Democracies around the world seem to lose appeal for growing numbers of citizens. Partly explaining this trend, citizens seem less and less able to steer, on the basis of substantial rational considerations, the course their societies have taken. Blind processes of modernization – rationalization, bureaucratization, economization, globalization – seem to have gotten out of control of democratic decision-making, causing a growing disinterest in those political institutions that should exert this control (Blokland 2006, 2011).

Many of the debates in Western social and political science and philosophy in the last decades have centered around concepts like citizenship, social cohesion, social capital, trust, or deliberation. Apparently, there is a widespread concern about “diminishing democracy” (Skocpol 2003), about citizens participating less and less in social and political associations, about citizens understanding less and less about social, economic and political processes and structures, and about citizens becoming more and more receptive to easy answers to complicated problems. Many scholars belief we urgently need to find new ways to participate meaningfully in social and political activities and, by participating, to strengthen political competences and political communities. Increased political competences would also enable the public to properly assess the many communications aimed at influencing or manipulating its opinion and behavior (Dahl 1950, 1989, 2000; Lindblom 1977, 1990; Wolin 1960; Bay 1965; Fishkin 1995, 2009, 2018; Putnam 1993, 2000; Gutmann and Thompson 2004; Dryzek 2005, Wolfe 2006).

Above and beyond, many scholars belief that citizens in our societies need to talk much more about normative or philosophical questions. Which values and goals should curb or direct currently unconstrained processes of rationalization, economization, bureaucratization and globalization? Which values, if any, define our shared identity and how should we go about to foster them? On the basis of which values and goals can citizens in increasingly diverse societies live peacefully together? Do citizens have an obligation to inform themselves about public affairs? To what extent should the state stay neutral towards different ways of life? Or, broadly: What do we consider a Good life and how does the Good society look like that makes this life possible? How “green” will this life and society be, and what consequences will this have for the values and aspirations that for a long time have been focal to our market democracies? For too long we avoided discussions on basics, also because we were afraid that these would never lead to any workable consensus and would only create conflicts that could escalate. For many years, avoiding discussions on fundamental values was also the advice of not a small number of political scholars (cf. Blokland 2011: 40ff).

However, not talking about fundamentals creates societies without knowledge and understanding of their own foundations, and, consequently, societies that in the end are unable to justify and defend themselves. Moreover, this abstinence nurtures political communities without the ability to decide what is important and unimportant, and to decide in which directions they should steer themselves. Not talking about these fundamental issues creates societies at the mercy of blind social and economic structures and processes that few understand, societies that broil hidden and undirected resentment, societies that fall apart.

Particularly in political communities that undergo rapid change, there is an increasing need to discuss and to delineate what binds people together. Instances of such swift changes are the migration or flight of substantial numbers of people and the resulting growth of cultural diversity in the receiving countries; fast economic transformations due to globalization and technological innovations; or drastic changes in physical climates and vulnerabilities. A vast political project like the European Union as well needs a normative fundament on which everything else can be build. The consequences of the lack of this fundament, and the lack of discussions with average citizens on the elemental values and goals of this union, have become all too clear in the last decade, leading among other things to populist movements thriving on and furthering anti-European sentiments. Brexit was not an incident.

To strengthen our democracies, we need to open new avenues for meaningful citizen participation and to develop new strategies to bolster civic and political competences. We have to further social integration and democratic participation, and to counter populism and radicalization. Citizens are wanted able to ascertain the worth of information and communication aimed at molding their opinions and perspectives. Citizens should be able to incite their governments to develop policies reflecting educated ideas and ideals on the Good life and the Good society. We must go back to big and authentic politics. A chart is needed about what we want our societies to be and how to get there (Blokland 2011: 339ff).

1 Deliberation: what, why and how

Fortunately, not only political scholars observe the urgency of a reinvigoration of democracy. In numerous countries, diverse political parties, civic organizations and government institutions are increasingly endorsing this urgency. This is certainly the case in Germany. Part of the explanation for this probably lies in German history and the resulting fear of the undermining of democracy. In any event, often with the support of German and European funders, Social Science Works has been able to implement a multitude of in particular deliberative projects aimed at strengthening democracy. On some of these projects and the deliberative ideas behind them I will report in this article.

