Why Deliberative Democracy Makes Better Citizens

The net neutrality Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote follows an equally unpopular vote by congress allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to sell your browsing history. These decisions that few citizens seem to support demonstrate the notion that policy does not reflect the “will of the people.” If we want better policy, we need schools that teach citizens how to engage in policy and government that supports public deliberation.

At Northwestern University, where I research educational technology for civic education, I’ve had many conversations with students distraught by the presidential election. During one discussion, one of my (liberal) students hesitantly revealed that her parents had voted for then-candidate Trump. She struggled to reconcile how her immigrant parents could vote for someone who would directly threaten her as a woman and minority, with the knowledge of her parent’s profound love and care for their daughter.

As we talked about why her parents voted as they did, and their fears about the economy and security, concerns also salient to the conservative students of our group, it became ever so slightly more apparent that reasonable people might reach wildly different conclusions because of their attention to different values. Those hurting economically and frustrated by little improvement under a Democratic president were disillusioned at the prospect of more of the same. Those concerned about the welfare of women and immigrants saw vulgar attacks previously unimaginable in national civic discourse.

None of my students left that conversation fully able to take the perspective on the opposite side of the political spectrum. In the wake of the election, a few students refused to see any benefit or obligation to doing so. Yet all of these students began to see how difficult it is to understand an ideological perspective different from one’s own.

In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how our morality both “binds and blinds” us. For example, liberals’ values of diversity, self-expression, equality and tolerance might in some ways undermine the social capital that makes community possible. Conservatives value of loyalty and authority might preserve social capital but obscure the predation of the powerful on the weak.

Unfortunately, when we make calls for greater empathy, we are typically asking for others to understand our perspective, or those of whose perspective we share. We rarely see the limits of our own cognitive empathy.

In Strangers in their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, describes several years she spent trying to understand Louisiana Tea Partiers’ perspective that government helps others unfairly cut to front of the line. Hochschild succeeds in scaling the “empathy wall,” but for those of us without decades of study as a sociologist and several years to dedicate to understand others, the wall seems harder to scale.

Perhaps the answer is simply the deliberative democracy our country was designed to support. Although there are many variations, deliberative democratic practices such as deliberative polls, citizens’ assemblies and citizen juries bring citizens together to discuss the common challenges we face and to decide what should be done. Deliberative democracy makes dialogue, and thus, deeper understanding of key issues, central.

For example, deliberative polls bring randomly selected citizens together and ask them what should be done about a policy issue, such as: What actions, if any, should their city take in response to climate change? After a brief background on the issue, citizens break into small groups to discuss. Those small groups then generate of questions that are then answered by a panel of experts. The small groups reconvene to discuss again, followed by a final poll reflecting the decision of well-informed group of representative citizens.

The outcomes of the deliberation may be presented as non-binding input to politicians or decision makers, or it might be used as a mission statement and the first step in community organizing by the citizens themselves.

Research on deliberative polling finds that deliberative democracy increases citizens’ knowledge about policy issues and narrows the policy divisions between participants. Talking with others to build a common set of knowledge and understand other’s perspectives makes us more reasonable.

That is the power of deliberation; its goal is not to build consensus, the goal is to make us better citizens who can make better decisions about what we the people should do.

There are many ways we can get better at deliberating. We can start by teaching deliberation in colleges and schools as part of a broad civic education. We can support organizations like the Jefferson Center (which, in the interest of disclosure, I have worked with) that facilitate deliberative democracy to initiate community development groups. And we can elect local public officials that will support and use deliberative input in making policy decisions.

To be sure, deliberation alone is insufficient if it does not lead to policy change. But neither can we have good policy if we cannot fully grasp the issues and policies and deliberate their nuances.