Deliberative Democracy and its Limitations

by Ron Böhler (Author)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 10 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal



‘Enough of deliberation: Politics is about interests and power’, got Ian Shapiro excited shortly before the turn of the millennium about the growing literature on deliberative democracy (1999). It seems, as if his voice remains unheard: Deliberation is still considered to be more or less the royal road to counteract the democratic crises of modern societies among political theorists (Bohman 1998; Sanders 1997).

The emergence and rise of deliberation brought forth both sympathisers and sceptics. While its proponents regarded deliberation as a solution to de-politicising societies and people´s disenchantment with politics, the latter ones remained pessimistic about the adaptability of the concept in practice. In theory, it seemed to be beyond question that deliberation would do better in terms of citizens´ participation, legitimacy and accountability of the political outcome than its representative counterparts in Western societies. The idea was to give back an active role to the public in the process of policy-making, and as such it was a radical approach. The application of deliberative modes in reality showed some difficulties that were not foreseen by theory. Why would and should citizens suddenly engage in political decision-making? Are all voices heard or do some lag behind? How can deliberation be constructive and target-aimed instead of confronting and destructive? Moreover, the manifestations of deliberation were and are numerous and diverse and hardly manageable.

This essay starts by defining the term deliberative democracy along its own normative standards. Furthermore, the societal and political context in which deliberation as a form of governance by the people arose will be broached. The second section then addresses major shortcomings of deliberative thoughts, both theoretically and empirically. It will be shown that the formula adopted by Hauptmann, ‘deliberation = legitimacy = democracy’ (1999), is simplistic and even syllogistic. Taking into consideration the ‘booming diversity’ (Bächtinger et al. 2007, p. 485) of deliberative concepts it sometimes remains unclear whether the citizens still deliberate or already bargain. In other words: There is a huge difference between normative aspirations of deliberation theory on the one hand, and empirical evidence on the other. A prerequisite and similarity among all deliberative forms nevertheless is the existence of a lively public sphere, which guarantees communicative acting as well as the free exchange of information and opinions. For the sake of consistency, the essay will not dwell on all different procedures of deliberative democracy, but adopts a meta-theoretical focus by analysing the shortcomings of deliberation processes.


Deliberative democracy is defined as ‘a form of government in which free and equal citizens […] justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible’ (Gutmann and Thompson 2004, p. 7). Deliberation can thus be understood as the process in which citizens come together in order to exchange information and reasons on a given issue under scrutiny. This procedure is clearly characterised by a two-step process. At the first step, the individual reflects its own interests and preferences in the light of the arguments of others. Deliberation is based on mutual recognition as well as the demand for individual rationality. What matters in the best case, is the better argument. As a result, people then find a consensus. In case that people act irrational of do not follow the better argument for whatever reasons, the deliberative process is in danger. In order not to abort the deliberation, people have to agree on a compromise, which pay offs different interests. Dryzek expects people to seek for consensus within the group in order to serve the common good (Dryzek 2000, p. 31). He does, however, not explain why people were rather oriented towards the public good than towards their own personal preferences.

Elstub divided the historical development of deliberative thoughts reasonably into three main generations along their respective perception of the complexity of contemporary Western societies (2010). This is of importance as the idea of deliberation aimed at addressing the democratic crises in these countries, particularly the growing mistrust in representative models of democracy. The first generation, starting in the early 1990s brought out prominent supporters like Jürgen Habermas ad John Rawls. Dryzek labelled this early stage of deliberative engagement as ‘deliberative turn’ (2000, p. 1-7). Both tried to normatively legitimate deliberative democracy and its various forms, but ‘failed to take account of the sheer complexity of contemporary societies’ (Elstub 2010, p. 291). Their justification relied too much on Habermas´ theory of communicative action and rationality (Habermas 2000). Following this approach, intersubjective communication is only possible under the premise of mutual respect and the power of the more persuasive argument. In the eyes of man other proponents of deliberative democracy, this concept was way too narrow-minded. They refused the idea of reason exchange to be the one and only conceivable form of communication between citizens. The second generation did also, so argues Elstub, for the first time considered complexity as the nature of society and tried to modify deliberative theory appropriately (2010, p. 291). Supporters like James Bohman and Amy Gutmann did not believe in consensus as the likely outcome of deliberation any more (ibid.). A third generation of deliberationists, which emerged a few years ago, focused more on the nature of institutions that are necessary in order to reach consensus in practice. This generation is divided into a micro-level and a macro-level strands. The former favour ideally arranged deliberative processes in small-scaled structured arenas, while the latter focuses on random, unorganized and informal deliberations (Elstub 2010, p. 299). Additionally, an empirical turn accompanied this third generation of deliberative thinking. In the focus of theoretical discussion are more than ever proper scientific methods to study deliberation as well as analytical frameworks to bridge the gap between comparative research and political psychology, for instance (Bächtinger et al. 2007). All generations tried to eradicate the shortcomings and limitations of the former by confronting theory with reality. Habermas´ normative model, sometimes even seen as being ‘utopian’ (ibid., p. 487), more and more fell behind.

Deliberative democracy can be implemented in various forms and on different political levels of decision-making. The variety ranges from ‘public inquiries, right-to-know legislation, citizen juries, policy dialogues, impact assessment with public comment, regulatory negotiation, mediation and other kinds of third-party-facilitated conflict resolution’ (Dryzek 2000, p. 164) to the project of deliberative polling (Fishkin et al. 2000).


As already mentioned, deliberationists themselves tried to improve the theoretical foundations and empirical implications over the years since the very beginning. In the following section, the essay highlights these limitations of deliberative democracy, which contradict its own normative standards outlined in the first section. As Sanders points out convincingly, the rise and fall of deliberative democracy is far from being a question of its actual shape and realization. Even obstinate critics like her mention that deliberation delivers ‘legitimate – that is, morally justifiable and rationally produced – solutions to vexing political problems […] Hence deliberation has become a standard for the accomplishment of democracy’ (Sanders 1997, p. 347). What matters is in fact the societal and political environment in which deliberative procedures are implemented. (Late-)modern western democracies face the problem of high complexity and the shared dogma of efficient policy-making (Blühdorn 2007, p. 299).



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deliberative democracy limitations


  • Ron Böhler (Author)



Title: Deliberative Democracy and its Limitations