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  • Deliberation and Civic Studies
  • Matt Chick (bio)


I was motivated to pursue graduate study in political theory because of a serious concern with citizen participation, or lack thereof, in governing. In particular, I found deliberative democracy especially attractive. Not only did I think it could work, but I also thought it would be "good" for us; I thought it might solve a lot of problems. Moving through graduate school with the opportunity to study these things seriously, I still hold all of those beliefs. I hold them with more caveats, provisos, and hesitations than before, but I hold them nonetheless.

The Summer Institute of Civic Studies, in forcing me to think more s eriously about citizenship, has helped me understand the relationship between civics and deliberation. It also helped me find another home for my own research interests. This essay has three aims: First, I offer a short overview of what is meant by deliberative democracy and give a couple of examples of the type of work that is done in the area. Second, I summarize and explain a key relationship between deliberation and some other areas of civic studies. Third, I recap a particularly illuminating day at the Institute that, I think, offers helpful insights into deliberation.

What is Deliberation?

Following the diversity in the backgrounds of the students of the Institute, I expect the potential audience of this symposium to be equally diverse. [End Page 187] For that reason, I will spend just a few moments with a general summary of what is meant by "deliberation" or "deliberative democracy" and give two examples of concerns that remain in deliberative theory that were discussed during the Institute.1

At perhaps the broadest possible level, deliberative democracy is a form of legislating public policy whereby ordinary citizens converse with one another to make public decisions. The talking with one another is a crucial political theory point as Aristotle and Rousseau, for example, have used the term deliberation, but meant only an internal debate.2 Proposals for deliberative-style reform of our current political institutions range from the large, like Ethan Leib's proposal for a fourth, deliberative branch of government,3 to the smaller, grassroots proposals that might include simply transitioning local decision-making to deliberative, town hall style meetings. Additionally, debates rage about what counts as "good" deliberation (arguing? testifying? debating? story telling? speeches?), who should be allowed to deliberate (anyone with a stake in the decision? all citizens? just experts?), what topics deliberative bodies should consider (local issues? national issues? foreign policy? constitutional matters?), and what should be done with the results of deliberating (advise Congress? make law?), to name just a few.

Josh Cohen and Archon Fung suggest that deliberative democracy is the present-day example of radical democracy. They argue that radical democrats take, broadly speaking, one of two forms: Rousseauians or Habermasians, ". . . radical-democratic ideas join two strands of democratic thought. First, with Rousseau, radical democrats are committed to broader participation in public decision-making . . . Second, [with Habermas] radical democrats emphasize deliberation. Instead of a politics of power and interest, radical democrats favor a more deliberative democracy in which public problems are addressed by reasoning together about how best to solve them . . ."4 Real deliberative proposals typically incorporate both of these elements. That is to say, deliberative bodies give more people the chance to participate, and in a more qualitative way. In addition, deliberation often insists on a certain way of participating which tries to minimize the effects of power by emphasizing the use of reason.

The forms of deliberative democracy, the institutional proposals, the epistemic principles at work, the arguments in their favor, are as varied as you might expect. The criticisms, though equally varied, can usually be put under the heading: "Is that really possible to put into practice?" To provide just one example of the work currently being done on deliberation, in "The Place of Self-Interest and the Role of Power in Deliberative [End Page 188] Democracy", Jane Mansbridge heads a "who's who?" list of authors in the deliberative field, articulating the current state of deliberative theory and taking on at least two of the serious issues facing deliberative...


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