From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 11.2
Deliberation requires rational reasoning, or “thinking slow,” in Kahneman’s terminology. It is distinct from oratory, rhetoric, negotiation, persuasion, and common forms of debate, which frequently use pathos and emotion. Effective deliberation is a challenging activity, which does not generally arise spontaneously. According to deliberative democracy theorists, deliberative conversation is a cooperative venture seeking truth or the common good, rather than seeking to “win,” or defeat an opponent. It is thus quite distinct from election-based debate. A typical New England town meeting debate is often thought of as deliberative, but also usually fails to effectuate genuine deliberation. When the moderator calls on hands as they are raised, the result may well be that the dominant side on the issue gets several speakers in a row. The psychological effect can be the promotion of “go-along-to-get-along” feelings, and thus shut down other perspectives, which then never even get aired.
Deliberation is not merely discussion among people with different views. As Bernard Manin observed, it should incorporate careful structure akin to formal debate.
“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”
“you’ve kind of just got your own, because you don’t really get a chance to question your own points of view, it’s only when you’re confronted with another point of view that you can even deliberate [in your own mind].”
As I stated in the previous section of this chapter, many advocates are moving beyond (or away) from the earlier philosophical notion of deliberative democracy, with its focus on giving reasoned arguments as justification in support of pre-established policy preferences. Gustavo Dalaqua encapsulates the requirements for his interpretation of deliberative democracy thusly:
“Democratic deliberation requires participants to cultivate a nondogmatic stance and to recognize themselves as fallible beings. To the extent it is dialogical, deliberation must not be equated with a succession of monologues that do not communicate because their positions are fully formed in advance. Democratic deliberation is a dialogue in which participants are willing to take into account others’ positions and even to change their initial assumptions if need be.”
David Ryfe, a professor of media and journalism, wrote that
“a good design of deliberative democracy should establish rules to maintain the theoretical aims, allow people to tell stories to make cultural meanings in addition to making cognitive sense, encourage leadership that facilitates deliberation, endeavor to relate the outcome of deliberation to the participants, and finally create environments to facilitate learning how to deliberate.”
The hundreds of citizens’ assemblies convened in recent years around the world have generally embraced this goal, with procedures intended to promote it, and appear to have mostly achieved it.
Ideally, deliberation should be broader than a simple two-sided pro and con argument. A problem with limiting debate to pro and con is that each side has a psychological incentive to hide from the decision makers any information that is not beneficial to their side. As Jon Elster points out,
“If speakers on all sides of a question withhold relevant information, the quality of the debates and the decision can suffer.” Conversely, he notes, “Speakers who are genuinely motivated to reach a good decision rather than to have their proposal chosen, should volunteer information even if it counts against the position they defend.”
In his book, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens Josiah Ober largely credits this aggregation of widely distributed information for Athens’s flourishing beyond non-democratic cities. So, at some stage deliberation should allow for the crafting of revised proposals that open the door to new, win-win alternatives.
A crucial element of useful deliberation is the marshaling of facts, rather than merely beliefs or opinions. Too much of what passes for deliberation consists of listing supposed, but unsubstantiated “facts” by opposing sides. While some facts are best gathered from a diverse range of individuals reporting their lived experiences, others must come from researchers, scientists and other “experts.” Even those facts known by some participants may not spontaneously surface in a deliberation, simply due to shyness or other reasons. Frank Fischer of Rutgers University notes in his book, Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry,
“Citizens have a good deal of information but much of it remains tacit, fragmented, and disconnected. To be useful, it has to be organized. Professional experts need methods and practices that can help them to do this.”
Scientific, statistical and other complex facts that are essential for some decision, and that few citizens already know, must be made intelligible. Fischer points out that experts often present information to lay people in a coded form (terminology that is unusual or even unique to the area of expertise), where understandable language would be possible — presenting a “closed package” that doesn’t really allow for deliberation “thus maintaining a barrier to a fuller form of democratization.” Presenting complex facts without resorting to such in-group jargon is another sort of expertise in its own right, which the professional staff of randomly selected mini-publics must possess.
Of course many “facts” will inevitably be in dispute, or be indefinite probabilities, or subject to revision based on new research. To the greatest extent possible, opposing sides on some policy matter should agree on a set of commonly accepted facts, much the way lawyers stipulate to agreed upon facts in a court case. This can ameliorate competing experts simply arguing past each other when presenting to a mini-public. Again, professional staff for a mini-public should facilitate the development of agreed upon facts among experts who disagree on some policy under consideration.
Note that this is very different than having mini-public members stipulate to a set of “facts” they all believe. The number of “facts” that nearly everybody (except experts who have tested them) believe to be true, but are in fact indisputably false, are legion. In an article titled, “Propaganda, Misinformation, and the Epistemic Value of Democracy,” Étienne Brown observes that,
“In fact, while it is true that misperceptions are difficult to correct, we should not conclude that all kinds of democratic deliberation are powerless against misinformation. Instead, studies more moderately suggest that certain types of deliberation will more effectively favor the correction of false beliefs than others. When citizens are exposed to information from an individual they do not perceive as ideologically opposed to their worldview, they may engage in epistemic deference, that is, accept this person’s speech as authoritative.”
Once a final version of some proposal has been crafted, however, it does make sense to switch gears, and limit deliberation to presentations for or against, with a jury weighing the arguments. As I mentioned earlier in this book, the final approve-or-reject decision should be made by a different group of people than those who crafted the final proposal. In brief, the mere act of crafting a proposal makes those participants unfit to then judge their own handiwork, whether due to pride of authorship, information cascades or groupthink. The next section will examine the argumentative theory of reasoning, which suggests why this recommended procedure is important.