1. Introduction

Theories of deliberative democracy claim to have devised a politically emancipatory model for political decision-making.1 With the promise that all citizens should be able to participate equally and autonomously in the political process, deliberative democracy ought to minimize the political influence of illegitimate relations of social power, that is, those not legitimized by democratic procedures (Benhabib 1996; Habermas 1996). In the deliberative model, elections and voting alone are no guarantee of democratic legitimacy, which depends mainly on the inclusive and epistemological quality of the preceding process of discursive opinion and will formation.

It did not take long for claims of this kind to elicit criticism. Critics impute anti-pluralist and thus anti-democratic effects to deliberative procedures and practices. While proponents consider deliberative democracy to be a reformist political ideal, if not downright radical (Bohman 1998) or even revolutionary (Fung 2005), critics maintain just the opposite. They argue that the deliberative model (1) has conservative or anti-democratic implications (Sanders 1997: 348), (2) has oligarchic tendencies (Tucker 2008), and (3) furnishes a mechanism for controlling or manipulating the voters because, under its influence, voters will not make electoral decisions that serve their own best interests (Przeworski 1998). More recent scholarship argues that deliberative democracy is fatally blind to power relations and conflicts of interest in politics (Shapiro 2017) and thus can only maintain existing power relations (Banerjee 2021) rather than contribute to effective self-governance (Sharon 2019).

This review essay takes this contradiction as its starting point and asks whether and how deliberative democracy is linked to mechanisms2 that systematically yield the opposite of its normative intentions. First, we reconstruct the critique of the deliberative model through the lens of an analytical framework, which captures three dimensions of conservative mechanisms: social, substantial, and temporal. We then examine this perspective against the backdrop of recent theoretical discussions and empirical studies. We thereby consider that the deliberative project’s aspirations may target a variety of political arenas, ranging from private conversations over mini and large-scale publics to traditional political institutions. Finally, we draw conclusions from the preceding inquiry and ask how the deliberative model can encounter conservative mechanisms and advance its aim to produce democratic-emancipatory effects.

By reconsidering the conservatism charge, we provide an updated and systematic assessment of the emancipatory potential of deliberative democracy. Hence, rather than passing fruitless final judgment on the charge of conservatism, we seek to apply the latter to identify the persistent and emerging obstacles on which deliberative democracy must continually focus, if it is to achieve its emancipatory goals. Although our review finds significant evidence for the emancipatory effects of deliberative practices in diverse empirical contexts, it also reveals that emancipatory goals can be hindered or its effects reversed under unfavorable circumstances. We argue that the emancipatory performance of deliberative procedures can be improved by reflecting the institutional, social, and cultural embeddedness of deliberative practices in an ever deeper and fine-grained manner. This relates not only to the political-institutional context and structures of social inequality, but also to the cultural context of dominant value systems, behavioral patterns, and historical legacies.

2. Dimensions of the Conservatism Charge

For analytical purposes, we define conservatism primarily as a tendency to safeguard the existing social order—including its political privileges and power relations—against fundamental change.3 Conservatism stands in stark contrast to the emancipatory aim of deliberative democracy and implies the closing-off or a reversal of ‘democratic emancipation,’ which we define as the enhancement of equal and effective opportunities for political self-determination for all citizens within a social commonwealth.

We argue that this analytic notion of conservatism may be sorted into three dimensions: social, substantial, and temporal. The three dimensions conceptually comprise the questions of who deliberates, how deliberation unfolds, and what effects deliberative procedures have on the process of emancipation in time. On the one hand, these dimensions enable us to integrate disparate strands of the critique of deliberative democracy, while on the other, it allows us to carry out a systematic review on the basis of theoretical and empirical evaluation. When the literature critical of deliberation is screened against this background, the conservatism charges can be classified accordingly. Within the social dimension, the critique identifies a tendency for certain social groups to be excluded from the process of deliberation. In terms of the substantial dimension, critics lament the tendency toward depoliticization. Certain issues or options that should be subject to political contestation and decision-making are bracketed out of the political process or defused. Finally, in respect to the temporal dimension, critics argue that the deliberative model tends to preserve the status quo of socioeconomic and political inequality. While it is true that the three dimensions are closely linked to one another theoretically and practically, it is much easier to study them systematically if they are treated as separate units of analysis.

2.1 The social dimension: Deliberative constraints and mechanisms of political exclusion

The first test of deliberative democracy’s emancipatory potential is the question concerning the political inclusion of all those subjected to collective decisions: who (typically) deliberates? This dimension of the conservatism charge highlights the political exclusion of certain social strata and groups. Critics especially target innovative formats for political participation and claim that many such settings for deliberation are organized in a top-down fashion so that elites with particular interests and perspectives have the final say about how procedures are to be established and shaped (Tucker 2008; Young 2001). According to Pin (2020), innovative formats for citizen participation (such as participatory budgeting) regularly serve as branding purposes for elected officials who present themselves as vanguards of liberal democracy. Consequently, their focus is on producing formal inclusivity in terms of representative quota, rather than on the elimination of structural hindrances for accessibility or on transforming sociopolitical inequities.

