What Deliberative Democracy Can (and Can't) Do

July 26, 2019
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Deliberative democracy’s leading theorist calls deliberative constituent engagement the “most promising” thing we can do right now to counter polarization.

In an interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, Dr. Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and past president of the American Political Science Association, highlighted why she thinks deliberative online townhalls and other forms of deliberative engagement are so inspiring, even in an age of structural polarization.

“One of the recent books I think is really terrific is Michael Neblo and his coauthors Kevin Esterling and David Lazar have got a book called Politics With the People and they have a set of experiments which I think are completely easily scalable and not that expensive. What they’ve done is figure out ways in which you can bring 175 constituents together on the internet with a member of Congress for an hour, discussing some pretty big issue like immigration or terrorism. It’s not just question-and-answer; the people are also to some degree are talking among themselves but you can get fairly deep into an issue with an hour on the internet and the citizens who go through this process are very, very positive…. 

"We know from some of the work David Broockman and others have done recently that…. members of Congress don’t know as well as they should what their constituents really want and it’s “filtered” through the activists, it’s filtered through media, through the people who contact them. I think the more we can get members of Congress in touch with their own constituents in a deliberative way, actually thinking about and considering and weighing the pros and cons of different things with their constituents, the more they’ll be brought to that space. Now, you and I are both believers in deeper structural causes, so I’m not saying this is not going to change everything, but if we’re talking about how do we accept the situation and make it better, I think we can make it better through some of these deliberative mechanisms.”

Klein had important questions about the limits of the research, noting that the previous research did not track the effect of deliberative constituent engagement on lawmakers. However, that is exactly the focus of the new phase of the research Dr. Neblo and IDEA e launched in January 2019, the Connecting to Congress initiative. The current initiative, which also involves collaborating scholars at three other universities,  has three main goals:  to identify the most useful technology for online deliberative engagement, to figure out a cost-effective way take the process to scale, and to track and document how the information from a range of deliberative engagement experiences (online townhalls, forums, and social media events) is integrated into Congressional offices decision making and representational activity.

One of Klein’s other questions was whether something that was fairly easy to do, like an hour-long deliberative online townhall, would really have a significant long-term effect on people. This is deliberative democracy’s Gordian knot— if the engagement is brief, it seems unlikely to have a deep effect on people, but if it’s very more in-depth or demanding, you get only the already most interested, the activists. Mansbridge pointed out the unique value of having these engagement opportunities be made accessible to a true cross section of citizens, not just the more affluent and educated who also already vote and engage at higher rates, but Politics With the People also provided evidence there is a “sweet spot” one can hit balancing these two concerns. In those one-hour online townhalls, brief enough that a true cross-section of constituents could participate, there were in at least two deep and fairly durable impacts: four months after the event, people who participated in the deliberative online townhall were 9% more likely to vote and 10% more likely to vote for the representative who engaged with them in this way than people in the control group. This is good for democracy, but it’s also good for individual lawmakers—they can do well by doing good.

Mansbridge also noted some of the other benefits of citizen deliberation for lawmakers: “The utilities commissioner in Texas] had one of these deliberative polls, and they, much to his surprise, kind of came out for wind power and for putting a few more cents on the electric bill to pay for it, so now Texas has got more wind power than the rest of the country. So, he was able to use the fact that a deliberative, thinking, considering, weighing group of citizens came out with this as a good argument for doing something that was innovative, which otherwise, if it had just been kind of his idea, there might’ve been much more resistance to it.… So when you have innovation that you’re not sure that people will buy or hot decisions, like in Rome you had to close some hospitals, and no politician wanted the hospitals in their district closed, ok, call a citizens assembly, call one of these mini-publics, get them to think about what ought to be the criteria for closing hospitals and reducing hospital beds, then it takes the onus off the politician.”

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