Arguing for reason in a name-calling culture

As Amy Gutmann acknowledged Sept. 23 at the Penn Bookstore, deliberative democracy is not a phrase that trips off the tongue easily. But, she said, "It holds out the biggest promise for making democracy the best it can be."

"Deliberation is difficult. It requires education, experience and good models," Gutmann said during a talk and book signing for two of her books, "Why Deliberative Democracy?" (with Dennis Thompson) and "Identity in Democracy."

Deliberation is important, Gutmann argued, because too often we talk about difficult subjects only with people who hold the same views. We need to be pushed to give reasons for those views, and powerful people need to justify their decisions and respond to the objections of their critics. Otherwise, she said, "it’s just a game of power, money and media influence."

Even in a "less than friendly environment," such as the lead-up to the war in Iraq, deliberative democracy still made an appearance, Gutmann said. "The debate wasn’t one that deliberative democrats dream about," she conceded, but even after the war had begun and President Bush persisted in his attempts to justify it, his opponents continued—and still continue—with their reasoned objection. "Deliberative democracy," she said, "has the resources to support continuing challenges."

Education, said Gutmann, is the key to fruitful deliberation. For an uneducated audience, as the popularity of reality TV attests, "it’s a lot more entertaining to watch people call each other names." The challenge is to teach people ways of treating others civilly so that you can further important causes in a society where people will inevitably disagree.

The university setting, said Gutmann, is an "excellent case study" of deliberative democracy at work. "In the end," she said, "I’m responsible for my decisions, but I’d do better in many cases to convene a diverse group to inform me."

On the ongoing need to keep the discussion going, Gutmann cited her favorite New Yorker cartoon, which shows a small boy tugging on Jefferson’s coat tails and asking, "If we hold these truths to be self-evident, why do you keep carping on them so much?" Because, said Gutmann, in a democracy we need to—and we need places like Penn to educate people to carry on those arguments with reasoned, deliberative debate.

Originally published on October 7, 2004