Summer 2017

Deliberation & the Challenge of Inequality

Alice Siu

Deliberative critics contend that because societal inequalities cannot be bracketed in deliberative settings, the deliberative process inevitably perpetuates these inequalities. As a result, they argue, deliberation does not serve its theorized purposes, but rather produces distorted dialogue determined by inequalities, not merits. Advocates of deliberation must confront these criticisms: do less-privileged, less-educated, or perhaps illiterate participants stand a chance in discussions with the more privileged, better educated, and well spoken? Could their arguments ever be perceived or weighed equally? This essay presents empirical evidence to demonstrate that, in deliberations that are structured to provide a more level playing field, inequalities in skill and status do not translate into inequalities of influence.

ALICE SIU is Deputy Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. Her work on Deliberative Polling has been published in The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China (2006), Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions: Citizens, Stakeholders, and Voice (2008), and prominent journals such as the British Journal of Political Science.

When we think of the greatest orators, we often see men. In many developed democracies, those men are also likely to be white, educated, and privileged– men who had better opportunities from birth. It would be natural to expect these same privileged men to dominate in deliberation; indeed, we have all seen this kind of discursive domination in our own lives. Thus, many critics of deliberation have identified societal inequalities in deliberative settings, from town meetings to the jury room. Compared with the vote, which is explicitly structured to foster equality, deliberation seems destined to perpetuate existing societal inequalities, and perhaps foster greater inequality. These criticisms apply to many contexts; yet in deliberative settings structured to provide a more level playing field, we do not find empirical evidence to support these claims. Since the critics’ claims are empirical, it is necessary to examine them empirically. This essay provides empirical evidence to demonstrate that inequality is not a necessary attribute of deliberation.

Deliberative theorists contend that forums for public deliberation provide opportunities for citizens to engage each other in thoughtful discussion; in such settings, they may share competing views and, over time, develop reasoned and considered opinions.1 John Stuart Mill argued that taking part in public functions, such as small town offices or jury duty, serves as a school of public spirit.2 In the case of juries, people, privileged or not, would engage in deliberations together to decide the fate of others.3

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  • 1Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996); James Fishkin, Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1991); James Fishkin, The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1995); and James Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • 2John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (New York: Prometheus Books, 1991 [1861]), 79.
  • 3Ibid.
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