Even where opportunities for access to all those subjected to a decision are formally equal, such access might be de facto limited because structural inequalities favor those who have greater material, temporal, cognitive, and social resources available to them (Young 2001: 679–680). Yet, from the critics’ point of view, it is not only the unequal distribution of opportunities for access that poses risks of exclusion; it is the very nature of the process itself. A classic objection is that dominant forms of discourse expected from participants are actually particularistic styles of expression. For example, Young (2000) regarded the so-called rational communication not as a universally valid form of communication but as a style of contestation specific to a certain social stratum. By excluding or stigmatizing alternative political modes of articulation (e.g., storytelling), people from underprivileged social strata are put at a disadvantage in the process of deliberation or are kept out of it (Sanders 1997). The issue of communication style might also extend to the ‘disadvantage of having a culturally devalued way of speaking’ (Holdo & Öhrn Sagrelius 2020: 648), that is, in terms of social markers such as accent or vocabulary that can reduce participants’ chances of being heard and taken seriously. Beyond the issue of communication styles, critics also contend that invisible structures of exclusion are often not addressed in deliberative settings. For example, Pin (2020) noted that deliberative processes are often implicitly geared toward the interests and routines of average (white) citizens and are therefore blind to constraints that affect certain disadvantaged or vulnerable groups (e.g., racialized, low-income residents), ranging from language requirements and scheduling problems to general (dis)trust towards government agencies.

According to critics, the end result is that deliberative procedures exclude a lot of people from participation and decision-making as, ultimately, socially privileged elites again decide about the concerns of those who are underprivileged (Shapiro 2017). Although deliberative forums do offer opportunities for participation to a select group of citizens, such forums likewise render the remaining majority even more passive (Urbinati 2010: 74). Finally, deliberative procedures can, albeit involuntarily, promote the existing exclusionary regime by legitimizing inegalitarian outcomes and, in consequence, the underlying social and political inequalities (Scott 2021; Walker, McQuarrie & Lee 2015).

2.2 The substantial dimension: Depoliticization via rationalization

The substantial dimension raises the question of how the deliberative process unfolds and which inputs are taken into account. Claims to rationality and common good orientation raised by the deliberative norm are portrayed by critics as the crucial mechanisms for excluding topics, positions, and arguments. According to agonistic theories of democracy, the theory of deliberative democracy ignores the elementary logic of the political (i.e., the staging of antagonistic conflicts) by falsely assuming that a rational consensus based on fair and neutral procedures is possible in class-ridden societies. In fact, so it is claimed, a purportedly rational consensus is attainable only by excluding other points of view and dismissing them as irrational (Mouffe 2005; see also Machin 2020). Although more recent critiques acknowledge that deliberative theory has adopted a more nuanced view on the role of consensus, they contend that powerful actors, who politically involve affected people and stakeholders in deliberative participatory procedures, often still push for consensus as the guiding principle in order to depoliticize conflicts in processes of decision-making (e.g., Banerjee 2021; Scott 2021). According to this perspective, problematic consequences may emerge: ‘[I]n its quest for consensus, deliberative processes elide legacies of colonialism and structural inequalities that persist in contemporary societies’ (Banerjee 2021: 2). Or, as Scott (2021: 11) puts it: ‘Demanding that arguments be made in the context of the “common good” places a heavy burden on disempowered groups to demonstrate why change is in everyone’s best interest.’

Others point to the danger that such deliberations can become a means for political and administrative elites to circumvent the institutions of representative democracy that have been legitimized through universal, equal elections or to at least pressure those institutions when they make decisions. According to Urbinati (2010: 72–73), deliberative forums are instituted nowadays mainly in order to depoliticize conflicts by reaching ‘impartial’ solutions, thereby putting them beyond the reach of genuinely democratic institutions, such as elections and representation (cf. Shapiro 2017; Walker, McQuarrie & Lee 2015). At the same time, top-down initiatives are accused of not addressing critical issues related to structural inequalities. On the contrary, participation in innovative formats can become a distraction from the fact that politicians often fail to address inequalities at the policy level (Pin 2020: 593). Rather than empowering otherwise underprivileged citizens, such formats tend to result in a powerless form of ‘activation,’ especially when initiated from the top down by political elites, because then they can only replicate the power structures on which they are based (Hammond 2021: 182). In sum, when democracy is rationalized in favor of positions that are supposedly ‘above parties,’ the political agenda ends up closed. Rationalization thus leads to depoliticization and undermines any mobilization against prevailing power relations.

2.3 The temporal dimension: Status-quo orientation and utopia as conservatism

We ought to expect that any model of democracy with emancipatory ambitions will be able to challenge relations of political domination. Yet the third charge asserts that the model of deliberative democracy is not in any position to question existing patterns of authority; it might help shore up those patterns instead. This charge is concerned with the question of the effects deliberation produces in time. As emancipation is a process concept, to bring it about, temporal changes must occur that mark a departure from a status quo regarded as problematic towards a preferred state of affairs.

Lynn Sanders (1997) provided an early critique that gives reasons for an alleged fixation on the status quo in deliberative procedures. When one takes into account the prevailing adverse conditions, she argues, deliberation inevitably would fail to overcome existing asymmetries of power and inequalities and, in fact, would likely consolidate them. In other words, the expectations attached to deliberative democratic theory presuppose utopian conditions. Because these conditions do not exist, the real-world effects of deliberation get perverted into the opposite of what was intended. For Sanders, the problem is that deliberation gives expression to, and thus reproduces, existing power relations as the ability to participate in deliberations depends on resources (e.g., time and education) that are unequally distributed. Therefore, she concludes, deliberation can do little but tacitly confirm the unequal conditions that already exist.

