Reflections on the Frontiers of Democracy 2023 Conference

Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life hosted the Frontiers of Democracy 2023 conference from July 13-15 on the topic of Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies.

Staff from the League’s Center for Democracy Innovation attended the conference with a select focus on joining the session: The Emergence and Transformation of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC).

The DDC was an alliance of dozens of leading organizations and scholars working in the field of public engagement, participation, and deliberation, initially with a focus on North America, and particularly the United States.

The session was focused on reflecting on the emergence, the successes, and failures of the DDC over a twenty-year period – which is now no longer in operation.

The emergence of the DDC began in September of 2002 with the aim of bridging the theory and practice of deliberative democratic engagement. Relevant to the general conference theme on robust democracy in multiracial society, the panel paid homage to two leading articles that guided the initial focus and ambitions of the consortium, namely to address tensions in the field surrounding how to address structural inequality.

The two articles that guided the discussion were:

Iris Marion Young’s Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy and Archon Fung’s Deliberation before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World.

Young poses the challenge that in a context of structural inequality it is incongruent for activists to strive for a consensus-building deliberative democracy, whereas Fung suggests that there is room for a deliberative activist to strive for reason-giving and sharing in the face of inequalities, but that this does not remove the need for collective mobilization on issues concerning social justice.

Some twenty years have passed since the development of the DDC, which makes it important to reflect on how many political, social, and economic events - the 2008-9 financial crisis, occupy movement, the impacts from the 2008 and 2016 national elections, the murder of George Floyd, the BLM movement, and so-called ‘culture wars’ – have impacted the direction of the consortium’s work.

A discussion ensued about the state of the field of deliberative democracy, in terms of its theory and practice, and it was noted that there has been a lack of emphasis on structural injustice and inequality in the United States. The consortium, and arguably the field more broadly, moved away from this emphasis. Thus, while many strides have been made in terms of convening and learning from different types of deliberative processes, critiques were noted that the DDC, as a convener, failed to pursue a more equity-based focus on big, valence issues, and cultivating the type of leadership focused on the needs and lives of under-represented populations. This ultimately comes full circle back to the initial debates in the field about the effectiveness and use of deliberation as a tool to solve the largest issues in society if the focus isn’t on structural issues, versus other forms of mobilization.

The DDC is at a transition of knowledge, where it seeks to pass on its various lessons to the next generation of practitioners and thinkers. Stay tuned for reflective pieces in the National Civic Review on this topic.

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