Whether dealing with climate change, immigration or even trade, cities and metropolitan areas have for some time now taken initiatives and formed networks to address pressing social and economic issues.
The New Role for Cities
The late Benjamin Barber, a political theorist, wrote that the dysfunction of democracy that we see at the national, and even state level, has caused us to return to the origins of democracy in metropolitan areas because it is in cities that we can get things done on a manageable scale. Consequently, cities are taking on a role once played by states. Barber’s book, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” has turned out to be prescient, especially in light of our federal government’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord.
Whether dealing with climate change, immigration or even trade, cities and metropolitan areas have for some time now taken initiatives and formed networks to address pressing social and economic issues. In light of the prevailing headwinds democracy itself faces today it is not surprising to look to cities as the place for innovations as well. One example of a city leading innovation in democracy is Pittsburgh, where under the mayor, Bill Peduto, the city has adopted “deliberative democracy.”
Under the ideals of deliberative democracy, political decisions are the product of fair and reasonable discussions and debate among the public.
In one sense, the principles and practice of deliberative democracy are straightforward: Create conditions for inclusive, informed and well-structured conversations; ensure that the results of these deliberations are taken seriously by stakeholders; and hope that those participating in these conversations leave with a positive attitude and a heightened sense of civic engagement.
In today’s political climate, this may seem Pollyannaish, but it is important to see how this situation came to be. Here, proponents of deliberative democracy are in a good position: its principles can help analyze the problem and its practices can help address the problem.
Today’s Political Climate: How did we get here?
Since the 18th century, the concept of democracy came to embody the ideas of the Enlightenment (basic rights including freedom of speech and thought). These ideals were expressed in our written constitution as amendments to an essentially mechanistic set of procedures that comprise the way our government works. Recently, this model of a “thin, liberal constitution” was seen as sufficient to create democracies abroad. Granted that there was a lot more to be done on the ground (establishing a rule of law, courts, districting for representatives, etc.), but essentially there was a belief that a constitution was like an algorithm – turn it on and democracy happens.
But we need to add the virtues of citizenship to the freedoms granted by our constitution. Such civic virtues include political toleration, a willingness to listen to other points of view, and the ability to give public reasons for one’s own view. A willingness, if you will, to engage in open and informed conversations with those who are different from us and our circle of friends. A society that has failed to instill these civic virtues will easily collapse into warring tribes — as we have seen with the Sunni and Shia groups in the Middle East and the Red and Blue counties of America.
A second problem arises when democracies are seen as “‘vote centric”’ and the game of democracy becomes that of winning the most votes. Getting the most votes has evolved into a science these days and political consultants can use a whole array of strategies that involve framing, agenda setting, and manipulation to do whatever it takes to influence voters. Politics becomes a kind advertising campaign where winner takes all.
Deliberative Democracy Today
One could argue that a Madisonian interpretation of our Constitution envisions a deliberative democracy as its original intent. But contemporary interpretations of deliberative democracy go back to philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s view of democracy in the 1980s. For Habermas, those affected by a policy should participate in a rational conversation of that policy, allowing the force of the better argument to determine the outcome of the deliberative process.
Since the beginning of this Century, the field rapidly expanded as practitioners in mediation and group facilitation connected with theoreticians. As a result, deliberation is now aligned with a set of procedures designed to provide the basic requirements for informed, well-structured conversations linked to outcomes of some sort. Today, organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation have over 3,000 followers and many universities have programs in the field of deliberative democracy.
In essence, a deliberative democracy is not a society that ‘talks’ but a model of democracy that is instantiated in a set of explicit protocols that I call Deliberative Loops. One can adjust these protocols as the situation requires. Everyday Democracy, for instance, uses multiple learning circles spread out over a period of weeks.
Despite expansion through the integration of theory and practice, the link between this practice and the functioning of government was limited to ad hoc funding opportunities and both large and small scale projects. These activities were not insignificant and many were quite successful in fulfilling the desiderata of deliberative democracy. A great deal of empirical data was also compiled, leading to rigorous assessment studies of actual real-world protocol driven citizen deliberative forums. But the crucial link between the principles and practices of deliberative democracy and the everyday functioning of government had not been established.
Institutionalizing Deliberative Democracy at the Level of Local Government
In 2013 a Civic Health Index sponsored by the National Conference on Citizenship recommended that the City of Pittsburgh become a national center for deliberative democracy. Mayor Peduto endorsed this recommendation and in 2014 the city ran six “Community Deliberative Forums” to assist in the hiring of a new Police Chief. In light of the quality of the feedback and the degree to which the public expressed its appreciation of the process, the city began to develop its own in-house capacity to run these forums. The city chose to do so in areas that meet the regulatory requirements for Public Comment. To date there have been three City Budgets (2016, 2017 and 2018) using Community Deliberative Forums as well as special Community Deliberative Forums on topics like affordable housing. The City has even published its own handbook on Community Deliberative Forums and made it available for use by the National League of Cities and other organizations here and abroad (http://hss.cmu.edu/pdd/cities/).
This model of deliberative democracy is working in Pittsburgh and can work in other cities as well. But it is hard to see how it can work its way up to state legislatures and the federal government, given our political climate. Mickey Edwards’ book, “The Parties vs The People,” offers suggestions by which we can “‘move the furniture around”’ in Washington to help those bodies live up to their potential. The subtitle is telling: “How to Turn Democrats and Republicans into Americans.” But it’s a daunting task. Better to see how cities can do it. There’s even a handbook.
Robert Cavalier, PhD is Emeritus Teaching Professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Philosophy Department and Director of the Program for Deliberative Democracy, which won a 2008 Good Government Award from the Pittsburgh League of Women Voters. He is author of Democracy for Beginners (For Beginners LLC, 2009) and Editor of Approaching Deliberative Democracy: Theory and Practice (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011).