Another related charge is that hegemonic discourses influence the viewpoints and arguments of participants in deliberative forums. Thus, certain unexamined ideas, criteria, and images that reflect existing power relations may guide the deliberative process in subtle ways (Young 2001). A similar mechanism is the ‘imposition of preexisting narratives’ (Holdo & Öhrn Sagrelius 2020), or the strategic framing of a new issue by the media or political elites in a way that fits existing structures of perception, which makes it harder for marginalized perspectives to be taken on their own terms in public discourse. Moreover, recent critics see deliberative democracy itself as part of the hegemonic discourse about the way people should be given voice in political processes (Banerjee 2021). In this view, deliberative forms of participation can be easily integrated into ‘post-democratic’ or neoliberal governance frameworks, which are thereby reproduced without substantially challenging the status of underprivileged groups (Hammond 2021; Pin 2020).

Other critics emphasize the vulnerability of public discourse to manipulation and deception. From this perspective, the very dependence of deliberative democracy on public discussion provides the ground for interested actors to use their powerful resources to manufacture public opinion, thus undermining the authentic self-governance of citizens (Przeworski 1998; Sharon 2019). However, deliberative democratic innovations (e.g., designed participatory forums) are also targeted and are even seen as vehicles for oligarchic indoctrination by a sophisticated political minority that managerially directs and controls the proceedings in line with its own particularistic views (Tucker 2008). Thus, deliberation would be in a state of tension with forms of political activism that allegedly hold out greater promise to challenge dominant authorities and combat social inequalities under current conditions (Banerjee 2021; Pin 2020; Walker, McQuarrie & Lee 2015; Young 2001).

3. The Conservatism Charge Reconsidered

By asking who deliberates, how the process unfolds, and what the effects of deliberation are, we identified three dimensions of the conservatism charge. Socially, it culminates in the exclusion of some disadvantaged groups. Substantially, it closes off the political agenda to certain topics, positions, and arguments that might have a socially emancipatory thrust. Temporally, the deliberative model is said to maintain the status quo of structural inequality within a given society. What responses can be found in the theory of deliberative democracy to counter the points raised by such criticisms? What conclusions can we draw from empirical research on deliberation that would be relevant to this debate?

3.1 The social dimension: Inclusion or exclusion?

The normative claim of the deliberative model is clear: all those affected by decisions and who are subject to authority should have—so far as possible—an equal and unrestricted chance to take part in the political processes of will formation, and to advocate for or reject collectively binding decisions of their own free will (Benhabib 1996: 68; Habermas 1996: 107). However, can this claim be made good in the face of existing social inequalities? To answer this, we must inquire how inclusive the access to deliberative procedures and/or opportunities for participation really is and ask whether participants are systematically disadvantaged by specific mechanisms within the proceedings.

On the level of access, who actually takes part in deliberative processes? Is it only those who are economically, culturally, and politically privileged, as critics maintain, or can we assume that participation extends uniformly across social classes, strata, gender identities, and milieus? A study by Cook, Delli Carpini, and Jacobs (2007) on the distribution of discursive participation in the US tends to support a more positive view. Using representative survey data to gauge the degree to which relevant socioeconomic and cultural inequalities affect citizens’ discursive participation, they found that distorting factors do indeed have some effect, albeit it is less than on other forms of participation, such as elections. Education proved to be less important than membership in organizations and political interest in influencing participation, a finding that at least suggests egalitarian patterns of participation can be encouraged in and through discursive participatory opportunity structures.

Other studies point in a similar direction. Neblo and colleagues (2010) found that there is a deep-seated need among citizens to make fuller use of deliberative forms of participation. Their survey revealed that the very groups that have tended to turn their backs on political engagement in parties and interest groups feel the greatest attraction to scenarios of deliberation: an above average share of non-white, younger, and lower-income people are more open to deliberative forms of participation than they are to traditional forms (Neblo et al. 2010: 574). The respondents who did accept the offer to take part in a deliberative forum in the course of the study did not turn out to be the usual suspects from the activist group who are overrepresented in other forms of participation. The authors concluded that many demobilized citizens would be attracted to the political process if classical forms of participation were ‘embedded’ in a deliberative setting (Neblo et al. 2010: 582).

Does deliberation indeed promote the participation of groups that are underrepresented in the institutions of representative democracy, such as women, younger people, minorities, and educationally disadvantaged or poorer populations? Recent research has asked this question, coupled with the assumption that such groups have good reasons to be in favor of more deliberative participation opportunities, given the promise of more inclusivity compared to other instruments of representative democracy (Gherghina et al. 2021). For example, Talukder and Pilet (2021) examined the case of Belgium, which has experienced an increase in deliberative participation opportunities at various levels of government in recent years. They found that women and young people show higher support for deliberative participation than the rest of the population. However, other disadvantaged groups, such as people with lower levels of education or those who are in precarious employment, show no significant difference from better-off groups.

