Deliberation is a good thing, but it’s also very demanding. How can it serve as the organizing principle for a modern democracy, where a common position must be found not among a small group, but among millions of people?
Will Friedman gives an account of this problem of scope, and describes some of the solutions too (here’s the article, originally published in the Journal of Public Deliberation). He argues that building democracies around the idea of representation seems to be the most feasible way – but he underscores that even representative democracies can’t function well without large-scale public engagement.
Which is a good point, I think. It’s not to say that we need all-encompassing activism on behalf of everyone in every single matter that can be seen as “public” – that is not only practically impossible, but also theoretically less than ideal. (Cf. Almond & Verba and others about the healthy mixture of participant, parochial and subject attitudes that together form civic culture.) Rather, the point is that it helps to have some degree of political participation on the large scale (as opposed to only sporadic but very intense activism), as a link and feedback loop between representatives and their voters, and as the circumstances in which it is not necessarily the politicians themselves who set the agenda.
(This also chimes together with Habermas’ two-track model. Although there, “engagement” need not necessarily mean direct engagement with political matters, rather, engagement in the political (and/or cultural) public sphere. I think that’s a meaningful difference.)
Anyhow, Friedman describes certain attempts to “cope with the scope”; and argues that we should go about it in a more strategic way; considering factors such as the purpose of public engagement in a given case, its various possible levels; or the “starting point” of the public and of the political system (i.e. – do people actually realize a problem is a problem?).
Most importantly, he argues for the need of a civic culture which is more deliberative in spirit. And similarly to Dewey, he also finds the local community as the key to forming such a civic culture, such “habits of the heart.” Which is how local, small communities are important beyond themselves.
Friedman, Will (2006): “Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Scope,” in: Journal of Public Deliberation, 2(1), Article 1.