Putting your hand up for public deliberation

Lyn Carson, University of Western Sydney

Ben Berger Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011 (216 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-468-9 (hard cover) RRP $70.95.

Ben Berger’s book Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement focuses on the lack of substantial political interest and involvement by the American public, and the issues he raises and the prescriptions he provides are worth examination well beyond those shores. The ‘attention deficit democracy’ in the title refers to ‘the reality that most citizens enduringly pay much less attention to political issues and action than most theorists’ ideals have prescribed’ (p. x). It seems rather odd that Berger defines an apparently real phenomenon as the failure of ideals that he does not subscribe to in the first place. This is only one of many oddities encountered in this interesting but rather frustrating book.

It was probably ill-advised for the publisher to approve the same title as another book published by James Bovard (2005). But while Bovard is bothered by the lack of public accountability for political misdeeds, Berger focuses more fruitfully on the challenges of engaging a public that is largely uninformed or misinformed about political matters. Unfortunately, that utility is limited by his less-than-generous Ivy League perspective on the lay masses. Berger reassures the reader that he is only criticising efforts towards civic engagement in order to improve it. He sees himself as a modern day Alexis de Tocqueville (author of the classic Democracy in America): ‘a well-wisher illuminating certain foibles not for the sake of undermining democratic scholarship’s credibility but for the sake of promoting its success’ (p. vii).

While reading this book, I felt like a precocious student, believing that I know the answer to the problem that the teacher is describing, my arm stretched high, trying to attract his attention: ‘Sir! Sir!’ Meanwhile the teacher looks elsewhere, taking in all manner of irrelevant or incorrect suggestions from his class favourites, then finally settling on an answer that does not include my perspective. This is analogous, of course, to the ambiguous relationship between power and the citizens it serves.

Berger demolishes statements by Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville.

The term which preoccupies Berger (civic engagement) is not used in quite the same way in Australia where there has been a growing shift over the past two decades from tokenistic community consultation to community engagement. The latter is thought to enable genuine collaboration between governments and those being governed, especially at the local level. In the US, civic engagement seems to be applied to everything from an opinion poll to bowling (in other words, from political to social engagement).

Berger blames the over-stretching of the term civic engagement (p. 31) on Robert Putnam (author of Making Democracy Work and the influential work, Bowling Alone) for whom Berger worked during his student days. Why does Berger use the term at all, I wondered? We are talking about two distinct things. Either we are talking about the active relationship between people and their government, or we are talking about the activity of people with all manner of organisations in the public interest. Had Berger started with the former, he would not have had to go through the tawdry effort of discrediting so many fine scholars who used different terms in different times and contexts. He also would not have had to take the trouble to artificially separate civic engagement into political, social and moral strands. Berger wants to lead his readers to his decontextualised goal ‘to make democracy work better rather than make it work ideally’, through a framework that draws in individual and communal concerns (p. 6).

In the introduction, Berger states ‘I come to bury civic engagement, not to praise it’ (p. 2), and he scoffs at those who see civic engagement as an important instrument of democracy. One of the motivations for writing the book was Berger’s sense of perplexity, shared with a colleague, when they ‘laughed together’ over her comment about civic engagement, ‘whatever that means’ (p. xi). As the overly-enthusiastic student, my hand shoots up, ‘Sir! Sir! We have new, specific terms like public deliberation and deliberative forums now’. But Berger doesn’t hear me, of course.

He tells us that his book’s main question is, ‘how good is political engagement and how far must we go to promote it?’ After wondering who ‘we’ are, I want to call out, ‘All the way!’, but Berger is ready for smart alecks like me. He asserts that ‘Some participatory democrats fall into a trap of assuming that we need as much political engagement as we can get, without adequately considering how much citizens want or how much it will cost’ (p. viii). So clearly, ‘we’ are not the citizens. Further, it seems that Berger categorises as populist rabble the many researchers, practitioners and theorists who have worked thoughtfully and diligently to generate a broad and balanced base of scholarly literature and authentic examples of public deliberation. At this stage, I’m beginning to sulk and slump in my seat.

Citizens are capable of addressing complex issues when facilitated in small groups.

Berger demolishes statements by Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville (in chapters 3 and 4), and charges them with undue influence in contemporary debates, and with having constructed shaky foundations for their political beliefs.

For Arendt and Tocqueville, the societal environment—institutional arrangements as well as political, social, and moral norms—strongly influences whether energy or power will flourish or fade (p. 18).

Berger considers them ‘anxious friends of democracy who worry that withdrawal from public life … may undermine the foundations of democratic freedom’ (p. 17). Berger does not believe Arendt’s argument that political engagement can be defended ‘for its intrinsic merits’ (p. 18), nor her attachment to it as ‘the essence of human freedom’ (p. 19). She’s condemned for ‘intentional overstatement’, ‘internal contradiction’ and ‘elitism’ (p. 18). He’s more persuaded by Tocqueville’s instrumental defence, particularly ‘the need for institutional design’ (p. 19). This leads Berger to strategise thus: ‘to attract [citizens] to cooperative pursuits, including self-government, by appealing to people’s tastes’ (p. 120).

