Rangoni and Vandamme: Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?

“Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?” is the title of a recent books review by Sacha Rangoni and Piere-Étienne Vandamme on the Social Europe website. The review deals with three books discussing “deliberative democracy”:

  • Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (eds), Sciences Po, 2021,
  • Deliberative Democracy, Ian O’Flynn, Polity Press, 2021,
  • Deliberative Mini-Publics, Nicole Curato et al, Bristol University Press, 2021.

The books, to the extent the review reflects their contents, seem to largely cover well-trodden group. We again meet the standard “for” and “against” arguments regarding “deliberation” and allotted bodies. Those presented in the article are:

  • “[W]e should all exchange arguments before we reach the best collective decision, and that ideal lies at the heart of the deliberative conception of democracy.”
  • “[This is], some critics have argued, a hopeless ideal, founded on a naïve and unappealing understanding of politics, in which people do not have strong political convictions and would prefer consensual decisions over conflict.”
  • Deliberative mini-publics serve to control the anarchy of public discussion. They foster “genuine deliberation” and “allow one to measure empirically whether people do change their minds in light of convincing arguments”.
  • Four “essential principles” for mini-publics: “enforcing norms of inclusiveness, creating conditions for the equal consideration of reasons, demonstrating the integrity of the process and enabling informed decision-making”.
  • “This […] solution, however, comes at a high cost — the disenfranchisement of all the citizens who are not selected for the mini-public. […] They are faced with representatives whom they have not chosen and whom they cannot send back home if they are unsatisfied with the way they are represented.”
  • “We have no guarantee that different mini-publics dealing with the same issue would reach similar conclusions, given the contingent nature of the deliberative process. Some arguments might not be expressed in one; some participants might be more influential in another; some alternative options might fail to be considered.”
  • “Nevertheless, […] when a properly organised mini-public reaches a quasi-consensual opinion after free deliberation, we do have strong reasons to trust that most citizens placed in similar conditions of deliberation would form the same opinion.”
  • “[There is a] lack of motivation for participation on the part of many citizens who are randomly selected. The acceptance rate is usually very weak — often less than 10% — and it is unclear yet that the majority of citizens want to take part in such processes.”
  • “[T]he acceptance rate varies with some socio-demographic characteristics, statistical representativeness is very difficult to achieve, even with quotas.”
  • “Deliberation, however, is not reducible to mini-publics – […] no single institution can realise the aims of deliberative democracy. [S]ome institutions or practices [e.g., parliamentary debates] which are not directly deliberative themselves can play a deliberative role.”
  • “What matters […] whether the democratic system, taken as a whole, encourages the confrontation of a wide diversity of opinions before decisions are made. [This] was occluded by the rise and influence of mini-publics.”
  • “The segregation of audiences into impermeable information bubbles is a well-known problem. […] This challenge also reminds us of the democratic value of publicly-financed, yet independent, media.”
  • “Beyond the media, political parties also play a pivotal role in the deliberativeness of a democratic system. On the one hand, they are needed to make political debates accessible and comprehensible for citizens. [… Yet, p]arties remain partly private associations whose freedom should be respected but some degree of internal pluralism could at least be encouraged by state regulation. In addition to this, parliamentary rules could be adapted to reduce party discipline in legislative deliberations and votes.”

It seems somewhat surprising that 2021 saw three books devoted to covering again what is by now a decades-old discussion. It seems (again, based on the review) that unlike Landemore’s Open Democracy (2020) these books are not about offering a(n ambiguously) far-reaching reform proposal and instead focus their energies on dredging the this-but-that “deliberative democracy” argumentative quagmire that has accumulated over the decades. Possibly, the motivation is that the steam which has been building behind the “citizen assembly / mini-publics” process has made it timely to pour the old wine into new bottles and try to make sure that no one stays quite sober.

Rather than going again over the merits and shortcomings of the old arguments, it is more useful to examine how and why the “deliberative democracy” turn has occurred and its uses and effects over the last 4 decades or so in which it has absorbed not insignificant attention in Political Science and beyond.

Rangoni and Vandamme begin their article with following starting point:

A few decades ago, a change of paradigm occurred within political science and political theory. While political studies tended to focus attention on power dynamics and electoral results, theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Jane Mansbridge, Bernard Manin, Jon Elster and Joshua Cohen invited us to pay more attention to the formation of political opinion through discussions. Unsatisfied with the prevailing minimalist and elitist understanding of democracy, they thought that democratic procedures acquired legitimacy by allowing for the inclusion and confrontation of a diversity of perspectives before collective decisions were made.

