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Keywords:

  • deliberation;
  • citizens;
  • deliberative polling;
  • European Union;
  • democratic legitimacy

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

In this article, we critically discuss the democratic legitimacy of deliberative experiments taking place in a transnational setting. We argue that while deliberative polls through scientific design may enhance equal participation and informed opinion making of selected citizens, their representative status as part of a broader constituency and as a generator of democratic legitimacy is less clear-cut. To illustrate our argument, we analyse the results and organisation of Europolis, a transnational deliberative experiment. This is an ideal case for analysing the linkage between scientific validity of deliberative experiments and democratic legitimacy because it introduces variation in terms of constituency and group plurality. By critically scrutinising this deliberative event, we provide a first take on specifying scope conditions for deliberation, with direct reference to the lessons from the experiment, reflection on methodological problems and, finally, an attempt to discern ways to move from deliberation to will formation in the EU setting.

Deliberative experiments, like citizens' assemblies, citizens' juries, town meetings and deliberative polls, are designed to provide a microcosmic snapshot of deliberative practice among lay citizens (Dryzek, 2010; Fung, 2003; Thompson, 2008). As such, they often rest on the assumption of the representativeness of the bounded deliberative event to act as a proxy of the general interest. Even though deliberative mini-publics are rarely viewed as a replacement for established forms of representative democracy, the experiments are nevertheless promoted as a tool that can (or should) inform government about the distribution of votes and the direction of public policies. There is thus the explicit or implicit claim that a scientific sample of ordinary citizens can be considered as representative of the polity as a whole, ‘acting as’ or ‘standing for’ the reasoned judgements and considered preferences of ideal citizens (Fishkin, 2009).

In this article, we critically discuss the issues of discursive quality and democratic legitimacy in deliberative experiments taking place in a transnational and pluri-lingual setting. Our main argument is that while deliberative experiments through careful scientific design and organisation may enhance equal participation and informed opinion making of selected citizens, their representative status as part of a public constituency and as a generator of democratic legitimacy is less clear-cut. Notwithstanding their artificial and experimental status, mini-publics are innately political. Deliberative experiments address political issues, engage citizens in debate and make claims to have public relevance. Claims to scientific validity in such experiments are, then, not self-standing but explicitly linked to the democratic politics of citizens' participation and public deliberation.

Concretely, we argue that the democratic legitimacy of the collective will expressed by randomly selected citizens also needs to feed back into procedures of public authorisation and accountability. The latter refers to the validation of the legitimacy claims raised by deliberative mini-publics through publicity, contestation and debates that mediate between informed opinion making of selected participants and the collective will of all. To corroborate such assumptions about the democratic legitimacy of deliberative experiments, mini-publics must be scrutinised with regard to the degree to which their concerns, arguments and justifications are disseminated and resonate with debates of the wider public (Parkinson, 2006).

To illustrate our argument, we analyse the results and organisation of Europolis, a transnational deliberative experiment that took place one week ahead of the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. This European deliberative poll is an ideal case for analysing the linkage between the bounded validity of deliberative mini-publics and democratic legitimacy because it introduces variation in terms of constituency and group plurality under the controlled conditions of a scientific experiment. By critically scrutinising this deliberative event, we provide a first take on specifying scope conditions concerning the link between citizen deliberation and popular will formation, with direct reference to the lessons from the polling experiment, reflection on the methodological problems associated with this undertaking and, finally, an attempt to discern ways to move from deliberation to will formation and from specific to general – systemic – legitimacy in the EU setting.

In the next two sections, we reconstruct the controversies within deliberative theory regarding how to assess the discursive quality of deliberative mini-publics and we define the scope conditions for the generation of democratic legitimacy. In a subsequent step, we address the experience and organisation of deliberative polling among European citizens, which poses additional challenges of operationalisation and applying conventional criteria of normative assessment. On this basis, we scrutinise the claim of transnational deliberative polling to constitute a ‘microcosm of European citizens’ and to represent the collective will of the Europeans. Finally, we draw some conclusions on the potential impact of deliberative mini-publics on the democratic design of transnational (European) politics.

The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

Deliberative mini-publics are regarded as the ‘ideal community’ of citizens, mostly because participants show mutual respect for each other and because they provide a representation of informed opinion making (Dryzek, 2010; Fishkin, 2009). This ‘microcosm assumption’ implies that ‘smaller deliberative bodies can perform as if they are the larger populations’ (Ralston, 2009). The yardstick for postulating the existence of a deliberative microcosm is, then, the validity of the scientific experiment (Fishkin and Luskin, 2005, p. 295).

