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Activists’ Views of Deliberation

Based on more than 60 interviews, this 2007 article by Peter Levine of the University of Maryland and Rose Marie Nierras of the University of Sussex explores the tensions between deliberation and various forms of political activism and advocacy. It identifies more than 20 objections to deliberation that are proposed by political activists in various countries and contexts. It concludes with suggestions for combining deliberation and advocacy. Download the article here.

Excerpt:

This article explores some reasons that political activists—including those who are sincerely committed to democracy and/or social justice—resist organized efforts at public deliberation. We have three motives for exploring their resistance and skepticism. First, we hope to develop responses that might strengthen the case for public deliberation. Second, we believe it is appropriate to adjust deliberative approaches in the light of valid criticisms from democratic activists. Third, we seek to understand deliberation as part of a repertoire of democratic approaches, appropriate for some circumstances but not others.

Activism and Deliberation on a Spectrum

We define an “activist” as someone who tries to advance a substantive political or social goal or outcome. A clear case would be someone who seeks government money for a new health clinic. Activism is always an attempt to exercise power, yet some activists’ motivations are highly altruistic. They try to develop and employ power for ethical ends. To complicate the definition, we note that many activists feel constrained by democratic procedures or principles. For example, they may drop their demands when they see that they have been outvoted or have lost a public argument. They may be sincerely interested in learning from rival perspectives; and they may try to help other people to become independent political agents with goals and interests of their own. In all these respects, activists can be democratic, not merely strategic.

Meanwhile, an organizer of a public deliberation is someone who helps people to decide on their collective goals and outcomes. A clear case would be someone who organizes a forum to discuss how much money the government should raise in taxes and how the funds should be spent. To organize such a deliberation means suppressing or deferring one’s own views about state spending in the interests of promoting an open-ended conversation.

Nevertheless, organizing a deliberation is also an exercise in power. It requires making substantive decisions that can be controversial. Even to invite people to a deliberative session, one must give oneself the right to define the scale and scope of the community, to identify certain issues as important, and to select a method or format for discussion. Even if the process is very open-ended, organizers may rationally predict that a particular outcome will emerge. In such cases, they may use deliberation as a tool to obtain support for the outcome they want.

In short, activists and organizers of deliberations are not sharply distinguishable. It is not only activists who have agendas, desired outcomes, and some degree of power. However, the two groups cluster at opposite ends of a spectrum. At one end, politics is strategic and oriented toward policy goals (albeit constrained by procedures or ethical principles). The main evidence of success is achieving the desired outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, politics is open-ended; the main evidence of success is a broad, fair discussion leading to a set of goals that may be unanticipated at the outset.

Resource Link: http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol3/iss1/art4

Citation:
Peter Levine and Rose Marie Nierras (2007) “Activists’ Views of Deliberation,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 4.

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