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…