The main aspects of discursive quality within deliberative mini-publics are based on the following assumptions: discussions should: (1) pay respect to each participant and offer a fair chance to be heard (securing political equality between participants); and (2) be ruled by the informational and substantive value of the arguments (focused on epistemic value). Empirical research on discursive quality has, consequently, for the most part analysed micro interaction between citizens within deliberative experiments (see, e.g., Andersen and Hansen, 2007; Fishkin and Luskin, 2005; Grönlund et al., 2010) or elected politicians in parliamentary debates (Steiner et al., 2004).1

The normative requirements of political equality and the epistemic value of deliberation are, however, not uncontroversial. First of all, it has been noted that both requirements always rely on some form of trade-off (Eder, 1995). The march towards political equality has, therefore, the potentially unintended consequence of diminishing deliberation, whereas any increase in the epistemic value of deliberation seems to entail a loss in equality. The epistemic version of deliberative democracy considers deliberation as a cognitive process – bent on finding just solutions and agreements about the common good. Deliberation's epistemic value rests on the imperative to find the right decision. In contrast, the participatory version of deliberative democracy highlights the active involvement and empowerment of citizens in collective will formation as a necessary condition for the creation of democratic legitimacy. Deliberation has thus primarily a moral value, driven as it is by the imperative to allow for equal participation of all (Fishkin and Luskin, 2005). The question is: how can deliberation be both epistemic and moral at the same time? In other words, the vexing issue is how it can be made effective as a way of common problem solving and, at the same time, be justified through the consent of all who are potentially affected by it (Eriksen, 2007, p. 302).

These controversies within deliberative theory point to two different readings of political equality. From the epistemic perspective, political equality is understood primarily as equal participation and respect among the participants of a ‘closed’ deliberative setting. In combination with other standards of epistemic rationality such as level of justification, common good orientation and agreement, these indicators are used to establish the validity of bounded deliberation (Bächtiger et al., 2010). From the participatory perspective of deliberation political equality needs to be recognised in a broader sense as the inclusion of all potentially affected citizens in political will formation. Only in this latter sense can political equality also be considered as a sufficient condition to establish the democratic legitimacy of deliberation (Habermas, 1996). Deliberative polling is ambivalent with regard to this double reading of political equality, which is used to confine the scientific validity of the experiment, on the one hand, and to generate democratic legitimacy, on the other. By extrapolating its findings, deliberative polling turns the validity of a bounded scientific experiment into a generalised validity claim with regard to the political empowerment of the voice of deliberating citizens as the legitimate voice of the demos.

From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

In the following, we argue against this epistemic reading of deliberation which puts the scientific validity of political equality in deliberative settings on an equal footing with democratic legitimacy. To account fully for the democratic potential of public deliberation, we need to go beyond the discussion on how to secure political equality and public engagement scientifically. As such, we emphasise that deliberative mini-publics are part of democratic processes. On this score, John Dryzek (2010, ch. 8) charted the varied (potential) macro consequences of mini-publics for political systems, but did not specifically address the issue of democratic legitimacy. The macro-political consequences of deliberation in mini-publics have been studied by Simon Niemeyer (2011) who focused on how to articulate publicly the preference formation of deliberative mini-publics. We discuss the micro–macro link of public deliberation by specifying the conditions for generating democratic legitimacy rather than analysing the actual process of deliberative preference articulation. For that purpose, we propose to distinguish clearly between the scientific validity of bounded deliberative settings and the generalised validity of legitimacy claims raised in the public sphere. In addressing this question, we are positioned at the interface between what Simone Chambers has labelled the two branches of deliberative theory: democratic deliberation and deliberative democracy (Chambers, 2009). Democratic deliberation can be defined as non-coercive face-to-face dialogue marked by equality between participants in terms of inclusion in the debate and justificatory practice through arguments and reason giving (Elster, 1998, p. 8; Habermas, 1996, pp. 305–6). While deliberation in bounded settings is always in some form dialogical and interpersonal, deliberative democracy on the other hand refers to a general model of legitimacy, public discourse and mass politics (Chambers, 2009, p. 309; Habermas, 1996).

We define democratic legitimacy as the process of justifying the acceptance of a political order through publicly raised claims of generalised validity and inclusion of all affected parties (Habermas, 1996, ch.7; Peters, 2005). By emphasising the process character of the generation of democratic legitimacy as the contingent result of public deliberations (Benhabib, 1994), we approach the sociological core of legitimation research that is concerned with justification processes and the social (or cultural) embedding of generalised validity claims (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). In applying this ‘new realism in legitimation research’ (Gaus, 2011) to deliberative polling we do not want to arrive at a normative reformulation of democratic legitimacy as applied to the EU. We rather spell out the conditions under which a social practice of democratic legitimation can operate and create substantive societal resonance (Parkinson, 2003, p. 83). In other words, this definition of democratic legitimacy and deliberation runs counter to the risk of assuming ‘that the outcomes of actual deliberations instantiate a “sufficiently close” approximation of ideal deliberation’ (Rummens, 2012, p. 7). In assessing the democratic impact of deliberation in mini-publics, the focus will be placed on the uptake of micro deliberation in public deliberation, in normative and substantive terms.

We therefore argue that (1) equal participation and (2) informed opinion making relate to the scientific validity of the deliberative setting but are not sufficient to generate democratic legitimacy. In order to transform a private and experimental deliberative setting into public deliberation with the potential to claim democratic legitimacy, two additional requirements need to be met. We contend that in order for deliberative bodies to generate democratic legitimacy, they need to make certain (3) that they represent the informed opinions of the general public (representation of public judgement) and (4) address and potentially include all the citizens to whom collective decisions apply (creating publicity and public accountability).

