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Deliberating Downstream: Countering Democratic Distortions in the Policy Process

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 August 2016


Key theorists and scholars of democracy have focused on understanding and enhancing the institutions and practices that shape decision-making. Indeed, the most influential contemporary normative account—the deliberative version—though increasingly adapted to the complex realities of contemporary politics, retains a tight focus on the conditions of legitimate will formation. This remains the core underpinning of the normative impetus for innovation and reform in contemporary democratic politics. Yet missing from even the adapted deliberative account is detailed consideration of what happens after will formation. I turn here to the policy and administration literature to show how the inescapably attritional and opaque policy process can magnify asymmetries that theorists and scholars of contemporary democracy, chief among them deliberative democrats, ought to be much better attuned to. I argue that in failing to consider these problems adequately, contemporary democratic thinkers, scholars, and reformers risk lending legitimacy to institutions and practices that might sustain the very biases they are mobilized against. As such, I identify institutional innovations and governing practices that can embed aspects of democratic deliberation “downstream” in the policy process in order to counter distortions and rebalance asymmetries. I conclude by calling for theorists, researchers, and reformers to explore the value of these institutions and practices, and to expand the repertoire of governing mechanisms available to counter the distortions that occur through the policy process.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2016 

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