Are citizens or politicians (more) capable of deliberation, and when should they be willing to do so? In this essay, we first show that both politicians and citizens have the capacity to deliberate when institutions are appropriate. Yet high-quality deliberation sometimes collides with democratic principles and ideals. Therefore, we employ a “need-oriented” perspective, asking when and where citizens and the political workings of democracy need high-quality deliberation and when and where this is less the case. On this account, we propose a number of institutional interventions and reforms that may help boost deliberation in ways that both exploit its unique epistemic and ethical potential while simultaneously making it compatible with democratic principles and ideals.
When political scientists and political analysts are asked whether there is potential for deliberation in our contemporary political systems, the answer is usually negative. The standard argument is that politicians do not want to deliberate and citizens are not able to do it. Some deliberative democrats have given this argument a slightly different spin, claiming that although we should not hold high hopes for deliberation in the power-riddled realm of electoral politics, citizens have a latent deliberative potential that appropriate institutions (especially deliberative mini-publics) can unleash.
In this essay, we argue that both answers are wrong. Empirical research shows that both politicians and citizens have the capacity to deliberate when institutions are appropriate. Under optimal institutional conditions, politicians can score relatively high on measures of discourse quality derived from the ideals of deliberation as envisaged in Habermasian rational discourse. A good fraction of citizens can also approach these standards. Yet deliberation is not the only goal or the only desirable means in politics. . . .