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The Deliberative Democracy Handbook
By John Gastil
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7661-X
Chapter OneA NATION THAT (SOMETIMES) LIKES TO TALK
A Brief History of Public Deliberation in the United States
John Gastil, William M. Keith
The creation of this book is a testament to the strength of a new deliberative democracy movement. Chapters Two through Eighteen document the many ways in which people in the United States and other countries have developed the idea of deliberation into real methods for public discussion and self-government. Some of the programs detailed in this volume have refined their techniques over decades, whereas others represent a new wave of deliberative experimentation.
Although the following chapters reveal important differences in approach and method, all of the deliberation programs that are described share a set of premises. Advocates of deliberation presume that it is worthwhile for diverse groups of citizens-not just experts and professional politicians-to discuss public issues. Civic discussions, moreover, should have an impact on something important-usually law or public policy but sometimes mass behavior, public knowledge and attitudes, or cultural practices. Even in a representative democracy, direct, participatory democracy plays an important role in emphasizing and furthering public discussion, dialogue, or deliberation and thereby addressing public problems in ways that respect diverse interests and values.
After reading thechapters that follow, one might conclude that American democracy has taken a bold new step forward by adding civic deliberation to its repertoire of institutions and practices. This conclusion would fit comfortably with the conventional view that democracy has consistently improved in the United States as the electorate has expanded and citizens have won new political rights. Many modern nations share a mythology emphasizing their linear, inexorable progress toward civic perfection.
The reality is more sobering. There is nothing inevitable or irreversible about the deliberative democracy movement, and irrational exuberance about deliberation could lead unwary readers to overlook countertrends that could undermine recent advances. In this chapter, we hope to demonstrate that the deliberative mode of democracy can ebb and flow under changing circumstances. As broadly as we can, we discuss the rise and fall of deliberation in the United States from 1910 to 1940, then consider what recent events have caused it to rise (and might cause it to fall) once again.
History and Democracy
To plan for democracy's future, we need to know its past. Some might fear that such ruminations could trigger paralytic self-doubt and undermine the United States' campaign to win the world's allegiance to democracy; they believe that the romantic version of the story is more palatable. Yet a historical perspective could help Americans recognize that our own historical journey remains unfinished, and this modest self-appraisal could prevent the reckless export of unpolished democratic ideology.
According to its authorized biography, the United States has progressed through a succession of cultural and institutional improvements. Just as the rise and fall of the stock market has occurred within a steady long-term ascent, so has this nation moved, in fits and starts for over two hundred years, toward an increasingly democratic polity. The adoption of the Constitution, followed quickly by the Bill of Rights, set the process in motion by bringing together a nascent nation and equipping it with a set of rights now taken to be fundamental to any democracy. The power of the electorate has grown through the popular election of senators (ratified in 1913), which removed a barrier between the expression of popular will and the creation of national policy. In the same period, many states began to implement direct democratic devices, such as the initiative and recall, which are practiced with greater fervor (and controversy) today than ever before.
Some changes have gradually increased the number and kind of people who can and do vote. The eligible voting public was enlarged by the passage of women's suffrage in 1919, the admission of African Americans (officially, anyway) to citizenship after the Civil War, and the increasing attention to enfranchising minorities as a consequence of the civil rights movement. Lowering the voting age to eighteen in 1972 expanded the franchise further. Since then, there have been reforms designed to enlarge the electorate even more by making voter registration easier; expanding absentee voting, early voting, and voting by mail; and making participation more accessible to people with disabilities.
Beyond expanded voting rights, many other recent changes have enhanced the scope and quality of citizenship. These advances include the explicit rejection, in the last half century, of government intrusions on the right to assembly, such as those perpetrated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities or COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence programs of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The amount and variety of information available to voters has increased through expanded freedom of the press (by means of the Freedom of Information Act and the precedent set by the publication of the Watergate papers), in addition to voter information guides, many of which are now available on-line.
These changes and many others caused democratic theorist Robert Dahl to suggest that the history of the United States is a roughly linear movement through stages toward ever-higher levels of "polyarchy" on the road to democracy. More and more groups of people (or their representatives) have a seat at the table, and nearly every issue is (or could be) on the public's agenda.