We see deliberation as an open and courteous exchange of ideas and values, which furthers the discovery, understanding, contextualization and development of political preferences. In the nowadays prevalent consumerist or economic views on democracy the aims of political participation are mainly the transfer of preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies. How these preferences came into being, whether they are informed and can be justified, whether they are “political” in the sense that they address public issues of communities, are questions seldom asked for. In deliberative views on democracy these questions are pivotal, though. Deliberation is not primarily about individuals and their organizations fighting for their specific interests. Instead, it is foremost about the joint development of substantiated preferences regarding the public cause.

The focus on the participatory and deliberative part of democracy comes in waves. The Greeks were probably the first in the Western world. In the last century, Robert Dahl paid attention to it in his Congress and Foreign Policy (1950), reflecting on a first wave in the 1920s. In the 1960s, theorists such as Sheldon Wolin (1960), Raymond Williams (1961), Lane Davis (1964), Christian Bay (1965), Graeme Duncan and Steven Lukes (1963), Carole Pateman (1970) and Jack Walker (1966) took up the theme again, which thereupon vanished once more from the mainstream for almost three decades (see Blokland 2011: chapters 2, 3 and 8). Starting in the 1990s, influenced by the almost universally observed decline in support for existing democratic structures, more and more studies reappeared on alternative, deliberative forms of political participation and, among other things, on their effects on participants. James Fishkin (1995), a doctoral student of Dahl, became one of the main protagonists in these years.

Deliberation does not replace the existing democratic structures, but could be an important extension of these. Whereas existing political communications have become increasingly geared to the manipulation and manufacture of preferences, deliberation could help to diminish the gap between politics and society by offering new opportunities to get in an honest conversation about what keeps our societies together and what we collectively want to achieve. Therefore, deliberation could strengthen the notions and emotions of political community, civility and citizenship that democracies need to thrive. These notions and emotions have been undermined by defining democracy too much as a decision-making method (cf. Schumpeter 1942) in which power is central, inviting the contestants to gather electoral support with all possible means, including manipulation and deceit. Deliberation could bring back a bit of sincerity, civility and substance to politics.

1.1 Formulating decisions, advices or calls

The direct and indirect goals of deliberation vary with the particular context, as do the number of participants and the extent to which we seek them to be informed. Obviously, the chosen goal, the aspired number of participants and their desired level of awareness all influence each other. Several, partly overlapping goals are thinkable. First, deliberation could have as an immediate goal to make a final decision about a specific issue. This could be done via a referendum, involving all the voters, or via a mini public or citizens’ assembly, representing these voters. This option can be chosen when for instance the political system has been unable to reach a decision for a long period of time or when it is considered important, in the case of a referendum, that the decision is carried by a majority of the citizens and not just by their representatives. Instead of taking a decision, the (mini) public could also be asked to formulate an advice for a decision. In the event of a nation-wide issue, this advice could be directed to parliament, the government or the voters in a referendum.

Comparable to an advice, deliberations can end in a call on the authorities to develop or adjust policies in particular fields. Social Science Works organized deliberations on gender equality that had such an appeal as one of its goals. In another project, made possible by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, we invited groups of young people in the rural regions of Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt to organize a deliberation on a topic they themselves considered important. We offered the participants training in deliberation and the functions and workings of civil organizations and activities. Following this training, the groups explored for about half a year their issue of choice, communicating with, and building up, their audiences via social media. Thereupon, they could organize a one-day deliberative event that brought forth a call on the local community and authorities to develop or adjust policies (Blokland 2021 and 2022; Neebe 2021).

One of the groups for instance explored why so many young people were leaving their community and how the local government could make their town more attractive, so that these youngsters would stay, increasing the quality of life for all. Another group (“Meet over Meat”) examined topics closely related to meat consumption: animal welfare, human health (how much meat do humans actually need, what are the long-term effects of antibiotic use in the bio-industry?), alternative diets, groundwater pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, et cetera. For many in Brandenburg, it turned out to be a surprising discovery, that a simple reduction in meat consumption could be one of the most important contributions to combating climate change.

