Democracy Without Borders

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Deliberative listening and complementary democracy

Townhall Meeting of Civil Society and UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March 2019. Image: UN Women/Ryan Brown, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The opportunities and skills for effective political listening and reflection appear to be in short supply”. This was the sober assessment of a recent book on citizen participation. The same study went on to document, through case studies, that it was possible “to build trust and solidarity among interested residents and volunteers in the electorate”, but that this could be accomplished, “by learning and practicing the skills of critical listening”.

When, last year, we published our edited book Complementary Democracy: The Art of Deliberative Listening, we noted that we do not think that there is an alternative to a system of government with elected representatives, but neither do we think that this system can stand alone. It needs to be complemented. We need representative government as well as other mechanisms. In this spirit, our aim was to to develop a theory of “democratic listening”.

Complementary Democracy:
The Art of Deliberative Listening
Edited by Matt Qvortrup and Daniela Vancic
October 2022

We often misunderstand each other. And we are good at saying what we think – but not so good at paying attention to other citizen’s views. This is a problem, for the rationale of democracy is that we learn by listening to others and from correcting our mistakes through open debate. This view was famously expressed by the medieval philosopher Marsilius of Padua (1275 –1342), 

“The less learned citizen can sometimes perceive something that should be corrected with regard to a proposed law even though they would not have known how to discover it in the first place”.

This is the essence of what we call “deliberative listening”; that the powers that be can make better policies if they listen to (what has sometimes been called) the wisdom of the crowds. As the name indicates, this new direction is based on a conceptualisation of “listening”; of being receptive to new ideas.

We learn by listening to others

Fundamentally, the feed-back loop of democracy, first introduced by Aristotle, requires a new focus on listening. But it also necessitates a redirected focus towards pragmatic policy and away from adversarial politics. If, as ancient philosopher argued in Politics III, “the general public is a better judge…because different men can judge different parts”, then we must, first of all, be open to ‘the general public’, and a perquisite for this is that we listen without prejudice.

This is more difficult to achieve than is often acknowledged. There is a fair bit of literature. In an increasingly polarised political system, we are not open to Habermas’ “forceless force of the better argument”. The reason for this is fundamentally to do with the nature of politics. A little detour is necessary to explain this.

Listining to the people helps make better policies

The controversial political theorist Carl Schmitt famously wrote that defined politics as the sphere where you distinguish between “friend and enemy”, just as economics was the sphere where you distinguished between profitable and unprofitable, and ethics the sphere where you distinguish between “good and bad”. As long as politics, and hence political debates, are characterised by enmity animosity, we are disinclined to listen with an open mind. Politics, then is bound to be driven by point scoring and a desire to win.

For politics to be depolarised – and to live up to the ideal prescribed by Aristotle and Marsilius – we need to move away from the adversarial politics and towards a different type of discourse. Namely one that focusses on policy rather than on politics.

If politics is characterised by the friend-enemy dichotomy, we can perhaps say that policy is characterised by the distinction of feasible versus unfeasible – or useful or not useful.  If debates were adversarial arguments aims at winning, but practical policy debates over what is feasible and useful, then -perhaps – we would start to listen to each other and be open to new solutions. What we must look for, then is the institutional framework that are conducive such policy debates, the fora that can facilitate that we discuss not to win the argument but solve the problems.

Democracy is a discussion

At the micro level there are many ways this can be done. Most of them revolve around the spirit of the debate. The Czechoslovakian Stateman Tomas Masaryk, famously said that “democracy is a discussion. But the real discussion is possible only if people trust each other and if they are trying fairly to find the truth”.

And this is only possible if we are willing to learn from each other, and to listen. For this to happen, we must teach ourselves to be open. For example, every time we engage in a discussion, we should seek to learn one thing from the people we discuss with. We must treat the other as a teacher and not as an adversary; we should seek to learn at least one new thing from the person with whom we debate with. For, to quote a wise observer of human affairs, “We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn”, as the social anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateman summed up her philosophy in the book Willing to learn: Passages of personal discovery.

Matt Qvortrup
Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Applied Political Science and International Relations at Coventry University.
Daniela Vancic
Daniela Vancic is European Programme Manager at Democracy International
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