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Some Limitations of Current Democratic Discussion*

Americans are privileged to enjoy perhaps the world’s strongest legal safeguards on the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly.  Yet as undeniably important as these safeguards might be, they do not by themselves ensure either widespread or robust democratic discussion.  This post describes some of the most signal limitations of contemporary American democratic discussion and explains how public discussion might address them.  It also includes a number of possibilities for addressing these limitations drawn from the experiences of Interactivity Foundation (IF) projects.

There are at least three reasons to engage in a careful review of the limitations of current democratic discussion:

  • It is important to challenge the assumption that the First Amendment by itself can yield the kind of “discussion” implicit in the notion of democracy.
  • Although we may share a strong intuitive sense that there is one “ideal” or “perfect” form of democratic discussion, there are in fact dozens of competing understandings of what democratic discussion might entail.  An understanding of what is currently amiss can help clarify choices among them and set priorities.
  • Charting the limitations of current democratic discussion is a useful practical and historical prelude to elaborating a positive vision of democratic discussion.

Limitations of Democratic Discussion.   I will not attempt here to pinpoint the causes of the various limitations I describe.  Most have multiple causes; others have causes that are difficult to discern or locate.  Nor do I make any attempt here to measure the varying extent or degree of the limitations I describe.  Nor do I rank them in importance.   Here they are simply described; the chart which follows highlights some of the ways in which each limitation aggravates others.

(1)   Lack of citizen participation 

There is a wealth of political science research extending back over some fifty years showing that American political participation is low in both absolute and relative terms.  This research also shows that the more demanding participation is, the lower the percentage of citizens engaging in it.  Thus, while research on the specifics of citizen involvement in democratic discussion is extremely scarce, it is reasonable to suppose that only a small proportion of the citizenry discusses policy concerns and an even smaller fraction discusses them in a way that avoids the other limitations described in this list.   Low levels of participation in democratic discussion are of special concern.  Low levels of citizen participation in democratic discussion deprive individual citizens of certain intrinsic benefits of democratic discussion: personal growth, community, enhanced sense of autonomy and control.  Low participation also deprives the public of the benefits of robust democratic discussion, primarily in the form of intelligent public policy.   Finally, low participation hurts citizens both individually and as members of a larger public because it limits the clarity and range of their individual and collective choices. 

(2)   Citizens are reluctant to fully speak their minds 

Even when citizens do participate in public discussions, they are often reluctant to fully speak their minds.  “Self-censorship” happens for many reasons, from the sinister (pressure from a powerful person or group) to the everyday (fear of ridicule).  And it may always be difficult to voice unpopular views.  Whatever the causes, when citizens unduly edit themselves, everyone loses.  The suppression of citizens’ concerns—even when self-administered in some sense—short-circuits democracy in a very direct way.  If citizens do not fully voice their concerns, they will go unaddressed or, if addressed, they will fail to be fully explored.

(3)   Predominance of self-interest

 Our liberal culture and political heritage confer great legitimacy on self-interest.  Our attachment to market arrangements and legal rights reflect this.  So, too, does our democratic history.  For familiar reasons, appeals to self-interest are almost always considered valid.  As well they should be: good public policy should in general be based on citizens’ interests.  But not all policy can be reduced to individual or even group interests.  In many cases “the public interest” is worth considering as well.  And there are many other concerns—emotions, purposes, needs, habits, and consequences among them—that cannot be reduced to “interests” at all.

(4)   Failure to address emerging policy concerns

 Contemporary democratic discussion typically focuses on solving immediate problems of one sort or another.  Although practical problems need to be addressed, an exclusive focus on problem-solving leaves little room in policy discussion for anticipatory thinking.  Immediate issues are debated.  Crises are addressed.  But all too often emerging concerns, possibilities for dealing with them, and the consequences of those possibilities are simply set aside as a luxury that thoughtful democratic discussion cannot afford.  Even apart from its interactions with the other limitations of democratic discussion, the predominance in democratic discussion of reactive thinking is a concern because it impoverishes discussion and thus deprives citizens of a fuller range of choices.  Discussing future possibilities, on the contrary, widens the range of the possible—and helps clarify choices as well. 

(5)   Frequently ignores practical considerations

 Americans’ famous “pragmatism” often turns out, ironically, to fall far short of being truly practical—in at least one sense.  True, democratic discussion typically devotes considerable attention to how or when to do something.  But perhaps as often other considerations that are every bit as practical—relating to what or why questions—get short shrift, if they are discussed at all.  Being practical is not only a matter of “getting something done” (or done efficiently or “on time”); it is also a matter of exploring what might be done and why to do it.  It is practical considerations of this latter sort that are often left out of public discussion.  Concerned as we rightly are with “doing it well,” we often fail to discuss whether there might be alternative possibilities and why we might be motivated to pursue them. 

(6)   Overly narrow

 Public discussion is narrowed anytime possible questions and answers to them are excluded from consideration.  Perhaps the two most common occasions on which this happens are when specialized or technical thinking predominates and when, despite robust discussion, there is no attempt to integrate the various contributions of participants.  For practical reasons, discussion can never be “complete,” but a concern arises whenever democratic discussion either excludes non-technical considerations or when even wide-ranging discussion yields no coherent alternatives.

 (7)   Bias toward facts

 Facts—in particular those subject to quantification—tend to dominate current policy discussions.  When they do, a great deal goes unexplored, even unrecognized, including the way in which:

  • Facts are “selected” from a logically infinite set of descriptions of “reality”—and that someone is therefore responsible for selecting them
  • Facts take on meaning in a larger context provided by theoretical or conceptual frameworks

Facts are hardly a bad thing.  Indeed, they are arguably quite necessary for governmental action.  But they probably obscure “the bigger picture” relevant to governance discussion as often as they clarify it because their limitations aren’t recognized and the frameworks which they inform and which inform them go unexamined.

