Interview to Professor John Dryzek (Australian National University) : The Powerful Idea of Deliberative Democracy

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Democracy is often something very abstract, very frustrating and not easy to measure. Deliberative Democracy can be a real game changer in the way democracy is not only promoted but also practiced. Giving real power to the people means achieving a new level of engagement and civic participation. My sincere thanks to Prof. Dryzek for accepting to be interviewed on sharing4good

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How would you define deliberative democracy?

Deliberative democracy sees political legitimacy in terms of the right, opportunity and capacity of those subject to collective decisions to participate (or have their representatives participate) in consequential deliberation about the content of that decision. Deliberation is a particular kind of communication that is non-coercive, involves reflection, strives to link particular claims to more general principles, and to reach those with different frames of reference.

Liberal Democracy based on concept of representation seems now inadequate to meet the changing paradigms of modern society. Traditional democracies are somehow losing legitimacy. Can Deliberative Democracy be an antidote to this crisis?

Liberal democracy and deliberative democracy are not necessarily opposites, and deliberation can be applied in liberal contexts. Representation of some sort is often inescapable, it is just a question of how you do it. Deliberative democracy can be open to many forms of representation beyond electoral representation – for example, statistical representation by choosing participants in a deliberative forum more or less at random from the citizenry, or the representation of particular perspectives or discourses, or representation on the basis of variety on social characteristics and political views. There are many problems associated with existing national electoral democracies, not least of which is the fact that money can buy political power –in the sense that elected officials dare not go against the wishes and interests of large corporations and other wealthy actors. Deliberative democracy can be a partial antidote, but only a partial one.

Would you list out some of the more common forms of deliberative democracy practices?

Deliberative practice can be sought in many locations: in the established institutions of government such as legislatures, courts, and administrative consultation processes, in designed forums featuring ordinary citizens (such as citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, consensus conferences), in designed forums featuring partisans (such as mediation and other forms of conflict resolution), and in the broader public sphere. Some deliberative practices are designed, some can just emerge. Given the variety of practices and locations, and the degree to which their actual deliberativeness varies, it is hard to say what is most common.

You were one of the major proponents of the concept of “deliberative” turn? Could you elaborate it?

The deliberative turn in democratic theory and practice emphasizes communication rather than voting as the essence of democracy, in the interests of making democracy deeper and more meaningful. So really the turn is the surge of interest in deliberative democracy as I defined in answer #1.

Where are we now? How would you define the current status of deliberative democracy around the world? Which are the countries more advanced in practicing deliberative democracy?

We are everywhere. Deliberative democracy is happening in so many ways in theory, practice, and analysis that it is hard to keep up and summarize, beyond saying that deliberative democracy is still growing at an ever-increasing rate. On the other hand, no country has a political system that is anywhere close to meeting the standards advanced by deliberative democrats. Some countries have more deliberative innovation than others, but its impact is another matter entirely. Brazil and Denmark stand out when it comes to innovation, though the world’s largest deliberative institution may be village councils (Gram Sabhas) in India..

What is the legacy of Rousseau in defining the concept of deliberative democracy?

Deliberative democracy has multiple roots, Rousseau is just one very minor one, contemporary deliberative democrats rarely refer to him. Aristotle and Burke get more mentions.

What is Binary Deliberation?

An idea developed by my colleague Bora Kanra to recognize two different kinds of deliberation: one oriented to mutual understanding, the other to decision making. The kind oriented to mutual understanding can either stand alone, or be seen as a prelude to decision making. For Bora, the first phase is especially important in deeply divided contexts.

What is the role of leadership in promoting deliberative democracy? Can a top down approach really work?

Not sure what you mean by a top down approach. Deliberative democrats have for the most part had little to say about leadership and (given roots in participatory democracy) can be a bit suspicious of it. Political leaders can promote deliberative innovation, even though most of them are not interested. There are exceptions: eg forming planning minister AlanahMcTiernan in Western Australia. In the USA, Barack Obama has proclaimed his belief in deliberative democracy (in his book The Audacity of Hope), though you’d never know it from the practices of his Administration. Rhetoric on the part of political leaders can sometimes help in establishing conditions for deliberation – think of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, reaching across racial divides.

The primaries are an essential example of deliberative democracy but looking at the way they work in the USA it seems that we created a “monster’ where only those with adequate resources and able to connect with ‘special interests” can prevail. What is your standing? Do you know examples of more “genuine’ forms of primaries?