Doubtless, the foresight to exert actual influence, even to take final decisions, would significantly motivate citizens to participate in deliberations (cf. Elster 1986). So far, though, not many political systems have offered their populaces this opportunity. Most of the time, also democracies basically distrust their own citizens. It is no different in Germany, and certainly not in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR).[1]

Therefore, it is important to make clear to participants in deliberations from the very beginning what they can achieve through their engagement. In France, partly in response to the Yellow Jacket protests, a citizens’ deliberation on climate policy was established in 2019. The participation satisfied many of the 150 people that took part, but the fact that the vast majority of the proposals eventually formulated were not adopted by the government reinforced the feeling among many that they were not heard (Courant 2021). Therefore, when inviting people to participate in deliberations, it is of the utmost importance to inform them clearly and honestly about the goals of these meetings. Having the last word, is only one of the possible goals. An advice can also influence decision-making or public opinion. And when it does not immediately result in a decision or an advice to be taken seriously, deliberation can still strengthen citizens’ competencies to influence the decision-making process within the existing democratic structures.

Pivotal to the idea of deliberation is the development of substantiated preferences. How many people we would like to participate in a deliberation therefore varies. Obviously, the more, the better. But, since not everybody is always able or willing to invest the needed time, energy and opportunity costs, we need to balance the number of involved participants and the quality or the thoughtfulness of the decision or the advice. When we organize a referendum on fundamental and complex issues like entering or leaving the European Union, using nuclear power, or installing a national health service for all, we probably strive for the deliberative involvement of a majority of citizens, developing together a minimal insight in the particular complexities. When this kind of participation, due to a lack of resources, cannot be realized, it might be better not to have a referendum at all. Instead, one could leave the deliberation to members of parliaments, or to a sample of the population, representing the entire Populus.

All citizens could in principle participate in politics by casting a vote in elections. Although the rationality of this vote, also due to the massive efforts to manipulate it, is not impressive, it is not an option to do away with elections. Nevertheless, the thoughtfulness of the vote could be enhanced by for instance establishing a “Deliberation Day”. Ackermann and Fishkin (2004) proposed such an event, involving all registered voters, for the presidential elections in the USA. All around the country, citizens would gather for a day in community centers to discuss in small groups the main electoral issues at stake. Only after these informed discussions would they vote. To further the participation of less privileged groups in our society, people would be financially compensated, as is also common in the American Jury-system.

Ackermann and Fishkin proposed this Deliberation Day almost two decades ago. These kind of encounters between Democrats and Republicans seem quite improbable in today’s American culture war. Comparable wars have been developing in European democracies like England, France, Italy, Poland and Germany. Still, this sad fact only shows how important deliberation has become, and how long the road has gotten to return to a situation where open-minded conversations between citizens representing different political affiliations are thinkable again.

1.2 Strengthening of political community and cohesion

A second, more general goal of deliberation could be the strengthening of political community by fostering a shared understanding of those values and goals that make this community possible. Deliberations prior to referendums or elections could of course also contribute to the realization of this goal. Obviously, the higher the number of people that participate in these exchanges, the more this goal could be reached.

Initially, Social Science Works was enabled to implement these kinds of deliberations with migrants and refugees. The authorities assumed that above all these people needed to be integrated in the German political community. Exchanges on its core values were considered to be key to this. There is no reason at all, though, that only newcomers have a need for integration. It was telling that many German civil volunteers that were helping refugees to settle down, soon found out that they themselves had difficulties to define and justify the very same values that the government considered constitutive for their political identity. Therefore, institutions like the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge) soon after enabled Social Science Works to organize deliberations for civil volunteers as well. These helped them to retrieve and understand the values that they were supposed to communicate to migrants and refugees. Other governmental funders followed supporting us to talk to more and more groups of people.

