Online Critical Debate Model: Deliberation for the Digital Age

Claudio Fuentes Bravo, University of Chile

Julián Goñi Jerez, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

To argue is to build democracy (Fuentes 2019). The capacity to reach agreements among a diverse set of social and political actors is one of the key dimensions in the governability of complex societies (Gerring and Thacker 2008). Argumentation is precisely the origin of legitimacy and stability of national democracies. However, the nature and extension of argumentation in society is rapidly changing. Political scientists and public participation activists have systematically pushed for a greater empowerment and citizen control over political decisions. This is what is commonly known as the «deliberative turn». As Dryzek states:

The essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even selfgovernment. The deliberative turn represents a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens (Dryzek 2002, 1).

The achievement of citizen control is not an easy task. It requires addressing major practical and conceptual challenges regarding the nature, objectives and methods of deliberation.

Regarding the nature of deliberation, Chambers (2003) asserts that the essence of democratic deliberation is talk-centric. Deliberation implies a series of communicative and linguistic procedures that allow for a certain deliberative attitude in which different actors are able to engage as peers in an exchange of reasons with the aim of reaching a shared practical judgement (Curato et al. 2017). According to Chilvers (2008), exercising deliberative democracy requires the development of deliberative competencies that allows for the orchestration of diversity, difference, antagonism and uncertainty. The emergence of dissent is a key dimension for a pluralist view of deliberation, as dissent is view as a marker of different voices being heard (Martí 2017).

On the other hand, quality evidence and quality reasoning are nonetheless fundamental in order to assure that biased or factually wrong opinions may be discarded through the deliberation process (Landemore 2017). Regarding the objectives of deliberation, Dryzek and Niemeyer (2006) argue that probably more important than reaching consensus in the results, it is reaching meta-consensus. A meta-consensus means that positions are not necessarily shared, but there is consensus regarding how a decision is made and what is the spectrum of legitimate options and evidence. Meta-consensus may be normative, epistemic or of preferences (Dryzek and Niemeyer 2007). Normative meta-consensus means that all involved values are considered legitimate. Epistemic meta-consensus means that all involved evidences and beliefs are considered trustworthy. Finally, preference meta-consensus means that there is agreement regarding the spectrum of legitimate outcomes and preferences of deliberation. For participants, reaching a meta-consensus means not only that they know what the other’s positions are, but also that they know why they prefer them (Niemeyer 2011).

Regarding the methods of deliberation, and given the complexities of broadening deliberation in democracy, new ways of designing participation have arisen. The redesign initiatives are often referred to as «democratic innovations». According to Elstub and Escobar (2019), democratic innovations are defined as processes or institutions that are new to a particular governance or policy matter and that aim to re-imagine or deepen the role of citizens in governing through an extension of the opportunities of participation, deliberation and influence. Most of these innovations are meant for competent adult citizens that are deemed ready for political engagement. However, there is a need to consider new innovations aimed at developing the necessary deliberative competencies (Curato et al. 2017) and attitudes (Chilvers 2008) that are required for this to happen.

This educational democratic innovation should gain a bigger role, especially when considering the urgency of preparing the new generations for public engagement. Furthermore, there is a need to consider new innovations aimed at developing new analysis strategies that add representativeness (Schecter and Sullivan 2018) and meaningful discourse analysis and regulation (Niemeyer and Jennstal 2018) to existing deliberative initiatives. This chapter presents our experience designing and analyzing deliberation initiatives during 2020. In particular, we seek to present how our experience with a large-scale online citizen engagement exercise called Tenemos Que Hablar de Chile [We have to talk about Chile] helped us to re-design and expand the Critical Debate Model (Fuentes 2011) for the context of online learning. In the first section, we will present a brief historical overview of the Critical Debate Model. In the second section, we will describe our experience with Tenemos Que Hablar de Chile highlighting our learnings. In the third section, we will describe our proposal for an online version of the Critical Debate Model. With our experience, we aim at illuminating new possibilities for the design and analyzing of deliberation in an online environment.


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