In modern mass democracies, inclusion in terms of equal participation and informed opinion making is only achieved by relating group deliberations back to the criteria of representation and publicity. It is by embedding deliberative procedures within the public sphere that agreements based on sound reasoning in deliberative bodies can be linked back to the more diffuse opinions of those citizens who cannot be present in the deliberative rounds. Deliberative settings are indeed discussed in the literature as ideal situations which must stand the validity test of representation and publicity (Bohman, 1996; Manin, 1987; Stasavage, 2007). Through representation, the claims that are raised in small group discussions and the conclusions reached are held to be valid for a broader constituency. Through publicity, the validity of these claims can also be externally contested, further justifications provided and conclusions revised. As Chambers (2009, p. 344) argues, citizens' forums are ‘fully democratic … only to the extent that they can convince the general public that they have made policy choices worth pursuing’. Other democratic experiments, like the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly, have therefore focused on the trust-based uses of deliberative mini-publics in democratic politics (Mackenzie and Warren, 2012; Warren and Pearse, 2008). The attention then shifts from the deliberating citizens to the general voters and the profile of the experiment as an element of public discourse and campaigns. In the next section we analyse the results of Europolis deliberative polling in light of this double requirement of scientific validity of the experiment and democratic legitimacy.

Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

If the democratic credentials of deliberative experiments are ultimately relying on the establishment of procedures of public authorisation and accountability, this raises some fundamental questions with regard to the recognition of the polity and its underlying constituents as reference points for the generation of democratic legitimacy. Deliberative experiments are often designed under the assumption of a taken-for-grantedness of the polity and constituency dimension (for instance, as the statistical entity from which a sample is drawn), but rarely pay attention to the ‘politics of recognition’ through which particular groups constitute themselves and accept political authority. The unfinished character of the EU polity and the contested nature of its underlying constituency challenge these assumptions. Political authority of the EU is neither legally consolidated nor socially accepted (Fossum and Trenz, 2006). Under these conditions, the validity and democratic legitimacy of deliberative polling can no longer be defended by relying on the background assumption of a relatively homogeneous and monolingual population but must take into account the existence of pluri-ethnic and pluri-lingual groups with different degrees of fragmentation as well as shifting minorities and majorities.

As the democratic constituency of EU politics is clearly less settled and more contested than in, for instance, local or national settings, a transnational mini-public provides a strong test for the public status and democratic legitimacy of experiments in lay citizen deliberation. Europolis experimented with variation in terms of constituency and group plurality under the controlled conditions of a scientific experiment.2 Randomly sampled participants of Europolis were not members of a pre-established demos or a fully recognised and taken-for-granted political community. This exacerbates, then, the artificial nature of the deliberative poll and further complicates its translation into politically relevant public deliberation.

The experiment consisted in allocating participants to several groups speaking two or more languages. The debates specifically addressed climate change and immigration, two high-profile issues in recent years. By facilitating and testing the political outcomes of deliberative practice, Europolis allowed assessment of opinion transformation that is likely to occur as a result of raising political awareness of randomly selected citizens and engaging them in thoughtful argumentation and dialogue. Europolis dealt with more than these issues of practice with regard to the constituency of deliberation and the group dynamics. By addressing questions regarding multi-level decision making and the division of competences between national and EU institutions Europolis also crucially reflected the vexing issue of democratic legitimacy and citizens' involvement in European politics.

How can deliberative polling in a transnational setting simultaneously promote the values of deliberation and political equality and spell out procedural guarantees for representation and publicity? As a starting point for deliberative polling, political equality is defined as ‘equal consideration of everyone's preferences’, where ‘everyone’ refers to some relevant population or demos, and ‘equal consideration’ means a process of equal counting so that everyone has the same potential ‘voting power’ (Fishkin and Luskin, 2005, p. 285). In turn, ‘deliberation’ refers to procedures of ‘weighing’ competing considerations through discussion that is informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive.

In Europolis, the requirement of political equality was handled through random sampling and a claim to statistical representativeness. By validating the accuracy of the application of methods, the organisers of the event could claim to have created a ‘scientifically selected European microcosm’3 which revealed how Europeans would think if they had a better opportunity to be engaged in processes of reasoned opinion and will formation. Random sampling relies on a notion of statistical or ‘descriptive representation’.4 Based on a scientific logic it guarantees that every citizen has an equal chance to be selected as a participant and that the selected sample mirrors the larger constituency in socio-demographic terms such as age, gender and social class. Political equality is thus equated with equal participation of randomly selected participants and the inclusiveness of the deliberative setting towards contributions from all relevant groups within society. While the deliberative mini-public mirrors the public at large, it allegedly has the potential to empower its members equally to voice their opinions on the issues at stake in contrast to the anonymous mass public. In the following sections, we first critically assess the claim that Europolis constituted a ‘microcosm’ of European citizens by upholding scientific criteria of validity (equal participation and informed opinion making through statistical representativeness). In a second step, we ask whether the sufficient conditions are met for a microcosm of randomly selected citizens to generate democratic legitimacy (in terms of representing the public judgement and creating publicity for its generalised claims of validity).

A Microcosm of European Citizens?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

One frequent argument in the debate on the applicability of European deliberative democracy is that the underlying entity is too heterogeneous and dispersed to form a citizenry that is able to authorise and control political authority (Grimm, 1995). In this ‘no demos’ view, the people of Europe cannot properly be identified and described by socio-structural indicators that could form the basis of statistical analysis. In the organisation of deliberative polls as well, both random selection and authorisation of the participants as a representative ‘microcosm’ rely on a pre-existing constituency. It therefore makes a significant practical difference whether the microcosm of citizens is recruited from a relatively homogeneous group of local citizens or whether it represents the many populations of Europe.

