Deliberation, against all odds? : The critical prospects of mini-publics

Abstract: In recent decades, the theory of deliberative democracy has encountered multiple challenges. In this thesis, I explore the prospects of a particular type of deliberative democratic institution – deliberative mini-publics – in three essays. In the first essay, I discuss the challenge of combining mini-publics with institutions for preference aggregation, such as elections. I address the concern that citizens of a society dominated by aggregative institutions could be discouraged from the collective and cooperative form of participation required by mini-publics. Studying the effect of the right to vote on citizenship norms, I find no support for this concern. On the contrary, I show that elections boost support for non-electoral forms of political participation. In the second essay, I focus on the concept of descriptive representation in mini-publics to investigate previous studies’ tendency to introduce aggregative elements to deliberative institutions. I find that current conceptualizations of descriptive representation in the mini-publics literature tend to primarily address concerns about the democratic legitimacy of a political institution consisting of unelected representatives. I argue that mini-publics can be considered legitimate if the notion of legitimacy is detached from elections. After showing that mini-publics do not necessarily suffer from a lack of legitimacy, I suggest an argument for descriptive representation that better serves the mini-publics' aim of facilitating high-quality deliberation. The third essay is motivated by a call from theorists to treat social differences as a resource that can enhance deliberative processes, rather than an obstacle. I test whether emphasizing social differences in mini-publics makes humble communication and reflexivity – elements that constitute normative conditions of deliberation – less likely. Analysing the effect of increased social group salience on expectations of deliberation, I find that emphasizing group differences raises expectations of observing and acknowledging differences without lowering the prospects of humble communication and reflexivity.