Yet some changes in the political landscape suggest a nonlinear history. These anomalous historical sequences suggest that the process of democratization can have a cyclic character or even fall into steady decline. Some modern trends and events appear to be weakening democratic institutions. The news media, from newspapers to television, have undergone massive technological changes since the early nineteenth century that have coincided with their changing business structure. Many Americans worry today, just as they did in 1900 (but not in 1850 or 1950) about increased concentration of media ownership and how it could affect the democratic functions of the fourth estate.
Every time the United States goes to war, restrictions on civil liberties spring up; 2001's Patriot Act is only the most recent example. Jay Martin has recently argued that John Dewey's objections to World War I stemmed mostly from his fear that democratic reforms would not survive the inevitable authoritarian fervor that surrounds a war. Dewey was worried not only about institutional changes, such as restrictions on the press, but also about changes in the public's civic attitudes and habits during a military campaign. Dewey was concerned about the vitality of the nation's civic culture-its tolerance, sense of duty, public spiritedness, and political efficacy.
These cultural threads of democratic life are difficult to trace across time. It is possible that as we craft ever more democratic public institutions, we may be losing or weakening important cultural habits and traditions. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described in detail the cultural aspects of American life in the 1830s that he thought provided the substructure that held up America's prized democratic institutions. One of the most popular academic books in recent years is Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, which documents a precipitous decline in "social capital"-the social networks and mutual trust that sustain democratic institutions. Although others have disputed his findings, his book resonated with many readers who sensed a steady decline in social trust and civic engagement.
Rather than see the history of democracy in America as a linear story of either progress or decline, it might be more helpful to view it as a succession of experiments in different places on a continuum ranging from populist democracy to modest republicanism to elitist republicanism. Populist democracy, or radical democracy, emphasizes the inclusion of as many citizens as possible in voting on decisions; referenda are a characteristic tool of populist democracy. Representative forms of democracy emphasize deliberative institutions placed at a remove from the ebb and flow of public opinion, institutions where elected representatives can deliberate carefully. In our view, the United States has oscillated between populist and representative democratic traditions, periodically renegotiating the balance originally struck between the federalists and the democrats in the Constitution. Sometimes the United States has been more populist, such as in the 1820s or in the Progressive era. At other times, the nation has been more elitist, such as during the founding era or the Gilded Age.
Institutional safeguards both in the federal government and in the relation of the states to federal power have been set up to prevent succumbing to either the sins of mobocracy or the vices of oligarchy or plutocracy, but even these safeguards have been amended, dismantled, shored up, and rebuilt at various times. Cultural trends have tended sometimes toward populist and sometimes toward elitist conceptions of citizenship and politics, shaping our social practices as much as our public institutions.
These changes represent more than the changing democratic fashions and tastes. Sometimes unambiguously democratic habits fade or disappear altogether, representing a genuine move away from the ideal. When this happens, it is essential that we study such fragile democratic practices so that we might reintroduce them to the political system. Accordingly, in this essay, we will trace the emergence, decline, and reemergence of one particular democratic art, public deliberation, which has begun to reemerge after fifty years of dormancy.
Late Twentieth-Century Deliberation in the United States
Deliberation is a commonplace word, used most often to describe the process used by juries, councils, legislatures, and other bodies that make decisions after a period of reasoned discussion. Slowly, over the past twenty years, this humble term has taken on a more precise and demanding meaning when used to designate a particular form of democracy. In Beyond Adversary Democracy (1983), Jane Mansbridge explains that there are two contrasting models of American democracy-one adversarial and one unitary. The former has dominated our political culture, but there is also an oft-forgotten unitary tradition represented by town meetings and the pursuit of consensus. In the unitary mode, a public engages in respectful deliberation, weighs conflicting evidence and sentiments, and arrives at an enlightened understanding of the general will. In the aftermath of the 1960s, it was common to indict the unitary model as a covert sort of conformism that inevitably stifles dissent and difference. More recent scholarship, such as Francesca Polletta's Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, has begun to rehabilitate the democratic experiments of that era. At the time of Mansbridge's book, however, it was revelatory to discover anything of value in tedious discussions that sought to reach consensus.