The dynamics of deliberation in the transnational setting relate to the constitution of constituencies. The people of a European democracy is invented, imagined and mobilised as part of the ongoing deliberation process about the future shape of democracy in Europe (Fossum and Trenz, 2006). How can deliberative polling deal with such fundamental contestations about the constitution of constituencies? As the constituency of European democracy is less settled in comparison to well-established nation states, it is all the more interesting to probe the epistemic value, political equality and inclusivity of the deliberative microcosm in Europolis.

In deliberative polling, the epistemic value of deliberation is enhanced by providing unbiased information to the participants and scientific monitoring of the event. In the case of Europolis, balanced briefing materials were used to pre-structure the discussions. During the event, group discussions were accompanied by trained moderators who encouraged plurality of voices and opinions, and ensured that all major proposals and counterproposals were addressed, thus facilitating opinion change and convergence. Opinion formation was further facilitated by experts and politicians who responded to questions from the participants.

In terms of the political equality and inclusivity of participation measured by the statistical representativeness of the selected participants, the available data5 from Europolis point in somewhat different directions. On basic background variables such as gender, age and education, participants in Europolis deviated from non-participants only to a small extent. In terms of age groups there was virtual parity between participants and the control group, while for gender there was a slight over-representation of male citizens taking part in the deliberative poll. There was also a slightly higher percentage of students among the participants, and a somewhat higher level of education.6

The picture changes, however, when turning to the issue of class. Here, the sample was clearly less representative. In Europolis there was a strong over-representation of the so-called ‘upper middle class’ (38.17 per cent versus 24.88 per cent in the control group) and equally strong under-representation of participants from a ‘working-class’ background (23.96 per cent versus 38.28 per cent in the control group). This aspect is crucial for the assessment of Europolis, not least as it is more difficult to pinpoint the popular constituency of EU democracy than in a national setting. Several studies on popular opinion have indeed highlighted a class and educational divide regarding support for the EU and European integration (Gabel and Palmer, 2006; Petithomme, 2008).

As Europolis was set up not only to gauge substantive policy issues but also to prod citizens' views on European institutions and the distribution of competences between the EU and national levels, this deviation in terms of class background may have contributed to biases in the deliberative process and in the participants' responses. Hence, while Europolis can document isolated opinion change due to participation in the deliberative event itself, it is less obvious that we can draw sound conclusions regarding the EU polity dimension and thereby the democratic legitimacy of the small-scale deliberation in public terms. Participants in Europolis also had a much higher score in voting intention (82.3 per cent intended to vote, 9.8 per cent not to vote) in the EP elections than the control group (65.2 per cent intended to vote, 20.2 per cent not to vote). This may be an attribute of relatively higher education and the specific class belonging of participants. As such, it seems that self-selection has created a certain bias in Europolis towards individuals who on average are more politically engaged, both in terms of choosing to participate in a political event like the deliberative poll and in terms of electoral participation.

While there are some impediments to political equality in terms of statistical representativeness on an individual basis, the distribution across nationalities was clearly more representative. There were no major deviations from the control group, except for a slight under-representation of most of the larger member states. Nationality is important for the equality of participation in the Europolis deliberative poll as the idea behind its transnational character was to reflect the diversity of the democratic constituency of the EU. Here, Europolis succeeded in giving the different member states more or less the same standing in relative terms. The question remains, however, whether this effort has contributed to a solution regarding the establishment of a transnational constituency for democratic will formation in the EU. Upholding the ‘unity in diversity’ slogan of the EU does not suffice for the requirement of political equality to be met in democratic terms. As such, the contingent status of the democratic constituency in EU politics highlights the artificiality of conceiving that one can replicate human interaction in a deliberative context. An uncertain constituency runs counter to the claim of deliberative pollsters that a statistically valid sample has democratic implications as a consequence of its scientific status. Even statistically ‘perfect’ samples do not create democratic constituencies. In other words, we argue that the democratic status of deliberative polling must go beyond a statistical notion of representativeness. It must also reflect the substantive linkage between bounded citizen deliberation and the informed opinions of the general public.

Representing a European Public Interest?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

The claim for the validity of deliberative polling is not simply grounded in the statistical representativeness of actors. Deliberative polling combines a scientific validation of political equality and informed opinion making with a notion of public consequence and legitimacy through the representative status of the experiment. Random sampling is thus used as a method to arrive at public judgement. Deliberative experiments construct an artificial mini-public that would otherwise not have materialised. Acting as a ‘surrogate’ for democratic deliberation a deliberative experiment is nevertheless held to be innately political, both in terms of constructing a platform for debate between lay citizens and in its alleged link to macro-publics. The claim of deliberative pollsters is that the experiment has a revelatory function of what would be the considered judgement and opinion of citizens (see Luskin et al., 2002). In this last sense, the deliberative microcosm ‘represents’ public judgement and not actors. In this view, the results of deliberative polling reflect what people speak, not what people are (Fishkin, 2009).