And so, in a huge number of deliberative workshops, we tried to develop together, mainly by asking questions and feeding discussions, an understanding of the pivotal values of an open, democratic society: what are these values, how can they be defended, how do they hang together, how can they be understood and justified as an interwoven pattern of values and insights on (social and political) life. Together with our participants we also tried to dig deeper for preferences, values, and goals than daily life and communications normally allow.

We have organized hundreds of deliberative workshops and events with an ever-increasing variety of participants: average German citizens, adolescents, schoolchildren, social workers, civic volunteers, civil servants, Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, long term unemployed people, alienated and angry citizens with right-wing populist sympathies, and refugees from about twenty different countries and with many more different social, cultural and religious backgrounds. These deliberations were usually spread out over several meetings and could each take up more than twenty hours in total. We discussed topics like ethical and political pluralism, democracy, civil society, freedom, personal autonomy, tolerance and respect, identity, integration, discrimination, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, gender equality, homosexuality, the mutual fears of natives and newcomers, sustainable development, the pandemic of loneliness in the western world, and the frustrations, fears and hopes of regular citizens (see Blokland 2017).

In a project made possible by the city of Potsdam, we brought together representatives of the Islamic religious community gathered around the local mosque with people of other beliefs. On ten consecutive Sunday afternoons we examined together to what extent the perspectives of the various groups on values such as democracy, pluralism, freedom, tolerance, gender equality, sustainability differed from each other. These differences turned out to be quite minor. In particular the local Imams appeared to be fearful, however, that members of their flock would come to this understanding (see Blokland and Neebe 2020).

1.3 Strengthening of political competencies

Furthering the political competencies of citizens could be a third goal of deliberations. Deliberations may well be useful to inform the participants about an issue at stake, assuming that there is still enough agreement in our democracies about what can be considered as plausible, not wholly biased information. Clearly, the moment we deny the possibility to discuss values and facts in any meaningful way, the whole idea of deliberation does not make much sense any more. Apart from having some knowledge about politics and society in general and about the issue on the agenda in particular, political competence also encompasses the ability to discuss ideas and values in such a way that mutual respect and understanding are furthered, and that sometimes even compromise and agreements are reached. It is an often-observed, depressing fact that we appear to have lost the ability to deal with different opinions and views. Political disagreements have become culture wars between intolerant tribes closed up in their own narrow-minded truths. Deliberations teaching people the art of disagreement seem wanted.

In a much-covered, apparently for many, eye-opening speech in Hamburg, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, the President of Germany, formulated it as follows: “Some people confuse the right to freedom of opinion with the claim that everyone else shares their opinion. Or with the right that every assertion, no matter how absurd, must be taken seriously. But anyone who expresses an opinion in public must of course expect his or her statement to be scrutinized and contradicted. Unfortunately, this matter-of-course attitude is being lost more and more. Perhaps this is also due to those media that we have become accustomed to calling social, and which are now being used more and more for expressing opinions. On the same device that allows me to send my unfiltered opinion out into the world, I can wipe away contrary views with the flick of a finger. This leads to a claim to absoluteness, but it is deceptive. Because in the real world, you can’t just flick away contradictions and opposing views. You can only endure them and dispute them in open dialog. What we need again is a culture of debate or conflict. A culture of debate initially admits that others have good intentions. A culture of debate does not spare others any contradiction, but neither does it spare itself any self-criticism. A culture of debate does not treat others with kid gloves, but it also does not allow a verbal iron fist to speak. Argumentative culture opens not only one’s own mouth, but also one’s own ears. Argumentative culture requires the desire to convince and the openness to be convinced if necessary. The culture of debate therefore needs both courage and composure” (2019, my translation).

In the last decades, political parties, religious institutions and civic organizations have lost many (active) members, and these bodies have insufficiently been replaced by other ones. As a consequence, people have less opportunities to exchange information, views and visions, and, accordingly, to develop the informed preferences we need. Room has increased for sloganeering and manipulation, and for political parties, organizations and leaders that deliver answers too easy for increasingly complicated problems. Less and less citizens also learn how to deal with complexity and with diverging and opposing standpoints. Democracy, the ability to listen to others, to enrich one’s own positions, and to compromise, has become harder to learn.

