Deliberative Systems: deliberative democracy at the large scale is out now with Cambridge University Press. It’s a book I’ve edited with Jane Mansbridge of Harvard, and features a group of the world’s most prominent democracy theorists talking about a new approach to a theory of democracy that has dominated academic scholarship for the last 20 years.

In a nutshell, deliberative theory focuses not so much on voting as the processes of opinion formation and argument that go on before matters come to a vote.

For some time now, the theory has been taken as a blueprint for how to design better political institutions, institutions that reward good quality debate rather than power, manipulation, and all the other things we usually worry about in politics. But there are limits to that approach, which basically have to do with tensions between the deliberative and democratic parts of the theory. It seemed that people could be ideally deliberative, or ideally democratic, but not both.

Deliberative Systems is an attempt to get beyond that tension. It argues that we need to stop looking for deliberative perfection in any one institution, and instead look at how different institutions contribute particular strengths and weaknesses to an overall system. Parts of a democracy might not look terribly deliberative or democratic in their own right, but they might make important contributions to democracy in general. I’ve written about the House of Lords in the UK as one such example. It has features that are obviously anti-democratic and anachronistic when looked at on their own, but those self-same features play a significant role in helping the Lords hold government to account in a system that otherwise concentrates enormous power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Not perfect, not by a long stretch, but more important than an isolated analysis would suggest.

For some of my other work on deliberative democracy, including my assessment of the House of Lords and small-scale deliberative institutions, check out the Research pages on my website.