On the basis of deliberative polling, citizens assembled in Europolis did not represent the uninformed voters of EP elections but rather constituted an ‘ideal public’ which, in contrast to the actual choices of the electorate, arrived at collectively expressed positions on substantive policy issues, on the EU polity and on European political parties. Most importantly, these positions on European integration were not pre-given but shaped through considered deliberations. According to deliberative pollsters they thus take the shape of public opinion and not of individual attitudes (as, for instance, measured by Eurobarometer). In assessing deliberative polling, it has therefore been ascertained that the opinions expressed and the choices made by citizens after deliberation can be more reasoned and different from the actual voting results (Fishkin, 2009, p. 137).

The microcosm of European citizens is therefore linked to political representation not simply in terms of the actors who constitute it. Random sampling of citizens is rather seen as a guarantee to ‘represent’ the informed opinion of Europeans. Through this experimental design based on scientific methods, the deliberative poll is then introduced as a political tool to combine moral and expert judgement. Based on this combination, deliberative pollsters assert their double claim to scientific authority regarding the representative status of the experiment and the public relevance of its outcomes. In the case of Europolis, the representativeness of the experiment was approached by designing the deliberative poll in such a way as to ensure that every European citizen had an equal chance to participate and that the sample represented the whole population of Europe in a statistically significant way (see Fishkin and Luskin, 2005, p. 287).

Although deliberative polling is scientifically designed to enhance its role as a representative mini-public, it is important to keep in mind that statistical indicators are not neutral. They are not legitimate per se, but need to be justified. We cannot take for granted that the process of drawing a sample and selecting respondents will necessarily lead to the ‘recreation’ of a poly-lingual and multinational community of citizens. Representation and the creation of a viable public are not seamlessly linked to equality in numbers in statistical terms. There are many possible reasons for groups (or particular members of the groups) to deviate from equal representation of all as guaranteed by random sampling. Scaled systems of representation are typical for federal systems, in which group rights or territorial representations play a more important role than the equal representation of individual citizens. Moreover, deviations from the ideal random distribution of citizens are frequently applied in representative democracy, for instance through minority rights or quotas for women. In the EU, a multi-level system of political representation through experts, stakeholders, national and European parliaments, governments of the member states and the EU bureaucracy has developed (Crum and Fossum, 2009).

A second, more serious argument is that the forum of citizens that is selected by random representative sampling is not legitimate per se, but needs to be authorised by the broader constituency (Brown, 2006). Authorisation comprises several components: the selecting agents, the selection procedure and the results. Not only do the participants of public deliberation need to be recognised as legitimate speakers, but also the selection agents (in this case the scientists) and the deliberative setting must be recognised as appropriate by a broader constituency (Rehfeld, 2006, p. 7). In classical representative theory authorisation usually takes place through elections. Participants of citizens' fora who stand for public deliberation could, in principle, also be elected but this would open a selective process that ‘distinguishes’ elected representatives from the lay public.

Random sampling is instead meant precisely as a procedure to avoid the ‘distinctiveness’ of elective representation. As such, it is usually defended by deliberative pollsters not by way of an explicit consent of the constituency but as a universally valid procedure authorised by science (Parkinson, 2006, p. 134). This method is not only seen by supporters as the more accurate procedure to represent ‘lay publics’, it also potentially depoliticises the setting through the aim of avoiding conflict, does not create majorities and minorities, and thus guarantees high degrees of acceptance by citizens. This mode of scientifically securing and depoliticising representativeness of the deliberative poll is also argued as having the additional advantage that it is not limited by social scale: ‘It does not make any appreciable statistical difference whether the same size sample is representing a town, a city, a small nation, or the entire European Union’ (Fishkin, 2009, p. 96). The claim here is that the randomly sampled citizens have a type of lay authority; they are legitimate precisely because they are not experts or persons distinguished by the preference vote of their fellow citizens (Fishkin, 2009, p. 98).

Despite random sampling, participants of deliberative polls are, however, not cut off from political representation. There is a potential disjuncture between ‘representativeness’ in the statistical sense and ‘representation’ seen from a traditional principal–agent perspective (Parkinson, 2006, p. 139). Even if random sampling under the conditions specified by deliberative polling is accepted as an alternative mechanism of selection to elections,7 the experimental setting encourages the participants in numerous ways to play the role of representatives of the larger citizenry. In Europolis, participants were gathered not only to address specific policy issues, but to emerge as a common public with an enhanced European identity. Still, the transnational character of the deliberative poll was also prevalent in this sense. National diversity was equally important to European unity. The nationality of participants was highlighted in the small group discussions. While all viewpoints were encouraged to be ‘tabled’, it is not unlikely that participants situated themselves first as representatives of their home country, for instance through storytelling (see Polletta and Lee, 2006).

As such, political representation and accountability in the case of citizens' fora come back through what Jane Mansbridge (2003) calls anticipatory representation. Accountability in citizens' fora is not meant in the sense that single participants are formally held accountable for their opinion, but rather as a way of ‘giving an account’ to the broader public and to the scientists who accompany the event (Brown, 2006, p. 210). The participant must argue in a way that is acceptable to the other participants or, in the case of conflict within the group, position themselves and seek to formulate positions agreeable to others. Experts or like-minded politicians, for instance, can be used as a yardstick to measure the representativeness of the opinions expressed by the participants. If sufficient publicity of the deliberative polling event is guaranteed, participants of deliberation also need to anticipate possible public reactions. They need to contest for public recognition as representatives of ‘reason’ and ‘good arguments’ that can be accessed and weighed by the broader audience. The publicity condition is thus crucial to defending the democratic legitimacy of deliberative polling in relation to equal participation and representativeness of the opinion expressed.

