An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2017

The Prospects & Limits of Deliberative Democracy

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Democracy is under siege. Approval ratings for democratic institutions in most countries around the world are at near-record lows. The very ideal of democracy as rule by the people is suffering a crisis of confidence: If the “will of the people” can be manufactured by marketing strategies, fake news, and confirmation bias, then how real is democracy? If the expanse between decision-making elites and a mobilized public grows, then how functional is democracy? If political alienation and apathy increase, then how representative is democracy?

The thirteen essays in this issue assess the current crisis of democratic governance and explore the alternative potential of deliberative democracy, in which the will of the people is informed by thoughtful, moderated citizen engagement and discussion. But is a diverse and polarized citizenry even capable of deliberation? How likely is group deliberation to reach a well-reasoned decision? And wouldn’t group deliberation recreate the same power imbalances obstructing other kinds of discourse?

The Summer 2017 issue of Dædalus, guest-edited by James S. Fishkin (Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University) and Jane Mansbridge (The Harvard Kennedy School), explores these questions.

Community members in Flint, Michigan, gather on February 6, 2016, to discuss the lead contamination crisis. © 2016 by J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue.
Community members in Flint, Michigan, gather on February 6, 2016, to discuss the lead contamination crisis. © 2016 by J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue.


The legitimacy of democracy depends on some real link between the public will and the public policies and office-holders who are selected. But the model of competition-based democracy has come under threat by a disillusioned and increasingly mobilized public that no longer views its claims of representation as legitimate. This essay introduces the alternative potential of deliberative democracy, and considers whether deliberative institutions could revive democratic legitimacy, provide for more authentic public will formation, provide a middle ground between mistrusted elites and the angry voices of populism, and help fulfill some of our shared expectations about democracy.

Referendum vs. Institutionalized Deliberation: What Democratic Theorists Can Learn from the 2016 Brexit Decision

Putting aside the substantive question of whether the United Kingdom leaving the European Union was a “good” idea, Claus Offe uses the Brexit referendum to illuminate the weaknesses of plebiscitarian methods of “direct” democracy, and shows how Parliament failed to build safeguards into the referendum process. He then proposes a design for enriching representative electoral democracy with random, deliberative bodies and their methods of political will formation (as opposed to the expression of a popular will already formed).

Author Claus Offe

Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research

Deliberative democracy is a normative project grounded in political theory; but it is also home to a large volume of empirical social science research. So what have we learned about deliberative democracy, its value, and its weaknesses? This essay surveys the field by discussing twelve key findings that conceptual analysis, logic, empirical study, normative theorizing, and the refinement of deliberative practice have set to rest. The authors thus free both critics and proponents of deliberative democracy to concentrate on yet unresolved issues.

Authors Nicole Curato, John S. Dryzek, Selen A. Ercan, Carolyn M. Hendriks, and Simon Niemeyer

Political Deliberation & the Adversarial Principle

Retrieving an insight dating back to antiquity, Bernard Manin argues that the confrontation of opposing views and arguments is beneficial to any political deliberation. But freedom of speech and diversity among deliberators do not suffice to secure that outcome; we must actively facilitate the presentation of contrary opinions during deliberation. Such confrontation is our best means of improving the quality of collective decisions. It also counteracts the pernicious fragmentation of the public sphere. It facilitates the comprehension of choices. And it treats minority voices with respect. This essay proposes practical ways of promoting adversarial deliberation, in particular the organization of debates disconnected from electoral competition.

Author Bernard Manin

Deliberative Democracy as Open, Not (Just) Representative Democracy

Is deliberative democracy a dated paradigm for a precrisis order, maladjusted to the world of Occupy, the Pirate Party, the Zapatistas, and other antirepresentative movements? And is deliberative democracy thus at risk of becoming collateral damage of the current crisis of representative democracy? In this essay, Hélène Landemore argues that in order to retain its normative appeal and political relevance, deliberative democracy should dissociate itself from representative democracy and reinvent itself as the core of a more truly democratic paradigm, which she calls open democracy. In open democracy, popular rule means the mediated but real exercise of power by ordinary citizens. This new paradigm privileges nonelectoral forms of representation, and in it, power is meant to remain constantly inclusive of and accessible to all citizens.