Interrelatedly, the connection between information bearers, academics and other scholars on the one hand, and citizens on the other hand, has to a high extent been broken. Scholars hide in ivory towers searching fruitlessly for universal and eternal truths, and citizens drown in the bubbles of their Facebook and Instagram streams. Citizens are less and less informed, and every disliked piece of information is progressively defined as “Fake news” or “alternative fact”.

Therefore, we need new platforms where we can learn again the art to agree and disagree. With this in mind, Social Science Works provided platforms where citizens could discuss important social and political issues of the day. In towns like Potsdam and Eisenhüttenstadt we set up two-hours meetings on Sundays or mid-week evenings where citizens, after an introduction of 25 minutes by somebody who knew a little bit more about the chosen topic, could deliberate the matter with the help of a moderator, while having coffee and cake. We made an effort to invite especially those people that normally do not often participate in this kind of meetings. An additional effect of these meetings, by the way, is that they make a contribution, much appreciated by many participants, to reducing loneliness, one of the greatest epidemics of today, especially in East Germany.

1.4 Furthering the awareness of a problem

Another important contribution that deliberation could make to democracy, is the fostering of the awareness of a problem. Obviously, to solve a societal problem, there first needs to be a minimal awareness of its existence. This is certainly the case when the problem is constructed, sustained and reproduced by our daily communications and decisions, and when this happens, as is often the case, in unconscious, unintentional and implicit ways. Deliberation can be a strong instrument to further this awareness. In a deliberation one scrutinizes together the beliefs and assumptions behind our attitudes, preferences, views and actions. These are made explicit and are thereupon evaluated.

An example of this is gender equality. As mentioned above, this was one of the topics about which Social Science Works organized in-depth deliberations. Like in many other countries, most of the laws needed for gender equality are installed in Germany, but women and men are still treated unequally and are unevenly using, or enabled to use, their capacities. The awareness of the problem and the costs of not acknowledging it, is apparently low. Diverging assumptions about men and women are deeply ingrained in German culture and reproduced over and over again in all possible ways. Therefore, these assumptions, their reproductions and their consequences need to be explicated and evaluated. In our deliberations on gender, we addressed several related topics: How big are the current inequalities in different spheres of life? What could explain these differences? Are changes possible, from a biological, historical, sociological and political perspective? What are the personal, social, political and economic costs of gender inequality? What could women as well as men, children and families gain from less inequality? What societal structures and processes impede the reduction of the present inequalities? What changes do we need, in our ideas, in our daily lives, in the organization of our societies, and in our policies to create more equality? And what kind of support or policies do we expect from the state? (see Blokland 2019)

In an ideal democracy, all citizens would on a regular basis make time to discuss themes like these in depth. In their discussions they would get input from those experts that have more time to reflect on the themes in question. The insights needed to solve social problems could then spread faster than is currently the case. We do not live in an ideal democracy yet, but we could start with experiments that would reflect the ideal.

In almost all our deliberations with different groups of people we discussed gender equality. Besides, we organized two-day deliberations with different groups in which we exclusively addressed the issue. At the beginning of the deliberation, we polled the participants and asked them questions that covered the topics mentioned above. In this way we got an impression of the present beliefs. During the following days we discussed with our participants up-to-date information about the issue at hand. After the deliberation, we polled the participants again, and researched to what extent and in what direction they had changed their mind and to what extent their knowledge on the topic had improved. This gave us an indication how citizens would think about this topic, when they first would have an informative, preference-building deliberation (cf. Fishkin 1995, 2018). It also gave us an indication what kind of deliberations we need to bring the current assumptions, prejudices, preferences, or views more in line with what we have learned so far about the topic in the relevant academic disciplines.

