By: Christopher Strong — a political analyst. He holds a BA in Political Science from Auburn University and MA in Geopolitical Studies from Charles University.
Deliberative democracy through citizens’ assemblies and similar events such as citizens’ polls, citizens’ juries, and more are gaining popularity worldwide. The growing popularity has some experts hoping that deliberative democracy can at least partially cure the deep polarization prevalent in US domestic politics today. The previous articles covered the history of deliberative democracy in the US up until 2000. This article will focus on the developments from 2000 to now to illustrate how deliberative democracy has evolved in the US. The article will accomplish this by mainly focusing on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) because they have extensively researched the topic, including identifying key criteria for deliberative democracy.
The OECD created a database for “Representative Deliberative Processes and Institutions,” which documents deliberative democracy worldwide. According to the database, there have been 14 cases in the US since 2000. Two of these were classified as being done at the local government level and the rest at the state/regional level. None of them was held at the national level of government. Nine of these 14 events documented by the OECD were held in Oregon. The rest occurred in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Mexico, and Arizona. Almost all of them were implemented by the NGO called Healthy Democracy. The Jefferson Center, the University of New Mexico, and Stanford University implemented the other events.
According to the OECD, the deliberative models used in the US consisted of three citizen juries, one deliberative poll, one citizen dialogue, one citizen’s assembly, and eight citizens’ initiative reviews. The first citizens’ jury took place in the Twin Cities metropolitan (Minnesota) area in 2001 to discuss options for dealing with solid waste. The jury was able to issue a report with policy recommendations. Following this, Vermont had a deliberative poll in 2007 to discuss how Vermont should meet its electricity needs in the future. This event increased the participants’ knowledge but did not lead to policy changes. In 2008 New Mexico held a citizens’ forum on the transportation needs and concerns of the community. As a result, New Mexico implemented over 50% of its policy recommendations, making it quite successful. In 2019 Milwaukie, Oregon, had a citizens’ jury to consider whether the City Council should have a pay increase. This was another successful event as the city council voted yes to the citizens’ recommendations.
The one citizens’ assembly documented by the OECD was also held in Oregon in 2020, where participants discussed how to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants produced policy recommendations that were given to decision-makers and members of the public. Another citizens’ jury took place in Eugene, Oregon, in 2021 to discuss zoning codes and housing. As a result of this event, over 50% of the policy recommendations were implemented. These events show that deliberative democracy can be applied to a wide range of policy issues in the US and that while the policy recommendations that are made are not always followed, the members come away more educated on the topic of discussion. An informed electorate is an essential aspect of a healthy democracy.
By far, the most prevalent deliberative democracy events are the citizens’ initiative reviews that have mostly been run in Oregon by the health democracy NGO. The citizen’s initiative review takes 24 citizens of a state for five days to study the issues that will be on the ballot in the upcoming election cycle. Much like citizens’ assemblies, the process brings in experts on both sides of the issue to ensure the participants can make an informed and balanced decision. At the end of the deliberation process, the participants decide on key facts, the best reasons to vote for a measure, and the best reasons to vote against it. These findings are then distributed to all the voters to help them make decisions informed by their fellow citizens. This process has been so effective that in 2011 it was made a part of the official elections in Oregon. This deliberative process brings people together and helps inform the populace on important issues. In addition, the citizens’ initiative review ensures that Oregon citizens can get a clear and unbiased view, which is crucial to counteracting news or campaigns that might be manipulating information. Oregon’s citizens’ initiative review is the most successful model in the US and, therefore, the most likely to be expanded to other states. In a country that is deeply divided, coming together to learn and help educate your fellow citizens is a vital service that will hopefully increase in popularity.
According to the OECD data, deliberative democracy events in the US are still few and far between. However, in addition to the OECD data, there are also other examples of deliberative democracy in the US that might not fit the criteria of the OECD but are adjacent, so they are worth mentioning to paint the complete picture. Organizations such as the Stanford University Deliberative Democracy Lab and the Center for New Democratic Processes are doing their part to grow deliberative democracy processes in the US. The Stanford University Deliberative Democracy Lab to expand deliberative democracy through deliberative polls in the US In 2019, they held a deliberative poll event called “America in One Room” in Texas concerning the 2020 election and had 500 citizens deliberate on issues and released the results to the broader public, so they were better informed. This event allowed people who didn’t see eye to eye politically to sit down and get to know one another, while discovering that they agree on more than they previously thought. They also have done other events since, including an online event in 2021 on climate change.
Furthermore, the Center for New Democratic Processes has been working on events in Northern states like Ohio and Minnesota. The Center for New Democratic Processes has held upwards of 20 events, including citizens’ juries, election forums, and more, that help build the foundations for deliberative democracy in these communities. Including these examples paints a healthier picture of deliberative democracy in the US.
The data provided by the OECD shows that deliberative democracy, while not extremely popular, has been rather successful in the US during the 21st century. This is particularly true of the Citizens’ initiative reviews that are now part of elections in the state of Oregon. Beyond this, though, the data shows that not only did participants gain a better understanding of the topics they had to discuss, but they also released policy recommendations that were implemented in some cases. Furthermore, there are organizations that have not been included in the OECD database but are nonetheless working hard to build up deliberative democracy in the US. For example, the Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab has plans to increase deliberative democracy in the US because the research so far indicates that deliberative democracy can go a long way in decreasing the intense polarization gripping the US. These events, combined with the events documented by the OECD, illustrate that deliberative democracy has been a small but positive force in the US in the 21st century. As the positive aspects of deliberative democracy continue to be noticed, hopefully, we will see wider implementation to ensure a healthy and educated electorate.
- Center for New Democratic Processes. “Our Projects.” Center for New Democratic Processes. Center for New Democratic Processes, 2022. https://www.cndp.us/projects/.
- De Witte, Melissa. “Could Deliberative Democracy Depolarize America?” Stanford News. Stanford University, February 4, 2021. https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/04/deliberative-democracy-depolarize-america/.
- FISHKIN, JAMES, ALICE SIU, LARRY DIAMOND, and NORMAN BRADBURN. “Is Deliberation an Antidote to Extreme Partisan Polarization? Reflections on ‘America in One Room.’” American Political Science Review 115, no. 4 (July 27, 2021): 1464–81. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003055421000642.
- Healthy Democracy. “Citizens’ Initiative Review – Healthy Democracy.” healthydemocracy.org. healthydemocracy.org, 2022. https://healthydemocracy.org/programs/citizens-initiative-review/.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “OECD Database of Representative Deliberative Processes and Institutions.” OECD Airtable. OECD, 2021. https://airtable.com/shrHEM12ogzPs0nQG/tblWOTlH2GTOznAgg/viwCpVFJ3HVZefig1/recbTuWttInZUga2E?blocks=hide.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD. Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions. OECD, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1787/339306da-en.
- Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab. “America in One Room Results.” DDL. Stanford University, October 2, 2019. https://cdd.stanford.edu/america-in-one-room-results/.
- “America in One Room: Climate and Energy.” DDL. Stanford University, July 19, 2021. https://cdd.stanford.edu/america-in-one-room-climate-and-energy/.
The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.