Liberal democracy, according to Berger ‘cannot do without political engagement but does not necessarily need high and widespread levels either’ (p. 20). He’s alarmed by the prospect of radical disengagement (chapters 3 and 4), and notes that this happens more among poor and poorly educated people, leading to ‘participatory distortion’ (p. 20, n. 79). My arm flies up again: ‘Sir! Sir! Participatory budgeting began among marginalised communities in Porto Alegro, Brazil, so this need not be the case.’

Democracy, for Berger, has always meant ‘citizens struggling to pay attention and invest energy politically’ (p. 8), but he dismisses sociologist Robert Bellah’s cited words: ‘democracy means paying attention’ (p. 8). I reckon the Deweyan and Jeffersonian call for an educated citizenry may lead, intentionally or inadvertently, to elite engagement. But, as Berger (somewhat) recognises, the best forms of public engagement don’t require universal education, or ‘marshalling continual, widespread political attention and energy’ (p. 13).

One solution to the problem of inattention and political lethargy, applied over the past two decades, has been to invite a jury-like mini-public to deliberate. Berger barely acknowledges this, yet mini-publics give randomly-selected citizens (a population in microcosm), an opportunity to learn on-the-job from experts and stakeholders and from materials prepared by steering committees comprising multiple perspectives. Participants can then wrestle with an issue’s complexity and seek common ground in order to produce recommendations. Mini-publics have the potential to energise the wider population through publicity, stimulating national debate, without requiring tremendous time commitments from everyone. And with random selection of participants, the full diversity of perspectives can find voice in deliberation.

We do not need a population perpetually educated on every topic.

Contrary to Berger’s opinion, citizens are capable of addressing ‘vast, complex, national and global issues’ (p. 107) when facilitated in small groups. I would point to consensus conferences convened on scientific or technological challenges (Einsiedel, Jelsoe & Breck 2001) or to World Wide Views on Global Warming (Herriman, Atherton & Vecellio 2011). The latter demonstrated that thousands of mostly randomly-selected citizens from throughout the world could deliberate constructively across differences and make useful recommendations on climate change policy (albeit ultimately ignored, of course, by elected representatives). Berger never considers that citizens might just be able to make decisions that are better by being unaffected by political party allegiances, corruption, re-election anxiety, donor obligations or strategic bargaining.

Though modern citizens are time poor and functioning at a fast pace (much faster that the ‘hurry’ observed by Tocqueville), their engagement need not require an ongoing time commitment. Yet this is a theme to which Berger keeps returning, leaving me protesting: ‘Sir! Sir! Everyone does not have to be engaged all of the time’. This is illustrated by the many mini-publics convened in developed and developing nations (see, for example, Fung 2006; Gastil & Levine 2005; Leighninger 2006). Citizens can be engaged intensively in a mini-public for a short period, then return to their busy lives, feeling satisfied (as they inevitably do) with their civic contribution. Habermas’ ‘ideal speech situation’ (p. 15) is not only realisable, it has been realised, and often.

People do have the right to intentionally not pay detailed attention to political matters, to be rationally ignorant (to employ Anthony Downs’ term). But when invited into a deliberative forum they have an opportunity to learn a great deal very quickly, and this includes calling upon their own resources. We do not need a population perpetually educated on every topic. We need a population with the skills, or ability to acquire the skills with the help of qualified facilitation, of critical analysis and critical reflection so that they can examine an issue in depth when called up to do so in the company of others. By analogy, a member of a trial jury does not need to know the intricacies of criminal law or its interpretation before being called up for jury duty. The whole purpose of the trial is to equip the member of the jury with the necessary resources to decide upon a verdict.

I’m not convinced by Berger’s argument that a topic must first capture our attention in order to attract our energy (p. 11). People will, albeit reluctantly at first, come along to a deliberative forum despite a seemingly dry topic if they believe their input will be worthwhile and make a difference. So often it does not. Inviting people to engage then ignoring their recommendations does considerable harm, leading to disengagement, not just non-engagement. They will ignore future invitations. Berger rightfully claims that the wrong sort of engagement can damage democracy. The wrong sort is superficial, like opinion polls. In the United States, a current example comes by way of the political action committees, a.k.a. super PACS, who expend massive funds condemning a candidate, to stimulate outrage and to elevate the chances of their own (Eggen & Farnam 2012). Bernard Manin (1997) would call the wrong sort of engagement ‘audience democracy’.

Inviting people to engage then
ignoring their recommendations does considerable harm.

The ‘paradox’ in the book’s sub-heading relates to idealists who aspire to revolutionise democracy unrealistically and cynics who think that citizens cannot—or need not—do better. This tension is not new. Deliberative democrats have been attending to it, including how to make democracy work better and how to promote those ideas. Berger, himself, concedes that deliberative democracy and civic republicanism are ‘worthy practical theories’ that offer ‘procedures that prioritise reason over narrow interests and conditions that guarantee all an equal voice’ (p. 12). The philosophy that Berger would like to see the public endorse has already been endorsed countless times. It is evident every time a mini-public such as a citizens’ jury, citizens’ assembly or deliberative poll is convened and is successful.

