Political Aspects of Deliberation Research Paper

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In its political signification ‘deliberation’ refers to a process of reasoning about political choices. Such choices may include, among others, the selection of political leaders; the development of the laws, public policies, or regulations that govern a state; or the formation of alliances or agreements with other nations. Political deliberation may occur both within governing institutions and among the citizenry more generally. Despite an ancient lineage, the concept of political deliberation was largely ignored by political scientists for much of the twentieth century. This inattention was dramatically reversed in the last decades of the century as political theorists and experts on governmental institutions focused increasingly on the processes of deliberative decision making and on ‘deliberative democracy.’

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1. Origins

The first systematic treatment of political deliberation is found in Aristotle’s ethical and political works from the fourth century BC. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defined deliberation as the reasoned consideration and investigation of ‘things that are in our control and are attainable by action’ (Aristotle 1934, p. 135). In political life such deliberation is a necessary element of prudence, or practical wisdom, the pre-eminent virtue of the statesman. Political deliberation, which draws heavily on experience (Aristotle 1934, p. 351), concerns itself with ‘things that are good and bad for human beings’ (Aristotle 1934, p. 337). Unlike ‘execution [of laws and policies, which] should be swift,’ ‘deliberating takes a long time’ (Aristotle 1934, p. 353).

In his Politics Aristotle argued that all regimes have three basic parts: one which ‘deliberate[s] about common matters,’ one which administers the government through various offices, and one which adjudicates disputes among citizens, and between citizens and the state (Aristotle 1984, p. 139). He called the deliberative part—which is responsible for matters of war and peace, foreign alliances, laws, the choice of public officials, and judicial cases that carry the most severe penalties (Aristotle 1984, p. 139)—the ‘authoritative element of the regime’ (Aristotle 1984, p. 182). In ancient democracies there were various modes for public participation in political deliberation; most popular was the assembly in which the citizens of the city-state (the free adult males) came together periodically to deliberate on and decide the great issues that faced the polity.

2. The Rise Of Modern Democracies

In modern representative democracies the people in their collective capacity choose their lawmakers but normally do not otherwise engage in authoritative deliberation and decision making on matters of war and peace, laws, and foreign alliances. Many of the founders of modern democracies shared the belief, as stated by Montesquieu, that ‘the great advantage of representatives is, their capacity of discussing public affairs. For this the people collectively are extremely unfit, which is one of the chief inconveniences of a democracy’ (Montesquieu 1949, p. 154). This prefer-ence for political deliberation by the people’s representatives rather than by the people themselves was shared by the framers of the US Constitution. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in one of his essays defending the proposed Constitution of 1787, ‘[i]n the ancient republics, where the whole body of the people assembled in person, a single orator, or an artful statesman, was generally seen to rule with as complete a sway as if a scepter had been placed in his single hand.’ In such assemblies (as well as in very large legislative bodies) ‘[i]gnorance will be dupe of cunning, and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation’ (Federalist 58 in Hamilton et al. 1999, p. 328).

The desire to promote deliberative lawmaking also explains, in part, the development of bicameral (two-house) legislatures as a common feature in representative democracies. Those who designed the US Congress, for example, believed that one relatively large branch, whose members served short terms so as to keep them close to public opinion, should be balanced by a smaller branch with longer terms, which would function, as James Madison said about the US Senate, ‘with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch’ (Farrand 1966, Vol. 1, p. 151).

As democratic institutions spread in the eighteenth century, many came to believe that elected representatives should defer to the desires of their constituents on policy matters. The issue was whose deliberations should rule: those of the lawmakers, as formed by their participation in legislative debates, or those of the people themselves? British statesman Edmund Burke gave classic expression to the case for the independent judgment and deliberation of legislators in his famous ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol’ (1774). Delivered to the voters who had just elected him to parliament, Burke’s speech attacked the growing sentiment that the people had a right to instruct their representatives authoritatively on legislative matters. A legislator, Burke argued, was duty bound to exercise ‘his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, [and] his enlightened conscience’ even if these led to conclusions inconsistent with public desires. ‘Government and legislation,’ he maintained, ‘are matters of reason and judgment’; and that judgment must be formed by the debate and discussion that occur within lawmaking bodies. ‘Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where … the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole [ought to guide]’ (Burke 1949, pp. 115–16). Although Burke’s view was not universally accepted at the time, it became the dominant under- standing of theorists and statesmen for many decades hence.