What this description obviously lacks is a social background for this “turn”. Why would the established elitarian dogma, which has been gaining ground at least since Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” and has been firmly in place since Schumpeter’s “[O]ther Theory of Democracy”, suddenly give way to a vague competitor which is based on rather obviously shaky ideals?

The timing indicates that the force behind the change are the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s. The outcome of those struggles was a deepening of Western society’s ideological commitment to democratic values. The arguments showing that elections are essentially an “elitarian” (i.e., oligarchical) mechanism were now in conflict with society’s new-found democratic commitments. The notion that society is democratic because of the benevolence of its elites was now an embarrassment. The “deliberative demcoracy” turn was an a way in which academia responded to this tension.

It was not, of course, the only conceivable response. A more straightforward way to deal with the newly introduced norms would have been to keep the positive parts of the elitarian theory (which asserted that electoralism was a form of oligarchy) while getting rid of its normative aspect (that asserted that such a situation was desirable). But of course such a direction would be dangerous politically, leading to a confrontation with established political power. It would also risk further radicalization of society leading, potentially at least, to skepticism toward the role and privileged status of academics within the oligarchical system.

The strength of the theory of “deliberative democracy” is exactly its vagueness and obvious problems. (The same can be said, of course, to a similar response, that of emphasizing “accountability”.) While a soft foundation can serve academics as a rich field for discussion and “research”, it can yield no clear path forward, either theoretical or in application. It thus produces no threat to the status quo.

And indeed, the decades in which “deliberative democracy” has been discussed have produced no prominent institutional reform proposals which could serve as a focus of popular energies. Even better, now, that public dissatisfaction with the status quo has built up to crisis levels, “deliberative democracy” may offer a way to dissipate and divert public attention. We now have ready-made, time tested arguments offered by credentialed experts which can be used to counter any proposals to democratize society through sortition. We can keep rehashing the arguments about representation, accountability, participation, motivation, consensus vs. agonism, and so on and so forth. All the while we can pretend that the status quo, while not perfect, and certainly justifying more academic research, can continue to serve as a safe fallback position for maintaining a better-than-all-alternatives social order.

13 Responses

  1. I’ve tracked a few parallel historic developments over the last 30-some years that are not noted in this article due to its narrow focus on deliberation in democratic politics. I think some important insights and opportunities regarding deliberative democracy appear when these other interwoven trends are considered. Here are some of the trends I’m referring to:

    Developments of sophisticated and diverse group process insights, methodologies and theories (notably in the realm of conflict studies) in light of which generic references to “deliberation”, “facilitation”, etc., can be misleading; a particular generic reference may hold true for certain methodologies but not for others. The range of possibilities and evidence in this realm reaches far beyond the assumptions that seem to underlie much of this article.
    Developments in understanding individual and collective cognitive dynamics, including from neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and other human sciences. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Landemore et al), I have seen little reference in political theory to such emerging understandings about the nature, varieties, limits, distortions and, especially, potentials of human thought, feeling, perception, awareness, intelligence and wisdom.
    The evolution of the fields of organizational (and community) development and transformation, including the sub-fields of leadership, collaboration, sustainability, etc. The phrase “getting the whole system in the room (or conversation)”, for example, seems far more common in organization consultancy circles than in political theory and practice. Why? (Closely related to this are emerging understandings of economics and its many relationships with human and natural ecologies, which create contexts for what happens in organizations and communities, in terms of challenges, necessities, and opportunities. The need to operate in those contexts is a major driver of developments in 1, 2 and 3.)
    Developments in the sciences of evolution, complexity, chaos, and living systems, most notably the nature of complex adaptive systems – which includes both the complex systems involved in the challenges we face AND the complex systems involved in addressing those challenges. Significantly, these studies also generate profound understandings about probability, emergence and self-organization. (Some theoreticians and consultants also include quantum dynamics in this cluster of studies).
    Developments in computer science and communication technologies, including machine learning (AI), networks, mapping, big data, crowdsourcing, and more.

    This is not a comprehensive list, by a long shot. But I’m seeing all five of these rapidly developing fields of study and practice becoming increasingly intertwined, coevolving, and mutually influential. The level of sophistication emerging where these fields overlap is only beginning to influence academic political discourse, and then primarily among visionaries. It has spread much faster among practitioners – often under rubrics like “collective intelligence” and “groupware”. They see an opportunity space generated by the nature of human interactions being so varied, flexible and filled with possibilities for both desirable and undesirable outcomes. Process designers, consultants and facilitators can succeed to the extent they can produce desirable outcomes of particular kinds for different clients. So within this co-evolutionary trend incentives are strong to innovate towards greater results – including, fortunately for us all, deeper, broader, more potent and dynamic forms of consensus (shared understandings, shared orientations, and shared actions) in groups, organizations, and communities.