The transnational setting of Europolis has seemingly affected the conditions for meeting the criteria of public deliberation. The generalised validity of arguments and opinions has to be defended and political equality has to be justified as the inclusion of all potentially affected citizens in public will formation. To meet these criteria, the mirror image of a European citizenry that is created through statistical representativeness also needs to ‘shine back’. It needs to create public resonance within the wider audience of citizens that ‘reflects’ the validity of the propositions made in the democratic experiment.

Putting the scientific validity of the democratic experiment on an equal level with democratic legitimacy can otherwise lead to serious misreading about the status of deliberative polling in relation to democracy. If deliberative polling arrives at a more accurate and scientifically grounded representation of public judgement, one is easily led to the assumption that it should also replace general elections as the more legitimate expression of the collective will of the people, or could be used to conceive the representative judgement of the microcosm as a substitute for the judgement of the whole. We could then perfectly imagine deliberative polling as a tool to arrive at public judgement while the whole body of citizens no longer need to bother to deliberate at all (Brown, 2006, p. 216), thus leading to the potential abandonment of deliberative democracy from mass democracy (Chambers, 2009). Deliberative polling would, then, take on the role of a democratic replacement rather than of an experimental surrogate for the non-controllable diversity of public spheres.

If we argue, on the contrary, that the legitimacy of the public judgement expressed through deliberative polling cannot be based only on statistical representation but needs to be recognised through a broader process of public will formation, the problem emerges of how the ‘representative opinion’ of the microcosm of the experiment can be disseminated to the broader public sphere. If citizens' deliberation ‘represents’ a combination of the best epistemic and moral judgement available, it needs to be channelled into ongoing societal deliberations. This continuity between citizens' deliberations in the experiment and public deliberation is arguably more difficult to achieve in a European setting than in national politics. One way to approach this aim consists in selecting topics that are expected to become salient during election campaigns. The planners of deliberative polling will however face difficulties in predicting what will become topical in future elections and, in addition, have to pay tribute to the varieties of campaigning style and content between the member states.

The ‘representativeness’ of issues in Europolis was allegedly safeguarded by selecting immigration and climate change, two issues that could potentially guarantee high degrees of salience and contention in all member states, and which could further build on a common history of debate that forms the knowledge of European citizens. Although they were not hot campaign topics during 2009 election campaigns, both topics were regularly addressed in public and media debates and became the subject of partisan contestation. Deliberative polling also generally aims at pre- and post-event publicity to spread the results and the opinions generated during the event among the population at large and to discuss their validity. Through publicity, the deliberative poll is meant to offer a mirror for citizens, one that permits them to consider themselves as ideal citizens and which serves the important role of indicating the policy choices of an informed citizenry to the politicians. Media broadcasts are therefore seen as a ‘helpful adjunct to the design – a way of motivating both the random sample and the policy experts and policy makers to attend, of educating the broader public about the issues, and, perhaps, of nudging public opinion in the direction of the results’ (Fishkin and Luskin, 2006, p. 184).

At first glance, Europolis had ample opportunity to address this public aspect of deliberation. The choice to launch the event close to the 2009 European Parliamentary elections was made to enhance the event's public relevance. In disseminating its results and informed opinions at the level of mass political communication, the event encountered additional hurdles which need to be discussed in relation to the specifics of the transnational setting. One problem relates to the character of EP elections as ‘second-order elections’ (Reif and Schmitt, 1980). The Europolis experiment evokes an imaginary EU constituency, for which EP elections would take on a new meaning as first-order elections. This is contrasted with the debates held at the level of mass politics with low degrees of contestation, a focus mainly on national topics and actors and, finally, the spread of Euroscepticism in interpreting the relevance of the EU.8 Europolis thus created an idealised contrast image of a European public sphere which, following the dominant logics of mass political communication, cannot simply be amplified by national mass media. The topics addressed by the deliberative poll were obviously of transnational political relevance, but cannot generally be easily reconnected to the wide-ranging and domestically oriented questions that tend to dominate national debates.

Another problem relates to the fact that EP campaigning is generally not focused around policy issues and solutions but around politics in terms of party competition and the images of candidates. Party cleavages were made less salient in the topics of debate chosen for the polling experiment, which rather required agreement on global solutions and the expression of consensus that ‘something needs to be done’. One component of the experiment consisted precisely in cutting the participants off from the ‘imperfect’ world of political communication at the level of mass media communication. By blending out parallel lines of conflict, the likelihood of expressing consensus on single issues is potentially enhanced. At the same time, the chosen issues invited ‘soft deliberation’, in which self-interest is not part of the process of exploration and clarification.9 Immigration and climate change were discussed as topics that required collective choices and invited the single participants to speak as a ‘we’ in defence of collective goods and not of personal interests. It does then come less as a surprise that the discussion of environmental issues turned participants ‘greener’ with a tendency to change voting preferences in favour of green parties.10

We emphasise, then, the discrepancy between an idealised deliberative mini-public and the structural weaknesses and fragmentation of the general public at the level of mass political communication. However experimental and scientifically valid deliberative mini-publics are, general publics are formed not randomly, but as channels of discourse on concrete and tangible issues of political importance. Without the requisite channelling of the ‘experimental’ opinions of deliberative participants to the reality of debate in general publics, deliberative experiments do not yield popular will formation in the democratic sense. When the participants of Europolis were gathered in Brussels in May 2009, there were relatively high hopes for the media impact of the event and thus widespread dissemination of its purpose, design and results. The news value of the deliberative experiment was, however, drowned out by the nationalised debates of the European Parliamentary elections. Consequently, the transnational deliberative poll did not receive substantial public and media attention. At the two press conferences held before and after the event, the Brussels-based media correspondents were difficult to mobilise. Moreover, EU correspondents clearly have limited impact on EP election campaigning, which is mainly reported by domestically based journalists. This latter group was even more difficult to reach, since no systematic media contacts could be built at member state level through, for instance, decentralised press conferences or press releases in several languages.