Although further research needs to shed light on the different contextual conditions that either promote or hinder inclusive participation across all strata of society, the abovementioned findings suggest that the access and motivation to participate in deliberative processes and discussions are generally not the most serious problems of exclusion. Yet the empirical argument for the willingness to participate still does not demonstrate that deliberation could be a means of improving the prospects for democratic will formation and decision-making under conditions of social inequality. To achieve this, citizens must at least be able to participate effectively, regardless of their social status or cultural capital.

Hence, in the second dimension of the inclusion problem, empirical research investigates whether either the explicit or the implicit rules of discourse may disadvantage underprivileged groups vis-à-vis dominant ones. One way in which scholars have done so is by measuring how speech shares (i.e., one’s share of opportunities to speak) are allocated in deliberative arenas. A study by Gerber (2015) on small group discussions within a pan-European deliberative poll offers evidence that informal mechanisms of exclusion can have an effect: women, participants from new European Union member states, or those from the working class had significantly lower speech shares (Gerber 2015: 125–126). Using a different research design, Beauvais (2021) provides evidence for the operation of implicit gender hierarchies in the evaluation of arguments. In a survey experiment with college students, the study found that female participants are more likely to change their opinion on a political issue after reading a text with a counterargument by an author identified as male, compared to reading an identical counterargument by a female author. She argued that even after formal inclusion, the historical legacy of political exclusion helps internalize and preserve patriarchal cognitive schemes, resulting in ‘discursive inequities’ that ‘act as a conservative counterweight preventing discursive challenges to the status quo from receiving uptake’ (Beauvais 2021: 111–112).

Institutional design might help to mitigate these problematic mechanisms. Karpowitz, Mendelberg, and Shaker (2012) studied the exclusionary dynamic to determine whether women were worse off than male participants in respect to both their participatory behavior and to the degree of respect shown to their comments in deliberative forums. Using experimental research designs, the authors demonstrated that, as a rule, mixed discussion groups exhibited gender bias and that women had significantly lower speech shares than men (Karpowitz et al. 2012: 545). However, the study also revealed that inequality effects depend on the composition of each group and the rules governing decision-making: the unanimity rule helps neutralize gender bias when women are in the minority, while the majority rule has similar effects when women constitute a (clear) majority (Karpowitz et al. 2012: 538). They conclude: ‘The fact that gender inequality disappears under some conditions means that deliberation can in fact meet the standard of equality, as its advocates contend’ (Karpowitz et al. 2012: 545).

Similar patterns are found in real-world contexts. In a study of deliberative participation in Indian gram sabhas, Parthasarathy and colleagues (2019) found that female participants are at a disadvantage. Although women are more likely to attend meetings, they are less likely to take the floor, ‘less likely to be heard, less likely to drive the agenda, and less likely to receive a relevant response from state officials’ (Parthasarathy et al.: 637–638). However, having female presidents in an assembly substantially increases the chances of effective participation of women—evidence that institutional designs can contribute to mitigate the effects of social inequalities in deliberative processes. Kennedy and colleagues (2021) explored whether design features strongly influence interaction in deliberative settings. Analyzing a large number of online deliberative discussions, they found differences and similarities with typical participation patterns in the offline world. While gender differences appear to be narrowing, non-white and older participants tended to make fewer contributions than white and younger participants. The authors conclude that these patterns need to be examined in further studies to explore the potential of online forums to reduce inequalities in deliberation.

In sum, although deliberation can reinforce (particularly internal) exclusion, it does not have to do so. What matters is not so much the deliberative practice but rather the culturally impregnated role patterns, norms, and cognitive evaluation schemes, which stabilize structural social inequalities and undermine the emancipatory potential of deliberative participation. Research has shown that there are ways to mitigate these effects through certain institutional designs. External and internal inclusion, however, may not be enough to challenge fundamental structures of inequality or oppression. We must then ask: how do deliberative processes typically take shape and what are its effects over time?

3.2 The substantial dimension: Democratization versus rationalization?

As for the depoliticization charge, the widespread assumption that deliberation must always proceed rationally and impartially can indeed be traced back to early contributions (e.g., Elster 1998). Yet this conception of deliberation was never uncontested. For instance, according to Gutmann and Thompson (1996), reciprocity (vis-à-vis impartiality) should be considered the central principle of deliberative democracy. To be sure, reciprocity must also strive to provide generally acceptable reasons for whichever positions have been taken. But, in contrast to impartiality, it does not require that the reasons be independent of the person and free from partisan commitments (Gutmann & Thompson 1996: 53–54). Similarly, Mansbridge and colleagues (2010: 72–73) argued that the reflection and articulation of self-interest in deliberation is not only permissible (as long as it does not involve coercion), but also ‘reduces the possibility of exploitation and obfuscation.’ Deliberative theory also has taken up the critique of the alleged exclusion of specific ‘non-rational’ forms of communication. For example, Bächtiger and colleagues (2010) proposed paying more attention to alternative forms of communication like storytelling, even ascribing to them a phase-specific functionality within the deliberative process (see also Karpowitz & Raphael 2014: 69–71).