3. Twentieth Century Developments

In the twentieth century two powerful alternative interpretations of decision making within governing institutions pushed deliberation to the background. One was the development of the group theory, or pluralist interpretation, of democratic politics that gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. This view identified bargaining among group interests, rather than collective deliberation about a common good, as the decisive characteristic of governmental, and especially of legislative, decision making. The second development was the rise of rational-choice theories that posited that legislative decision making could be best understood as a process of aggregating the personal goals and ambitions of political actors. Rational-choice theorists maintained that legislators do not argue and reason together about what constitutes, or how to achieve, the public good but rather find ways through the legislative process to achieve their personal preferences.

Interest in political deliberation was rekindled in the 1980s as a result of (a) the empirical limitations of the alternative paradigms (they could not account for much of what happens in legislatures); (b) a renewed appreciation of the normative consideration that if democracies are to function well they need the capacity to engage in sound deliberation about matters of common concern (both within the governing institutions and among the populace more generally); and (c) a revival of interest in participatory politics, especially among democratic theorists.

4. Characteristics Of Deliberation

In a process of political deliberation the actors reason together about some matter requiring a political or governmental decision. In so doing they must be open to the facts, arguments, and proposals that come to their attention, and must share a willingness to learn from their colleagues and others. Although such processes may take a variety of forms, deliberative decision making by its nature involves three essential elements: information, arguments, and persuasion. Information here refers to the substantive facts pertinent to some policy issue; arguments connect facts with desirable goals; and persuasion refers to the change or development in the minds of deliberators that results from the reasoned consideration of facts and arguments. As commonly, if not universally, understood, political deliberation is centrally concerned with the merits of public policy. It is, then, distinct from political strategizing, from reasoning about purely self-interested considerations, and from political bargaining—none of which necessarily involve a reasoned consideration of the merits of policy (Bessette 1994, pp. 46–55).

5. Deliberation And Governing Institutions

Within the governing institutions of liberal democracies deliberation is the particular, although not the exclusive, province of the legislative branch (especially in separation of powers regimes). One reason that legislatures in liberal democracies typically are relatively large collegial institutions is to promote the serious consideration of a variety of opinions on policy issues. Moreover, the internal structure (especially committee systems) and the formal rules that govern legislative procedures are designed, at least in part, to promote the careful and (generally) unhurried review of policy options. By contrast, hierarchical and centrally organized executive branches are structured less to promote deliberation than quick, decisive, and sometimes secret, decision making and action (see especially Federalist 70 in Hamilton et al. 1999, pp. 391–9). Members of executive branches must, nonetheless, deliberate about such matters as appointments, legislative proposals, the use of military force, and the conduct of foreign policy. The problem is that hierarchy, secrecy, and the need for quick decisions may inhibit sound deliberation.

6. Democratic Deliberation

Despite the renewed interest in the deliberative capacities and functions of governmental institutions, more scholarly attention has focused on deliberation among a democratic citizenry than among its elected representatives. Although the term ‘deliberative democracy’ is the one most widely used by scholars to characterize ‘the idea that legitimate lawmaking issues form the public deliberation of citizens’ (Bohman and Rehg 1997, p. ix), some scholars use instead such terms as ‘communicative democracy,’ ‘discursive democracy,’ and ‘unitary democracy.’

Proponents of deliberative democracy tend to share the belief that policy deliberations by an energized populace will both make for better citizens and help to ensure that national policy will conform to reasonable public desires. Scholars disagree, however, as to whether and how intelligent public deliberation can occur within the large nation-state. Some look to smaller political subunits as the more likely locus of such deliberation (Mansbridge 1983). Others raise concerns about the power of government officials to manipulate public deliberations (by, for example, withholding vital information) or about the ability of the media to shape debates and outcomes (Page and Shapiro 1992, pp. 355–82, Page 1996). Another proposes, as a surrogate for national public deliberation, choosing a random sample of the populace to come together to deliberate (Fishkin 1991). Yet other scholars remain confident that new institutions and procedures (such as neighborhood assemblies, televised town meetings, office-holding by lot, and a multistage national initiative and referendum process) can promote sound public deliberation on national issues (Barber 1984). The spread of the Internet has raised new possibilities for informing and educating the citizenry, and for assessing public reaction and opinion (so-called ‘electronic democracy’ or ‘tele-democracy’).

The key issue surrounding political deliberation in liberal democracies remains, as was the case in the time of Edmund Burke, the extent to which national policy should be decided by the independent deliberations of elected officials or whether the formal decision makers should defer to, or at least take direction from, the direct deliberations of the citizenry.


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