Talking sense: A call for democratic speech therapy

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written by

Riley Thorold

Jul 28, 2020

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This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Spring 2019. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

It is a paradox of modern politics that, despite 24/7 media coverage and an unprecedented crisis engulfing British governmental institutions, the public is remarkably disengaged. The Twittersphere expands while the public sphere contracts, leaving disillusioned citizens in a managerial democracy. The metrics all point in the wrong direction in this respect, and not just in the UK. Across Europe, fewer people vote, join or work for political parties, or participate in voluntary organisations than in previous decades. While democratic ideals still attract support, democratic practice is regularly derided, associated with sclerotic legislatures and grandstanding campaigns. Simply giving people more opportunities to vote is not the solution. Parties now involve members in their internal decision making and the public votes in referenda more frequently than ever, yet neither of these developments has stemmed popular disengagement. Indeed, the latter may even have made matters worse. Responding to democracy’s current problems requires promotion of another form of engagement: discussion.

Deliberative democracy

This was the insight that drove the ‘deliberative turn’ in democratic theory in the 1990s, but it has a much earlier historical precedent. The French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, in his eulogy to New England Township meetings in the first half of the 19th century, placed dialogue at the centre of his political theory. Soon afterwards, John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and political economist, followed in the same vein. However, the bulk of 20th century democratic theory ditched the study of dialogue for more institutionalised forms of participation, such as voting and party membership. Far from replacing representative democracy, deliberation is considered to enrich it. Deliberative democracy does not denote a “zero-sum” competition between static preferences. Rather, it is a theory of the communicative process through which people form and modify their opinions. Citizens still have their vote, but they are given a voice as well. The political scientist Simone Chambers defines deliberation as “debate and discussion aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinions in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information, and claims made by fellow participants.” This is, perhaps, a counsel of perfection. Deliberation in the real world will always be imperfect, but it is in everyone’s interest to maximise the quality of public discussion. 

For John Stuart Mill, so-called “schools of public spirit” provided the optimal conditions for deliberation. These were institutions such as the Town Hall meeting or jury, where citizens are given responsibility and a platform to discuss issues affecting the wider community. Mill saved his highest praise for a component of ancient Athenian democracy: a randomly-selected deliberative body that presided over legal cases and policy debates. Mill’s observations speak to a modern problem: how can conditions for genuine deliberation – as distinct from ordinary conversation or misleading rhetoric – be created in large and complex societies? The solution has been to create new-style “schools of public spirit”, public spheres in miniature within which high-quality deliberation can occur. Citizens’ assemblies have proved the most popular innovations of this type. They comprise a group of randomly selected citizens (normally between 20 and 200) who meet for several days. They hear evidence from impartial experts, before deliberating individually and in groups to arrive at a series of recommendations.


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Benefits of deliberation 

The advantage most commonly ascribed to citizens’ assemblies is simply that they produce better decisions. Insulated from the bewildering echo-chamber of political discourse, the participants reach conclusions based on sound information and careful thought. Citizens’ assemblies are often favourably compared to referendums in this respect. But a longstanding strain of thought suggests that discussion has an even more fundamental, intrinsic benefit. Mill argued that through deliberation, citizens would expand their cognitive abilities and learn to moderate their self-interest in service of the common good. In short, deliberation creates better citizens. But was Mill right about this? While theory and practice have outpaced empirical analysis in this field, there is good reason to believe that he was. Substantial evidence shows that participants in citizens’ assemblies undergo a process of attitudinal and behavioural change by reason of their experiences. It is also not surprising that deliberation has consistently been found to have educative functions. Participants not only acquire knowledge of the topic at hand, but also cultivate more general faculties related to learning, listening, problem-solving, advocacy, and justifying arguments. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Survey data indicates that discursive participation in deliberative fora increases people’s trust in the democratic system and their political representatives. As they negotiate a tricky question, participants come to understand the complexity of political issues, the constraints on action, and the trade-offs this necessitates. Being asked to have a say increases people’s belief that their government is genuinely “of the people”. Participants also tend to become more trusting of each other. In an accountable environment, interpersonal communication tends to become more consistent, candid, and tolerant. Even if discussants do not change their opinions, they come to appreciate why others feel differently about an issue. In a deliberative process in Belgium on the Euro, political scientist James Fishkin found that participants were less likely to put disagreement down to others’ ignorance. Deliberators are also less likely to base their arguments on pure self-interest. They realise that, from a strategic perspective, they must incorporate general principles or social aims to persuade others. At an even more profound level, participants in the 2009 Australian Citizens’ Parliament and the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (see below) felt the emergence of a shared identity in the assembly hall, a trend one might expect to be especially strong in local, community-based initiatives. In addition, evidence from psychology suggests that people come to believe in the arguments they make. Virtuous statements, whether opportunistic or sincere, can over time create more virtuous citizens. 

