By Joshua Yesnowitz, DCI Fellow
The final weeks of my Social Movements and Social Change (POL 239) class this past Spring semester were dedicated to a close reading of Daniel Gillion’s The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy (2020). In the concluding chapter to this ambitious book about the electoral effects of protest marches and rallies, Gillion returns to a key lesson emphasized throughout our course: for advocacy efforts to be most impactful, movement organizers must understand the political landscape in which they are operating and seek to take advantage of the opportunities available within this constrained context. Regarding the contemporary environment in the US, Gillion (2020: 190) grants that “yes, protest is likely adding to our fears of becoming a more divided America because ideological protest does reinforce and even harden positions that we have on divisive issues.”
Rather than a lamentation about the state of public discourse, though, Gillion’s recognition focuses our attention on the purposes of protest activism in American life and how social movements – as intermediaries for communicating the grievances of constituencies who may lack support within institutional channels – must embrace non-deliberative collective action to achieve democratic aims. For example, the strategic message of “No Justice, No Peace” that one encounters at a Black Lives Matter march serves many functions. It is a demand for change; it is a demonstration of power; it is an expression of solidarity among allies; and it is a challenge to opponents. It is not a pursuit of common ground; it is not a call for moderation; and it is not an invitation for deliberation (although it might be a prelude to one, as discussed below).
This is not intended as a criticism; moreover, I think the slogan is particularly effective at advancing movement claims and in constructing a collective identity among the “politically disempowered.”[i] The broader point I wish to make is that this entirely appropriate framing of movement ideals (and the related tactics employed to realize these ideals) is often in tension with many of the aims of deliberation. Asserting that there are “beneficial effects of conflict,” scholar-activist Frances Fox-Piven maintains in a recent interview with The Nation that “polarization can be used as a tool for social change” and that one “distinctive contribution of movements” is to engage in “dissensus politics.”[ii]
This leaves us with a question: Is deliberation for everyone? In the remainder of this post, I draw upon the work of Sanders (1997) and Young (2001) to consider some activist arguments against deliberation and build upon the insights of Levine and Nierras (2007) and della Porta (2020) to offer a few ways in which deliberative processes are often useful for movement organizations and reflect upon how movement successes can (gradually and indirectly) address some of the serious concerns over mutual respect and exclusion inherent to the activist critique of deliberation.[iii]
Activist Skepticism of Deliberation
Social movement organizers must always calculate the consequences of their strategic choices. Any behavior which undermines the desired outcomes of increased public attention for the cause and greater policy responsiveness from policymakers should be avoided. To advance their interests, therefore, social movements sometimes adopt non-deliberative practices (including protesting, boycotting, sit-ins, demonstrations, striking, and public shaming) which directly pressure authorities, rather than promote deliberative approaches which might appear to activists to uphold the existing power structure. If politics is about acquiring power and gaining access to finite resources among competing interests, then conflict and confrontation are means to achieve movement goals.[iv] Once institutional power is achieved and respected, activists will possibly be more amenable to deliberative interactions, likely not because of some intrinsic reward to deliberation, but rather understood in transactional terms (i.e., the best way to further objectives at a specific stage of engagement).[v]
In addition to the interest group pluralist assessment of deliberation, some activists have also been suspicious of and/or alienated by the presumptions of a deliberative approach. In most cases, social movements speak on behalf of marginalized groups who have been excluded through formal political processes. Given these historical experiences, it is not surprising that a deliberative approach, with its “connotations of cautiousness and order,”[vi] would not necessarily be appealing to groups working toward challenging the status quo. The deliberative form, therefore, not only encourages certain types of discourse (e.g., radical alternatives would be less welcome than more ‘reasonable’ reform ideas), but also privileges particular styles of expressing one’s thoughts (i.e., ‘foresighted’ and ‘steady’ rather than ‘emotional’ or ‘uncivil’).[vii] This framework, according to this line of activist critique, results in some voices being more pronounced and more compelling than others “who are less likely to present their arguments in ways that we recognize as characteristically deliberative.”[viii] The race, class, and gender implications of this assertion are quite clear: “Insidious prejudices,” Sanders (1997: 353) explains, “may incline citizens to hear some arguments and not others.” As the deliberation model is contingent upon mutual respect among participants, movement activists – being fully cognizant of explicit prejudices and implicit biases – may view this principle as aspirational, if not in many circumstances naïve, and would rightfully be hesitant to participate.[ix]
Another reason why activists might reject deliberation is because they believe there is nothing to gain by sharing a forum with those who espouse views that they deem unworthy of consideration (and at the potential risk of personal harm). Should deliberation proponents expect trans* rights activists, for example, to put themselves in a position of potentially having to justify their own humanity for the sake of hearing all sides of an issue? Activists will also argue that granting opponents a venue for conversation is already a concession, an undeserving form of legitimization for offensive speech.[x] The refusal to appear with advocates of certain ideas and/or to seek to prevent the dissemination of abhorrent views – often called no platforming (or deplatforming in other contexts) – is a non-deliberative practice that is explicitly endorsed by some groups.[xi]
Activist Contributions to, and Uses of, Deliberation
Based on these activist criticisms of deliberation, one would be inclined to negatively respond to the question posed above – Is deliberation for everyone?. If we reframe our locus of study, though, perhaps we can provide a more nuanced response. Movement activists aren’t categorically opposed to deliberation, but as Levine and Nierras (2007: 1) note, deliberative practices for many activists are appreciated “as part of a repertoire of democratic approaches, appropriate for some circumstances but not others.” In this final section, therefore, I identify ways in which deliberative aims already inform practices within movements and consider how social movement work can make the deliberation model more innovative and equitable.
