Deliberative democracy can help EU address democratic deficit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Consulting elites offers deliberation but without political equality, whereas consulting the people offers political equality but without deliberation, writes James Fishkin of Stanford University for the Tomorrow’s Europe project.

This is the “basic and recurring problem” with public consultation, states the 24 September article, which explores whether we can have a method which “represents everyone under conditions where the people can become informed and can think through difficult issues”. 

Fishkin advocates the “deliberative poll”, dating from ancient Athens and involving the election of a random microcosm of citizens chosen by lot, a “discussion group”, as a way of addressing this deficit. 

This system embodies deliberation through carefully-balanced background materials, moderated small group discussions and plenary sessions which answer the groups’ questions, and culminates in a confidential questionnaire, the results of which are compared to poll results at the beginning of the process, the author explains. 

Fishkin highlights three fundamental problems addressed by the deliberative poll: 

  • Rational ignorance: Voters believe that as their vote is only one of millions, it will not count for much. 
  • Non-attitudes / phantom opinions: People who have not thought about an issue do not want to admit it, so instead they randomly choose an option, or react to sound bites or headlines. 
  • People who are interested in politics tend to talk to people, and consult media, who they agree with. 

He claims that the deliberative poll solves these problems by: 

  • Each person knows that his/her vote counts as they are one in fifteen or so in a discussion group, giving people reason to be informed and solving the rational ignorance issue. 
  • It replaces non-attitudes with considered, transparent judgements, formed in the small groups from balanced materials, accurate information, and expert opinion. 
  • The composition of the groups exposes participants to different points of view. 

Fishkin concludes by stating that “we need to experiment with different modes of democratic consultation and use social science to ensure that processes are balanced and representative”. 

Only by “experimentation” can the dilemma of deliberative but unequal elite processes versus equal but not deliberative plebiscitary processes be surmounted, he adds. 

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