AR; political discussion in a democratizing society

Related to yesterday’s article review, here’s another one, this time from Communication Research. Francis L.F. Lee From the Chinese University of Hong Kong looked at the problem of political discussion in a democratizing (=not-yet, or not-fully democratic) society.

The conclusion in a nutshell: discussion and exposure to disagreement both are very important for deliberatively democratizing societies – but they are not the only factors that matter in the quality of deliberation. At the same time, support for democracy does not in itself emerge as a precondition for deliberation.

So then. The idea is that deliberation is not the same as just any ordinary discussion – it needs to meet some criteria in order to produce normatively good results. Two such results, by which deliberation could be measured, are general political knowledge (from here on, simply “knowledge“), and the awareness of the danger of the tyranny of majority (“tyranny awareness“, meaning awareness of the danger that in democracies minority interests can be overlooked or crushed).

On a representative sample of 800 respondents, Lee’s study tried to measure the effects of the amount of political discussion people have, the amount of disagreement they meet in these discussions, and these two factors combined, on people’s knowledge and tyranny awareness.

(Disagreement, in line with Mutz (2006) was operationalized as perceived disagreement, meaning that disagreement only influences the quality of discussion if it is, well, perceived. This seems very reasonable.)

  • As for political knowledge, the relationship is straightforward. The more discussion people have, the higher their level of general political knowledge, even when controlled for other (demographic etc.) factors. And
  • disagreement met in discussions strengthens this effect.
  • But as for tyranny awareness, there is no real straight and simple connection. Tyranny awareness only seems to increase with high amounts of discussion involving a lot of disagreement, and if people involved in these disagreement-filled discussions have a general support for democracy. If either one of these elements are missing, discussions don’t result in significant increase in people’s tyranny awareness.

Additionally, there is a strong and emphasized point about support for democracy. In fact, when controlled for other variables, support for democratization correlates negatively with the amount of political discussion people are involved in. So it seems that opponents of democracy like to talk about politics – possibly even more than supporters of democracy. (There are various theories about why this is so. It might be that fear of official retribution, based on past experience, is one of the factors that discourage political talk in supporters of democracy.)

So the final point is that, while disagreement surely seems to be one of the factors for discussion to produce normatively good results, it is not the only one (e.g. if we understand tyranny awareness as a sign of good deliberation, it seems to require the presence of additional factors too).

Lee’s study also points to the peculiar role of deliberation for a democratizing society.

It is not to say that deliberation is central to processes of democratization. On the contrary, by definition, some of the required conditions for meaningful public deliberation would be absent in a non- or semidemocratic society. In Hong Kong, for instance, inequalities of political power and the unwillingness on the part of the Chinese government to allow the city to further democratize has actually given “rational discussion” a bad name. (Lee & Lin, 2006)

That’s the rub. Democratic societies are not born in democratic processes.

(And one note on the side: social connections, after controlling for other variables, seem to relate significantly and negatively to general political knowledge. Phrased in a rudely oversimplified way, the more friends you have, the less you’re expected to know about politics! Well, of course the point is that the more chance you have for discussion (i.e. if you treat social connections as an enabler of discussion), the more chance you have for discussion about something else other than politics.)

Francis L. F. Lee: The Impact Of Political Discussion in a Democratizing Society – The Moderating Role of Disagreement and Support for Democracy. Communication Research, 2009, Sage.

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