In seeking to mobilize supporters and to target potential recruits, social movement activists may rely upon deliberative procedures internally and introduce ideas which are then later promoted within deliberative paradigms.[xii] From which frames are perceived to be most resonant to which tactics are strategically most effective, movements will often adopt horizontal decision-making structures which aim to build consensus among participants. Though not without its own serious failings (around issues of inclusion), one of the most dynamic and inspiring aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, were the democratic conversations happening daily. Appropriating public spaces (a non-deliberative behavior) to discuss aspirations for the world in which they want to inhabit (a deliberative objective), Occupiers sought to use the encampment sites as prefigurative models of these ideals.
The “People’s Mic,” another tactical innovation of Occupy, highlights the deliberative disposition of listening. Born out of necessity when the NYPD barred amplification devices from the occupation in New York’s Zuccotti Park, activists were required to closely listen to all speakers at the General Assembly because those gathered nearest the stage would be compelled to repeat the speaker’s words so that all would be able to receive the message. In this process of recitation, voices became magnified and personal testimonials traveled a much greater distance than if the authorities had not enforced a no amplified sound policy.[xiii] Movements, more generally, may be usefully understood as deliberative idea generators.[xiv] Many deliberatively-oriented programs and practices – e.g., participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, conversation agreements, and the progressive stack – were all initiated within movement contexts.[xv]
Finally (and most importantly), social movement activism may be a necessary precursor for equitable deliberation to occur. The success of past movement efforts, that is “distributing power to those traditionally excluded,”[xvi] creates the conditions for future deliberations where deliberators from all backgrounds are intentionally committed to mutual respect and inclusion.[xvii] Non-deliberative action, therefore, may be a logical pathway to pursue to achieve this deliberative ideal – a time when deliberation (in theory and in practice) can be for everyone.
* I am grateful to Graham Bullock for his thoughtful comments on an earlier iteration of this post.
[i] Abdullah, Karpowitz, and Raphael (2016: 5).
[ii] Engler (2021).
[iii] For further insights on these matters, see Beauvais (2020) and Smith (2020). I was introduced to these two readings via the Spring 2021 DCI Fellows cohort curriculum.
[iv] Levine and Nierras (2007: 10); Young (2001: 674).
[v] Motivations, of course, will differ due to the orientations and value commitments of any movement organization or individual activist. As is true in more institutional forms of politics, there will always be a diversity of approaches employed by and values prioritized within social movement communities.
[vi] Sanders (1997: 356).
[vii] Sanders (1997: 356).
[viii] Sanders (1997: 349).
[ix] It must be noted that the “difference critique” is not without its critics; scholars have offered empirical challenges (Hickerson and Gastil 2008) and more theoretical work (Neblo 2020) has focused on the “indispensable” role accorded to emotion in deliberative theory. In recent years, practitioners have developed deliberative guides that model “inclusion throughout the cycle of deliberative inquiry” (Maldonado 2017).
[x] Levine and Nierras (2007: 9).
[xi] See Smith (2020: 17) on anti-fascist efforts to combat Alt-Right views by embracing an aggressive version of this approach. For the sake of brevity, I have only provided a few arguments advanced by activist critics of deliberation. A more exhaustive list of concerns is presented in Levine and Nierras (2007).
[xii] Abdullah, Karpowitz, and Raphael (2016) describe the benefits of “enclave deliberations,” but locate their sites of interest as “organized community forums and political processes,” not movement spaces.
[xiii] On the power of testimonials, see Sanders (1997: 371).
[xiv] Della Porta (2020: 15).
[xv] On participatory democracy in social movements, more generally, see Polletta (2002).
[xvi] Levine and Nierras (2007: 11).
[xvii] On the “antecedents” to successful deliberation, see Beauvais (2020).
Carolyne Abdullah, Christopher F. Karpowitz, and Chad Raphael, “Affinity Groups, Enclave Deliberation, and Equity.” Journal of Public Deliberation 12:2 (2016), Article 6.
Edana Beauvais, “Deliberation and Non-Deliberative Communication.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16:1 (2020), 4-13.
Donatella della Porta, How Social Movements Can Save Democracy: Democratic Innovations from Below (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020).
Mark Engler, “Frances Fox Piven Wants You to Raise Hell.” The Nation (5 May 2021), https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/frances-fox-piven-interview/.Daniel Q. Gillion, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
Peter Levine and Rose Marie Nierras, “Activists’ Views of Deliberation.” Journal of Public Deliberation 3:1 (2007), Article 4.
Samantha Maldonado, “Inclusion Around the Cycle: Applying Strategies of Sufficient Inclusion
Throughout the Cycle of Deliberative Inquiry” (Colorado State University: Center for Public Deliberation, 2017), https://cpd.colostate.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2017/07/Around-the-Cycle-Maldonado.pdf.
Francesca Polletta, Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
Lynn M. Sanders, “Against Deliberation.” Political Theory 25:3 (June 1997), 347-376.
William Smith, “Deliberation in an Age of (Un)Civil Resistance.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16:1 (2020), 14-19.
Iris Marion Young, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy.” Political Theory 29:5 (October 2001), 670-690.