Mansbridge: Beyond Adversary Democracy

An interview with Jane Mansbridge in the Harvard Gazette.

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?

MANSBRIDGE: I attended the deliberative polling “America in One Room” in September 2019. In our group of 12, we had some very right-wing Trump supporters and very left-wing folks from the East Coast. But the process of coming together to work on a question allowed each group to build a sense of a common purpose. I remember that people in my group were almost doing high fives as they were agreeing on the questions and the wordings. Another thing that happens in a small group is that you can speak from personal experience in a way that is direct, unpretentious, and not preachy or ideological, which can be a very powerful way to break down barriers. The third thing that happens is that sometimes people begin to change their minds publicly in the group. This has ripple effects because when people see others open to change, they too become more willing to be more open to taking in new arguments. The fourth thing is that because everyone is working with the same background materials, they come to agree on the same facts. Those background materials are very important because they’re balanced and provide far more information to people than what they might have gotten through their own networks or news bubbles. That’s a big intellectual breakthrough in the polarization dynamic. Agreeing on the same facts is rare on some issues today. The process of citizens’ assemblies gives people a common basis of facts to work from. And the last thing is that people are just registering their opinion; they’re not voting, as in a town meeting.

It’s extremely impressive to go to a citizens’ assembly and interact with people you would never have bumped into in the course of your everyday life. You get an emotional sense of effective democracy. Everybody gets the feeling that they’re doing something somewhat historic, extremely unusual, and worthy because it’s very expensive to conduct, both in time and money. The seriousness of the endeavor opens people’s minds and allows them to think differently from the way they think in their normal, dismissive, everyday way.

GAZETTE: What do these citizens’ assemblies say about the legitimacy of democracy?

MANSBRIDGE: In the work that I do, I stress the fact that we’re going to need more and more government coercion as we go forward as a more and more interdependent society. Our structures of democracy, which basically evolved in the 18th century, are not sufficient to carry the load of the government coercion that we now need. We need much more robust democratic mechanisms than what we have. The structure of elections gives you a clear majority that is legitimate, in almost every case, but it’s not sufficient. If we think about climate change and the tremendous burdens we need to take on to reduce global warming, it’s clear that the world is not ready to take on those burdens and that our democracies don’t have the capacity to create legitimate decisions on that scale yet. We need to have supplements to democracy.

One Response

  1. Masbridge makes a convincing case for the transformative effect of small-group deliberation on the participants, especially regarding the search for common ground. But she doesn’t explain how this might be utilised as a system of democratic representation (i.e. reaching beyond the participants to the general population). Many of the examples she gives — same-sex marriage, abortion and Brexit — are binary in nature. She claims that the Brexit CA uncovered a rule that allows member countries to deport EU immigrants who have not worked for 3 months and that this could have swung the referendum in favour of Remain. But if that were the case then the Remain advocates would have made a big issue of it during the campaign (they didn’t, because voters were concerned about immigrants competing for jobs, not unemployment benefits). And her choices would also suggest that she views CAs as a buttress for the elite liberal zeitgeist. (Our own Nick Gruen has been clear that his support for a Brexit CA was because he didn’t like the outcome of the referendum.)

    At the end of the interview Mansbridge references her address to the American PSA:

    Legitimate coercion is the fundamental problem of governance. How can large, highly interdependent structures produce sufficient legitimate coercion to solve their collective action problems?

    (Mansbridge, 2014, p.9, my emphasis)

    But it’s not at all clear how CAs that generate support for the liberal agenda could become an instrument of democratic legitimacy in any sense other than a cover for coercion. I find this truly alarming.


    Mansbridge, J. (2014). What is political science for? Perspectives on Politics, 12(1), 8-17.


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