As hard as it may be to believe — especially in times of government shutdowns and partisan paralysis — people of different backgrounds and beliefs really can get together to discuss tricky issues and reach a consensus. Productive political discourse isn’t just a utopian fantasy. Recent history has shown that rigorous, thoughtful debate can change minds and shape policies, but harnessing this power isn’t simple.

Partly spurred on by the dysfunction of the times, researchers are taking a close look at the conversations in legislatures and city halls with the ultimate goal of building new systems that produce better results with less acrimony. One particularly promising approach is “democratic deliberation,” a type of discourse where a group of people analyze a problem, gather facts and suggest potential solutions. Jury deliberations are the classic example, and governments and researchers are now experimenting with approaches that essentially take such jury-type discussion out of the courthouse and into the world at large.

People have much to say when given the chance, says John Gastil, a scholar of political discourse at Penn State University. In the right circumstances, he adds, a group of citizens chosen at random may have more insights into policy than a group of elected politicians. Gastil explored recent and ongoing experiments in democratic deliberation in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. If understood and deployed correctly, he writes, careful deliberation just might help save democracy from itself.

Knowable spoke with Gastil about the failures (and occasional successes) of discourse in the US Congress, real-life examples of deliberation that offer room for optimism, and the future of political dialogues. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So what exactly is democratic deliberation?

Deliberation involves a group of people — maybe a jury, a group of citizens or a legislature — engaging in a robust, fact-driven conversation about an important issue. It becomes a democratic process when it involves an inclusive group where each member has an equal opportunity to participate without any one person dominating the process. The group can be large or small, elected or randomly selected.

Put those two concepts of democracy and deliberation together, and you get the whole beauty of the approach. When you’re open to those sorts of discussions, you learn about each other and you also become more informed about the issue.

How did you get interested in democratic deliberation?

My parents were Quakers, so I went to a lot of Quaker meetings as a child. Those meetings were heavy on empathy and thoughtful analysis, all of the things that sometimes help Quakers make good decisions. Both of my parents ran unsuccessfully for Congress. The back-and-forth political arguments sometimes made the dinner table a dangerous place. I did debate in high school and college, and I realized you could apply those same skills in a more productive way. Instead of just scoring debate points against an opponent, people could have conversations that mattered.

A chart depicting all the pieces needed for successful democratic deliberation, including inputs (such as facts, participants and ground rules), the process (such as rigorous discussion and democratic participation) and outcomes (such as new attitudes, points of consensus and sound decisions).

Though the precise process of democratic deliberation may differ from one example to another, here — in broad brushstrokes — are the basic inputs, processes and outcomes.

Are people really able or willing to deliberate anymore?

People are actually very interested in participating in democratic deliberation if the conditions are right. First and foremost, they have to feel like their participation matters. Nobody wants to waste their time, so they don’t want to show up if the agenda has been preset and the conclusions are precooked. Also, deliberation can break down if there’s too much conflict between participants or if just a few people dominate the conversation.

How are you and other researchers studying deliberation?

Deliberation is a vibrant field of study, but there are challenges. Randomized trials are difficult to conduct. A 2015 study in Social Science and Medicine made a valiant effort. The study split nearly 1,000 participants into 76 separate groups across the US to discuss health-care issues. When tested later, the groups that participated in democratic deliberation showed a greater understanding of the role of medical evidence in health-care policy decisions. The results were modest, but the study did show that a group of diverse people really can dive into important issues in a controlled setting.

Europeans have been aggressive in studying deliberation. Various experiments and projects have brought citizens together to discuss issues, including contentious topics such as climate change and immigration. Among other things, participants in the discussions showed a greater willingness to make small personal sacrifices for the public good and became more likely to identify themselves as Europeans and not just citizens of their country. The projects showed that diverse groups from different countries can find common ground.

But there has been some blowback lately. Some participants were complaining that the deliberation didn’t immediately lead to new laws or policies. But what were they thinking was going to happen? These are just demonstration projects. They can’t magically compel people to action.

What’s an example of deliberation in action?

Probably the best example is jury duty. It’s a reminder that deliberation is not some alien thing, and it’s not foreign to the American experience. It’s actually embedded in our legal system, and we have a lot of reasons to be confident in the results.

Deliberation can render verdicts, but it can also shape policy. One famous example is the Irish referendum of 2018 that effectively legalized abortion in that country. Many people felt that the constitution was somewhat out of date, but members of parliament were reluctant to tackle the issue head on. They created a deliberative body that was two-thirds randomly selected citizens and one-third members of parliament. That body considered the constitution and came up with a whole bunch of recommended changes, which gave the parliament the opportunity to put referendums in front of the general public without taking any responsibility or blame. They were simply giving the public what they asked for. The referendum passed easily by a roughly 2–1 margin, but it might not have happened without the deliberation.

Photograph of Irish citizens celebrating on May 26th, 2018, after passage of a referendum to repeal a broad abortion ban enshrined in the country’s Constitution. Democratic deliberation played a key part in the genesis of the referendum to overturn this constitutional rule. The Irish Parliament went on to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later if the mother’s health is at risk.

