John Keane | The Blindspots of Deliberative Democracy
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The Blindspots of Deliberative Democracy

  |   Democracy in the 21st Century   |   No comment

By John Keane, originally published on PSA Parliaments

During the past two decades, more than a few green-minded scholars have championed ‘deliberative democracy’1 or ‘deliberative ecological democracy’, understood as ‘decentralised, organic and grassroots democratic practices that embody ecological values and give greater weight to the interests of nonhumans and future generations’ (Schlosberg et al., 2019). These green theories of deliberative democracy are less than convincing. They suffer multiple flaws. Their sense of history is poor. There is little or no recognition of the way their protests against the fetish of elections and search for new mechanisms of public accountability squarely belong to the age of monitory democracy. Many speak as if they are ancient Greeks; ignoring core features of classical Greek democracy such as slavery, discrimination against women and the worship of deities, they like to say that ancient Athens is the protype of a new 21st-century form of citizens’ assembly democracy ‘where people come together and their voices are heard and translated directly into policy’ (Russon Gilman & Eisenstein, 2023).

There are additional flaws. Deliberative democrats’ penchant for ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’ through small-scale, face-to-face deliberative forums begs difficult strategic questions about scalability, including whether micro-level schemes (featuring a few dozen human participants) can be replicated in time-space-variable nested ways at the national, regional and global levels, without relying on structures of human and non-human representation that are deemed antithetical to citizen ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’. Deliberative democrats downplay the conceptual and normative challenges posed by the ‘artificiality’ of small-scale, pilot scheme experiments in which indefatigable citizen deliberators, supposedly with a plenitude of free time on their hands, are expected to behave as if they are rational and reasonable and dispassionate communicators in a good-natured scholarly seminar.2

Structural constraints on the efficacy of deliberative experiments are typically underestimated, or ignored outright. How or whether the big money and big power of corporations, military-industrial complexes and other vested interests wedded to the old carbon-fueled energy regime is to be reined in by citizens’ assemblies isn’t made clear. What’s more, champions of deliberative democracy typically suppose that there is, or could be, a ‘general will’ consensus about the meaning of ‘ecological values’ crafted through calm, reasoned, democratic deliberation. Resembling 19th-century Christian democrats and champions of the parliamentary road to socialism, ecological democrats fancifully suppose that democratic means (public deliberation in assemblies) have a secret affinity with cherished substantive ends (ecological values). Following in the footsteps of ancient democrats, they dislike faction and disagreement. They prefer ‘harmony’. They are convinced that rational, face-to-face deliberation produces synthesis from division and actionable, working agreements geared to policy implementation. Inspired originally by the work of Jürgen Habermas, many ecological deliberative democrats secretly want to recapture the spirit of assembly democracy. Convinced that green politics heralds the rebirth of ‘participative democracy’3, perhaps even the end of elections and politicians, they misread and downplay the strategic and normative importance of courts, general elections, media platforms, integrity commissions and other power-monitoring institutions. Generally, they seem blind to the ubiquity and functional necessity and positive effects of representation within political life.4

  1. See John S. Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (New York 2013); and the introduction to Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (New York 2002), where the ‘essence of democracy’ is said to be ‘deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government’. What is called ‘authentic deliberation’ is ‘the requirement that communication induce reflection upon preferences in non-coercive fashion’. It is claimed that the emphasis on deliberation in this sense renews concern with ‘the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens’ (pp. 1-2 ff).
  2. Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy For Busy People (Chicago 2023).
  3. Examples include Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope (Melbourne 2010), which speaks of a ‘globally participative democracy’ (p. 252) using the example of the Vote Earth campaign during the 2011 Copenhagen negotiations, a partnership between Google Earth and WWF’s Earth Hour which managed to distribute electronic ballot boxes across thousands of web portals, then to urge people to ‘vote Earth’ in support of a robust outcome of the negotiations, guided by the visionary principle (as Flannery puts it) of ‘online elections, organised by the people, of the people and for the people’ (ibid); and ‘From Another Angle: Democracy, with Claudia Chwalisz’, (Carnegie Council Podcasts, April 18, 2023).
  4. The merits and weaknesses of the theory of undistorted communication of Jürgen Habermas are detailed in my Public Life and Late Capitalism (Cambridge and New York, 1984).