WHAT price deliberative democracy after the Trump bombshell? What price democracy itself? No doubt there are many reasons why Trump’s quivering finger will soon be on the nuclear button. But one reason surely emerges from the new book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels called Democracy for Realists – Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government This book poses a real threat not only to deliberative democracy but for the traditional view of democracy, which they describe a folk theory. This theory has it that ideally voters are supposed to choose leaders and parties that most closely match their carefully considered political position.
The authors argue that most people pay scant regard to politics, are woefully ignorant about issues and policies. Political ideology plays little role in elections and voters are blindly driven by other factors like group loyalties which are often formed in childhood. It is often argued that voter apathy is a modern phenomenon; that, while the electorate often fell short of the ideal in the past, it is much worse now. In the authors’ view there was never a golden age of genuine voter participation.
Deliberative democracy receives short shrift. It is simply a ‘highly idealistic’ version of folk democracy that is ‘significantly undermined by what has been learned since the Enlightenment about human cognition and social life’. People often fall silent in a deliberative setting allowing the ‘better-educated and more prominent citizens dominate’, thus entrenching social and economic inequality. In short, they argue that the gap between folk theory and deliberative democracy on one hand and reality on the other is so vast that we should ditch the theory and look for a new one.
This is powerful stuff but as George Monbiot says the weakness of the book is that it concentrates mostly on American politics: “Had the authors examined popular education groups in Latin America, participatory budgets in Brazil and New York, the fragmentation of traditional parties in Europe and the movement that culminated in Bernie Sanders’s near miss, they might have discerned more room for hope. This is not to suggest that the folk theory of democracy comes close to reality anywhere, but that the situation is not as hopeless as they propose.”
From a purely logical point of view, the nature of the evidence they adduce to support their case is such that they can only draw out trends and likelihoods, so their conclusion appears to be stronger than the evidence supports. And while it may be true that the electorate, apart from a small clique of people in the know, more often than not fall well short of the ideal voter, I think that they have failed to show conclusively that genuine political engagement among the public has always been equally bad or that it will always be so.
There is also, I think, some cherry-picking of the evidence. For example, in a fascinating and much more nuanced study of the available evidence by Tali Mendelberg called The Deliberative Citizen: Theory and Evidence deliberative democracy comes under close scrutiny. She too acknowledges many of the problem highlighted by Achen and Bartels, including the influence of group loyalties over ideology. But she also says that such groups can be ‘harnessed for more deliberative ends’. And while she is also concerned about the competence of the general public to deliberate – bearing mind that most people are woefully ignorant about politics and their thinking is incoherent – she also suggests that ‘deliberation may go some way toward remedying these deficits’. The authors are certainly aware of Mendelberg because another of her studies is quoted, but they have chosen to ignore this one, which gives a much more balanced appraisal of deliberative democracy.
Despite these problems Democracy for Realists really does provide a challenge to deliberative democracy and it’s view that it is the ‘folk theory that props up elite rule, and it is unrepresentative elites that most profit from the convenient justifications it provides for their activities’, is chilling. Nevertheless, while I’m sure members of Compass will endorse their call for greater economic and social equality to boost the democratic process, that is not incompatible with greater deliberation, especially at local level. In the wake of the Trump triumph it would be reckless to reject deliberation completely.