The power of deliberation was certainly evident in our conversations about gender equality: the discussions quickly brought participants to related fundamental topics such as the definition of “work,” the desired pay for different forms of “work,” the place and organization of work in society, the family and over the life course, and the ways in which businesses and other organizations are led today, ways that are not infrequently an expression of masculine attitudes that might make it unattractive for some to pursue top positions and that undermine values such as solidarity, responsibility, sustainability and community.

Thus, a fourth goal of deliberation could be the furthering of the awareness of a problem and its possible solutions. Gender, racism and social and political inequality are examples of topics in need of public deliberation. Another one is sustainability. Questions about the causes and the consequences of climate change and about adjustments in behavior that would effectively contribute to countering global warming, are not always easy to answer. Deliberations with significant numbers of citizens, acting as multiplicators in their own communities, could support the spread of plausible answers and the needed adjustments in individual behaviors and (political) preferences. As already remarked, in one of our projects a group of youngsters in a Brandenburg town organized for instance a deliberation on the closely related topic of meat consumption. In their “meet over meat” communications on Instagram they hammered down that moderating meat consumption is one of the most effective ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. Not many people appeared to be aware of this.[2]

1.5 Translation of vague uneasiness into problems and issues

A next, related goal is the translation of vague uneasiness into problems and issues that can be put on the public and political agenda. C. Wright Mills wrote in his The Sociological Imagination: “Instead of troubles – defined in terms of values and threats – there is often the misery of vague uneasiness; instead of explicit issues there is often merely the beat feeling that all is somehow not right. Neither the values threatened nor whatever threatens them has been stated; in short, they have not been carried to the point of decision” (1959: 18). No other than in the fifties, in our days citizens are sometimes overwhelmed by the social constellation in which they find themselves. They have frustrations, grievances and angers, but lack a clear understanding of their causes and their possible solutions. Deliberation can be an instrument to bring clarity in this vague uneasiness and help people to search for issues or demands on which politics can act in a meaningful way.

In this spirit, in one of our projects we approached more than a thousand East German citizens who had expressed very dismissive and aggressive views about refugees, the press and the current political system on social media. Via Facebook-Messenger, Email or phone, we invited them to a Saturday deliberation in a hotel to dig with us into possibly deeper causes of their frustration and anger (see Blokland 2017). Naturally, we served a simple yet nutritious meal from the bürgerliche Küche (hearty cuisine) around noon. In our conversations in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder, among other places, these citizens quickly came together to the conclusion that the migrants who had come to their communities in greater numbers in 2015 could already logically have had little to do with the mass unemployment, fractured personal lives and disruption of local communities that had emerged in East Germany after German unification in 1989. Their frustrations had deeper causes and their possible solutions lay in other areas than they had been regularly led to believe. This rarely needed to be explained to them: it was usually already sufficient to let those involved talk to each other, correct each other and only occasionally ask, “why do you think that?”

1.6 Informing politics about the public’s world of experience

A last possible aim of deliberations that is closely related to the one above, is to inform governing bodies about the public’s world of experience. In the last decades, politics, press and also academia have been surprised time after time by the outcome of elections and referenda, or by sudden outbreaks of popular discontent. Many examples of these surprises and even shocks come to mind: the presidential election in 2016 bringing Donald Trump to power, the Brexit referendum in 2016, the recent surge of populist parties all over the western world, or crowds of enraged citizens suddenly marching the streets with regularly rather unclear or diffuse claims. In Germany one can think of the so-called Wutbürger (“enraged citizens”), the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), rallying the streets in 2014 and 2015, or even the protests and demonstrations in 2020 and 2021 against the governmental responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Time after time, politics, press and academia were to a high extent in the dark regarding the motivations, frustrations and grievances of the people involved. It is striking that up to today there is often still no thorough research on the backgrounds of these people, making it also difficult for politics to address their anger and to avoid a next outbreak. Regularly and unproductively, the angry citizens are all swept in a big pile and are defined away as unemployed, uneducated, ill-informed, disturbed or even worse – fascists, Nazis, anti-Semites, and conspiracy-theorists. No doubt, in every protest it is possible to find these people, sometimes even many of them, but often there is more to the picture than this. Deliberating with citizens on a regular basis, instead of just delivering speeches to voters at election-times, might help to get a better picture about their experiences, hopes, fears, troubles and grievances and might prevent the accumulation of sentiments that at some moment can burst out in rage.

