Deliberative democracy must rise to the threat of populist rhetoric



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Can we avert a populist apocalypse through good old-fashioned deliberation?
Richard Hopkins/flickr, CC BY-NC

Nicole Curato, University of Canberra and Lucy J Parry, University of Canberra

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This is the first in a series, After Populism, about the challenges populism poses for democracy. It comes from a talk at the “Populism: what’s next for democracy?” symposium hosted by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in collaboration with Sydney Democracy Network.


We are “living in the end times”, or so Slavoj Žižek tells us. We have seen the arrival of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the global ecological crisis, sharp inequalities in the economic system, the biogenic revolution, and exploding social divisions.

The global rise of populism, it seems, is only a symptom of these long-standing tragedies in the making.

Populist claims – the grand promises that prey on unrealistic expectations, those that dodge responsibility by conjuring “alternative facts”, and the kind that leaves citizens committed to the project of Enlightenment dazed and breathless — are both outcomes and drivers of Žižek’s apocalyptic vision.

How should we make sense of these realities? Wicked problems and intractable conflict have indeed marked the past few decades. But these have also been times of widespread democratic experimentation.

Participation in “traditional” politics such as voting and party membership may be declining, but there has been an explosion of activities that seek to “do democracy differently”.

The promise of deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy could once have been dismissed as pie in the sky with no bearing on the world of practical politics.

More recently, practitioners of deliberative innovations have generated compelling evidence to show the democratic virtues of mini-publics. These involve small(ish) groups of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on an issue.

Random selection, similar to the logic of jury selection, underpins this process such that the forum represents a microcosm of the wider population.

In recent years, the case for mini-publics has been articulated more boldly, by David van Reybrouck and then, just this year, by Brett Hennig. Both make a case for sortition, where a group of citizens drawn by lot are given a mandate to deliberate and propose, if not decide, policies that bind the rest of the polity.

Given the enthusiasm for mini-publics, why has this not been enough to avert “the apocalypse”? There are three ways of looking at this.

1. We haven’t scaled up enough

The application of mini-publics has been disparate, inconsistent and small-scale.

Had people, especially the so-called “pissed-off white men”, had more opportunities to participate in deliberation, they would have, potentially, taken a more complex view of issues that they feel threaten their identities, such as immigration or gay rights.

Had “smug cosmopolitan liberal types” engaged in deliberation with “pissed-off white men”, societies could have developed a shared vocabulary to cohabit a world with meta-consensus on the range of legitimate discourses.

Forms of deliberative democracy are not only effective, but also much needed in deeply divided societies.
Joe Flood/flickr

There is evidence that mini-publics work in deeply divided societies. Examples include deliberative polls in Northern Ireland and deliberative forums involving ex-combatants and paramilitaries in Colombia.

We can only wonder how the US elections or the UK’s Brexit referendum might have turned out had they convened a “deliberation day” where citizens deliberated systematically before the vote.

2. We are scaling up incorrectly

One could argue that mini-publics, by themselves, are not the answer to mass democracy’s legitimacy deficit. Even where well-resourced, excellently designed and high-quality deliberations unfold, these have little bearing if the epistemic gains and civic virtues developed in these forums do not spill over into the broader public sphere.

To scale up deliberation is not simply to host bigger mini-publics (mega-publics?) but to think of ways in which mini-publics can be linked to the broader public discourses.

What use is it if we replace politicians with a randomly selected group of citizens if the public sphere is mostly still characterised by partisan point-scoring, cheap political tactics, spin-doctoring and market-driven media?

The reforms of deliberative politics must equally focus on reforming the broader structures that shape public discourse.

3. Mini-publics are not the answer

The logic of mini-publics primes participants to be respectful, public-spirited, other-regarding and open-minded. Unsurprisingly, citizens who harbour deep scepticism, strongly held views and defensiveness in their private interests may not find these forums to be the most understanding and supportive spaces.

In other words, mini-publics may have inherent limitations in processing populist rhetoric. This is because they, by design, aim to keep loud and insistent voices out of the room to celebrate the voice of the “average reasonable person”.

