Category: Dennis Thompson

between good and pierce: on dungeons & dragons, and why deliberative democracy can’t work

Deliberative democracy has long been characteristic of governing institutions, if not in purpose, then certainly in composition. Deliberative decision-making, as Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson describe it, represents an essential act of governance, particularly during a period of diffuse information and increasingly transparent institutions. Gutmann and Thompson cite the opacity of the Iraq war debate as a keystone for their practical concern for deliberative democracy. Reasoned and publicly justified decision-making, however, occurs at almost all levels of the U.S. government structure: consider Leslie Knope’s town-hall shouting matches or President Bartlett’s thorough evisceration of Governor Ritchie’s fiscal conservatism. Of course, those two are fictional, but I hope you’ll concede the point: to paraphrase Hugh Grant, public deliberation actually is all around.

Deliberative democracy extends from Jurgen Habermas’ high-falutin’ notions of discourse in civil society, with a particular concern for the civic dividends of a robust, open “public sphere.” Gutmann and Thompson, however, take the German philosopher’s public sphere a step further: where Habermas’ theory remains at a discursive “meta-level,” the democracy theorists insert reasoned deliberation into democratic decision-making–that is, discourse serves a political function, in addition to a Habermasian social role. Gutmann and Thompson outline four criteria for an effective deliberative democracy. Public discourse must be “reason-based,” wherein the public discussion relies on logical, easily interpretable argument. Reason-based discourse necessitates the accessibility of public information, as well. Gutmann and Thompson describe this deliberative discourse as “binding,” inferring the particular influence of democratic discourse on public policy decisions. Lest public officials view deliberative processes as unchanging, the discourse must also fulfill a “dynamism” threshold, whereby policy decisions interact with developing norms and discursive trends–President Obama’s recent “evolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage is an instructive case.

It’s easy to see how deliberative politics might emerge as a technology of governance, and how political decision-makers might engage with a dynamic population of public ideas. Gutmann and Thompson, however, propose deliberative democracy as a form of governance itself–rather than a tool of governance, or a standard operating procedure, deliberation is a descriptive element of a democratic institution. We needn’t look further than primetime comedy to demonstrate why this won’t work. Dan Harmon’s Community is a relevant, if idiosyncratic demonstration of the political pitfalls of deliberative institutions. In one episode, Community’s motley crew of adult study buddies sits down for a game of Dungeons and Dragons, in order to raise the obese Neil’s spirits. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), as a Forbidden Planet saleswoman once explained to me, is a highly social game (“Everyone thinks D&D fans don’t have friends. But that’s not possible–it’s a multiplayer!”). The study group’s D&D decision-making mirrors Gutmann and Thompson’s deliberative model: from a capabilities perspective, each character stands on equal footing, and the game’s progress relies on the continued, public participation of its individual components. Abed (“The Undiagnosable”), in his capacity as the game master, lays out the game’s progress in a transparent manner, ensuring that all characters can access the same information about collective processes, institutional decisions, and resource distribution.

The system starts to breakdown when Pierce (“The Dickish”) enters the game. Concerned that the group excluded him from the D&D game, Pierce decides to exact vengeance against Neil’s alter-ego, Duquesne. The study group exiles Pierce to the supply closet, where he uses a collection of supplementary D&D rule books to endow himself with new powers. Pierce returns to the study group room, using his new powers to “control” Draconus, a dastardly dragon with time-stopping powers. A maniacal Pierce “transforms” Neil from Duquesne into his prior, obese self. If not for the group’s rejection of Pierce’s vengeance, the non-Pierce members of the Community study group would have lost the game.

Community’s D&D game may be goofy–and a simplistic reflection of the challenges of in-group/out-group dynamics in collective decision-making–but it demonstrates an important gap in deliberative democracy. Organization is driver of decision-making processes, and with social organization comes social hierarchy. Even the simplest societies contain a degree of intra-communal specialization, which determines access to key resources and, more importantly, information. Public information is asymmetric–groups have unequal access to information resources, due to their particular participation in or exclusion from policy institutions. In the study group’s D&D game, Pierce’s additional rules enhanced his abilities, and limited the influence of the study group’s deliberative process. Community’s D&D activities demonstrate the questionable impact of the “information age”: there’s more information out there, but it’s difficult to say whether that has led to the democratization of policy-relevant information. This information asymmetry, which has emerged because of intentional¬†and unintentional characteristics of technocratic governance, dooms deliberative democracy to little more than a dispensable governance technology.