(8)   Constrained information

Closely linked to our current fixation with facts is the belief that more information is the answer to all public policy concerns.  True, additional information can be helpful, sometimes even crucial.  But it is a mistake to think that information is by itself informative in any but the most trivial sense.  As journalists and intelligence officers know—information is only as good as its source.  When it comes to “information,” quality often counts at least as much as quantity.  And all information must be filtered, made sense of.  And “Constrained” information is information of questionable quality and/or information derived from questionable sources.  

The following Table summarizes points (1)-(8).  It lists each of the eight chief limitations of current democratic discussion and indicates some of the ways they interact, as well as some of the reasons we might be concerned about them as citizens of a democratic society.  The Table also highlights an important theme in what I’ve said so far: all of these limitations tend to obscure citizens’ choices and/or prematurely narrow the range of choices available to citizens, whether considered as individuals or as groups.  Citizens must repeatedly face the necessity of choice both as individual and as social beings, but they are better able to do so if their choices have first been expanded and clarified.

Current Limitations of Democratic Discussion

Description of Limitation

Why a Concern

Interactivity with Other Limitations

1.  Lack of Citizen  Participation
  • public denied benefits of citizen participation
  • citizens deprived of benefit of participation
  • prematurely narrows range of citizen choice
  • all other aspects of public discussion
2.  Citizens areReluctant to  Fully Speak Their Minds
  • citizens’ concerns not aired and thus tend to be ignored
  • prematurely narrows scope, richness of discussion
  • narrows range of citizen choice
  • narrows range of discussion
  • predominance of self-interest

 

3.  Predominance of  Self-interest
  • impairs consideration of “public interest”
  • prematurely narrows range of citizen choice

 

  • reluctance to speak openly
  • failure to address emerging policy concerns

à unduly narrows range of discussion

4.  Failure to Address Emerging Policy Concerns
  • narrows scope, richness of discussion
  • does not expand range of citizen choice

 

 

 

  • focus on self-interest in meeting immediate needs
  • narrows range of discussion
  • too much attention to “how” and “when”; too little attention to “what” and “why” (possibilities in the area of concern)
5.  Frequently Ignores Practical Questions
  • non-technical contributions viewed as lacking authority
  • fails to explore possibility of “public interest”
  • does not clarify citizens choices
  • lack of citizen participation
  • citizens reluctant to speak their minds
  • narrows range of discussion

 

6.  Overly Narrow
  • appeals to authority, excludes  or dissuades participation of non-“experts”
  • narrows scope, richness of discussion
  • ignores relationships
  • narrows range of citizen choice

 

  • lack of citizen participation
  • citizens reluctant to speak their minds
  • failure to address emerging policy concerns
  • practical considerations ignored
  • bias toward facts (lack of conceptual thinking)
7.  Bias towardFacts
  • fails to expand citizen choices
  • fails to clarify citizen choice

 

  • lack of citizen participation
  • citizens’ reluctance to full speak their minds
  • failure to address emerging policy concerns
  • ignores practical considerations
  • constrained information
8.  ConstrainedInformation
  • lack of clarity about choices
  • appeals to authority exclude or dissuade participation of non-“experts”)
  • narrows scope, richness of discussion
  • narrows range of citizen choice
  • lack of citizen participation
  • citizens’ reluctance to fully speak their minds
  • self-interest mutes other motives, including public interest

 

 

Possible Constructive Responses Based on the IF Discussion Process.  One way to view public discussion is as a response to limitations on current democratic discussion. 

 (1)  Lack of citizen participation

Public discussion that is also exploratory and developmental gets citizens involved.  Even if this participation is limited to a few hours, it may prove useful to citizens both a means of fulfilling their duties as active citizens and as individuals and members of various social groups who are called upon to make choices for themselves and others.

 (2)  Citizens are reluctant to fully speak their minds

Good facilitation and a relatively unhurried pace help citizens “speak out.”

 (3)  Predominance of self-interest

Careful facilitation and a deliberative pace also help ensure that public discussions, like IF sanctuary discussions, incorporate more than strategic calculations of self-interest.

 (4)  Failure to address emerging policy concerns

 The areas of concern that are chosen for IF projects are all “emerging” either in the sense that they have yet to figure prominently in democratic discussion—such as depression or human genetic technology—or because their social, political, or technical context is undergoing such profound change that fundamental rethinking involving the exploration, development, and testing of contrasting conceptual possibilities is in order—such as privacy, rewards for work, and education.

(5)  Ignores practical considerations

 IF’s public discussions incorporate “what” and “why” considerations very directly:

  • Participants in public discussion begin with the careful exploration and development of what might be at stake in an area of concern like “privacy and privacy rights” or “responsibility for health care.”
  • Participants then go on to explore and develop several contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing the area of concern.
  • The final step in public discussion is for panelists to describe what they see as the likely practical consequences of each of the possibilities that have been developed in sanctuary or that they have themselves developed in the second stage.

 (6)  Overly narrow

 Public discussions range very broadly, encouraged by both IF’s discussion Reports, the IF discussion process, and IF’s facilitators.

 (7)  Bias toward “facts”

Facts play very little role in IF’s public discussions, which unfold almost entirely at the level of conceptual exploration and development on the one hand and thoughtful practical speculation about future consequences on the other.

 (8)  Constrained information

 IF’s public discussion place no premium on “information,” per se.  What does count instead is trust, which both results from and further encourages transparency about the “sources” of participants’ views.  Our experience is that both the civility and relaxed pace of public discussions strongly encourage trust among participants.

 

 * For an earlier, expanded, version of this essay, see essay U-2 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf

 

 

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