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To Win or To Deliberate…That Is the Question

October 7, 2021
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In this blog I argue that root democracy, a central notion of the Growing Democracy Project, is the driving force of democratic deliberation: 1) wanting to hear and understand the other, especially when there is a conflict of any kind; and 2) being willing to disclose what is happening for you and what you want, especially in the context of a difficult problem.


Hey! This democracy thing is both simple and complex; straightforward and mind-bendingly difficult.

Here's the easy part: There are problems that affect my interest and quality of life, but affect others as well. How can we solve them? We can come together and develop solutions. Elinor Ostrom and others have shown this works scientifically. People everywhere do it every day.

Here's the hard part: there is often a shortage of adults in the group. This is especially true when the problems get complex or the interests at stake seem vital. Fear and ignorance reduce adulthood: our empathy, perspective, and rationality. We are also not well equipped in our society to deal with what happens when our deliberations go off the rail. All of this involves a lot of cultural evolution.

Glenn Loury and Nikita Petrov have been exploring this in interesting and personal ways in two posted conversations over at The Glenn Show. My last blog focused on how Loury used critical feedback from Petrov about how he was approaching people who advocated woke anti-racism. He put himself in a mode of wanting to hear and understand Petrov, and then shared live how he evaluated Petrov’s information.

The excerpt from their second conversation, which is the focus here, brought in a major new element: just what is democratic deliberation. (It's 6-minutes long.) This round provides opportunities to look at two people genuinely struggling to see how they can better understand how to make democratic deliberation work in spite of the challenges. I think that overall they are on a good and important track. At the same time, I think they went off course. Keep in mind a track is a path, not “the answer.” We are all exploring.

Loury is coming off of an intense experience of deliberation. It took place in an exchange about the strengths and weaknesses of family life in poor black communities at The Woodson Center. Here he identifies the core of deliberative democracy quite well at the beginning:

...The idea that people can communicate, disagree about something that's important but still stay in conjunction with each other, and still stay connected. I think that's what democratic deliberation should be mean somehow. Not demonizing the other side, trying to win at all costs. Really trying to push the ball further down the field and to advance the common interest. Something like that.

But, in my opinion, identifying the core is not enough. We need also to understand 1) why it is so difficult to do this, and 2) what we can do when our talking goes off the rails of deliberation and becomes divisive. This is the water we are swimming in at this time.

I want to focus here on that second issue. But the first is very important, so I want to address it briefly. Democratic deliberation is extraordinarily difficult because of the various kinds of biases embedded in our culture and embodied by us. We are loaded with them. Brian McLaren is a writer who has given much thought to this. In his short e-book Why Won’t They Listen he identifies “13 biases or barriers to mutual understanding.” It’s a list worth reviewing once a month.

But here I want to draw your attention to what we and our culture are very short on: we do not learn much regarding what to do when our conversations and deliberations go off the rail. More often than not our talking breaks down. And when this happens, most groups don't have the tools and dispositions to restore the conversation.

From the perspective of the Growing Democracy Project what is necessary when this happens is to shift into the breakdown itself. Make it the problem we now have to solve. That is, shift from the content of our deliberation to the process of our deliberating, identify what went wrong and seek a solution to that. This is the means for getting back to the objective problem we had been discussing. One way to think of having these special tools and dispositions is that they form a kind of “advanced adulthood.” Since our culture is critically short on these  restorative practices, flight and fight reactions often take over and fill the void.

Let's go back now to the second Loury-Petrov conversation. Petrov talks about what “wanting to win a debate” looks like to him:

If you approach it in a style of debate where you want your side to be excited about how you delivered your arguments, [then] you want to “destroy” the opposition in the public debate, you just want to win at the end of that conversation...

This observation clearly points out how ego investment will destroy democratic deliberation. Petrov goes on to point out that this approach is not going to produce much in the way of conclusions that others will want to buy into. In that regard it's quite dysfunctional.

It is at this point that I see the conversation going off course. Petrov next advocates an alternative approach to wanting to win, one that emphasizes how to impact others positively. He uses a story from his childhood of how a teacher effectively impacted a group of 14 year-olds by speaking to them as adults rather than as children. It seems that Petrov sees speaking to others in effective ways as the critical factor in making deliberation work.

And Loury agrees:

I get it, I get it. No, that's very good. And you think, likewise with respect to those who are woke, what might be more effective is having higher expectations for them and showing that you're disappointed in them. (Emphasis added.)

The Growing Democracy Project is anchored in quite a different perspective. It sees our listening to each other as the critical dynamic that drives meaningful deliberation, not how we present. Presenting is important, but here's what's essential:

Everyone at the table needs to have the same expectations of themselves as they do of the others. Whether they end up agreeing or disagreeing, all have to have a priority commitment to listening and learning. The most difficult part of this commitment is being open to being called out when one is failing to listen.

This whole perspective is summed up in the Project’s root democracy practice:

  • wanting to hear and understand the other, especially when there is a conflict of any kind; and
  • being willing to disclose what is happening for you and what you want, especially in the context of a difficult problem. 

Note the heavy emphasis on the motivation involved. We bring much passion to most of our valuable and essential conversations. This is the energy aroused by problems that need to be solved. Our empathy, perspective, and rationality need that energy, but our biases and fears, some of the most powerful forces within us, can also get energized. Then, our humility needs that energy.

To sharpen my point. Petrov is seeking “to kind of map out an attitude that could unite people for the time of the conversation.” Speaking to each other respectfully is important, but that in itself will not sustain deliberation. When that becomes really difficult to do, I need my commitment to transparency to take the risk. Nor will speaking respectfully enable me to hear difficult things others are saying to me and even about my actions. For deliberation to work well all of the participants have to bring a commitment to some kind of “root democracy” to the table.


Nancy Macina

Bravo. It is very clear about the commiment that has to be brought to the table. I espeiclally like, that when the conversation breaks down, the breakdown itself has to be addressed before continuing to the original issue. "Addressed Adulthood"

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