This fragmented character of a European public and media sphere constituted the main hurdle to publicising the event and claiming general legitimacy. In other words, to clarify these mechanisms of dispersed media attention deliberative democratic theory needs to relate back to international comparative media analysis, which has highlighted the cultural and system specificity of public deliberation cultures (see Esser and Pfetsch, 2004).

Why is public dissemination so essential for the legitimacy-enhancing potential of the instrument of deliberative polling and its overall political significance? The vexing issue of all mini-publics is how to link the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’. As we have seen, advocates of deliberative polling claim to have found the solution to the micro–macro link of deliberation through random sampling which secures representativeness of the so-called considered opinions of the participants. Democratic legitimacy requires, however, a justificatory process in which arguments, claims and results are addressed to and scrutinised by a general public. This public dissemination can take several forms, but the most prevalent one is through independent news media which give varying interpretations of the results from the mini-public and set the stage for wider public debate.

Yet it has been argued that the role of the media might not always be beneficial for the public resonance and legitimacy of mini-publics (Parkinson, 2006, p. 179). The results from the deliberative process might be distorted and too much emphasis put on, for example, polarisation or conflict rather than the consensus and common ground that developed in a deliberative forum. But this only holds in cases where there was at least a modicum of public and media interest in the process of and results from a deliberative experiment. When this is lacking, the accountability problem of micro deliberation that John Parkinson highlights is in fact exacerbated: ‘accountability … is only generated between participants, not between participants and non-participants’ (Parkinson, 2006, p. 100). The upshot of this in theoretical terms is that while the validity of bounded deliberative settings can more or less be controlled ex ante through specified procedures and statistical sampling of participants, the conditions for the ex post transmission of its results at the level of mass political communication will remain contingent. Democratic legitimacy can therefore only be generated through public deliberations, which in the context of Europolis would mean mediation between the mini-public of 348 randomly selected citizens and the general public of some 500 million Europeans.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies

The Europolis deliberative poll provides important insights into the mechanisms and dynamics of generating democratic legitimacy in the EU. As part of the experiment, several hundred lay citizens were deeply engaged in discussions which to a significant degree transformed their opinions on specific policy issues and increased their intention to vote in the subsequent European elections. This was perhaps all the more surprising as Europolis took place under pluri-lingual and multicultural conditions. As the EU is riddled with deficits in many directions – democratic, legitimacy, participation, to name only a few – these results from the bounded deliberative venue of Europolis could lead us to conclude that deliberative experiments of this kind form part of a solution to the problem of the democratic deficit. In this view, the engaging of ordinary citizens through deliberative experiments could be one way to deal with the conundrum of public discontent with EU policies and institutions. EU politics is increasingly politicised and Europolis brings with it evidence that the opportunity to engage in real debate is a more effective means to mobilise political participation than endless media campaigns and public relations exercises courtesy of EU institutions that address passive and, for the most part, non-attentive citizens. By giving citizens the opportunity to discuss and voice opinion in respectful dialogue, deliberative polling raises awareness of the complexities of political decision making and democratic legitimacy. In short, it could be argued that Europolis created a microcosmic European ‘public’.

The quotation marks in ‘public’ are, however, not coincidental. We have argued in this article that the contribution of deliberative polling to EU democracy ultimately depends on the public transmission of its bounded opinion formation to have an impact on the will formation of the general public. As such, we have emphasised that the ways in which the deliberation of face-to-face publics can be mediated to the general public is under-theorised. There is, however, no straightforward process from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro’, from group deliberation to public deliberation. This has led us to question whether scientific authority alone can be sufficient to generalise the validity of the results of the experiment and defend them as publicly legitimate. The deliberative opinion of the European microcosm of citizens cannot simply invalidate the non-deliberative opinion of the diverse and fragmented European mass publics.

On the one hand, Europolis provides sufficient evidence for the potential of deliberation to empower a heterogeneous group of citizens who do not share the same language and are not socialised in the same political culture. Deliberative polls can thus be seen as a valid tool to avoid the effects of group polarisation that are consistently found in homogeneous deliberative group settings (Sunstein, 2009). High degrees of solidarity and pre-existing affective ties among participants of the same national community even increase these effects of group polarisation (Sunstein, 2009, pp. 42–4). Participants in transnational and pluri-lingual settings are confronted instead with plural views and new information which prevent the unjustified extremism of familiarity and closeness. Under these favourable conditions, they develop ‘habits of listening’ (Doerr, 2009) and turn into more attentive and informed citizens. The upshot is: deliberation works better if it includes diverse people. As Cass Sunstein (2009, pp. 142–3) claims, ‘[c]ognitive diversity is crucial to the success of deliberative democracy’.

