Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative Democracy – The Power of Community Cooperation – The Way Forward?

Presenter: Barrie Webster

August, 2020

Deliberative democracy is based on the concept that political decisions ought to be the product of fair, reasonable discussion and debate (i.e., deliberation) among citizens.

Such an approach to decision-making within cooperating communities or representatives thereof has been applied to societal challenges such as a proposed move to proportional representation in the electoral system and strategies to meet climate change.

Denmark (2020): Trailblazing legislation for climate action has just been enacted.  In this case, deliberative democracy was enabled by proportional representation (a formalized type of deliberative democracy) in the Danish Parliament. Nine parties, representing 95% of voters, committed Denmark to reduce emissions 70% by 2030 over 1990 levels. 

The legislation arrived at is comprehensive and, independent of the party leading the government, there must be a climate report every year. The report must show progress to meet Denmark’s targets, and provide a concrete plan for the upcoming year.  If Parliament sees the plan isn’t airtight, the government can face a confidence vote. And future governments are bound to follow the same protocol (BBC reports). The robustness of the product of the deliberations is impressive. The Climate Change Performance Index ranks Denmark second in the world.

Canadian Examples

In Canada, citizens’ assemblies have been tried to determine whether proportional representation of some sort ought to be instated at the provincial level (BC & PEI). The success of this exercise was influenced not so much by the deliberation involved, but by the campaigning by opposing interest groups through advertising and the way in which the results were presented to the voters for acceptance (simple question or convoluted question; simple majority or more stringent).

Citizen Participation fundamental to a healthy democracy.

An uninvolved, complacent populace easily fosters the rise of authoritarianism – there are many examples of authoritarian strongmen having been given adulation, e.g., Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Putin’s Russia, and now Trump’s USA. The challenge seems to be how to ensure effective involvement. Robert Reich, for example, in a recent blog, contended that “Today’s great divide (in the U.S.) is not between left and right. It’s between democracy and oligarchy.” And by “oligarchy” he means “rule by a wealthy and powerful group.”

The OECD has published a report on open government (note: the term ‘New Democratic’ in the title is generic and does not refer to Canada’s New Democratic Party or to the Democratic Party in the USA).

Selection criteria for membership in the deliberating groups have been discussed extensively in the European Journal of Political Research:

What limitations are there to deliberative democracy?

Aside from the fact that deliberation takes longer than a sound bite, and that attention spans appear to be getting shorter, there seem to be few objections to careful consideration of proposed changes and how they should be made. But the makeup of the groups entrusted with the decision making is the big question. The legitimacy of citizens’ assemblies rests on the idea that a small group of citizens, randomly selected to reflect the age, education level, wealth and gender makeup of the general population, does indeed represent the public as a whole. But do they? Can they?


1. Is deliberative democracy a concept that you find attractive?

2. Given a ‘Yes,’ are citizens’ assemblies a good route to deliberative democracy?

3. What experience have you had, if any, with deliberative democracy?

4. On the other hand, are you happier with oligarchy? It looks like a lot less trouble. You can stay home and watch the football game. Or drink coffee (or beer) and philosophize (chat) with your friends.

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