Berger wants to be realistic, to advocate for what’s achievable, without resorting to compulsion. He is unaware of Australians’ tolerance, sometimes appreciation, for a mandatory voting system. This is dismissed in a footnote (p. 50, n. 98) which gestures toward McAllister’s (1998) work, noting that ‘compulsory voting in Australia has not materially enhanced citizens’ attention to, or knowledge of, politics’ (p. 50). However, the Australian Citizens’ Parliament (held in Old Parliament House, Canberra, February 2009), comprising 150 randomly-selected Australians, who explored ways to reform Australia’s political system, was content with compulsory voting and recommended more community engagement (Carson 2009). Civic engagement is not just something that participatory democrats want; citizens want it too (see, for example, Community Indicators Victoria or the Canadian Index of Wellbeing).

Berger is to be commended for adding to the considerable body of literature that exposes the failures of American democracy and offering possibilities for its improvement (or not). Hibbing and Thiess-Morse, for example, are far more negative in their Stealth Democracy (2002). I also want to sing his praises for the book’s footnotes. I do love a good footnote and there are many. However, the picture he paints could be enhanced. In the United States and elsewhere there are many impressive case studies that answer his call for robust civic engagement. What is preventing their acceptance and widespread use? This is not a problem of language or citizens’ apathy or time constraints. Berger notes briefly (p. 8, n. 35) that ‘corporate and global capitalism…may have done more toward crowding out the role of citizens than even big government has done’. Yes, and there is the question of lobbying and inappropriate influence by political and media elites. There is also the challenge of policy makers’ (elected officials’ and administrators’) resistance to sharing or decentralising power and the structures and systems that support this disinclination.

Berger’s thesis strikes me as too negative to catch on.

We could also refocus outwards to an even bigger picture: the hegemonic nation-state and the increasing spread of representative government as the only tolerated system. How did we come to this? James C. Scott (2002) has written in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the state-evading and state-preventing native people of South East Asia. It is good to recall that the system which has left a disengaged citizenry in its wake is relatively young (not much older than the duration of ancient Athens’ government which had an entirely different, far more democratic system). We can remain so fixated on ‘apathetic’ citizens or controlling public officials that we discuss the minutiae and miss the madness of a major systemic problem. The newDemocracy Foundation’s website offers many possibilities for reform (see References). We live in ‘an era in which virtually the entire globe is “administered space”’. We find ourselves, as never before, depending ‘more abjectly for [our] security and prosperity on the skills and good intentions of those who rule [us]’ (Dunn 2005, p. 182).

This is a book about America by an American—a nation of people that relocates regularly, refuses to vote, cherishes individualism, shrinks from change, and abhors compulsion (pp. 14–15). The Tea Party movement, according to Berger, ‘represents a uniquely American phenomenon’ (p. x). Similar far-right reactionary activity is evident in other countries (for example, the National Front in France, or the English Defence League), yet Berger appears unaware of it. His lens (unlike Tocqueville’s) is rigidly focused on the American landscape, entertaining no contemporary comparisons. I wondered if he knew how similarly widespread are different expressions of civic engagement. However, in staying narrowly-focused, even within the US experience, he is demonstrating his own version of attention deficit. I expected him to cover at least the path-breaking activities in his own country, such as AmericaSpeaks (Nabatchi 2010) or the impressive Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon (2011) or the Citizens’ Assembly by his near neighbour, British Columbia (Warren & Pearse 2008). Berger thinks that deliberative democrats ‘must explain which methods other than coercion will overcome the overwhelming difficulties of generating widespread, voluntary, and sustained political attention and energy’ (p. 50). It is a shame he has not found the encouraging case examples that feature in the literature.

Berger is an advocate for interdisciplinary dialogue amongst psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and psychologists—all ‘interested in the capacities and limitations of attention, energy and tastes’ (p. 22). Really Berger wants us all to embrace his invention: the ‘public philosophy of attention deficit democracy’ (p. 23), Maybe he is right. It is a catchier description than deliberative democracy (which is where, I think, his complaints and calls for reform inevitably lead). However, Berger’s thesis strikes me as too negative to catch on. It describes the problem not the solution, and tends to blame the victim. Advertisers would warn advocates that they need a positive USP (unique selling point): a promise, or a solution.

Ultimately, Berger’s strategies are these: (1) making politics ‘more appealing’, (2) ‘early education to make our tastes more political’, (3) reforming political institutions, (4) targeting the attention of those ‘most prone to disengagement’. I want to agree with some (particular number 3) but not all of these. Without addressing the big systemic challenges, nothing will change. Citizens’ unease will grow and further disengagement from politics will follow. We’ll merely be tinkering at the edges if we focus on appeal, education and targeting the most disengaged. Now, if only Berger would notice my frantically waving hand.


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Putnam, R. 1995, ‘Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 6, pp. 65–78.

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Lyn Carson is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Sydney She is a Director of The newDemocracy Foundation http://www.newdemocracy.com.au and maintains a website where some of her publications can be found http://www.activedemocracy.net. Professor Carson is currently co-editing a book, The Australian Citizens’ Parliament and the Future of Deliberative Democracy.