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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

O'Leary Review

JH Snider, a former fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the Citizen's Assembly blog (tracking information on developments surrounding the BC electoral innovation) has posted a review of Kevin O'Leary's "Saving Democracy" at The Journal of Public Deliberation.  It is titled "From Dahl to O’Leary: 36 Years of the 'Yale School of Democratic Reform.'"  Here's a taste:

With the perspective of hindsight, it is now clear that there has emerged a “Yale School of Democratic Reform” (“Yale School”) running from Yale Political Science Professor Robert Dahl (Ph.D. 1940) through a series of Yale Political Science Ph.D. students: James Fishkin (Ph.D. 1975), Ethan Leib (Ph.D. 2004), and Kevin O’Leary (Ph.D. 1989). The students have all scattered to various universities in California, but they have all followed in Dahl’s tracks. The central insight of the Yale School is that a large, randomly selected sample of American voters could be brought together to deliberate in such a way that some of the most intractable problems of America’s representative democracy could be solved. These randomly selected bodies--variously called a “minipopulus,” “deliberative opinion poll,” “popular branch of government,” “people’s house,” and “citizens assembly”--hearken back to the Ancient Athenian Council of 500, which was randomly selected and played a vital role in Athenian Democracy. However, the Yale School does not seek to return to the direct democracy of Ancient Athens. Instead, it seeks to graft these randomly selected bodies onto today’s representative democracy.   

I'm honored, of course, to be part of such a "school".  Still, about O'Leary's book, Snider and I agree: it is a moderately stimulating proposal (that overlooks many details about how to administer the proposal), written with a journalist's grace.  But it lacks a certain "academic" seriousness and is far too dismissive of almost everyone else who has thought in a sustained fashion about the problems the book diagnoses and has offered institutional designs to address those problems.  Obviously, an author needn't debate the details of every other competing proposal on the market or provide all the relevant details about how his or her policy plan should be implemented-- indeed, when my book was reviewed in the flagship political science journal Perspectives on Politics, I was criticized for wasting too much time exploring my differences with others who came before me and wasting too much time on developing details for my own imaginary branch of government.  But if you want to be taken seriously in a certain community of scholars and intellectuals, it seems you should try to grapple with a few competing ideas, explain why your particular proposal merits special attention, and give the reader enough detail so they can get a good feel for how your imagination is working.

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 26, 2007 at 05:24 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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I don't think Dahl is properly classed with "deliberative democratic theorists," in fact, much of his work is contrary to the aims and tenor of that literature.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 26, 2007 9:58:41 PM

Thanks for the reply, Ethan- it's helpful.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 26, 2007 8:43:50 PM

I don't know what Dahl would really say about deliberative democracy as an enterprise, as such. The connection Snider sees is an easy one to trace, based on Dahl's "minipopulus" idea, which appears in both After the Revolution (1970) and Democracy and Its Critics (1989). I don't think the aggregation/deliberation distinction is an especially illuminating one, actually, though I realize this is now the standard way to talk about these things: those of us that think deliberative democracy can be useful for institutional tinkering rarely reject the idea that decisions often must be made (and even sometimes justified) through forms of aggregation like majority or supermajority rule. In short, many contemporary deliberative democrats are just searching for ways to engage citizens, get them to participate in thoughtful ways, and enhance the level of discussion prior to aggregation. Whether Dahl can realistically be said to oppose that form of deliberative democracy (which both Fishkin and I more or less endorse) is doubtful. But the truth is, I don't know either.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 26, 2007 7:05:25 PM


I know the deliberative democracy stuff much more from the philosophy than from the poli sci side but from that perspective Dahl was always presented as one who was _opposed_ to the deliberative democracy perspective, being much more in the tradition of Bentham in thinking of democracy primarily as a device for agregating preferences (while in philosophy, at least, deliberative democracy is seen as running from Rousseau and being quite a different idea, an attempt to work out the "General will" while Bentham (and, by extension, Dahl) were seen as (merely) finding the "will of all" to use Rousseau's terms. I'm not at all an expert, even on the philosophy side of the issue, but I'm made curious by the claim that your work and Fishkin's flow from Dahl's. Did Dahl change his views over time, or are there two quite distinct ideas both called "deliberative democracy"? (I must admit I know most of Dahl's work only second hand so am mostly trusting those who have told me about him. The little I've read, though, wasn't especially sympathetic to deliberative democracy at least as it's understood by philosophers.)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 26, 2007 6:32:31 PM

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