly a factor. There is an important distinction between genuine deliberation and mere negotiation. Deliberation and negotiation are different animals. Deliberation involves giving or receiving arguments intended to persuade. But deliberation should also be distinguished from sophistry that persuades through artful manipulation or intentional deceit without regard to facts. Deliberation involves reasoning together as a means of problem-solving. It requires openness to absorbing new information that changes one’s views, often in hopes of finding common ground – the classic win-win scenario. Negotiation, on the other hand, essentially reflects a determination of a balance point based on the relative strength of the sides, regardless of reason. What substantive deliberation on merits does occur in legislative settings is primarily intra-party (within the caucus), or between lobbyists and legislators, or more often, their staff.
The fact that legislators are always anticipating future elections – whether their own, or their colleagues’ – is a powerful incentive to portray the proposals of the opposition as evil, or at least horribly flawed, and intended to benefit the unworthy. This makes collaborative deliberation between members of different parties extremely difficult at best. Robert Kaiser, a long-term reporter and editor at the Washington Post, wrote an incisive book, Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. With nearly unprecedented inside access to the actual law-making process, with Congressional staff and lobbyists, he follows the adoption of the Dodd-Frank Act (Congress’s anemic response to the 2008 financial melt-down) to illuminate the problems. He reveals many of the fundamental flaws that mire Congress in almost perpetual policy failures. Even when members of Congress sort of succeed — in the minimal sense that at least a bill became law — he shows how the ferocious partisan electoral imperative overwhelms policy considerations. As he writes,
“Most members both know and care more about politics than about substance.”
As a legislator, I remember private conversations about proposals brought forth by opponents. Rather than open-minded evaluation, the overriding concern was “can we find flaws that can make their proposal look bad, and stop them from getting any credit?” Senator Joe Manchin (D - West Virginia), a conservative Democrat, made this observation on a television interview program:
“Let me just say, the thing that I’m discouraged about – not just in the Democrat, but in the whole process, Democrat and Republican caucuses – I truly believe that what we’re doing is we’re taking polls, you know, the same as you’re taking polls, where the American people stand on a day to day basis, on what they’re upset about. Rather than taking that information and trying to say ‘okay guys let’s fix it.’ Okay, now by three o’clock ‘How can we blame [an opponent] for that?’”
Of course, many people question the possibility that any politics, deliberative or not, can find win-win opportunities with any regularity. Often politics is about choosing between mutually exclusive options that reflect a fundamental divergence of interests. In such cases with inevitable winners and losers, it still makes sense to have those decisions made by a genuinely representative body, rather than one that is biased and unrepresentative. However, electoral politics has a built-in tendency to treat nearly all political decisions as such zero-sum games with winners and inevitable losers. Through deliberation and skilled facilitation some seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved with broad agreement. This is not mere speculation. Hundreds of citizens’ assemblies around the world have found this to be true.
Mary Parker Follett, a management and organizational theorist from the first part of the Twentieth Century, advocated an “integrative” deliberation process. Rather than focusing on the apparent conflict, she suggested that it is often possible to dig down to find the underlying desires, where commonality, rather than mere compromise could be found. In her 1924 book, Creative Experience, she gave this example:
The integrating of wants precludes the necessity of gaining power to satisfy desire. In the library today, in one of the smaller rooms, someone wanted the window open, I wanted it shut. We opened the window in the next room where no one was sitting. This was not a compromise because there was no lopping off of desire; we both got what we really wanted. For I did not want a closed room, I simply did not want the north wind to blow directly on me; likewise the other occupant did not want that particular window open, he simply wanted more air in the room."
Modern political theorists Hélène Landemore and Jane Mansbridge have used Follett’s insights to argue that integrative deliberation can sometimes clarify a seemingly irreconcilable dispute. Once the underlying desires have been clarified and rephrased, this sort of deliberation may reveal a cooperative win-win option acceptable to all sides. While beneficial for society, this integrative approach is anathema to partisan politicians who place a priority on winning, or if that is not possible, demonstrating to voters how cruel or foolish the other party is. Seeking common ground isn’t useful for attacking opponents in competitive elections. This isn’t necessarily due to bad intentions. It is more akin to a reflex and rule of the game – seizing a competitive opportunity when presented, due to legislators’ immersion in the competitive electoral environment. Ordinary people selected by democratic lottery do not have this distorting hidden agenda imposed by competitive elections, so can eagerly employ this integrative approach.