Getting Practical About
Democracy requires deliberation for at least three reasons. First, discussing public issues helps citizens to form opinions-on matters ranging from HMO regulation to global warming-where they might otherwise have none. Second, deliberation offers democratic leaders better insight into public concerns than elections do. Did voters choose a representative because of her views on Social Security, her family life, or the weaknesses of her opponent? To understand the meaning of votes, leaders must listen to public discourse.
Third, public deliberation offers a way-perhaps the only acceptable way-of getting people to justify their views so that we can sort out the better from the worse. If you say, "I demand lower taxes because I don't like paying them," you will persuade no one; but if you argue that you deserve more money in your pocket for some specific reason, then you may build public support for a position. Whether your position is true or sound can then be tested by other participants in the debate. In short, deliberation encourages people to provide general justifications or reasons, not just private preferences. And democracy works best when the public debates the public good.
But talk of a "deliberative democracy" often implies a lofty, informed, serious, fair, productive, and ceaseless conversation among all citizens-in other words, a fantasy. In Rousseau's ideal society, for instance, "every man flies to the assemblies.... Bands of peasants are seen regulating affairs of state under an oak, and always acting wisely." Instead of Rousseau's peasants, other enthusiasts have envisioned toga-clad sages deliberating in a marble amphitheater or earnest Pilgrims at a town meeting.
These clichˇs are certainly utopian when applied to a nation of 273 million busy people. They are also somewhat frightening, because they assume that everyone should be of one mind-if not about issues, then at least about the proper methods and styles of debate. But people have (and ought to have) various and conflicting interests and customs. Besides, there are other things to do in life than to deliberate about public affairs. What we need are practical measures to raise the quantity and quality of public deliberation in a large and diverse society like ours, where most people's attention is focused on private matters. This essay offers five proposals.
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Last Modified: 08/26/04
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