In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Professional Expertise in a Deliberative Democracy:Facilitating Participatory Inquiry
  • Frank Fischer (bio)

Measured in terms of citizen participation, American democracy leaves much to be desired. (Putnam 2000; Skocpol 2003). Participation levels are low and a large percentage of citizens report that they have little or no contact with their political leaders; many say they are turned off by the process. As citizen participation is the normative cornerstone of a democratic system, this is indeed cause for concern.

There is no shortage of explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from barriers to voter registration and political alienation to problems of complexity and citizen incompetence. Zolo (1992), Offe (1996), and Habermas (1996), for example, argue that complexity now virtually makes democracy impossible in anything but a very restricted form. The degree to which Western political systems are organized around functionally specialized tasks carried out by different groups is seen to have created levels of fragmention that now make it quite difficult to bring decisions under the control of elected representatives, let alone the public more generally.

Given the degree of complexity, some today even argue that the low levels of citizen participation is a healthy thing. Others extend the argument against participation, portraying it as a leftist project imposed on a citizenry that would prefer to leave problems to their elected leaders (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002; Posner 2003). American citizens are said to have little desire to participate in matters of public policy. Indeed, surveys and focus groups elicit views that suggest many see political argumentation and disagreement as a failure of the system. Deliberation for them is deemed potentially detrimental to effective policy-making. But one need not celebrate this state of affairs. It is just as easily the result of socialization in political systems that generates apathy and indifference. Moreover, the argument that deliberation harms policy problem-solving serves only to limit the options to those of a particular stratum of society, often in clear conflict with the interests of others.

To be sure, concerns about democracy and participation in a complex society are scarcely new. The classic debates between Lippmann (1925) and Dewey (1927) were very much about the possibility of citizen participation in a newly emerging technological society. This new complexity was seen as a serious threat to the future of American democracy, especially when combined with the kinds of demagoguery witnessed in Western societies during and after WWII. Such societies, increasingly defined as mass societies governed by elites, offered less and less political space for the individual citizen in the policy process. Dewey, like Lippmann, asked how the public could deal with the complexities of a highly differentiated, technologically-driven society. How could citizens participate in policy decision-making so obviously dependent on the knowledge of experts? Where Lippmann saw little hope for the citizen, Dewey called for a division of labor between experts and citizens. On the technical front, experts would empirically identify basic social needs and problems. On the political front, citizens would set a democratic agenda for pursuing them. Both processes would be brought together through consultations. To integrate such interactions, Dewey stressed the need for an improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion. From this perspective, a new role for professionals could be envisioned (Lasswell 1941). The task of the emerging scientific policy professional—the urban planner, policy analyst, health or environmental specialist, etc.—would be not just to provide technical information for problem-solving, but also to combine it with a new function of facilitating public deliberation and learning. Instead of only rendering judgments, professionals would analyze, interpret, and clarify. If experts, acting as teachers and interpreters, could decipher the technological world for citizens in ways that would enable them to make intelligent political judgments, the constitutional provisions designed to advance public over selfish interests could function as originally conceived.

Since those days, professional social and policy science has taken a different course. Instead of serving citizens as "clarifiers," as Lasswell envisioned the role, policy professionals have mainly restricted their activities to the more limited task of mediating the extant opinions of the public to elite decision-makers (Merleman 1976). Relegating the pedagogic function to a subordinate consideration...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 21-27
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.