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Public Deliberation and Legitimate Governance, part 1


The Academic debate

Pepper D Culpepper, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy at Harvard University, Archon Fung, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard, and Taeku Lee, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkley compare the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll to the Citizens Consultations undertaken by the EU earlier this year, and analyse some of the underlying aims.

A specter of illegitimacy haunts the democracies of Europe. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said as much last month when he noted that political parties and elections in the UK fail to engage an increasing segment of Britons. In response, he called for new methods such as citizen juries to reconnect citizens with their allegedly democratic government.

If the problem of democratic legitimacy is acute in the United Kingdom, it has reached a critical stage in the European Union.

While the aggregate level of support for membership of the EU in Eurobarometer 67 hit its highest level since 1994, it remains a thin majority at 57 percent and there is a well-nigh forty percent spread between the most supportive member state (the Nether-lands, at 77 percent) and the least (Austria, at 36 percent).

Last year's failed referendums on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands (the most supportive member state, according to public opinion polls) simply underscored a widely known reality: while political elites of the center right and left are united in their support of some kind of greater European project, public opinion is much more skeptical.

Political elites of the center will say this is what leadership is about: making hard choices and convincing a skeptical public of their value. Even if this point were conceded, the problem of democratic legitimacy remains, reflected in the large and persis-tent gaps between elite and public opinion and between public opinion and public policy.

There are three responses to this situation: to deny it, to seek refuge in the familiar, and to innovate.

According to Andrew Moravscik, the most articulate and sustained proponent of denial, there is nothing particularly distressing about the character of European governance and, even if there were, nothing could be done about it. To accept Moravscik's view is to accept that European political decisions cannot be democratic in any sense worthy of that ideal. He may in the end be correct, but an obituary for democracy is in our view premature.

Favoring the second response, Simon Hix argues [PDF] that the surest path to European democracy is to scale-up familiar national political devices such as political parties and competitive elections. But why replicate the dance of party representation at the European level at a moment in history when the relevance of political parties and electoral politics seems to be declining? Perhaps the main reason - and it isn't a very good one - is that we take comfort in the institutions that we know, even when we know that they aren't working particularly well.

A third response is to seek innovations that are more democratically effective. Disenchantment with familiar political institutions has spawned a wide range of efforts to reconnect citizens to politics through the Internet, polling and surveys, social movement organizations, and interest groups.

Some of the most promising of these innovations bring citizens together from across Europe to deliberate directly upon various problems and policies confronting the union. Last year, for example the King Baudouin Foundation and several other organizations sponsored the European Citizens' Consultations. This weekend just past, Notre Europe organized a deliberative poll on Tomorrow's Europe. These two projects and several others like them have the potential to operate hand-in-hand with the other policy arenas in Brussels - deliberations of national policy elites, lobbying of interest groups, and the politicians and parties of the European Parliament - to enhance the legitimacy of European governance and so repair its current democratic deficits.

Several policy makers noted that an important contribution of European Citizens' Consultations was to generate a distinctive "citizens' perspective" on the European policy agenda.

The notion that there is a citizens' perspective that differs from the summed perspective of their elected representatives, various stakeholder and interest groups, or from the policy technicians who are charged with securing their welfare, or even from undifferentiated, cross-sectional public opinion poll results, is a tantalizing idea. If there was such a citizens' perspective and it were widely known, Europe's citizens could take the democratic measure of their politicians and bureaucrats by seeing whether they took this perspective into account in their decisions and policies.

But how should we reckon the citizens' perspective? Through deliberative polls? Public opinion polls? Town meetings? Citizen juries? Some other device? How do we know whether the results of some particular public deliberation reflect the citizens' perspective rather than the perspective of elites who sought to manipulate the proceedings?

Continue reading - part 2... 

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