Want to Save Democracy? Make it Deliberative
And it requires all of us to act
In general democratic theory — that which underpins our current systems here in Britain, in America and most of the West, the legitimacy of the system — i.e. why we all agree to go along with this bizarre charade of politics — is derived from our engagement with the process.
In other words, because we vote, we are tacitly agreeing that the form of government, politics and law used to run our country is acceptable.
On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. By tying the legitimacy of the system directly to the engagement with it, we in theory ensure that those who want to have their say, do so.
But, we can see from the ever collapsing reality around us that this fundamental principle of democracy is flawed.
When you have a system so easily corrupted, coerced or misused, there must be a fatal bug somewhere deep in the code.
Deliberative Democracy is a clear fix for this bug.
Where traditional representative democracy derives its legitimacy from the simple act of voting, Deliberative Democracy seeks to encourage perpetual participation from its citizens.
It does this by suggesting that only by deliberating over the democratic decision-making process can the citizen provide their consent for the continuance of the system.
The best practical outline of how a Deliberative Democracy would work comes from James Fishkin. As per Wikipedia:
Fishkin’s model of deliberation
James Fishkin, who has designed practical implementations of deliberative democracy for over 15 years in various countries, describes five characteristics essential for legitimate deliberation:
Information: The extent to which participants are given access to reasonably accurate information that they believe to be relevant to the issue
Substantive balance: The extent to which arguments offered by one side or from one perspective are answered by considerations offered by those who hold other perspectives
Diversity: The extent to which the major positions in the public are represented by participants in the discussion
Conscientiousness: The extent to which participants sincerely weigh the merits of the arguments
Equal consideration: The extent to which arguments offered by all participants are considered on the merits regardless of which participants offer them
Taking a look at that outline, it’s very clear that our current system — certainly in the UK and the US at least — would fail miserably as a Deliberative Democracy.
So let’s take each factor one-by-one and see where things are going wrong.
Or more accurately misinformation, is the weapon of mass destruction de jour for all sorts of nefarious actors in the modern world.
We are in fact in the midst of an information crisis.
No source of information is sacrosanct anymore, with print and broadcast media falling into traps they’ve set themselves, becoming ever more obsessed with their own failures and pushing their brand ideologies to the limit.
Meanwhile, online media is even less concerned with the whole truth. An information wild-west has led to easily exploitable weaknesses — personalised social media feeds and data harvesting, ideology silos and bubbles — that allow for the like of Russia, Saudia Arabia, Cambridge Analytica and whoever else to manipulate the truth for their own benefit.
And so the idea that anyone — our representatives or the average citizen — has made a political decision in the last, let’s go with five years for now (since the major decline of old media and rise of new media), free from the drip of poisonous misinformation abundant all around them, is frankly, laughable.
You can’t escape it. You’re not immune. You’re an ape who likes to eat, fuck and survive. Those basic instincts can be wired into all sorts of crazy loops if given the wrong inputs.
In a true deliberative democracy, we would treat information like we’re beginning to treat food — recognise that there is good and bad information, that you need a balance of sources and types, and that junk information (like junk food) will eventually make you ill.
Information is the prima facie of all else in a Deliberative Democracy — in order for there to be good deliberation, there must be good information. Bad information leads to bad deliberation. Simple enough, right?
Do we listen to each other any more? Are the concerns of those who you oppose politically even remotely a consideration for you? Maybe they should be.
It’s difficult, of course, to engage with someone whose own perspectives have been tainted by a slew of misinformation as above.
But it’s also important to recognise that amongst the chaos, there will be kernals of truth.
For example: since the referendum, the Brexit campaign has failed to offer a single reasonable benefit for leaving the EU that can’t be easily disproved.
But no Brexiter seems willing to listen to the concerns of Remainers on this — anything negative on Brexit is simply “project fear”.
Likewise, there is very little the Remain campaign has put forward as a positive case for staying in the EU — from before the referendum and since, and yet most Remainers don’t seem to see why this is an issue.
To them, the rational, sensible thing is staying in the EU. Rather than recognise that to a Leaver, that isn’t the case, and that instead, they might need to offer some sort of positive assertion of what continued EU membership would look like, what the benefits are etc.
Of course, there are people on both sides doing exactly this — engaging with the opposition in their language, even on their terms— but not enough of us do it.
17 million people voted for Brexit. 16 million voted against it.
But the way that politics has been for the last two years, you’d assume the whole country had voted for it.
Any sensible government would have seen the tight, divided result as evidence of the need for more consensus, compromise and coalition. Instead, we have a government that has pursued a policy of “to hell with the losers”.
If you were out at a pub for your birthday, seventeen of your friends wanted to leave and sixteen (including you) didn’t — would you say “well, everyone’s had their say, let’s go, c’mon, out, nope don’t care if you want to stay, time to go” or would you think of a compromise? How about those who want to leave, leave, those who want to stay, stay, and we’ll meet up somewhere down the line?
Imagine if Remainers were given the option to remain EU citizens? Would it be as good as the whole country staying? No, of course not. But it’s not a bad compromise.
Such an idea might be possible if the views of the 16 million were taken into account. Instead, only the views of the winners matter, and so we must follow them out into the cold even though we were quite happy inside with our beer sitting by the fire thank you very much.
Do you give the views of those who you politically oppose equal footing to those on your side?
I don’t, certainly.
But for the purposes of a Deliberative Democracy, we ought to.
We must engage with our opponents in good faith. Assume the best of them until we are given a reason otherwise.
Don’t just write off every Brexiter you encounter as a little-England racist. See if you can go beyond and examine their concerns as if they were your own.
It’s fucking hard to do. I’m still not sure I’m there yet.
Similar to the above. I never thought I’d see the day I’d be agreeing with a whole load of Tories on something, but that’s where we’re at in this bizarre world we’ve crafted for ourselves.
And actually, it’s a good thing. That as a staunch lefty I can still see past other ideological divisions and give my support to Anna Soubry when she belts out a pro-remain tweet or speech in parliament.
But we must go further. We must give equal consideration to those with views we despise. If they are wrong, then they will be easily disproved by fact.
If not, then maybe they have some merit to them that ought to be considered.
But all of this requires that first, our feed of information is not one of junk, but instead a healthy, balanced diet.
There is a reason we don’t have a deliberative democracy.
It’s really hard.
In requires that all of us, citizens and representatives, actively engage, actively seek to improve the flow and consuming of information, listen to each other and compromise.
That’s super hard to do.
It is much easier to passively consume the information given to us in our Facebook feeds and our media of choice. To ignore the concerns of those you oppose, and think of them as stupid or callous or misinformed. And it’s really easy to think that your political responsibility ends with a tick in a box.
If we all agree to be more deliberative with our approach to politics, maybe, just maybe, we’d start to see some improvements.
The alternative — continuing down this path of destruction, division, and confusion — will see the end of democracy, for sure.
The choice is yours.
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.