does deliberation demobilize?

The end result of all of these little steps to empowerment is, unfortunately, not a long journey to social justice, but a tightening spiral of resignation and retreat from public life to our increasingly demanding domestic worlds. (p. 26, DIY Democracy)

Recently, I was the featured speaker at the Kettering Foundation’s April Dayton Days Meeting. My book, DIY Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry, studies the development and current success of the public engagement field, of which Kettering is very much a part—especially in supporting research on the deep engagement innovations that scholars call “deliberative democracy.”

Dialogue and deliberation (or D&D) processes typically take the form of discussions involving a cross-section of the public in informed weighing of options on tough, often unsexy (sorry Fabio) issues like municipal budgeting, waste removal, and health care. I argue that the expansion of deep democracy in all kinds of organizations is exciting, but it has been accomplished because of the needs of those same organizations to manage their stakeholders’ deep uneasiness and anger over problems like municipal retrenchment, corporate reorganization, and urban redevelopment. Organizations resort to deliberation when they face (or anticipate facing) contention, because it works to soothe tensions, stimulate empathy for administrators’ “tough choices,” and encourage individual engagement in problem-solving. As a result, intentional efforts to activate grassroots participation from the top-down tend to foster more faith in individual-level efforts over collective ones—regardless of whether a particular process prompts public cynicism about government capacities or hope for a more engaged community.

It is a complex pleasure to share research with subjects, particularly when research subjects are deeply invested in the language and practices of the academy (my talk was preceded by a nuanced discussion of how critical theory could be relevant to the foundation’s on-the-ground work). Quickly, our discussion came around to the quote above, from the introduction to DIY Democracy, which sums up the larger argument of the book but troubled a number of attendees. If reinvigorating public engagement does not produce social justice in a context of deep inequalities, then should deliberative democrats just give up?

I argued that first, we should not see deliberation as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to public problems, some of which may require contention and conflict. Second, we should imagine more ambitious opportunities for the “systems change” public deliberation repeatedly offers, but rarely delivers.


In my next post: how engagement practitioners manage the tensions they deal with in their everyday work…


Written by carolinewlee

April 29, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Caroline – great to see you blogging here. I love the post. The deliberative processes at play at my university as we approach a presidential transition and reaccreditation follow this pattern, and people seem less and less inspired to participate in them. Look forward to reading the book.


    Michael Haedicke

    April 29, 2015 at 9:59 pm

  2. Some of this argument seems familiar from Dryzek (1996) which argues that the rise of the inclusive state in the United States from the early 1970s onwards (characterized by more participation at many levels of policy making) was detrimental to social movements and, in particular, the green movement. Dryzek examines the conditions under which participation can be successful but generally warns against it, advocating deliberation against the state, rather than deliberation with or through the state. He extends this line of thought in a book which examines the character and success of green movements under different regimes of participation (or non-participation), so explaining why Germany performs well in environmental policy (the state excludes citizens, but civil society is active) while the United States does not (the state includes citizens, but only symbolically, and civil society is inactive).

    J.S. Dryzek 1996. Political inclusion and the dynamics of democratization. American Political Science Review / Volume 90 / Issue 03 / September 1996, pp 475-487

    “Once universal adult citizenship rights have been secured in a society, democratization is mostly a matter of the more authentic political inclusion of different groups and categories, for which formal political equality can hide continued exclusion or oppression. It is important, however, to distinguish between inclusion in the state and inclusion in the polity more generally. Democratic theorists who advocate a strategy of progressive inclusion of as many groups as possible in the state fail to recognize that the conditions for authentic as opposed to symbolic inclusion are quite demanding. History shows that benign inclusion in the state is possible only when (a) a group’s defining concern can be assimilated to an established or emerging state imperative, and (b) civil society is not unduly depleted by the group’s entry into the state. Absent such conditions, oppositional civil society may be a better focus for democratization than is the state. A flourishing oppositional sphere, and therefore the conditions for democratization itself, may actually be facilitated by a passively exclusive state, the main contemporary form of which is corporatism. Benign inclusion in the state can sometimes occur, but any such move should also produce exclusions that both facilitate future democratization and guard against any reversal of democratic commitment in state and society. These considerations have substantial implications for the strategic choices of social movements.”

    JS Dryzek, C Hunold, D Schlosberg, D Downes: Environmental transformation of the state: the USA, Norway, Germany and the UK

    Very much look forward to reading this book.



    April 30, 2015 at 1:15 am

  3. Thanks, you two, for the really interesting comments. Michael, you won’t be surprised to learn that my new project is on democracy initiatives in higher education. More directly, my SLAC is holding a 6.5 hour faculty retreat in May on “Exploring Academic Direction,” so I feel your reaccreditation pain.

    Barry, along the lines you describe, you may also be interested in Isaac Martin’s work on the expansion of consultation at the state level and Nicole Doerr’s forthcoming book entitled “Political Translation – A Critique of Democracy, Deliberation and Inequality in Social Movements.”

    Isaac Martin. 2015. “The Fiscal Sociology of Public Consultation.” Pp. 102-124 in Caroline Lee, Michael McQuarrie, and Edward Walker, eds. Democratizing Inequalities. New York University Press.

    Doerr, Nicole. 2012. “Translating democracy: how activists in the European Social Forum practice multilingual deliberation.” European Political Science Review. 4 (03), November, 361-384.



    April 30, 2015 at 1:50 pm

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