The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy, also sometimes called discursive democracy, is a term used by political theorists, e.g. Jon Elster or Jürgen Habermas, to refer to any system of political decisions based on some tradeoff of consensus decision making and representative democracy. In contrast to the traditional economics-based, rational choice theory of democracy, which emphasizes voting as the central institution in democracy, deliberative democracy theorists argue that legitimate lawmaking can only arise from the public deliberation of the citizenry.

It is usually associated with left-wing politics and often recognizes a conflict of interest between the citizen participating, those affected or victimized by the process being undertaken, and the group-entity that organizes the decision. Thus it usually involves an extensive outreach effort to include marginalized, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results. In this form it is a complete theory of civics.

The Green Party of the United States refers to its particular proposals for grassroots democracy and electoral reform by this name.

A claimed strength of deliberative democratic models is that they are more easily able to incorporate scientific opinion and base policy on outputs of ongoing research, because:

  • time is given for all participants to understand and discuss the science
  • scientific peer review, adversarial presentation of competing arguments, refereed journals, even betting markets, are also deliberative processes.
  • the technology used to record dissent and document opinions opposed to the majority is also useful to notarize bets, predictions and claims.

Another strength of deliberative democratic models is that (according to their proponents) they tend, more than any other model, to generate ideal conditions of impartiality, rationality and knowledge of the relevant facts. The more these conditions are fulfilled, the greater the likelihood that the decisions reached are the morally right ones. Deliberative democracy has thus an epistemic value: it allows participants to know the moral good. This view has been prominently held by Carlos Nino.

A failure of most theories of deliberative democracy is that they do not address the problems of voting. James Fishkin 's 1991 work, "Democracy and Deliberation" introduced a concrete way to apply the theory of deliberative democracy to real-world decision making, by way of what he calls the Deliberative Opinion Poll (R). In the deliberative opinion poll, a statistically representative sample of the nation or a community is gathered to discuss an issue in conditions that further deliberation. The group is then polled, and the results of the poll and the actual deliberation can be used both as a recommending force and in certain circumstances, to replace a vote. Dozens of deliberative opinion polls have been conducted across the nation since his book was published.

Social choice theory presents deliberative democracy with a distinct challenge. Critics of deliberative democracy have pointed to Arrow's impossibility theorem as limiting the use of deliberative democracy. Deliberative theorists (in particular Christian List) have responded with a recent body of research that has shown that deliberation actually makes the conditions necessary for Arrow's Theorem to apply less likely.

See also


  • Elster, Jon. (1998) "Deliberative Democracy". [Table of Contents]
  • Nino, C. S. (1996)The Constitution of Deliberative Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press. [ISBN 03-000-7727-0]
  • Steenhuis, Quinten. (2004) "The Deliberative Opinion Poll: Promises and Challenges". Carnegie Mellon University. Unpublished thesis. Available [Online]

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Last updated: 05-14-2005 05:29:20
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04