I don’t see how primaries are conducive to deliberation. Quite the opposite: in the Republican party, they can tend to be dominated by Tea Party activists hostile to the idea of deliberation. Primaries can feature ideological amplification, while deliberation requires (eventually) encountering others with different views.

You visited Nepal in 2010. How did you find the political dilemmas faced by the country?

Obviously Nepal faces some huge challenges when it comes to devising a functional national political system broadly accepted as legitimate. But at least politicians are talking. My visit in 2010 was to climb mountains rather than investigate politics, though I did give a talk in Kathmandu.

What are the contributions that deliberative democracy could offer to a country like Nepal, a country in the quest of a federal model that can offer inclusion and representation to cultural and ethnic minorities without alienating the “former” dominating groups?

I hesitate to make any prescriptions for a country I don’t know especially well. But deliberative democracy can (with a bit of effort) be applied in settings featuring deep identity divisions. In my view, deliberative democracy has no one-size-fits-all models to apply (indeed, should not be thought of as a model), but rather can be brought into a dialogue that is itself deliberative with people in particular settings. Deliberative democracy is already being intimated in some contexts in Nepal. Mani Banjade has just completed his ANU PhD thesis on a deliberative approach to forest governance in Nepal. While he finds there are plenty of obstacles to deliberation, there are also intimations of deliberative practice at local levels.

Western countries are leading the process, often unsuccessfully, toward democratization in developing/emerging nations. Europeans have recently set up aEuropean Endowment for Democracymodeled on the American experience. How can deliberative democracy be part of this agenda?

Democracy promotion today is a bit of a mess. That’s largely because the promoters thought there was only a single worthwhile model of democracy (featuring competitive elections under a constitution with respect for human rights).  They ignore deliberation, and cannot accept the fact that democratization might usefully be conceptualized in terms other than transition from authoritarianism to democracy at the national level. I think deliberative capacity can be built under any kind of national political system, including authoritarian ones, where it might be built in ways detached from the state. But I’m skeptical about outsiders playing too big a role, and that applies to deliberative democrats too.

Some political scientists defined the Arab spring as a 4th wave of democratization. While it seems obvious that there is still a long way before reaching a consolidation point, do you see any space for deliberative democracy to emerge?

I think deliberation is a universal human capacity, though manifested in different ways in different places. As such, it occurred in Arab societies before the spring (I just wrote a co-authored paper which had a discussion of the place of deliberation in the Islamic revival in Egypt in the 1970s), and continues to occur. Of course a lot of other stuff is happening too in places like Egypt and Syria, some of it very bad. I think there is a place for deliberative democracy everywhere, but currently it is overwhelmed by these other forces. A transition that started out as quite deliberative (in Egypt) now seems to have been eclipsed, first by the Morsi government then by the military coup.

China has endorsed some practices of deliberative democracy. Are these practices meaningful and can they be a game changer in the process of democratization of the country? In this regard, can Deliberative Democracy offer a path towards full democracy for an authoritarian regime or for an electoral democracy in which the word democracy does not go far beyond holding election?

China is very interesting for a number of reasons. The CCP hierarchy accepts some of the language of deliberative democracy, and has allowed some local innovations which have had real impact, in some cases overruling the decisions of local party leaders. But it is important to look beyond these local practices to what is happening in the broader public sphere. Of course the party tries to control what is said and heard in this public sphere. But there also seem to be some practices (including those online) that evade this control, and in some cases receive a measure of toleration from the government. As said earlier, we can think of deliberative democratic capacity being built in any setting, including authoritarian ones. I have no idea how this affects the (dim) prospects for electoral democracy in China – at least in national terms.

Would you describe your work on deliberative global governance with special reference to climate change?

I have written books on both these topics so hard to summarize. My book with Hayley Stevenson on Democratizing Global Climate Governancewill be published in early 2014. But deliberative democracy is at home in the global system while electoral democracy is not. Global deliberation can occur, global elections are unlikely (and probably undesirable).  The global governance of climate change can be interpreted as a potentially deliberative system, despite its current degree of failure in these terms. Global civil society can be interpreted as a pattern of representing discourses, which contributes to democratization of global governance.

To conclude, what is the way forward to promote deliberative democracy as a valid way of reviving the essence of democratic nations?

Deliberative democracy applies in any setting, not just to nations. There are many ways it can be advanced, everything depends on what can be done in particular contexts. We can think in terms of the deliberative democratization of existing institutions, of introducing new institutions and practices, and building better deliberative systems, linking different sites of deliberation.

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