Deliberative democracy in the face of irrationality and distrust

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in June 2012

1100 words / 5 min.
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Frank Fischer’s Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry argues that the public in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has increasingly gown critical and distrustful of the professions and their practices.

Please note that this post is from 2012. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Frank Fischer’s Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry argues that the public in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has increasingly gown critical and distrustful of the professions and their practices (21). The “professions” consist of experts who, in essence, “deal with particular problems that relate to the application of knowledge to society” or, drawing on the work of Daniel Bell, “specialize[] in placing knowledge in larger applied contexts than do the scientists generating it” (18, 20). Fischer does not simply mean applied scientists — engineers, for example — when he speaks of those who make up the profession. Instead he means a whole “professional class,” generally university educated and including “medical doctors, lawyers, religious pastors, career military officers, university professors, and civil servants,” amongst others (19).

The early-to-mid twentieth century saw an increasing focus on “value-neutral” expertise of professionals, a focus that relates closely to the scientific emphasis on objectivity and neutrality advocated by theorists like Robert Merton. This was combined with professional ideals of efficiency and productivity, all focused on improving society and not one’s own income (30-31).

Critics in the 1960s challenged these professional ideals. Students raised on radical anti-war protests and civil rights advocacy began to articulate a social-justice vision for professional activities, and advocated for “progressive social change” through professional activism (33). Relatedly, new challenges emerged “value-neutral” technical knowledge in an effort to get professionals to work towards improving society (33). But these socially conscious professionals ended up, according to Fischer, undermining their own authority in an effort to bring about social change, and thus undermined their own capacity to bring about change, especially at the community level (36).

The end result of Fischer’s analysis is to suggest that, while professional experts in the twentieth century sold themselves as “social trustees” who were the best people to fix social problems. Professional experts brought value-neutral knowledge and practices to bear on problems and would, thanks to their objectivity and focus on efficiency and productivity, craft solutions that would benefit society as a whole. But the 1960s, especially, saw social reformers within the professions question the reality of this claim. These reformers critiqued the neutrality of other professionals and, through attempts to focus more directly on social reforms and citizen participation, ended up undermining the authority of professional experts more broadly.

Although not discounting — and indeed, encouraging through the book — the potential for professional experts to help solve social challenges, Fischer emphasizes instead the importance of fostering citizen participation through what he terms “deliberative democracy” (47).

Fischer believes that democratic government requires more than citizen “participation” (voting, campaigning, lobbying) — it requires citizen “deliberation” (48) too. A key question , though, especially give the complex nature of modern society and the many technical questions that underlie many policy decisions , is whether it is even realistic to expect lay citizens to effectively deliberate and contribute to decisions on policy questions (48-49)? And even it is possible, is it even good for society (51)? After all, there is a reason that the United States was founded as a representative republic, not a direct democracy (51). Isn’t rule by expert elites, trained in technocratic issues, better than the racism, intolerance, religiosity, and emotional decision-making of the masses (51)?

Fischer believes that a

strong case can be made that the general citizenry, or at least a significant portion of it, is more capable of making informed, intelligent assessments about public issues than many conservative politicians, social scientists, and opinion researchers suggest” (57).
Fischer suggests that the real problem is not actually ignorance or inability, but rather “the failure of the political system to socialize its citizens for an active role” (61). People must learn to be political, in school, at home, and through political opportunities that are often lacking in the U.S. two-party system (60-61).

But what is “deliberation”? According to Fischer (who cites Chambers), what he means by “deliberation” is

debate and discussion aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinion in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information, and claims made by fellow participants (77).

This definition is very much in line with classic liberal tradition, especially the arguments by those such as John Stuart Mill. It is also very close to the “marketplace of ideas” conception that underpins the American First Amendment.

Fischer acknowledges that a focus on reason and rationality may neglect other modes, like personal experiences, feelings, and religious belief (79). He suggests that these can be accommodated by requiring that decisions be “mutually acceptable” (79) — but is this truly possible in the case of, for example, religious faith? Religion is a core exclusion from public and governmental reasoning in the American First Amendment because, as Mill suggested, religious belief is very often not open to change based on reasoned analysis by others. Faith is not reason. Thus, how can American society reach a “mutually agreeable” deliberative decision on issues like abortion, stem cells, and the death penalty if faith-based arguments are permitted? But without them, how can full citizen participation be achieved? In short, what do you do with illogical citizens?

Fischer does not solve this problem. But it is not Fischer’s problem alone. For the liberal-democratic tradition, the problem of the irrational, emotional masses is long-standing one that has yet to be solved by any modern democracy. In the United States, we began with unelected Senators, rather like the United Kingdom’s hereditary House of Lords. These “upper houses” of elites were expected to act as a check on the emotions of the masses. In the twentieth century, we turned increasingly to professionalized experts to fill this elite role — but especially in the United States, intellectual elites have fallen into disfavor much as hereditary lords once did.

What, then, can we replace these elites with? Fischer suggests that we create new, deliberative processes that bring citizens together with experts. There is no need for beheading the experts in the French style; we should instead harness their knowledge to facilitate citizen involvement.

His solutions still presume that rationality and reason will prevail, but his advocacy of what he calls “practical reason” (courtroom style reasoning instead of formal logic) and deliberative processes provides hope that democracy is neither impossible nor dead.