Summer 2017

Deliberative Democracy in the Trenches

Cass R. Sunstein

In the last decades, many political theorists have explored the idea of deliberative democracy. The basic claim is that well-functioning democracies combine accountability with a commitment to reflection, information acquisition, multiple perspectives, and reason-giving. Does that claim illuminate actual practices? Much of the time, the executive branch of the United States has combined both democracy and deliberation, not least because it has placed a high premium on reason-giving and the acquisition of necessary information. It has also contained a high degree of internal diversity, encouraging debate and disagreement, not least through the public comment process. These claims are illustrated with concrete, if somewhat stylized, discussions of how the executive branch often operates.

CASS R. SUNSTEIN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1992, is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University. From 2009 to 2012, he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is the author of, most recently, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (2017), Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas (2014), and Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (2014).

In the last decades, a large number of political theorists have explored the idea of deliberative democracy.1 The basic claim is that well-functioning democracies combine accountability with a commitment to reflection and reason-giving. They do not merely respond to popular pressures and majority sentiment. They also try to “refine and enlarge the public view” through acquisition of relevant information, attention to multiple perspectives, and careful deliberation in the public sphere.2 Versions of this claim have been impressively elaborated by many people, including Joseph Bessette (who originally coined the term), Jürgen Habermas, Amartya Sen, Jane Mansbridge, James Fishkin, and the team of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.3

The idea of deliberative democracy might focus on the internal operation of government, with an emphasis on how the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches speak with one another. It could take more or less populist forms, focusing on deliberation among citizens themselves, or between citizens and public officials. And while citizen-centered conceptions focus on widespread participation, drawing on the idea of town meetings, we can also find conceptions of deliberative democracy that emphasize reason-giving by elected leaders.

My goal in this essay is to explore the operation of deliberative democracy in the trenches–not as a set of abstract ideals, but as concrete practices. My central question is relatively narrow: can deliberative democracy be found within the executive branch of the U.S. government? In important ways, I will suggest, it can be, or at least there have been periods in which it has flourished.4 When it is working well–and it often is–the executive branch places a large premium not only on accountability, but also on the exchange of information and reason-giving within the federal government, between that government and states and localities, and between that government and diverse citizens. This discussion draws a great deal on my own experience from 2009 to 2012, when I served as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), and also from 2013 to 2014, when I served as a member of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. It is important to acknowledge that the executive branch can take different forms, with a stronger or weaker focus on deliberation, and I shall have something to say about variability over time as well.

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  • 1See, for example, Jon Elster, ed., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998); and Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • 2See James Madison, “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” The Federalist Papers No. 10, November 23, 1787, accessed at
  • 3See Joseph Bessette, The Mild Voice of Reason (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994); Habermas, Between Facts and Norms; Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); James Fishkin, Democracy and Deliberation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993); and Gutmann and Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy.
  • 4A great deal of valuable information to this effect can be found in Michael Morrell, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’Fight Against Terrorism from Al Qa'ida to ISIS (New York: Twelve, 2015).
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