Empirical research offers further insights about the role of diverse forms of communication in deliberative processes (Polletta & Gardner 2018). On the one hand, we find evidence of a productive functional differentiation between formal argumentation and alternative forms of deliberation. A study by Poletta and Lee (2006) of deliberative online forums held for selected residents of New York City on how Ground Zero should be rebuilt demonstrated that no contradiction need arise between storytelling and more strongly formalized kinds of argument and that storytelling can fulfill some important deliberative functions. They found that forum participants make frequent use of storytelling when wanting to illustrate a point of view that they perceive as marginalized, hoping to make it seem more plausible and valid (Polletta & Lee 2006: 711). In doing so, they aim to cast doubt on supposedly universal and neutral principles that dominate established arguments on the topic and make room on the collective agenda for new topics and points of view. Maia and colleagues (2020) analyzed how storytelling and more formal reasoning are used by actors in legislative hearings and informal citizen groups. They found that the use of both forms of communication can foster productive discursive dynamics: ‘Reason-giving and storytelling are not displayed in opposite or alternate moments, but both forms of communication jointly appear in good deliberation moments’ (Maia et al. 2020: 128).

On the other hand, these studies show an implicit hierarchy among forms of communication that makes formal argumentation the dominant form in certain phases and contexts of deliberation. Maia and colleagues (2020) revealed that storytelling is a likely form of deliberation only in informal civic forums, while speakers in legislative hearings tend to make much less use of stories and rely more heavily on abstract argumentation. Having arrived at similar findings, Polletta and Lee (2006) found that even the participating actors regard storytelling as an ambivalent form of communication that has both serious and frivolous aspects. This ambivalence is reflected in their sense that the storytelling framework is appropriate only for a limited range of topics: the more that concrete policy decisions are at stake, the less likely will participants tell stories and the more likely they are to present formal arguments (Polletta & Lee 2006: 716), thus indicating that deeply internalized cultural patterns help to stratify communication. Hence, there is a special risk that valences inscribed in cultural traditions will resonate mainly with social groups that are already underprivileged. Similarly, embodied status markers (e.g., accent or style of dress) may give the carriers of these traits more or less influence in deliberative processes, depending on how these identity symbols resonate with the particular sociocultural environment (Casullo 2020).

Therefore, it might not be enough to normatively acknowledge a legitimate role for alternative forms of communication and styles of expression. It seems to be equally important to carefully reflect how social and cultural connotations of patterns of behavior lead to more or less implicit hierarchical valuations of acts of communication, depending on the context. Although storytelling can also impair the quality of deliberation (e.g., by drawing attention away from central arguments), there is no reason to assume that formal argumentation cannot also be used for anti-deliberative goals, such as manipulation or domination. Alternative forms of deliberation can only fulfill their positive functions if they can really be used when needed and without implicit cultural constraints. In more general terms, this problem points to the importance of contextual embeddedness of deliberative practices that has implications for any emancipatory potential of deliberative practices and procedures.

The question of which form of deliberation is appropriate and necessary in a given situation must be linked not only to abstract principles, but also to the specific real-world context and character of the conflict (see also Bächtiger & Parkinson 2019). As Schäfer (2017) argued, within a parliamentary context characterized by democratically legitimated majority-minority relations, both cooperative and adversarial forms of deliberation are appropriate and necessary to effectively articulate all relevant social perspectives on political conflicts. The latter may be a necessary tool to politicize issues that are otherwise kept off the agenda or out of public attention. Thus, in terms of the emancipatory goal, the crucial question for each context is whether more conciliatory, more adversarial, or other alternative forms of deliberation are necessary for effective inclusion and whether they can be used effectively in such conflicts.

Although current literature makes it plausible to assume that alternative forms of deliberation can help give voice to marginalized perspectives and politicize hidden injustices, a systematic empirical assessment of the charge of depoliticization through deliberation is still a desideratum. Part of the difficulty in providing a clear answer to the question is that processes of politicization and depoliticization are often difficult to separate. The two tendencies can not only coincide but also be mutually conditioned in a dialectical relationship (Meiering & Schäfer 2020): for example, a trend toward depoliticization can trigger a politicizing counterreaction on the part of the actors concerned.

The problem and ambiguity of politicization through deliberative practices and procedures is well illustrated by an ethnographic study by Carrel (2015) on the deliberative engagement in French working-class neighborhoods. To determine whether deliberative processes can effectively politicize marginalized citizens, she examined the case of a deliberative empowerment workshop that brought together public officials and underprivileged citizens to discuss problems encountered in the allocation of public housing. Rather than focusing on consensus building, the process allowed citizens to critically voice their negative experiences. The analysis demonstrated not only the productive role of storytelling in deliberative processes but also the need for mutual engagement with these reported experiences. It likewise showed that the collective ‘elaboration of narratives’ (Carrel 2015: 194) played a crucial role in transforming participants’ personal grievances into political demands: ‘This debate between several conflicting viewpoints, and held behind closed doors, favored a shift from silence to critique in agents who had very little previous experience of expressing themselves in public on issues of communal life’ (Carrel 2015: 198). Thus, while participants left behind an attitude of apathy, they experienced a degree of individual politicization that could also lead to later engagement in collective action.

The case, however, also demonstrates the danger of short-term deliberative involvement that is incapable of creating sustained political engagement and, in the end, could reduce the participants’ contribution as mere consultation for political elite (e.g., only some of the politicized participants continued their political commitment, not the entire group). Thus, although politicization was possible, it was fragile. Nevertheless, following Carrel’s interpretation, the case demonstrates a specific politicization potential that deliberative procedures can have, which is neither completely bottom-up in the logic of collective action nor completely top-down and controlled by political elites.

