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Pure Onsense

A Deliberative Approach

Scott Zuke

(Nov, 2010)  Belts loosened from Thanksgiving, thoughts turned toward the holiday season, and the ducks in Congress made thoroughly lame, this is a time better suited to warmer and more philosophical discussions than hard politics. Whether hopeful or nervous about the change of direction that is on its way, too often the discussion devolves to seeing the world through dichotomies like Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, or the tea party versus the establishment. Lately my attention has been drawn to alternative means of evaluating the health of social and political systems, both our own and those abroad. In November the World Bank hosted a conference to discuss the implementation and progress of "deliberative democracy" in developing countries. Deliberation, in this context, means the process of discussing, debating, and deciding on collective political action. The World Bank has invested billions of dollars to promoting and developing such practices around the world, particularly in regions like South America, Africa, and South-East Asia.

One of the most popular examples of a deliberative institution is called participatory budgeting, which arose in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 80’s and has spread to many other cities within and outside of the country. Each year citizens in these cities are given the opportunity to deliberate and direct the allocation of a portion of the city budget set aside for infrastructural investment within the city’s various districts. The original intent of the program was for the poorest citizens to have a more direct avenue of participation in deciding how the budget is distributed, and the program proved to be fairly successful in achieving that end; such public goods as roads and utilities, medical facilities, and access to education were improved in formerly neglected regions, and participation by the poorest citizens has risen over time.

The theory supporting this and other deliberative democratic institutions is that there is instrumental as well as intrinsic value in promoting effective political participation. That is, there are both visibly positive outcomes and "normative" or moral reasons to support active civic involvement. In Brazil participatory budgeting and other related programs have allowed for improvements in the political power, socioeconomic equality, and general quality of life for many of its citizens, and we have further reason to value the programs for their ability to elevate the people in other important respects: their practical understanding of budget allocation, their broader knowledge of the conditions faced by the disadvantaged residents of the cities, and their ability to deliberate with others respectfully and come to well-informed collective decisions.

In last month’s column, released just before the mid-term election, I expressed dissatisfaction with voting being the usual extent of most American citizens’ political participation, and when compared to such innovative democratic processes as participatory budgeting, perhaps the reason is more clear now. I argued that incumbents are too often entrenched and unbeatable, that rival platforms tend to overlap and limit the variety of choices available to voters, and that even when the balance of power changes, the ultimate effect is minor and temporary. As a result, change is hard to come by, and even when it comes, it rarely lives up to expectations.

One way of looking at the root of the problem is that public deliberation is weak within a system of majority-rules voting. Our system of limited democracy excels in acting quickly and decisively, but many seek total victory on the part of their party rather than a balance of competing interests that could best represent the manifold interests of their community.

In Frederick County there was clearly a powerful coalition this year backing the Republicans, who ran as a unified ticket for the county commissioner seats and won full control. Those who are more concerned with the overall political health of the county than just their personal views of what actions should be taken should find this discomforting; After all, we have all been, at some point or another, on the losing side of an election in which the victors claimed a "mandate" despite winning by only the narrowest of margins. Full control of the Board of County Commissioners means deliberation amongst its members is all too likely to be brief and one-sided, and serves to further polarize county residents along party lines rather than encourage them to work cooperatively.

At first glance, the Congressional elections appeared to be more encouraging since the Republicans won back the House, ensuring divided powers in Congress. However, as I said, we should avoid being pulled into the Republicans versus Democrats dichotomy. If we consider the election in terms of what it means for healthy deliberation between our representatives, the results quickly lose their luster. Many of the incoming victors, after all, were not running on a platform of "ensuring fair representation of competing interests for the sake of bringing unheard voices to the table," but rather one of, "Resist or roll back everything the other guys did, no compromising."

As a result, many important issues appear likely to go unaddressed in the next couple of years. For example, in 2009 Democrats in Congress introduced legislation to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections in humans resulting from industry overuse of antibiotics in food-producing livestock. Although this is a well-known and costly health hazard, once it became a partisan issue the level of discourse dropped. Rather than discussing constructive solutions, it was simplified into terms of "government over-regulation" and an "attack on farmers." With Republicans now controlling the House, and the bill only in its early stages of committee consideration, the issue is likely dead for the foreseeable future.

If we want to look for ways to improve politics, not just complain about them, we have to get beyond merely seeking forceful victory through partisan oversimplification and majority-rules voting, and instead turn our attention to the vigor of public and political deliberation present throughout each level of our political system. We have to find ways of framing issues that allow us to proceed cooperatively, rather than competitively.

Read other article by Scott Zuke