    The application of such developments for politics are obvious and profound, once we expand our attention outside of the traditional paradigms of politics. The incorporation of such developments into political theory has been slow, I suppose because the established intellectual camps are still debating in old paradigmatic boxes that have not evolved to incorporate the rapidly developing understandings and evidence emerging from the activities in 1-5 above.

    My own work has been outside of academic boxes, for better and worse. Although I realize I lack certain credentials and legitimacy within the academic realm, I have been following, writing about, and working with the emergence of this larger picture – painted by these rapidly unfolding developments – for thirty years. Given the scope and evolution of humanity’s collective challenges – and the obvious roles of politics and governance in meeting (or failing to meet) those challenges – I wonder how we might supercharge the co-evolution of these trends in wise directions in the realms of politics and governance, in both theory and practice. I believe doing so would make deliberative democracy much less of “a hopeless ideal”, while moving it into a more advanced stage in its own evolutionary trajectory.

    There’s much more to say about all this (including relevant references), but this is already too long (I apologize). I’m curious to hear responses.

    Coheartedly, Tom Atlee Co-Intelligence Institute The Wise Democracy Project >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Tom,

    Could you give us a little more detail on that? Does your project have a website?

    Oliver Milne, Northern Constitution Project

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Oliver,

    I have massive detail to offer; I wouldn’t know where to start, without a specific question to respond to. But here’s a taste:

    The Wise Democracy Project website is wd-pl.com. It doesn’t explicitly cover the five items I listed in my comment; in fact, my comment is the first time I have articulated that particular cluster of fields although, as I said, they have been context for my work for decades. I greatly appreciated the stimulus to articulate it! Probably the closest thing to that list on the wd-pl.com site is my Sources of Wisdom essay at wd-pl.com/sources-of-wisdom/, especially when combined with the resources sections of certain wise democracy patterns (see list of links at wd-pl.com/pattern-list-v2/ – e.g. numbers 38, 39, 44, 45, 72, 77, 88, 92 and so many others = LOTS of detail…).

    Another website of mine has a page (from 2015) co-intelligence.org/CIbooks.html listing a number of major books that have shaped my thinking (scroll down), that relate to my comment above.

    My blog tomatleeblog.com is a third site which covers many of the fields on my comment list from many angles. It’s Tag Cloud may serve as a sort of index.

    Let me know if you have specific questions.

    Tom Atlee

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom, Oliver,

    In my view, the supposed wealth and sophistication of ideas Tom is alluding to is counter-peoductive. If this knowledge is indeed valid and relevant, its breadth and depth make it inaccessible to most people. This paradoxically implies that democratic politics is only accessible to experts. The alternative is that the supposed “knowledge” is in fact obfuscation and a distraction.

    The ideas Tom is offering seem, then, to be quite similar to those of “deliberative democracy”, in function if not in substance. They may be useful as a source of intellectual employment and capital, but they do not serve to promote democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m puzzled, Yoram. Which ideas are you referring to? Are you saying, for example, that systems sciences should not be brought into citizen deliberations because they may be hard to understand for some people? Are you saying that group processes have not evolved or multiplied over the last century? I’m honestly unsure how to respond.

    You say “If this knowledge is indeed valid and relevant, its breadth and depth make it inaccessible to most people.” I’ve always thought that one of the great and vital challenges of deliberative democracy is to actually help the citizen deliberators understand whatever knowledge they need in order to make informed decisions on the issue they’re considering. That’s what the briefings and expert witnesses are all about in Citizen Assemblies, Citizens Juries, Consensus Conferences, and so on. In my wise democracy pattern language, the patterns “Expertise on Tap (Not on Top)” https://www.wd-pl.com/30-expertise-on-tap-not-on-top-v2/ and “Bringing Understanding to Life” https://www.wd-pl.com/5-bringing-understanding-to-life-v2/ speak to that challenge. Most deliberative designers I’m connected to see including relevant expertise as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

    You say “The ideas Tom is offering seem, then, to be quite similar to those of ‘deliberative democracy’, in function if not in substance.” I agree, although i’m not sure what your “in function if not in substance” refers to. I consider my work to be part of – and especially congruent with the aspirations of – the deliberative democracy movement, to the extent that movement is concerned with increasing the quality of decision-making in participatory governance systems. Deliberative democrats help move the focus of the public’s epistemic role in collective decision-making from public opinion to public judgment. I’m trying to encourage us to explore what it would mean to expand public judgment into public wisdom (where “wisdom” is defined as “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for longterm broad benefit”).

