Democratic dialogue may limit polarisation

Citizens may counteract polarisation and be the guarantors of sound political decisions. This is the main message in an article by Professor Rune Slothuus from Aarhus BSS and a number of his international research colleagues in the journal Science.

17.09.2019 | MIA ULVGRAVEN

As citizens, we have more opportunities than ever to express our views in the public debate. This may sound like a triumph for democracy. However, it is not.

Today, an overload of statements and one-sided messages combined with a coarse and uncivil tone create polarisation and constitute a problem for our democracy, 20 researchers from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Aarhus BSS are pointing out. The more polarised and uncivil that political environments get, the less citizens will listen to the content of messages and the less trust they will place in the democratic institutions.

However, there is a solution to the problem of polarisation, according to an article in Science, one of the world’s most recognised journals.

The solution is deliberative democracy.    

Deliberativte democracy

Deliberation means to consider something carefully, and the essence of deliberative democracy is that decisions are made based on a thorough and qualified debate in which participants listen and reflect and are willing to change their attitudes. 


“You might also call it democratic dialogue. The idea is that you talk your way towards sound solutions by way of discussing and listening to the arguments of others with an open mind. In the ideal deliberative democracy, the dialogue will continue until everyone is in mutual agreement. Although this is utopian, we can still use elements of deliberative democracy to combat the current polarisation in society,” says one of the authors Rune Slothuus, professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

"When parties are polarised, voters will switch on to autopilot and agree with their own party without making their own decisions"

Rune Slothuus - Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Media and politicians can make a difference

Denmark is characterised by a representative democracy. However, elements of deliberative democracy are already being applied. Several ministries are conducting public debates in which a representative sample of the Danish population takes part in thorough and impartial discussions with experts and politicians on issues such as the climate and the EU. This gives politicians an indication of the views of the general public were all citizens well-informed.   

“Public debates are expensive and time-consuming, but the idea of presenting citizens to different perspectives can easily be introduced on a larger scale. The media can contribute to creating an atmosphere that promotes deliberative democracy by focusing less on conflict and by exploring different arguments in depth. Political parties are also highly responsible for debating important issues in a civil tone,” says Slothuus whose own research has demonstrated that people tend ignore sound arguments in a polarised political climate.

In 2013, he published a number of experiments in American Political Science Review demonstrating that voters are in fact open to arguments from other parties than their own as long as the parties are not strongly polarised.

“As voters, we are willing to change our attitudes and are able to form sound opinions as long as the politicians disagree but are not deeply divided. However when parties are polarised, voters will switch on to autopilot and agree with their own party without making their own decisions. This means that politicians are very much responsible for facilitating an environment of deliberative dialogue,” says Slothuus. 

Deliberative environments reduce extreme attitudes

In the article "The crisis of democracy and the science of deliberation" published in Science, Slothuus along with 19 other researchers go through a number of the deliberative experiments that have been conducted in recent years and follow up on the research results in the field.

Research shows that ordinary citizens are capable of high-quality deliberation, especially when the deliberative processes are well-arranged - when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and are overseen by a facilitator.

An analysis of the 2009 EU public debate (EuroPolis) showed that attitude changes did take place and were a result of convincing arguments. Not of group dynamics.

“This indicates that these types of debates prevent polarisation,” says Slothuus.

Other research shows a more direct link between deliberation and the prevention of polarisation. Groups of like-minded citizens do in fact become less extreme in their attitudes in deliberative environments. Outside deliberative environments, they become more extreme.

Deliberation may even heal deep divisions. The method has proved effective in countries characterised by ethnic, religious or ideological conflict. In places such as Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, deliberation has promoted understanding and acknowledgment of the opponent.

Reason for Danish optimism

According to research into deliberative democracy, there is thus every reason to be optimistic when it comes to citizens’ ability to curb polarisation and manipulation and make sound decisions. However, we are not dealing with a miracle cure.

“Deliberative democracy requires an extreme amount of resources and is highly cumbersome. So it definitely presents some challenges. However, what you can do is pick out the elements that work. Such as to ensure a more impartial and less conflictual political debate in the media,” says Slothuus.

He explains that promising experiments have been conducted in which social media debates were moderated to allow for a more sober tone and to ensure that participants would increasingly consider opposing viewpoints. He believes that there is a strong basis for deliberative discussion in Denmark.

“We might have disagreements, but we are not deeply polarised. This year’s Danish general election campaign - and the actions of the party leaders in this campaign - gave us good reason to be optimistic about political debates in which arguments may lead to attitude change,” says Professor Rune Slothuus from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University.

Deliberative democracy in practice

  • One example of deliberative democracy in practice is the public debate on the future of the EU conducted by the Danish Parliament in 2017 and 2018. Here, a mini Denmark consisting of representatives of the Danish population convened with politicians and experts to debate Denmark’s role in the EU.
  • In Ireland, the high-profile Irish Constitutional Convention brought together citizens and politicians to deliberate abortion, same-sex marriage and other constitutional issues.
  • In Mongolia, any constitutional amendment now has to be preceded by a deliberative poll involving several hundred ordinary citizens.
  • Thousands of public hearings, citizen panels, citizen juries, consensus conferences and other deliberative initiatives have been conducted during the past two decades in a number of countries.
  • India may be seen as first movers. Indeed, the most institutionalised form of deliberative democracy is found in India where villagers assemble several times a year for debates and decision-making in the gram sabhas.

See an interactive world map with deliberative projects and experiments.

Read the entire article in Science: ”The crisis of democracy and the science of deliberation”