Hence, instead of concluding that deliberative practices and procedures lead to (de)politicization, research must focus on the conditions (and the resulting dynamics) under which deliberative processes lead to politicization or depoliticization. Of particular importance in this context seems to be the institutional embedding and linking of deliberative practices and procedures in the broader framework of the democratic system and culture. This raises, for example, the question of how individual and collective experiences of politicization can be constructively channeled through other democratic institutions and practices through deliberative encounters. This point leads us directly to the next question about the effects of deliberative processes.

3.3 The temporal dimension: Emancipation versus the status quo?

It is clear that deliberative procedures slow down the democratic process. Deliberation preserves the status quo as it decelerates the democratic decision-making process and delays the immediate effect of voting by the citizens or their democratic representatives. By the same token, such modifications in the time frame lie at the very heart of democracy and can serve to make majority decisions acceptable to the respective minority (Schäfer & Merkel 2021). Therefore, the deceleration of decision-making may instill confidence that nearly everyone who is subject to political authority will have opportunities to make his or her voice heard. The crucial question, however, is will there still be opportunities for critically questioning dominant power relations or will deliberation merely end up consolidating the existing state of affairs?

Advocates of deliberative democracy argue that, in principle, there is emancipatory potential in deliberation even under the regnant conditions of today’s public spheres. Habermas (2006: 416), among others, ascribed a specific function to political communication in the media: ‘to mobilize and pool relevant issues and required information, and to specify interpretations’ in order to generate ‘considered public opinions.’ Admittedly, public deliberation takes place against the backdrop of unequal political, social, and media-related power relations. By virtue of its very structure, it bestows on specific actors a greater likelihood of influencing the process of political communication to suit their own interests. And yet—at least according to the assumption anyway—these unequal opportunities for influence run up against limits in the reflexive structure of the public sphere. All attempts to wield influence must obey the rules of give and take, that is, reasons must be given that possess a greater or lesser persuasive power once they are submitted to critical examination by the public (Habermas 2006: 418–20). But there are certain prerequisites for the mature development of this reflexive structure, such as the independence of the media system and a civil society that enables the citizens to participate in the formation of public opinion.

It then becomes possible to identify some corresponding pathologies. For example, the media may fall into excessive dependence on the state or the market (Habermas 2006: 420–23). Comparative empirical research has found that the deliberativeness of journalistic reporting actually decreases as state control of the media increases (Wessler & Rinke 2014).

There is another potential pathology in increasingly digitized media systems that threatens the conditions for authentic public deliberation: a growing amount of disinformation amplified by new communication technologies such as social media. In this context, some scholars are skeptical about whether deliberation can actually deal with the effects of (propagandistic or unintended) disinformation in today’s public sphere (Brown 2018). In contrast, Chambers (2021) extends Habermas’ argument, arguing that the democratic public sphere’s truth-tracking function still exists despite the unfavorable conditions that allow disinformation to flourish, such as efforts to establish fact-checking institutions and technical tools in social media to combat fake news. Similarly, McKay and Tenove (2020) argued that it is both possible and necessary to strengthen the deliberative capacities of the democratic public, for example, through oversight mechanisms that help filter out or ‘curate’ corrosive disinformation.

Empirical research on the relationship between deliberation and disinformation is still in its infancy. Himmelroos and Rapeli (2020) examined the potential of deliberation to correct misinformation in two different groups: one consisting of like-minded participants, the other of participants with diverse opinions. In their experimental study, the authors assess the knowledge of participants with either permissive or skeptical attitudes toward immigration regarding unemployment rates and integration assistance and whether their knowledge base improves after deliberation. The results not only demonstrated that deliberation – especially in groups with mixed opinons – can serve as an error-avoidance tool, it likewise revealed the lack of evidence supporting the argument that deliberative engagement could lead to the exacerbation and consolidation of false beliefs (which the backfiring thesis would assume). This finding somewhat weakens the assumption that the mechanisms underlying deliberative processes lead to effects that undermine their normative intentions.

Inducing the mass media to disseminate more closely reasoned opinions and controlling the impact of disinformation are only some prerequisites for critical will formation. Citizens also must be competent to process the information and, in some cases, to transmute it into active positions. Empirical studies on this point have yielded conflicting results. According to Rosenberg (2014), deliberative democracy ascribes capacities to citizens that they don’t possess: the ability to engage in subtle, analytic, logical, and systematic thought; powers of critical judgment and self-reflection; and empathy and readiness to cooperate. Drawing on research in social and developmental psychology, he cast doubt on these capacities (Rosenberg 2014: 101). To be sure, it can be shown that participants in deliberative processes learn, acquire information, expand their social ties, and even change their minds. But those changes happen within the horizon of a superficial, uncreative, and uncritical adaptation to social norms and dominant power relations. Rosenberg’s assessment suggests that, in such cases, deliberation is more likely to serve as a mechanism of social control rather than to inspire people to find fault with existing states of affairs and embrace the emancipation that builds on such a critique (Rosenberg 2014: 113).