    So when you follow your statement above with “They [Tom’s ideas] may be useful as a source of intellectual employment and capital, but they do not serve to promote democracy” I’m left speechless. You SEEM to be saying that speaking to the need to consider complex ideas (which often equates to “science”) is inherently undemocratic and just promotes the financial, status and ego interests of elite intellectuals. While I acknowledge that much elite knowledge is obfuscated for exactly those purposes, I believe the real issue here is whether that knowledge is needed for wise decision-making on a particular issue (such as climate change) and, if it is, how can we help citizens understand it when they are participating in making those decisions.

    I think specialized knowledge is not a deal-breaker for deliberative democracy, but rather a challenge to be tackled. It’s quite similar to the challenge of polarization which, left to itself, makes citizen deliberation a farce, but for which our DD movement/field has many design interventions and facilitation solutions that vastly reduce its impact or even turn it into a resource (ref patterns like “Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively” wd-pl.com/88-using-diversity-and-disturbance-creatively-v2/ and “Metabolizing Polarization” wd-pl.com/51-metabolizing-polarization-v2/).

    So, with all due (and tremendous) respect, I’m truly puzzled and would love more clarity about where you are coming from.


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  6. may be it is in line with what I call the evolution towards “sortition technocracy”. The “system” and the “outcome” are both very important. If the “system” is not understandable the trustworthiness is non existent. And with that “legitimacy” (acceptabbility).


    Even if it delivers an acceptable “representativeness” in my view it is out and above any evaluation and control. In that case it is what I called the evolution towards a “sortition technocracy” and I doubt that this will be accepted (legitimacy) when decisions become important.
    As far as I understand the only evaluation for “acceptable representativeness” is performed by James Fishkin’s DP with the (scientific) evaluation of two groups, one participants and one non participants with questionnaires prior to the start of the panel. I don’t find any check for representativeness in this work so far.


    Fair algorithms for selecting citizens’ assemblies
    Globally, there has been a recent surge in ‘citizens’ assemblies’1, which are a form of civic participation in which a panel of randomly selected constituents contributes to questions of policy. The random process for selecting this panel should satisfy two properties. First, it must produce a panel that is representative of the population. Second, in the spirit of democratic equality, individuals would ideally be selected to serve on this panel with equal probability2,3. However, in practice these desiderata are in tension owing to differential participation rates across subpopulations4,5. Here we apply ideas from fair division to develop selection algorithms that satisfy the two desiderata simultaneously to the greatest possible extent: our selection algorithms choose representative panels while selecting individuals with probabilities as close to equal as mathematically possible, for many metrics of ‘closeness to equality’.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting, Paul. Thanks for your comment and link. What I see in what you’ve shared is a thread of evolution WITHIN the deliberative democracy field/movement, which seeks to improve the representativeness and legitimacy/trustworthiness of the selection processes used to include citizens in minipublics. The thread you highlight joins the efforts to address the capacity of those invited/chosen to realistically participate – providing child care if they’re parents, video briefings if they are illiterate, pay to compensate for lost income, and so on, as well as addressing more than the usual demographic diversity (e.g., not just race and gender, but epistemic diversity, too). I see these as leading-edge inquiries in the practice of DD.

    But I’m not sure what you mean by “sortition technocracy”. It sounds like “rule by unaccountable sortition geeks”, which is probably not what you mean. Perhaps you are pointing out problems presented by public ignorance of the nuances involved in different approaches to random selection? Can you help me/us understand the point you are making and how it fits in with this comment thread. I’m curious.


    Liked by 1 person

  8. hello Tom, I call it “uncontrollable and impossible to evaluate”. That is why I thought it fits in this thread, but sorry if it isn’t.


  9. Tom,

    Specialized knowledge in particular policy domains is one thing. You are claiming that only specialists can set up a democratic system. This is a contradiction in terms. If politics can only be properly understood by experts then democracy is impossible.

    > systems sciences

    Isn’t this the modern version of Plato’s philosophy of statesmanship? That special knowledge which allows the elite to properly manage the state, and which the hoi polloi lack. Can you share any important insights from “systems sciences”?