The next year, in 1984, Benjamin Barber published Strong Democracy, one of the best-selling scholarly books on democratic theory. For Barber, a democracy built on representative institutions, adversarial competition among conflicting interests, and the protection of private rights was weak compared to one that gave equal or greater emphasis to community action, public talk, and civic responsibility. Barber recommended a complex array of reforms, many of which have since reappeared in the hundreds of subsequent academic articles on deliberative democracy in political science, communication, and philosophy journals.
Of all the ideas advanced by deliberative theorists, one has received the most attention-the deliberative poll, first suggested in a 1988 Atlantic Monthly essay by political science professor James Fishkin. In 1996, Fishkin and a team of nonprofit foundations brought a random sample of over four hundred American citizens to Austin, Texas, to deliberate on pressing national issues, interview prospective presidential candidates, and record their opinions. Fishkin dubbed the event the National Issues Convention, and it was his hope that the postconvention opinions expressed by the attendees would have a "recommending force" and that for the first time, the nation would hear the voice of a deliberative public. (See Chapter Five for more on deliberative polling.)
The National Issues Convention received considerable press, and many of its sessions aired on PBS's public television stations. It may even have had an impact on the formats of that year's presidential debates and other media events, which incorporated quasi-random samples of the public as questioners and discussants. The outcomes of the deliberative poll, however, had no clear impact on the election. When another national deliberative poll was held in January 2003, it received little notice. Despite its relevance at the time, policymakers and the media did not notice the surprising shift in participants' opinions; as they deliberated, more of them came to support a United Nations-sponsored solution to the Iraq crisis.
The renewed impulse for deliberation has had other dramatic manifestations, such as President Clinton calling for a national dialogue on race. Delivering the commencement address at the University of California, San Diego, on June 14, 1997, Clinton announced a plan to "promote a dialogue in every community of the land to confront and work through these issues, to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help breach racial divides."
Clinton's reference to dialogue rather than deliberation emphasized that in addition to encompassing reasoned policy analysis, talk about race must confront differences in experiences and perspectives, requiring as much emotional as intellectual labor. "Honest dialogue," he acknowledged, "will not be easy at first. We'll all have to get past defensiveness and fear and political correctness and other barriers to honesty. Emotions may be rubbed raw, but we must begin." The ultimate impact of the dialogue on race eludes measurement, but the point here is that a sitting president thought it appropriate to launch an initiative promoting public deliberation and dialogue. Such an action indicates that something-whether political or cultural-was needed beyond the thirty years of civil rights legislation.
Beyond dramatic events such as the racial dialogue and deliberative polls, innumerable programs, organizations, and local initiatives have been undertaken in the name (or spirit) of deliberative democracy over the past fifteen years. Many public officials, lay citizens, activists, and academics are interested in increasing the quality of deliberation that takes place in public settings and creating more venues in which citizens and policymakers can meet and talk intelligently and honestly about values and policies.
A sampling of the different deliberative activities initiated in recent years might include the National Issues Forums, a program organized by the Kettering Foundation but convened across the country by a decentralized network of community organizers, local leaders, public officials, educators, and public-spirited citizens (see Chapter Three). These forums bring together communities, church groups, prisoners, adult literacy students, and others to talk about current issues in a distinctive format that breaks issues down into three or four choices and emphasizes the trade-offs of each approach.
Another program that has gained in popularity over the past decade consists of a variety of study circles and community dialogues assisted by the Study Circles Resource Center (see Chapter Fourteen). The study circles approach seeks to improve the quality of public talk by combining open dialogue with focused deliberation and, using community organizing techniques, attracting a large and diverse body of participants. Local organizers adapt study circle processes to achieve a variety of outcomes ranging from shifting individual attitudes and behaviors to sparking collective action to engendering institutional or public policy changes.
Excerpted from The Deliberative Democracy Handbook by John Gastil Excerpted by permission.
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