However, one is inclined to regard as overly demanding the expectations that Rosenberg believes deliberative democracy levies on the cognitive capacities of the average participants in discourse. We should ask ourselves whether it is reasonable to expect ordinary citizens to think in objective, integrated, and abstract ways that enable them to grasp the complexity of social problems and come up with new approaches to solving them (Rosenberg 2014: 112). The more important question is whether deliberation delivers an instrument to the citizens to discuss critically and evaluate rival programs presented by political parties and elites.

Here, experiments on the influence of framing by political elites provide positive evidence. One can ascribe a manipulative potential to framing effects to the degree that they affect attitudes through the style in which a given subject matter is presented rather than through persuasive reasoning. Druckman and Nelson (2003) sought to ascertain the communicative contexts in which elite frames most influence the political opinions of the audience and found that such framing effects were most strongly marked either among participants in the experiment who were exposed to the frame without any subsequent deliberatively structured discussion or those who did take part in a post-experiment discussion but with a homogeneous group of people who had been exposed to the same frame. Discussions in heterogeneous groups, wherein participants had been exposed to a variety of frames, neutralized the framing effects by presenting participants with alternative arguments (Druckman & Nelson 2003: 737). These findings revealed that deliberation can limit opportunities for elites to manipulate citizens in their own interest, yet only when the latter have a chance to encounter contrary arguments in their communicative interactions.

In this context, the study by Esterling, Fung, and Lee (2015) is of particular interest. They analyzed the case of the deliberative participatory procedures that were a prelude to health care reform in California, hoping to uncover the connection between political discord and subjective satisfaction with the quality of the deliberative event. Their findings showed that participants gave highest grades to the quality of forums when they were confronted by a moderate degree of political disagreement. When faced with divergent opinions, participants preferred a situation of moderate diversity to either one of like-minded groups or of polarized discussion. Findings revealed that the most decisive factor in the success of deliberation was that the institutional design of the event should evoke enough curiosity among the participants about moderate disagreements that they would be inspired to engage in argument and debate (Esterling, Fung & Lee 2015: 544). Thus, according to these findings, group discussions structured around deliberation can contribute to (moderate) political mobilization.

Studies also show that institutional settings, such as those provided by carefully designed minipublics, can foster participants’ critical deliberative capacity. A study by Niemeyer (2011) on two case studies concerning participatory proceedings in two regions of Australia furnishes explicit evidence for the emancipatory effects created by participation in minipublics. The case studies showed how the deliberative process can empower participants to free themselves from the influences of manipulative news reporting and populist public rhetoric. In the course of the deliberative process, participants were able to familiarize themselves with different discourses that allowed them to evaluate the alternative decisions that could be made, which enabled them to reorder their own preferences and reach decisions in a more knowledgeable and autonomous way (Niemeyer 2011: 124).

Recent experience with political experiments such as the Irish Citizens’ Assembly also shows that participating citizens can develop greater deliberative capacity—in terms of cognitive complexity—than their parliamentarians when discussing the same issue (Suiter et al. 2021). Moreover, there is evidence that such minipublics can also foster deliberative capacity in the broader public among nonparticipating actors. In a survey experiment, Suiter and colleagues (2020) found that people can increase their political knowledge about the issue and empathy about others’ positions when they read the Irish Citizens’ Assembly report on blasphemy (although there seems to be a trade-off between increasing empathy by learning about different viewpoints and increasing knowledge; see also Setälä et al. (2020) with similar results for a Finnish local minipublic). Although it is not entirely clear whether the outcome of the referendum on abortion following the Irish Citizens’ Assembly reflected the discussions and recommendations of the minipublic or just an underlying trend in society, there is evidence that it influenced at least attentive segments of the public (Farrell et al. 2020). Overall, such experiences can be interpreted as evidence that a deliberative public can gain autonomy from powerful elites in the state and society in the process of democratic opinion formation and decision-making.

Thus, we end up with a nuanced picture when we ponder the inherent potential in deliberative processes to alter the status quo. It is true that there are theoretical arguments and empirical findings that reveal the difficulties confronting deliberative democracy on account of the structures of a public sphere saturated by the mass media. In addition, social media can provide a platform for the spread of misinformation against which citizens may have difficulty protecting themselves. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly negative judgments rendered by the critics cited above must be taken with a grain of salt. Even under the regnant circumstances, citizens may succeed in revising their perceptions and preferences by participating in public discussions and deliberative processes, build reflective judgments about rival political programs, and end up voting to change the status quo.

4. Conclusion

Does deliberative democracy involve mechanisms that systematically do the opposite of what it seeks to do? By asking who deliberates, how deliberation unfolds, and what effects it has, we have broken this problem down into three dimensions of the conservatism charge. Accordingly, the charge accuses deliberative procedures and practices of (1) excluding certain underprivileged groups from the deliberative process, (2) leading to a depoliticization of social conflicts, and (3) supporting the political status quo. Rather than passing fruitless judgment on the conservatism charge as such, we use the analysis to draw conclusions about what the project of deliberative democracy needs to focus on towards its emancipatory goal.