Discursive enclaves such as those found online, or in assemblies of populist supporters, may provide a more hospitable stage for impassioned, confrontational and sometimes bigoted discourses.

While mini-publics enable citizens to carefully reflect on their prejudices, one must take a step back and consider that some do not want to reconsider their views.

Research on climate change deniers provides evidence for this. Australian studies have revealed how deliberation not only fails to dispel scepticism but also makes the deniers feel like they are not listened to, so they become more dogmatic and belligerent.

Other research data demonstrate how people with a “social dominance orientation” tend to see participatory processes as rigged if the forums do not produce their preferred outcomes.

ABC’s Q&A often illustrates the limitations of some forms of deliberation.

The issue of trust compounds such alienation. Mini-publics typically rely on information presented by expert witnesses and resources persons, and we now know that many people have simply had enough of experts.

Beyond expertise, public trust in Australian politics and politicians is at a staggering low. Recent research suggests the public has little trust in any level of government in Australia. For the most part, mini-publics in Australia are instigated by or at least associated with government.

Even though the best-designed forums are independently organised and facilitated, we have to recognise that people may simply not trust the process, organiser or the expertise presented. “Micro” deliberative events don’t exist in a political vacuum. We cannot design out the broader context and power relations.

How can things go right?

There are many reasons to consider populist rhetoric as the opposite of deliberative reason. Populism appeals to base instincts. It sacrifices intellectual rigour and evidence to the promise of quick solutions.

The polarising speech style of populism creates information silos, which bond rather than bridge, opposing views. Inherent in the populist logic is the division of the “virtuous people” versus “the dangerous other”. This inflames prejudices and misconceptions, instead of promoting public-spirited ways of determining the common good.

Given the coming populist apocalypse, then, it is worth revisiting how deliberative democrats conceptualise power and its relationship to knowledge.

The populist moment reminds us of the insidious legacies of power, the kind we generally take for granted, but experience every day. Drawing on the “epistemologies of ignorance”, the solution is not simply to offer facts, but to lay bare the structural phenomenon that disables people from seeing in a certain way. We undeniably find ourselves facing:

… an ignorance that resists … an ignorance that fights back … an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go away.

Deliberative democracy may have been the punching bag of those who remain sceptical of the virtues of participation governed by reason. But it has also been a beacon of hope for visionaries who keep on asking how we can make democracy better.

The ConversationThis field of democratic theory and practice has a lot more to offer, especially when we set our gaze towards spaces for reform beyond the forum.

Nicole Curato, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra and Lucy J Parry, Research Assistant, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Christian Official’s Death in India Called Divine Punishment


Hindu nationalists say Andhra Pradesh chief’s ‘conversion agenda’ led to copter crash.

NEW DELHI, September 14 (CDN) — Hindu nationalists are calling the helicopter-crash death of Andhra Pradesh state’s chief minister, a Christian, divine punishment for his so-called conversion agenda. The same allegation of a “conversion agenda” fueled persecution in the state for more than five years.

Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy, a second-generation Christian in the Church of South India, and four officials were confirmed dead when their helicopter was found on Sept. 3 in the state’s dense forest area of Nallamalla.

Since Reddy, an official with the left-of-center Congress Party, became chief minister of the southern state in 2004, right-wing Hindu groups had been accusing him of helping Western missionaries to convert economically poor Hindus in the state. Hindu nationalists have been flooding the Internet with extremist comments saying the death of the 60-year-old Reddy, popularly known as YSR, was divine retribution.

“This is divine justice by Lord Srinivasa [One of the names of Hindu god Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu],” commented Jayakumar on the Express Buzz news website. “It is good that it happened so swiftly. Obviously, [Congress Party President] Sonia Gandhi is worried that her plans of completely converting India into a Christian country have received a setback. Let all Hindu-baiters of this country perish like this. Very, very soon.”

A person who identified himself only as Prakash on the website of The Indian Express daily wrote, “Anti-god demons like YSR need to be punished like this.” Another writer identified as Kumar chimed in, “YSR is the ringleader for Christian conversions in Andhra Pradesh.” Enthused a writer identified only as Ravi, “It’s the best thing that happened to Andhra Pradesh in a long time, and Andhra Pradesh people must celebrate,” and Suman Malu exclaimed, “Thankfully our country has been spared of one anti-national, anti-Hindu chief minister. Thank God for that!”