Irish citizens celebrate on May 26, 2018, after the passage of a referendum to repeal a broad abortion ban that was enshrined in the Irish Constitution. Democratic deliberation played a key part in the genesis of the referendum. The Irish parliament went on to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later if the mother's health is at risk.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO / PETER MORRISON

Why involve randomly selected people? Isn’t it the job of politicians to shape policy?

Choosing people at random makes a deliberation more legitimate. You need to have diverse experiences and viewpoints. For a counterexample, just look at the US legislature. Historically, the lack of diversity there has been remarkable. The last election added a little more racial and gender diversity, but there’s still at least one big difference: Members of Congress tend to be far wealthier than average members of the general public.

But selecting people completely at random isn’t the only or necessarily even the best approach. You can screen potential applicants to make sure that the group represents the public demographically, including by age, race, gender and socioeconomic status. That process is called “sortition.” In 2004, British Columbia created the Assembly to study a proposed new voting system. Instead of picking names at random out of a phonebook to include on the Assembly, organizers actively recruited some indigenous people to make sure they were heard from. They may make up a relatively small percentage of the population, but their voices carry great importance.

Whether they’re selected entirely randomly or screened to ensure diversity, the resulting group is known as a “minipublic,” literally a miniature version of the public at large. The power of the minipublic is that it takes the simple concept of jury deliberation and moves it out to a macro level. That’s the biggest, hottest trend in democratic deliberation research: understanding how minipublics work and figuring out new ways to harness them.

A screenshot from the classic 1957 courtroom movie, 12 Angry Men. Juries are a prime example of democratic deliberation in action. Governments and researchers would like to expand the approach to broader settings.

Jurors at work in the classic 1957 movie, 12 Angry Men. Juries are a prime example of democratic deliberation in action; governments and researchers would like to expand the approach to broader settings.

CREDIT: ALBUM / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

It’s tempting to think about minipublics at the highest level of politics. I cowrote a book (with Erik Olin Wright), coming out later this year, called Legislature by Lot. It proposes a cool but as-yet-untested idea: a government where half of the body is elected and half is selected at random with appropriate sorting. Some are willing to take the idea even further. What would happen if we completely replaced politicians with randomly selected people who truly represent the nation as a whole? That thought experiment is the topic of a widely viewed TEDx Talk by Brett Hennig, founder of the Sortition Institute. 

Can randomly selected people make good decisions?

Definitely, especially when they have access to the facts and everyone has a chance to contribute. In 2011, Oregon established the Citizen’s Initiative Review, a panel of 24 randomly selected citizens who study proposed initiatives and write up a one-page summary that all voters can consult before casting a ballot. One of the first topics they tackled was Measure 85, a proposal to divert some corporate taxes to public schools. Most panel members supported the measure, and their work seemed to increase awareness of the proposal, which voters approved in 2012. Massachusetts is now considering a similar approach. Since 2010, California has used a minipublic — created through a combination of screening and random draws — to help redraw boundaries of legislative districts. I think these sorts of initiatives will become more common in coming years. It’s a way to keep the public informed and engaged.

Why do members of the US government seem to have so much trouble talking to each other?

President Trump is uniquely averse to the deliberative approach. That’s not a partisan thing to say. He’s just not a believer in it. His entire administration is the absolute polar opposite of the conditions you need for high-quality deliberation. Take, for example, the border wall. He announced ahead of time what the answer was going to be before he invited any discussion. But the problem is a lot larger than Trump. Right now, both political parties view any gain by the other side as their loss. They aren’t looking at facts and carefully weighing options, and they aren’t weighing everyone’s opinion evenly. It’s pure power politics.

That said, there’s still room for real deliberation and real results. Look at the sweeping criminal justice reform bill that the president signed into law after it passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support in December 2018. A lot of people are scratching their heads over that one. How did it happen? It was a slow and quiet process of deliberation between members of Congress who cared about the issue. It also had the backing of Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father had spent time in prison. As much as we are doomed by the incredible low quality of deliberation at the federal level of the US, we can’t help ourselves. We sometimes do good things.

A chart describes the basic process for Oregon's Citizens’ Initiative Review, which deliberates on ballot measures.

Here is the basic process for Oregon's Citizens’ Initiative Review, which deliberates on ballot measures. You can read more about the effort here.

COURTESY OF HEALTHY DEMOCRACY

The civil rights movement is another encouraging example. Across a period of decades there was a national dialogue going on about race and equality. Those conversations helped our whole society move forward on the issue.

What do you see for the future?

Minipublics are going to seep into society. The success of the Irish referendum process and various citizen assemblies around the world is going to spark a movement. More groups will be put together for more purposes, including experiments and new attempts to shape and inform policy. I want to be there when it happens and study the heck out of it because it’s going to be fascinating. How will it affect public attitudes and the quality of deliberation?

The other big thing is that deliberation is inevitably going online. I sometimes call the Internet the Democracy Machine, because it really does connect people and let them express their views. But we all know how some people behave on the Internet. If we want people to have productive deliberations, we have to set up a system that rewards good behavior. The reason Uber drivers and their passengers are so polite is that they know they are rating each other. Video games have found ways to manage their online chat functions. It’s quite doable, it’s just a matter of time and investment.