On the other hand, we argue that as much as Europolis has provided important insights into the possibilities of cross-cultural deliberation in a pluri-lingual setting, it has also highlighted the limits of deliberative mini-publics as instruments of democratic reform of the EU. In particular, the European setting poses an additional challenge to meeting the requirement of publicity which consists of fostering general public debate and drawing the attention of the broader audience. European deliberative settings need to address and respond to multiple sectoral and territorial constituencies. With increasing dissent and a higher degree of political conflict in contemporary Europe, not least as a consequence of a more diverse Union after Eastern enlargement, there is little evidence that the fragmentation of the European public spheres will be overcome in the immediate future. Public scrutiny and debate on political decision making – whether at the national, European or global level – are still predominantly national phenomena. A transformation of political culture and media in Europe would be required for bounded deliberation in settings like Europolis to have political significance for others than the participants. Deliberative mini-publics have a limited potential to trigger such a transformation of political culture, as long as there is no supporting infrastructure for political communication through which European issues would have to be understood and debated as having a European impact as well as empowering a European representative body with full legislative authority. The upshot of this is that carefully crafted experiments such as deliberative polling cannot in and of themselves provide sufficient ‘cures’ for the malaise of democracy in general or the democratic deficit of the EU in particular as long as citizens' deliberations are not supported and amplified by a broader communicative infrastructure of the public and media sphere. Last but not least, this missing link between the deliberative mini-public and the ‘public at large’ relates back to the well-known deficits of the EU in terms of consolidated democratic procedures and the identification of the citizenry as a constituency of European democracy.

In line with Chambers (2009, p. 331) we therefore conclude with a note of caution that deliberative mini-publics in a transnational, pluri-lingual setting cannot replace representative democracy: ‘Unless we have a good grasp of how the broader democratic context can be shaped to complement, or at least not undermine, deliberative experiments, then many of the democratic advantages of mini-publics will be lost’. Focusing on the application of the critical yardsticks of representation and publicity, this article has drawn attention to some mechanisms through which the lost link between democratic deliberation and deliberative democracy can be re-established.

Notes

We thank the three anonymous reviewers, Meng-Hsuan Chou, Irena Fiket, John Erik Fossum and Daniel Gaus for comments on previous drafts of this article. The article was presented in the workshop ‘Frontiers of Deliberation’ at the ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops, 12–17 April 2011. We thank the participants and especially the discussant John Parkinson for their challenging comments and suggestions.

  1. 1

    The research field on deliberation has expanded in the last two decades. For overviews, see Dryzek, 2010; Thompson, 2008.

  2. 2

    Deliberative Polling® is a trade mark of James S. Fishkin. A further specification of research design and method is found in Fishkin and Luskin, 2005.

  3. 3
  4. 4

    See Pollak et al. (2009, p. 11) for more on the notion of descriptive representation.

  5. 5

    The data from the questionnaires are publicly available from: http://cdd.stanford.edu/polls/eu/

  6. 6

    ‘Level of education’ was measured in terms of ‘age of completion’.

  7. 7

    Selection by lot is not unprecedented in the history of democracy, and indeed was the preferred mode of Athenian democracy to select representatives from the body of citizens (Manin, 1997).

  8. 8

    This is based on findings from a parallel analysis of online media debates at the level of mass communication of the 2009 EP election campaigns in twelve member states (Michailidou and Trenz, 2012).

  9. 9

    A general critique of blending off self-interest from deliberation is found in Mansbridge et al., 2010.

  10. 10

    See http://cdd.stanford.edu/polls/eu/ under the heading ‘Results’ for data on voting intentions before and after the deliberative poll.

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  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies
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Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Epistemic and Moral Value of Public Deliberation
  4. From Scientific Validity to Democratic Legitimacy
  5. Transnational Deliberative Polling: A Test Case for the Generation of Democratic Legitimacy
  6. A Microcosm of European Citizens?
  7. Representing a European Public Interest?
  8. Conclusions
  9. References
  10. Biographies
  • Espen D. H. Olsen is a Senior Researcher at ARENA, Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo. He holds a PhD in political science from the European University Institute, Florence. His main research interests are in the areas of citizenship theory, European citizenship, EU democracy and constitution making, and political theory. His main publications include Transnational Citizenship in the European Union: Past, Present and Future (Continuum, 2012), and articles in Journal of European Public Policy and Perspectives on European Politics and Society. Espen D. H. Olsen, ARENA, Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, PO Box 1143 Blindern, 0318 Oslo, Norway; email: e.d.h.olsen@arena.uio.no

  • Hans-Jörg Trenz is Professor in European Studies at the University of Copenhagen where he coordinates CEMES, The Centre for Modern European Studies in the Faculty of Humanities. He is also adjunct Professor at ARENA, Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo. His main research interests are in the areas of media, communication and public sphere, civil society, European civilisation and identity, cultural and political sociology, social and political theory, and democracy and constitutionalism in the European Union. His main publications include The Politicization of Europe (with Paul Statham, Routledge, 2012) and The New Politics of European Civil Society (with Ulrike Liebert, Routledge, 2010). Hans-Jörg Trenz, Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, Njalsgade 20, 2300 København S, Denmark; email: trenz@hum.ku.dk