Finally, deliberators often experience a boost in confidence, having most likely acquired new skills and knowledge through their participation. The feelings of empowerment that follow, based on authentic, personal experience, translate into sustained action. The British Columbia citizens’ assembly, discussed later, is just one example of where participants have continued to engage actively in public affairs after the assembly disbanded. Links have been drawn between structured deliberation and higher levels of voting and campaigning, while it has been demonstrated that deliberation leads to community engagement and voluntary action. Citizens’ assemblies tend to send people back out into the world with a sense of common purpose and a drive for societal endeavour. Deliberative discussion is therefore much more than merely a form of participation. It provides a gateway through which citizens might re-engage with politics and their communities more generally. The caricature of the dismal, disinterested voter is thwarted by the empirical analysis outlined above, suggesting that Mill’s optimism was justified. The onus is now is on our flagging political institutions to create the novel mechanisms that will potentially transform alienated individuals into engaged and committed citizens.

Scaling up 

There is the danger, however, that deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies remain on the fringes, unknown to most citizens, and ignored by most politicians. Many people associate democracy exclusively with elections and so are unlikely to jump at these processes, especially if they don’t fully understand them. Citizens’ assemblies are often associated with routine focus groups and might attract similar cynicism. But citizens’ assemblies can only flourish in a favourable public context. The 2004 Canadian citizens’ assembly was a resounding success in many ways, but the final recommendations were rejected in a subsequent referendum vote. And even where individual citizens’ assemblies do flourish we should go further and aim to make political culture itself more deliberative. We can start to address these challenges by raising the profile of deliberative democracy. In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have helped to create high-quality debate in the run up to its controversial referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage. There has been something of a positive feedback loop: as citizens’ assemblies have become more familiar, they have become more popular. Calls for additional citizens’ assemblies are now commonplace in Ireland. As the case of Oregon shows, when discrete deliberative processes are properly publicised, they can improve the quality of discussion in wider society. This is why the Royal Society for the Arts, a charity and membership network, has entered into a partnership with Involve to run a Campaign for Deliberative Democracy in the UK. The campaign aims to promote deliberative processes, believing that once people get a taste for deliberation, they are likely to want more of it. The move to a truly deliberative democracy will eventually require a culture shift. The campaign is a modest first step, but it can hopefully help to spread a ‘deliberative habit’ in society. As this habit develops, the benefits of deliberation can move beyond the political sphere. Workplaces, trade unions, and public services could themselves become ‘schools of public spirit’. Schools could host model citizens assemblies and public institutions could play a role as incubators of a deliberative culture. Suggestions have even been made for a new national holiday – ‘deliberation day’ – before political elections. As I’ve argued, deliberative democracy has much to offer. It can help us to create a better democracy populated by more engaged and better-equipped citizens. But before any of this is possible, there needs to be a base level of understanding about deliberative democracy and its potential benefits.

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Case Study 1


British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

In 2004, a randomly selected 160-person citizens’ assembly was established by the British Columbian legislature. It was tasked with proposing a new electoral system for the province and had formal powers: whatever it recommended would be put to the province in a referendum vote. After meeting throughout the year, all but seven of the participants recommended replacing the province's existing First Past the Post system with a Single Transferable Vote system. The discussion was high quality and wide ranging and researchers Fournier et al. found that the participants became more interested and informed as a result of their involvement. Even after the citizens’ assembly, when they were no longer being paid, most members remained a part of the public debate. Nonetheless, the province as a whole voted narrowly against the recommendation. 

Regardless of the outcome, this case powerfully demonstrated how citizens’ assemblies can link up with the wider democratic process. A similar arrangement has since been used with great success in Ireland on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion.

Case study 2 


Citizens’ Initiative Review in Oregon

In the American state of Oregon, citizens’ assemblies are used to inform debate and improve public information before referendums and elections. A small group of 24 people evaluate ballot measures and create a Citizens’ Statement that is distributed to voters in the official Voters’ Guide. The statement includes key information, considered recommendations, and arguments on both sides of the debate. 

Participants have been found to gain confidence in themselves and the democratic system, to engage more with politics, and to develop a greater sense of ‘Oregonian’ identity as a result of the process. The Citizens’ Initiative Review also benefits members of the voting public who subsequently feel better-informed about the issue and report feeling politically empowered as a result. With better publicity, more Oregon citizens would enjoy these benefits.


Riley Thorold is a researcher at the Royal Society for the Arts, which is currently running a Campaign for Deliberative Democracy. Alongside this campaign, he also works on spatial planning in the UK and the government commissioned Innovation in Democracy Programme.


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