Public deliberation as a political ideal represents the next frontier in democracy building. Public deliberation calls for dramatic changes in how political decisions are made. Through deliberative processes, citizens and not elected representatives, make decisions on how to manage their own resources. These decisions are reached according to the exchange of reasons and arguments that appeal to shared objectives or values. Decisions resulting from deliberation are more informed and rational. Under deliberative processes, political truths emerge not from competing ideas but through dialogue between citizens. Deliberative processes produce information as a by-product, not a precondition for participation.
Anyone who has been following the healthcare reform process in the United States will say that deliberation is indeed just an ideal. Misinformation abounds. Arguments have been steeped in emotive ideology, not reason. How can we move from this kind of disruptive noise to meaningful dialogue?
First, process is important. To be fair, the town hall meetings where most of these conversations are taking place are not deliberative processes in the first place.
But also politics and power play a large role in producing this noise. Carolyn Hendriks describes what happens when interest-driven politics enter deliberative realms. No matter how neutral they may intend to be, deliberative spaces are just as vulnerable to capture and co-option by special interest groups. In these cases, narrow interest groups make the strategic choice to invest in the deliberative processes in order to have some form of influence over the outcome. By participating, they hope to not only advocate for a particular cause but also promote trust in their interests and legitimize their expertise.
But rather than dismiss the whole notion of deliberation based on this dynamic, she urges us to pay closer attention to them to further strengthen citizens’ impact. Given this tendency, she writes that deliberative processes can avoid "collapse into interest group pluralism" by giving interest groups an opportunity to participate on equal footing with other citizens in decision-making.
I think it is also important to recognize that citizens are not politically neutral entities. Each citizen represents multiple identities and roles. The deliberative process can also include citizens that represent certain interests. (Following a similar stream, Hendriks also urges us to pay closer attention to what we mean when we talk about civil society.)
So are special interest groups like wolves in sheep’s clothing, infringing upon and disrupting the purity of a citizen-centric space? I would argue that this may just be the very nature of the sheep.