The Conditions and Dilemmas of Deliberative Systems

31 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2013

See all articles by Ricardo Mendonça

Ricardo Mendonça

Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG)

Date Written: 2013


The concept of “deliberative systems” has recently ganied increasing attention among deliberative democrats. To put it briefly, the concept seeks to explain how deliberation can be possible in complex societies, where an assembly with the presence of citizens seems neither possible nor desirable. Deliberative systems would facilitate the articulation of different discursive spheres, thus allowing the connection of micro interactive processes in a broader macro process.

Originally suggested by Jane Mansbridge (1999), and implied by the Habermasian two-track model of deliberative politics, the idea of deliberative systems was soon incorporated by important scholars (Parkinson, 2006; Hendriks, 2006; Goodin, 2005; Warren, 2007; Bächtiger et al. 2009; Dryzek, 2010; Parkinson & Mansbridge, 2012). Such incorporation aims at scaling-up deliberation and at making it more democratic and effectively public. As James Bohman (2007) has argued, deliberation in contemporary societies depends on the crisscross of different publics, in order to configure a broader, more complex and more inclusive public. Deliberative systems are also considered to be more effective in assuring cooperative policy building. The advocates of such notion, thus, argue that the idea of deliberative democracy should not be discarded simply because it cannot be found within a single arena. Deliberation itself depends on a broader process that nurtures a public clash of discourses, instead of face-to-face constrained interactions (Dryzek, 2000).

If the concept was welcomed by deliberative democrats, nonetheless, it still lacks important developments. This article seeks to address some of the gaps of this literature through a dual movement. The first one seeks to discuss a central issue for those that work with the notion of the deliberative system, i.e., its difficulty in finding, understanding or promoting connections among different discursive arenas. The article argues that if a deliberative system is to be established, deliberative democrats should focus on four aspects that induce connectivity in the deliberative process: (1) the work of bureaucrats; (2) the media; (3) the circulation of participants and their representativeness; (4) the norms and laws that constitute participatory institutions.

The second movement proposed by the article develops a more critical argument. The consensus around the concept of deliberative system has constrained the emergence of criticisms against it. Used as panacea against critiques of deliberation, the concept has not been deeply confronted. The article suggests three practical and theoretical problems related to the notion of deliberative systems, namely: (1) the creation of new political asymmetries; (2) the fluidity of the legitimacy principle and the consequent growth of decision makers’ discretionary powers; (3) the incompatibility of very different discursive dynamics. The discussion of such criticisms does not aim at denying the political and heuristic potentials of the idea of deliberative systems. It is rather an attempt to contribute to its strengthening through a less laudatory perspective.

Keywords: Deliberative Democracy, Deliberative Systems, Democratic Theory

Suggested Citation

Mendonça, Ricardo, The Conditions and Dilemmas of Deliberative Systems (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Ricardo Mendonça (Contact Author)

Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) ( email )

Av. Antonio Carlos, 6627
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais 31270-901

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