Consensus remains a vital enterprise in the democratic system as it is essential in formulating policies, making collective decisions, effecting political processes, and defining political outcomes. A well-functioning democracy that embodies consensus provides wide-range of opportunities for citizens towards directing an equitable socioeconomic outcomes and political reforms thru policies and decisions that are need-responsive to both leaders and citizens. A weak democracy, however, that is fragmented of this quality deprives citizens and policymakers the capacity to advance socioeconomic progress and bureaucratic reforms (Mendoza, et al., 2015).
Deliberative democracy, as a growing thought in contemporary times, is concerned at arriving political consensus and collective decision-making through participatory and ‘consequential’ deliberation by citizens affected or their representatives. It emerged as a radical response to the conventional democratic thought that puts voting as a translation of citizens’ decisions and preferences which, according to theorists, does not actually translate it into a more legitimate action since risks of manipulation of voters’ choices are apparent and the process by which decisions are conceptualized is not ‘rational’ as a whole.
According to Gutmann & Thompson (2004), it was a gradual development from the need to justify the ‘dynamic’ decisions and actions made by representatives as publicly deliberated with the citizens participating. In a democracy where the fundamental assumption is that of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, it is only justifiable that no decision shall be made without the people themselves speaking.
Two principles are present in any conception of democracy – (i) popular control where decision-making is subject to control by all members; and (ii) political equality where all members have equal influence over decision-making (Beetham, 1999). Hence, the idea of public deliberation normatively defends these two principles.
Public deliberation, between and among representatives and their constituents, legitimizes the decision-making process by building up reasons, arguments and consensus, and consequently eliminating doubts from the multitude. Similarly in due process of law where both parties are given equal opportunities of presenting arguments, deliberative approach improves the chances of making sound judgement acceptable to the common good as the goal of democracy. Nevertheless, a consensus or a decision may have been reached or not, then at the very least opinions and equal opportunities of the minorities to influence the decision-making process have been met and heard.
However, given a growing complex society, it is definitely impractical to accommodate all voices of the crowd.
Theoretically, every citizen has the right for equal control and opportunity to influence decision-making. However, given a growing complex society, it is definitely impractical to accommodate all voices of the crowd. While almost all democracies in the world are representative which makes electives the major participants in deliberative democracy, voters still engage in public deliberation in various forums at a representative-citizen level particularly during consultation and assembly. At the end, the idea of representation gives the thought that representatives are expected to consult their constituents to have something to represent for from knowing what the people need and want. That is, deliberative democracy is a process of consultation and representation.
Further, the vastness of a population makes it not ideal for each person to speak for himself. If one can represent a segment of the population in public discourse, it is good and better than taking up time and wasting resources from limitless discussion. Since voting is recognized as insufficient to rationalize a decision alone, representation serves to fill this gap.
Quality in Representative Deliberation
Sometimes, the concern of democracy is not only the quantity or simply the votes as determinant of government action, but of the quality of decisions developed thru intellectual deliberations by representatives with varied interests. Interestingly, the variations of interests in a democracy is ideally inherent in strengthening collective decisions and forming consensus, thus legitimizing government actions as genuine translation of citizens’ choices and preferences.
In the words of Heywood (2015), “democracy fails to recognize that some people’s view are more worthwhile than others; that democracy upholds majority views at the expense of minority views and interests; that democratic rule tends to threaten individual rights by fuelling the growth of government; and that democracy is based upon the bogus notion of a public interest or common good, ideas that have been weakened by pluralistic nature of modern society.” Deliberative democracy certainly recognizes these lapses in the conception of democracy.
Critiques of Deliberative Democracy
While there is no argument against making representative democracies arrive at legitimate decisions through public deliberation, however, doubts remain on the orientation of representatives participating in deliberative institutions. In contemporary democracies, not all representatives were elected genuinely given the fact that of ignorance of the majority of electorate especially evident in poor countries where the people are deprived of information. Now, excitingly, considering the quality and rationality of decision-making, are the participants, the representatives or citizens, qualified or rational in making choices regardless of ignorance and literacy?