On the one hand, our review shows the emancipatory potential for all three dimensions. Deliberative processes and practices attract participants beyond privileged groups, which are often more diverse than in other processes such as elections. Moreover, deliberative theory has developed a nuanced view of the forms and outcomes of deliberative communication. This view recognizes that many deliberations about political conflicts are based on intractable conflicts of interest and values and, therefore, cannot lead to rational consensus. This makes it all the more important to involve all stakeholders in the deliberative process through both classical and alternative forms of justification and contestation in order to reach legitimate decisions even beyond consensus. Empirical research shows that alternative forms of communication, such as storytelling, can indeed promote the inclusion of marginalized perspectives in the deliberative process. Finally, deliberative practices and encounters between different perspectives can legitimately slow down decision-making but also empower people to critically reflect on discourse, rhetoric, framing, and information in different public spheres in order to develop authentic positions and resist manipulation.

On the other hand, research demonstrates that the realization of this emancipatory potential is fraught with considerable challenges. Structural constraints can prevent the inclusion of different, especially underprivileged, positions. In particular, internal inclusion is threatened by often subtle role patterns and culturally transmitted evaluation schemes that implicitly perpetuate prevailing social hierarchies and injustice and can also prevent alternative forms of deliberation (e.g., storytelling) from realizing their inclusive potential in deliberative encounters. The problem here is not that deliberation theory is not realistic, sensitive, or nuanced enough but that theoretical sophistication is often less prevalent in the notions of deliberative quality that prevail in political practice. Moreover, despite promising results, research also points to hurdles to emancipatory effects, ranging from social psychological insights to the increasingly problematic tendencies of contemporary information environments to provide opportunities for manipulation, such as through disinformation in social media.

Against this backdrop, we need to ask: What resources can deliberative democracy mobilize to address these challenges? How can the critical potential of deliberative practice be fostered to challenge the status quo of regnant social hierarchies and to counter attempts at discursive manipulation or oppression? Research confirms that the inclusion of diverse perspectives regarding affected interests and values, as well as the use of multiple forms of deliberation—including discursive contestation and alternative ways of articulating dissent and argument—increase the emancipatory potential of deliberative practices and procedures. To address the challenges that may impede their unfolding, research provides guidance at two levels.

At the deliberative setting level, institutional design can improve the inclusion of different social groups and perspectives. Factors such as decision-making rules, group composition, and the role of a deliberative body’s chair have a significant impact on how well internal inclusion works. The subtle mechanisms behind these effects and the ways in which cultural patterns distort equal participation require further research. Of increasing importance are the differences between online and offline settings (both as an important real-world setting for deliberative practice and as a quasi-experimental setting that helps control for factors not present in the digital environment). Particularly in the context of informal deliberative settings, the challenge is to address the adverse conditions of current communication environments by experimenting with robust tools for evaluating information. In addition, there seems to be a need for ongoing efforts to translate theoretical insights into political practice. This concerns, among other things, the question of under what conditions and in what sense does consensus become a valid deliberative norm and when does consensus become a potential obstacle to challenging the status quo of social inequalities.

At the systems level, deliberative processes and practices need to be considered in their institutional, social, and cultural contexts. In this regard, systems thinking (see Dryzek 2010; Mansbridge et al. 2012; Warren 2017) can help figure out how deliberation can be embedded in the overall institutional framework in such a way that it can unfold its democratizing potential while defusing conservative mechanisms. A central element of this scheme is the complementary interplay of differently constituted deliberative arenas and nondeliberative instruments with distinct remits. The systemic perspective focuses especially on the translation of citizen participation into political decisions. Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that without a well-defined and firm combination of weak and strong publics (see Boswell, Hendriks & Ercan 2016), purely consultative stakeholder participation risks being captured or dominated by powerful interests (Banerjee 2021; Scott 2021). Involving stakeholders in deliberative processes is not sufficient; it is crucial to empower them by linking these processes to democratic decision-making, for example, through equal voting procedures or by combining top-down and bottom-up initiatives (see also Merkel et al. 2021; OECD Public Governance Policy Papers 2021). Related to this is the need to connect considerations of institutional and systemic design to thorough context-specific power analyses. More research is needed to uncover the mechanisms by which social and cultural patterns of inequality translate into discursive inequalities and the maintenance of the status quo, by assessing, for instance, whether deliberative procedures systematically produce or legitimize inegalitarian outcomes.

While deliberative democracy faces significant impediments to its emancipatory goal under the regnant conditions of contemporary societies, conservative effects of deliberative procedures and practices are possible but by no means inevitable, as this analysis has made clear. The value of recurrent systematic evaluations based on the conservatism charge is that they help deliberative democracy identify and overcome persistent and emerging obstacles to its emancipatory potential. For any emancipatory project, this should be a worthwhile endeavor.


  1. The article draws on and develops further the analysis of Schäfer and Merkel (2020).
  2. In line with Bengtsson and Hertting (2014: 710), we understand mechanisms as ‘regular patterns of specific kinds of actions and interactions, patterns that are causally productive, meaning that they bring about certain outcomes.’
  3. We define conservatism pragmatically as an empirical-analytical concept. We do not refer to the ideological position linked with it, neither do we claim to do justice to the more complex philosophical discussion of conservatism that would, for example, also argue in favor of incremental change (Hamilton 2016; Müller 2006).


The authors thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their critical comments and suggestions, which helped to improve the manuscript.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author Contributions

Andreas Schäfer is the lead author of the article. Wolfgang Merkel contributed to the conception, arguments and critical revision of the original submission.


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