Brexit, deliberative democracy, and the unforced force of the better argument

It’s more than a week after the vote in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, and it’s taken me this long to write something. I mourn for a Britain that can be so courageous and welcoming, but has now legitimised blaming ‘the other’ to deflect blame at home. I am concerned for my many European friends in Britain, some of whom now share the experience of being subjected to hate in the streets, their children abused in the supermarket. I am sad for my many British friends who voted Remain, who resisted the closing of minds, and feel bereft. And I am feeling cheated, both personally and for my children, as doors close to us.

In the face of that grief, some Remainers like AC Grayling have claimed that a 50%+1 hurdle was too low and a super-majority of 60% should have been necessary; and/or that we live in a representative democracy for good reasons, that issues like this should never be sent to a referendum in the first place; and politicians now have a duty to use their independent judgement before issuing notice to leave the Union. Some Leavers like Spectator columnist Toby Young were quick to point out the irony of being all for democracy until one loses a vote. The people have spoken, and that’s that. Government – or Parliament – should now implement the stated will of the people.

How should a democracy theorist respond to all this? More specifically, how should a deliberative democrat respond? Putting aside the grief at the result, and parking the hurdles question for another post, here’s what I think.

Deliberative democrats assess reality against an ideal world that works something like this: by arguing in public until we reach an agreement, we discover what arguments will and will not fly. The discovery that my proposals are unsupported or unacceptable to others is supposed, under ideal conditions, to transform those proposals and the preferences that underlie them. For many years it has been thought that processes called ‘minipublics‘ can come close to ideal conditions, as can courts and some parliamentary committees, or jury and seminar rooms. But for the last few years, I and some others have been taking seriously the idea that democratic societies can work like this too; that deliberative democracy tells us something about how democracy works at the large scale, and is not simply a blueprint for designing small scale public-engagement.

It would appear that reality just gave me and my colleagues a bit of a kicking. So much for the ‘unforced force of the better argument’, in Jürgen Habermas’s famous phrase. Welcome to the real world of ‘factoids‘ and ‘truthiness‘; a world in which words need to look and feel true to particular audiences, not be true. This referendum was not a battle between truth and untruth, but between an unfocused mass of verbiage on one side and a very precise fear on the other. This wasn’t an argument, not the full half hour and not even five minutes.

Now, just because the real world doesn’t work like the ideal, doesn’t mean the ideal is completely useless. Ideals can help us identify exactly where real political systems are faulty. Clearly the Brexit referendum was conducted in far from ideal conditions, and deliberative theory can help reveal some of the reasons why:

  • the failure to specify what exactly the question or issue was; or perhaps the fact that people attached different meanings to the question in front of them;
  • a media which took sides in some cases; or which largely took every claim and counter-claim as equally valid, when a very great deal of them were not;
  • a failure of Remain campaigners to provide a consistent and credible counter-narrative;
  • a background lack of effective connection between widely divergent ‘in the street’ discourses and public policy making over a very long time;
  • and a failure to provide institutional focal points in which the various discourses, claims and counter-claims could be tested, revised or discarded before being passed on to a decision-making process.

Compare the Irish Constitutional Convention process which led to last year’s equal marriage referendum – a focused institution which involved randomly-selected citizens as well as the usual worthies to come up with concrete constitutional reforms which were then put to legislative committees and then to referendum, against a background of widespread repudiation of traditional ways of doing things. Or compare the Scottish independence referendum in which the SNP government and activists worked to create widespread public discussion on the future of Scotland for seven years.

But while those institutional solutions – sequencing deliberative events before a mass referendum – might seem attractive, I am left unsatisfied.

