Book Club Launch: Summary of Foreward & Intro from Martin Carcasson
Hello all, and welcome to the first NCDD book club. My name is Martín Carcasson, and I’m a communication studies professor at Colorado State University and the director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD), which I founded in 2006 to serve as an impartial resource to the northern Colorado community and provide capacity for a wide variety of deliberative events.
I’ve been asked to start us off in the discussion of the new book Democratizing Deliberation by summarizing the Foreword by Kettering President David Mathews and the introduction by Derek Barker, Noelle McAfee, and David McIvor, who also serve as the book’s overall editors.
So what I have here is a rundown of each selection including some of my initial thoughts. As Sandy requested, I included quite a few quotes I thought people may want to respond to directly.
One brief note of self-disclosure… The CPD is a part of the NIF network, which is connected to the Kettering Foundation, which has published this book. I have worked closely with them and completed research for them over the last 6 years. David Mathews’ work has certainly influenced my conception of deliberation, and I’ve worked closely with Derek Barker as well. I’m not here to cheerlead, but I thought I would be transparent about that as we get this conversation going.
Let’s start with David Mathews’ foreword
Mathews starts it off by writing: “Democracy has many meanings, and debating its meaning is one of the characteristics of a democracy” (vii). Seemed a particularly apt way to begin NCDD’s first book club book.
The foreword provides an overview of the Kettering Foundation’s perspective and experiences researching and supporting deliberative efforts since the 1970s. Mathews explains how their understanding of deliberation has expanded and adjusted throughout the years, and how they now see deliberation…
“as decision making on normative or morally charged issues that require the exercise of judgment rather than reason alone. This decision making proves to be difficult because things that people hold dear or consider valuable are in tension with one another, and the tensions can’t be eliminated because they grow out of shared concerns….Because the tensions can’t be resolved by eliminating one or more of the imperatives, they have to be worked through to the point that people find some balance and can move ahead, even if they aren’t in full agreement. We have found that these tensions lie behind many problems that appear to be technical yet can’t be solved unless the tensions are recognized and addressed” (ix-x).
For me, this focus on tensions, trade-offs, and tough choices is a hallmark of deliberation and the NIF model, and is particularly important to the way I do my work personally. I recognize, however, that there are tensions to focusing on such tensions. Some argue that we get bogged down when we focus on the tensions, making it harder to ever move to action as “paralysis by analysis” tends to take over. Others support more of a social justice perspective and may argue that to frame the heart of problems like poverty or environmental degradation as involving tensions between competing values gives too much credit and support to perspectives that should not be so strongly supported. For me, one potential topic of discussion focuses on these issues: to what degree should we focus on tensions as the heart of the deliberative perspective?
David then turns to the relationship between deliberation and action, which will clearly be a key theme throughout the book, and is always a critical issue at the NCDD conferences I have been a part of since 2006. David argues that Kettering has also come to see “deliberative decision-making as part of acting, not as something separate or distinct. We have called this integrated activity deliberative politics” (x). We’ll see more on that from the introduction chapter.
The foreword ends with David taking on the misimpression that Kettering focuses on “some special, esoteric technique that can only be mastered by highly trained experts” (x). This raises another interesting topic for me. What degree of expertise does deliberation require? This is one of the basic questions of democracy when focused on whether the general public can truly be expected to deliberate, but here I mean more in the sense of the expertise of the deliberative practitioner.
In some ways, the NIF model makes it easy for anyone to potentially grab a discussion guide, either read an accompanying moderator’s guide to running forums or perhaps attend a short training session, and then host a deliberative forum. As the deliberative movement matures and we think more deeply about the move to action and the deep commitments to equality and inclusion—i.e. as it “democratizes”—to what degree do the expectations on deliberative practitioners increase to the point of requiring much more time and a broader skill set?
Introduction: Democratizing Deliberation (Barker, McAfee, and McIvor)
The introduction walks through three broad steps taken in democratic theory over the past 50 years: (a) the prevailing “adversarial democracy” view from the middle of the 20th century focused on competing interests and elections, (b) the “first generation” development of the deliberative ideal built off of the flaws of the prevailing view, and (c) the next/current generation of deliberative thinkers and practitioners adjusting to the flaws of the first generation. Many topics of conversation here, including reactions to the three steps overall and the specific tenants and criticisms of each.
The authors summarize the first generation of deliberative democracy theory by drawing on John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas, and explain how in 20 short years, John Dryzek would argue that among theorists, the “essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government” (quoted, 7). Through the influence of Rawls and Habermas, and then further developed by Gutmann and Thompson, Cohen, Benhabib and others, key concepts to deliberative theory such as legitimacy, consensus, rationality, reciprocity, and inclusion are introduced that remain key aspects of the theoretical discussion concerning deliberation (pp.9-10).
The authors then focus on three critiques of first-generation deliberation:
- The deliberative ideal could not make room for different identities or forms of expression
- Deliberation was seen as purely communicative and divorced from action and passion.
- Even if desirable, the deliberative ideal was too impractical to make a difference on a large scale.
The next generation is responding to these flaws with three trends related to “democratizing deliberation”:
- Broadening the understanding of deliberative reason and discourse and welcoming more forms of expression, including a mixture of emotion and reason.
- Shifting from a focus on consensus to recognize that disagreement is an unavoidable aspect of the process of working through difficult choices.
- Allowing for new theories of how deliberation might be practical on a larger scale and in a wider variety of contexts, which shift deliberation away from a theoretical construct to a more “practical, problem-solving, and world building activity”(14).
Key questions to perhaps address here include:
- Were the main tenants and critiques of the prevailing view and the first-generation captured sufficiently?
- Are the current trends adequately beginning to address those critiques?
- What other consequences or flaws have arisen due to the new trends?
In the conclusion, Barker, McAfee, and McIvor write: “The thinkers in this volume present a more complex picture of deliberative theory than is commonly recognized—both by its proponents as well as its critics. Rather than dichotomous oppositions between reason and emotion, consensus and difference, freedom and power, thought and action, and theory and practice, these essays present a view of deliberation that is sensitive to the complexity of democratic politics in large-scale pluralistic societies.” (15)
For me, this final quote brought up a question. As the chapter is framed, each step was clearly a reaction to the one before it. Does the story represent a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern, or is it more of an ongoing evolution that will see many more stages? To make the case for the former, perhaps the hallmark of deliberative theory and practice now, as exemplified by the quote, is recognizing the inherent and ongoing tensions between reason and emotion, consensus and difference, freedom and power, thought and action, and theory and practice. Early stages perhaps strayed too far from seeking the golden mean between these, framing one side as virtuous and the other corrupt. Are we at a stage where we recognize the inherent, never-ending tensions between these concepts, and can now focus on helping our communities negotiate them?
So with that, let’s get this started. All of you can obviously bring up any issues, questions, or ideas that came to you as you read, my comments and questions are just to help get us started. I’ll jump in every once in a while during the discussion, but I am not considering myself the moderator of this discussion, just the initial catalyst.