One concern of democracy is the development of autonomy where people themselves are making rational collective decision thru a deliberative setup. However, since “autonomy is not merely self-rule, it must be based on knowledge and reason”. But the question is, “do people vote based on knowledge and reason?” (The Value of Democracy, 2017). Unfortunately, this is not the case. Numerous scholarly studies describe that different behavioral patterns of citizens and representatives across cultures and societies exist in varied forms of partisanships such as party or ethnic affiliation and ideological orientation. Much less, in reality, are decided based on what is the common good.
Representation, Division of Labor & Political Inequality
Early thinker Plato introduced in his Myth of Metals the concept of specialization in statesmanship, otherwise called the division of labor. Plato posits that not all men share similar expertise, and that men are not born equal. Thus, social structure is necessary where one performs what he is good at so that results will be of best quality. Similarly, in democracy as a whole, there are things that even “highly educated person cannot judge a good decision” because simply it is only those familiar with the available facts, who are apparently the leaders, who can make a good decision. Hence, representation is an alternative in a seemingly ‘inexpert’ citizens.
Critics of deliberative democracy argue that it disregards the very value of democracy which is political equality. That is, deliberation “relies upon forms of communication that privilege those already dominant” resulting in an “unequal influence in the deliberative settings” since the capabilities of deliberative participants are not equal in terms of language use and argumentative talents (Elstub, 2005). Further, the complexities of the society such as diverse interests, citizen’s ignorance, and different deliberative skills make it impractical for deliberative democracy to thrive.
While deliberative polls, voting feedbacks and education increase deliberation by reducing ignorance, however, deliberative decision-making is time consuming especially during emergency situations where actions are earnestly needed. Public deliberations is a no ending process as decisions are dynamic over a period of time. Resources are wasted in public deliberations where the public just mostly doesn’t care or simply asks repetitive questions.
Increasing Deliberation & The Diversity of Interests
Increasing public deliberation warrants the need for an ‘intelligence’ department which will hear, listen and communicate to the people by integrating itself among them. As Niccolo Machiavelli says in The Prince “live amongst your people” so that you may know them. Furthermore, limiting many diverse interests present in a deliberative setting into a number of groups or parties makes it easier to debate and rationalize a decision. Public deliberation may be within a set of conflicting ideologies or any different division but with collective interest and not based on individualism. Representation from various segments aside from district or constituent representation decreases the disvalue of political inequality.
New Media as Virtual Public Sphere
With the advancement of internet and the evolution of new media, social media as a medium of public sphere serves as a manifestation of deliberative democracy where exchange of ideas and opinion across topics is happening online through these platforms. New media, in general, is becoming an information source, communication medium, and virtual public sphere. It has been instrumental in deciding important political events in several countries around the world. Simply, there are no boundaries for public deliberation online. However, risks of credibility, accountability, propaganda, and unregulated public are apparently inherent with it which makes it still unreliable sphere of deliberation.
In conclusion, deliberative democracy certainly merits collective decision-making and political consensus thru the building blocks of reasons and arguments of citizens and representatives. Doubts of legitimacy are eliminated when the people themselves have spoken. While contemporary democracy cannot accommodate all voices of multitude, representation makes deliberation easier and more rational, individualism limited, and subjects of discussion lessened; thus possibility of chaos and an unreachable consensus decrease. Given the complexities in democracy, deliberative system warrants eliminating risks associated with it through strengthened representation, limited interests, equal opportunities to information, and increased connection between leaders and citizens. #
-  Mendoza, R. et al. (2015). Building inclusive democracies in ASEAN. Anvil Publishing, Inc., Mandaluyong City, Philippines.
-  Gutmann, A. & Thompson, D. (2004). Why deliberative democracy? Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
-  Heywood, A. (2015). Political theory: An introduction. 4th Ed. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, United States.
-  MacKenzie, I. (2005). Political concepts: A reader and guide. Edinburgh University Press, George Square, Edinburgh.