In two of our more recent projects for the European Union, we talked to about 500 students between the ages of 16 and 18 about Europe. The discussions took place in small groups at 20 different schools in Berlin and Brandenburg. We used a (Mentimeter) survey, to be filled out by mobile phone, where the answers were immediately available and the dialogue could be shaped accordingly. What did the students know about the EU, what did they consider its core values and goals, what expectations did they have, what went well, what needed to be improved? After the class discussions, the students chose a representative who discussed the ideas and expectations of their classmates at a meeting with all other envoys as well as with the nine Europarliamentarians from Berlin and Brandenburg. In the context of school social studies, the representatives then linked what was discussed back to their classmates. Among other things, it was striking that much greater efforts were expected from the European Union in such intangible areas as the environment, art and culture, democracy, human rights, (national and international) equality and solidarity. Economic growth we had had enough by now (see Blokland and Perrin de Brichambaut 2022; Neebe and Blokland 2023).

2 In closing: deliberation and pluralism

If the overall goal is the development of informed preferences or ideas, then deliberation also relies on specific presuppositions about what knowledge is and how we can obtain it (cf. Blokland 2011). Under the influence of factors such as post-modernism, social media and populism, this has become a major theme today. Adherents of deliberation generally believe in plausibility: through a confrontation of different viewpoints and different methods of arriving at those viewpoints, one is more likely to achieve a persuasive position rich in empirical and normative content and perhaps even wisdom. As in the social and political sciences, rather than viewing reality from the perspective of one particular paradigm, it is better to ensure the existence, confrontation and mutual enrichment of a plurality of positions. Since there are usually several plausible perspectives on the issue at hand, deliberations require a sincere presentation of these perspectives.

Adherents of deliberation are otherwise neither relativists nor skeptics. They assume that there is a minimum set of values that is universally perceived and understood; that it is always possible to explain and justify the weight one has assigned to certain values in particular circumstances; and that one can give plausible, intersubjective interpretations of empirical phenomena. No fact is “hard,” “brutal” or unquestionable. Yet people have more to offer than an infinite number of “alternative facts.”

These pluralistic principles have implications for how deliberation is practiced (see Blokland 2018). At its center are not teachers or experts explaining a single truth. instead, deliberation involves the participation of a variety of stakeholders and citizens representing different perspectives, each willing to enrich their own perspective with that of others. Deliberation must ensure that all these different viewpoints have a fair chance to be heard. Deliberation should be an invitation to participate in the social conversation. In order to strengthen our democracy, it is very important to restart these dialogues at all possible levels. The goals of this extend importantly beyond decision making. It is about the development of a pluralistic democratic culture whose participants understand the art of both disagreeing and agreeing.


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[1] It should be noted that almost all of the deliberative projects that we implemented and are mentioned here were supported by German federal governments and institutions. The government in Brandenburg rejected almost all of SSW’s proposals to implement deliberations, often with quite astonishing aversion.

[2] It is heartening that meanwhile also the European Commission sees in this kind of deliberations an effective instrument for reaching the goals of its “Green Deal”: decoupling economic growth from resource use and zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. The Greendeal Call (LC-GD-10-1-2020) reads as follows: “There is need for citizens’ active participation concerning the European Green Deal at all stages of the transitions. This is particularly the case of complex issues with diverging views or interests at stake… Such issues can best be addressed through participatory processes involving citizens from different cross-sections of society across Europe… Modalities of participatory processes differ according to goals and expected outcomes, from harnessing diversity of knowledge, expectations and views in order to improve knowledge quality and enrich the inputs to policy discussions; up to creating ‘mini-publics’ in order to extend the arenas of public discussion and improve the representativeness of policy decisions. For these processes to be effective, participants should be equipped with appropriate tools and information, they should be strongly connected to decision-making bodies …  and they should be empowered to reflect, deliberate and propose change at a systemic level.”

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