Right-wing groups also have accused Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic born in Italy, of having a “conversion agenda” since she became president of the Congress Party in 1998. The rise of Christian persecution in India coincided with her appointment as party chief.

Dr. Sam Paul, national secretary for public affairs of the All India Christian Council, said two years ago that Hindu nationalists launched a massive campaign in 2004 to raise fears that Christian conversions would skyrocket in Andhra Pradesh due to the appointment of a Christian chief minister.

“Six years later, it is fully proven that those allegations were part of a political agenda to belittle the chief minister and his party,” Paul told Compass, adding that Reddy never preached his faith, “not even once.”

He pointed out, though, that the Indian Constitution permits all people to practice and propagate their faith.

Calling the extreme comments “very unfortunate,” Paul recalled that Reddy attended Muslim and Hindu functions and participated in ceremonial traditions such as offering Pattu Vastrams (silk dresses) to Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati every year, a long-time tradition in the state.

In addition, in June 2007, the Reddy administration enacted a law prohibiting the propagation of any non-Hindu religion in the temple town of Tirupati-Tirumala, believed to be the abode of Lord Venkateshwara. At the same time, however, he had faced criticism for tightening government controls on the state’s numerous temples.

Official Condolences

Reddy had led his party to a second successive victory in Andhra Pradesh in May 2009. He was seen as a leader catering to the masses thanks to populist measures such as financial and power programs for farmers.

In stark contrast to the hostile sentiment voiced in the cyber-world, more than 60 admirers died of shock or committed suicide following news of his death. Indo-Asian News Service reported that the deaths of Reddy’s supporters occurred in 19 of the state’s 23 districts. While most of them suffered cardiac arrest after watching the news of his death on television, others committed suicide.

“Reddy dedicated his life to people, I am dedicating my life to him,” a young man wrote in his suicide note before consuming poison, reported the news service. A physically handicapped couple, pensioners under a welfare scheme, jumped into a river to try to end their lives, but fishermen saved them.

Officially, even Hindu nationalist groups offered their condolences, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest conglomerate of right-wing groups, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen as the political arm of the RSS.

“We all share this unbearable pain with his family members, people of Andhra Pradesh and workers of the Congress Party,” the RSS announced in its weekly mouthpiece, the Organiser. “All the BJP-ruled state governments declared a two-day state mourning as a mark of respect to the departed soul.”

Reddy, along with his special secretary P. Subramanyam, the chief secretary ASC Wesley and Indian Air Force pilots S.K. Bhatia and M.S. Reddy, died in the crash as they flew from the state capital of Hyderabad to Chittoor district for a political function.

Hot-bed

Anti-Christian sentiment has fueled persecution in Andhra Pradesh for the last five years.

Most recently, suspected Hindu extremists burned down a newly built church building of the Best Friends Church in Mahasamudram area in Chittoor district on Aug. 20. On Aug. 1, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) attacked Christians in Mahabubnagar district, accusing them of forceful conversion; they forced the Christians to wear tilak, a Hindu symbol on the forehead, and threatened to kill them if they went ahead with church construction.

Andhra Pradesh has witnessed three brutal murders of Christian workers since 2005. The body of a 29-year old pastor, Goda Israel, was found with stab wounds on Feb. 20, 2007 in a canal near his house in Pedapallparru village in Krishna district. In May 2005, two pastors, K. Daniel and K. Isaac Raju, were killed near Hyderabad, the state capital. Daniel went missing on May 21 and Raju on May 24. Their bodies were found on June 2 of that year.

The New Indian Express on June 27, 2005 quoted a man identified only as Goverdhan claiming that he and two friends had murdered the two preachers.

“I am not against Christianity, but Raju and Daniel converted hundreds of Hindu families,” Goverdhan said. “They enticed them with money. We have done this to prevent further conversions. This act should be a lesson for others.”

According to the Census of India 2001, Andhra Pradesh has a population of more than 76.2 million, of which only 1.18 million are Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News