  10. Yoram,

    I’m surprised by this response, Yoram. It seems like a bit of a straw man, since I never claimed – nor do I believe – that only specialists can set up a democratic system.

    On the other hand, like dozens of other fields of social practice, there are many aspects which can be improved through knowledge (which here includes know-how, theory, study, sharing knowledge, research and development, etc.). Some people spend (much of) their lives in such pursuits, and become thereby “experts”. That doesn’t mean that they are the only people qualified to “set up a democratic system”. Engaged sensibly, though, they are a vital resource – both for each other and for We the People as we seek systems that serve our needs and aspirations. I’m not sure what’s so objectionable about that perspective, especially among this community of specialists in sortition, a valuable realm of democratic expertise.

    You ask me to “share any important insights from ‘systems sciences’”. Perhaps the simplest (and best known) systems insight is the old principle of feedback, specifically positive (magnifying) and negative (balancing) feedback dynamics. A system (or democratic design) that has positive feedback in its power dynamics will generate more power for the group(s) involved (e.g., “the rich get richer by using their wealth to influence political decision-makers” or “deliberative democracy can become stronger by engaging former citizen deliberators in advocating for and overseeing the broader, more powerful use of citizen deliberative councils”). Or, considering “negative” feedback, building arguments for including a randomly selected “citizen legislature” as a particularly potent form of “balance of powers” in governance systems. (Note that “magnifying” feedback can also be negative, as in the poor or disabled getting poorer or more constrained because of systemic magnifiers of poverty or limits on access.)

    Another simple – but different – example of systems understanding relates to the conversational processes used in deliberation. This one involves understanding the difference between arranging deliberators in rows (especially in chairs bolted to the floor) facing a stage or podium versus arranging them in a circle (or circles) or semi-circles or leaving the seats movable. The dynamics implicit in each of those designs shapes the nature of the interactions between (and power relationships among) the participants. Some people have ideological attachments to one or another of these designs, but the fact is that they each have gifts and limitations relevant for different applications and purposes. This kind of design thinking is an application systems knowledge.

    Creating groups or activities through the use of elections (which variation?) or sortition (which variation?) or appointment (how and by whom?) or volunteer (anyone who shows up) all have implications for the nature of the relationships within the resulting group or activity and between it and any related groups or institutions, as well as with the larger community it was derived from. This integrated inquiry into the nature of entities (individual and collective) and their relationships to each other and the overall (whole) realities and dynamics that emerge from all that – that’s systems thinking.

    Likewise, there is a profound difference between doing deliberation as an event vs as an ongoing iterative process. Iteration plays a fundamental role in chaos and complexity sciences – from emergence to “the butterfly effect” to the dynamics of learning. The facts that most citizen deliberations (minipublics of various kinds) are held as events, and that discussions about the need for deliberative institutions designed for iterative consideration of specific issues are rare (or considered radical) suggests a lack of understanding of complex adaptive systems. It doesn’t mean that only experts can design democratic systems or that deliberative events are useless. It just means that some systems knowledge exists which could enhance the functionality of those systems if it were taken into account.

    I hope these examples show how systems thinking/sciences relate to the design of democratic processes. There are many other examples that could be raised. And the use of systems thinking “in policy domains”, as you put it, is another profoundly important topic we could explore.


    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Tom,

    > I never claimed – nor do I believe – that only specialists can set up a democratic system.

    You seem to be ambiguous about what it is that you do claim. Maybe this discussion would be more productive if you explain in broad terms how it is exactly that you envision that the expertise that you refer to would be applied.

    As for whether such an expertise even exists: None of the insights you mention I would call scientific. Some are very generic and ill-defined ideas which lead to no particular conclusions (“feedback”), others are trivial (arranging chairs). The difference between what you call “events” and “iterative processes” (what I would call bodies that are determined from the outside and self-determined bodies) is indeed crucial. And I am happy that we found such important common ground. But again this idea is not scientific in the sense that it does not grow out of some deep systematic body of knowledge requiring a long time to master. It is simply an intuitive notion, even if a crucial one. Any citizen can understand this notion, and indeed a majority of the citizens must come to understand it if our society is to be democratized.


  12. […] proponents of “deliberative democracy” have spent decades dredging a this-but-that argumentative quagmire that has yielded nothing of either theoretical or practical value for democracy. One of the […]


  13. […] the Gilets Jaunes protest in France. Academics have continued publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of […]


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