Deliberative theory places so much emphasis on an entirely implausible account of persuasion, not just in the obviously-different world of the Brexit referendum but in near-ideal situations as well. We place far too much faith in the thought that minds are changed when people are presented with facts and they get to debate the meaning of those facts with each other. We pay nowhere near enough attention to all the factors that psychologists, political communication scholars, scholars of business leadership, cultural theorists, linguists and rhetoricians say go into persuasion and the changing of minds:

  • the staging and performance of events
  • the framing of issues and arguments
  • the way that the meaning of events is constructed by leaders
  • background discourses and power relations…

…in other words, the political arts.

Deliberative democracy, for some of its proponents, was supposed to be an expressly political endeavour. It was supposed to be about shifting power away from technocrats and handing it back to citizens, putting them on a level playing field. Instead, we have become obsessed by technical questions ourselves: how to design the perfect process, sometimes to guarantee the ‘right’ outcome; how to select a better sample of citizens; how to demonstrate preference change. As a result, a great many of us lost sight of the political context in which our techniques were embedded; and failed to notice alternative explanations for the effects we see.

I think the Brexit referendum and other populist movements present a fundamental challenge to deliberative democracy, because we lack effective tools with which to analyse them. Just saying ‘here’s how the real world deviates from our ideal’ is not enough if we want to have a positive impact on that world; especially if our central claim about political behaviour is so implausible. It provides no effective answer to the sceptics.

So, I think deliberative democrats need to start doing some or all of the following things:

  1. We can think institutionally, as we usually do, and say either that the the idea of large-scale deliberative democracy is a pipe-dream, or argue that for large-scale deliberative democracy to work, we need a set of practices which embed the necessary habits – that is roughly the position of people like Graham Smith
  2. As a variant on that theme, those practices might need to include more effective grass-roots campaigning. There’s a body of work to be done comparing the effectiveness of Scotland’s national conversation on independence and the near-total absence of a coordinated grassroots engagement exercise conducted by the Remainers. But we also ought to think about the processes which have divided people from each other so fundamentally. With all due respect to friends who write about deliberation in divided societies, we need to understand much better the nature of those divisions, from the education system onwards.
  3. And so we urgently need a better understanding of communication and persuasion. Some people are working on this, but it continues to boggle my mind that a bunch of democrats with a theory supposedly built on communication theory know precisely nothing about the psychology, processes or structures of mass communication and persuasion – we are hopelessly naive on this point.
  4. We need better to understand the policy process not as a system simply of supply but as a system which structures demand for particular kinds of information, as Paul Cairney argues here.

So, how should deliberative democrats respond to Toby Young and others? Our standard response is first to say, ‘A majoritarian vote is not the sum total of democracy; you can hate referendums and still be a democrat’; and then to point to all the processes we celebrate which allegedly change minds. That response is frankly feeble in the current environment because it simply does not address the alleged nature of our ‘post-fact society’; it is apolitical, even anti-political; and our central premise about persuasion is faulty. We need to, and can do, much better.



6 thoughts on “Brexit, deliberative democracy, and the unforced force of the better argument

    1. I was actually thinking of another colleague Ian! I’d be glad to know what you think of the general point though – I just don’t think we (mainstream deliberativists) have got an analytic handle on how to bridge increasing gaps in everyday cultural practices, cultural scripts, discursive allegiances, and experiences outside of the very particular and not-at-all typical realm of the minipublic; and even within that realm our explanation for why we see the effects we see is bollocks. What do you think?

  1. John – This was fascinating and your candour about the challenges this poses for DD theory is intriguing and refreshing. The challenge here is not just for DD theory but liberalism more generally (or perhaps I should say ‘as well’). I imagine that there will always be a tension between the deliberativist’s attempt to engineer highly structured discursive environments which produce the right answers, and the animating idea that people should be free, equal and self-determining. Some versions of liberalism have this problem. The other, more elitist variants don’t, at least when there’s any conflict between rights and popular choice (which is not the EU referendum scenario). As you might recall from London, I think partisanship and party-structure plays a very important normative role in shaping preferences and bargaining in such situations – and this referendum result bears out my instincts (perhaps accidentally). Quick thoughts on the hoof here. Yours, Jeff King

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