Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why?

April 25, 2011, 9:17 p.m.

Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why? is a paper that looks at deliberative participation within politics.  Do people really want to be involved in politics and what motivates them to choose to take part or not?  Neblo, Esterling, Kennedy, Lazer, and Sokhey study and break apart the different arguments that currently address this issue.   

...(W)e propose to start at the beginning: rather than focusing on the content of applied deliberation, we analyze who is willing to engage in deliberation in the first place. We pose the question as “Who is willing to deliberate?” rather than simply “Who deliberates?” Our question is pertinent since some deliberative democrats claim that people would deliberate more if we gave them better opportunities. Cook et. al. (2007: 33), for example, found that “85% of those who said they had not attended a meeting to discuss public issues reported they had never been invited to do so.” Many scholars of political behavior are skeptical that more opportunities will make a difference, believing that people simply do not want to deliberate (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002). If the deliberative democrats are right, however, then the two questions are crucially distinct: current patterns of deliberation do not necessarily reflect how citizens would participate given more attractive opportunities. Thus we broaden our focus beyond current levels of deliberation in the mass public, and the characteristics of those who already engage in it without being offered novel opportunities. We expand our inquiry to systematically investigate people’s willingness to deliberate under varying conditions. We directly asked respondents how interested they would be in participating in hypothetical deliberative forums by experimentally varying the forum’s institutional features. Using a different sample, we also invited citizens to participate in real deliberative forums with their Member of Congress. We report both the hypothetical and behavioral responses below. We find greater eagerness for deliberative opportunities than skeptics would expect, as well as a profile of those willing to deliberate that is markedly different from those who participate in standard partisan politics and interest group liberalism (e.g., voting, attending a rally, giving money to a lobbying organization, sending emails at the behest of an interest group, etc.). This profile suggests that average citizens do not seem to regard deliberative opportunities as filigree on “real” politics nor as an indulgence meant only for political activists and intellectuals.

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