Where’s the public in these democracies?
Dialogue and Deliberation:
Mechanisms for Exercising Civic Engagement
Presented at International Mediation Conference
Guatemala City, Guatemala
At the core of democratic theory is a commitment to a system of governing that values and makes possible the participation of all citizens in matters that concern them. However, as the title of one article suggests, “Democracy: Optimal Illusions and Grim Realities” (Mueller 1999), while the goal may be clear, how to achieve this in practice has consistently proven to be more elusive and fraught with difficulties.
A quick survey of the different contexts in which democracy is being hailed as the ideal form of government, where talk abounds about the importance of returning voice and power to the people, it is curious to note that in the inner workings of these “democratic” systems of governance and decision-making, the public of ordinary citizens or “we the people” to a large extent continue to remain absent and invisible. A critical look at current initiatives to develop and strengthen democratic culture and systems of governance suggest a significant gap between the “espoused theories” that articulate a clear need and commitment to promote and develop civic engagement and the “theories-in-use” (Argyris 1999) that become manifest in practices that often continue to marginalize and render invisible the public1.
In the first part of this paper I will illustrate one way in which well-intentioned efforts to become more inclusive in democratic practice can end up sustaining a system in which the people served continue to feel excluded, alienated and disengaged. In the second section, I discuss the concepts and practices of dialogue and deliberation as mechanisms which allow ordinary citizens to exercise their power and regain a sense of agency in matters that concern them. Finally, in the third section,...