Author Hélène Landemore

Inequality is Always in the Room: Language & Power in Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy has the potential to legitimize collective decisions. Deliberation’s legitimating potential, however, depends on whether those who deliberate truly enter as equals, whether they are able to express on equal terms their visions of the common good, and whether the forms that govern deliberative assemblies advance or undermine their goals. Here, Arthur Lupia and Anne Norton examine these sources of deliberation’s legitimating potential, and contend that even in situations of apparent equality, deliberation is limited by its potential to increase power asymmetries. They conclude by describing how deliberative contexts could be modified to reduce certain types of power asymmetries, such as those often associated with gender, race, or class.

Authors Arthur Lupia and Anne Norton

Collusion in Restraint of Democracy: Against Political Deliberation

Robustly defending the model of competitive democracy, Ian Shapiro argues that calls to inject deliberation into democratic politics rest on a misdiagnosis of its infirmities. Deliberation, Shapiro continues, undermines competition over proposed political programs, while deliberative institutions are all-too-easily hijacked by people with intense preferences and disproportionate resources. Arguments in support of deliberation are at best diversions from more serious threats to democracy: namely, money’s toxic role in politics. Shapiro concludes that a better focus would be on restoring meaningful competition between representatives of two strong political parties over the policies that, if elected, they will implement.

Author Ian Shapiro

Can Democracy be Deliberative & Participatory? The Democratic Case for Political Uses of Mini-Publics

Against recent proposals to insert deliberative mini-publics into political decision-making processes, such as through citizens’ juries, Deliberative Polls, and citizens’ assemblies, Cristina Lafont argues that deliberative mechanisms could diminish the democratic legitimacy of the political system as a whole. But she does propose several uses of mini-publics that could enhance the democratic legitimacy of political decision-making in current societies.

Author Cristina Lafont

Deliberative Citizens, (Non)Deliberative Politicians: A Rejoinder

Both politicians and citizens have the capacity to deliberate when institutions are appropriate, yet high-quality deliberation can collide with democratic principles and ideals. André Bächtiger and Simon Beste thus employ a “need-oriented” perspective, proposing institutional interventions and reforms that may help boost deliberation in ways that exploit its unique epistemic and ethical potential while making it compatible with democratic principles and ideals.

Authors André Bächtiger and Simon Beste

Deliberation & the Challenge of Inequality

Deliberative critics contend that the deliberative process inevitably perpetuates societal inequalities and can produce distorted dialogue determined by inequalities, not merits. Alice Siu, however, presents empirical evidence demonstrating that inequalities in skill and status do not translate into inequalities of influence when deliberations are carefully structured to provide a more level playing field.

Author Alice Siu

Deliberative Democracy in the Trenches

Much of the time, the U.S. executive branch has combined both democracy and deliberation, placing a high premium on reason-giving, the acquisition of necessary information, internal diversity, and debate and disagreement. Cass R. Sunstein, who served in the Obama administration, explores the concrete practices, rather than the abstract ideals, of the operation of deliberative democracy in the executive branch.

Applying Deliberative Democracy in Africa: Uganda’s First Deliberative Polls

Reflecting on the first two applications of deliberative democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, James S. Fishkin, Roy William Mayega, Lynn Atuyambe, Nathan Tumuhamye, Julius Ssentongo, Alice Siu, and William Bazeyo apply the same criteria for success commonly used for such projects in the most advanced countries. They find that the projects were representative, produced substantial opinion change, avoided distortions, and achieved actionable results that can be expected to influence policy on difficult choices.

Authors James Fishkin, Roy William Mayega, Lynn Atuyambe, Nathan Tumuhamye, Julius Ssentongo, Alice Siu, and William Bazeyo

Authoritarian Deliberation in China

Authoritarian rule in China increasingly involves deliberative practices that combine authoritarian command with deliberative influence, producing the apparent anomaly of authoritarian deliberation. Drawing from their own research in China, Baogang He and Mark E. Warren explore two possible trajectories of political development in China in this context: that the increasing use of deliberative practices could stabilize and strengthen authoritarian rule, or deliberative practices could serve as a leading edge of democratization.

Authors Baogang He and Mark E. Warren