Dr James Kierstead argues for the merits of debate despite the fact we will likely never convince each other of our views

When I studied political theory in the US, most of the professors who taught me were fond of what’s called ‘the deliberative theory of democracy’. According to the theory, democracy is, first and foremost, a system that encourages a particularly high-quality sort of discussion, one in which participants try to convince others of their views by appealing to evidence and reason.

This is, I hope you’ll agree, a noble ideal. As an ideal that’s meant to be definitive of democracy, though, it has its limitations.

One of these is elitism. The problem is that evidence-based deliberation is something that’s perfectly possible – and may even be more likely – in a small group of intellectuals than in a mass meeting open to all comers. The demos (the people) – surely an important element in democracy – can get left out of the picture.

Another issue is the deliberative ideal is often coupled with a desire for consensus or unanimity. In its purest form, this means we can’t make any decision until everyone agrees on what course we should take.

That, too, is a noble ideal, and it’s one that’s been taken up by a number of groups, from the Quakers to the Occupy movement. The University of Edinburgh Professor of Greek History Mirko Canevaro has recently argued that even ancient Greek democracies made decisions unanimously much more than we’d previously thought.

But there are also drawbacks of making consensus our goal. One is it becomes much more difficult to make decisions, which probably explains why states that insisted on unanimous decisions aren’t that common in the historical record.

Another is it’s actually not that easy to get people to change their minds, especially after they’ve stated their take on something in public. That’s an issue increasingly to the fore today, when the internet makes it childishly easy for us to find something – or someone – that will support our pre-existing views.

Could we ever get to a place where we all more or less agreed about things? Probably not.

That’s because we don’t just disagree about things as a result of drawing different inferences from the things we think are true, or even because of the way we were raised. There’s also growing evidence our political beliefs have genetic underpinnings.

If that’s true, it’s likely we will always have our political differences. Attitudes do shift over time (think of attitudes toward homosexuality, for example), but people will always have a tendency to see things in different ways, and that means the dream of many activists of the left and the right –the ‘other side’ being wiped off the map once and for all – will never be a waking reality.

Instead, we will have to keep finding ways of working through our differences together and of not spending too much time at each other’s throats while doing so.

And one thing that might help with that is, paradoxically, being aware we may not be able to bring everyone round to our own individual points of view – not today and maybe not ever.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t discuss things. Open debate is crucial to liberal democracy, as I argued myself not too long ago here on Newsroom. But any society that wants to get things done has to make decisions at some point and that’s the point at which debate must come to an end (at least for a while).

If I’m right and political disagreement is basically inevitable – how come some societies have apparently been able to make decisions unanimously?

Here the key word might be ‘apparently’. German historian Emeritus Professor Egon Flaig, after looking at a broad range of societies, came to the conclusion consensus is often more apparent than real. Flaig says this is often because elites can be adept at massaging unanimity into being, even in traditional popular assemblies. “We all agree on this, don’t we?” they say. Nobody dares to say otherwise.

Even in the absence of elites encouraging us to vote one way rather than another, we’re all influenced by what others around us are saying – either because we assume there must be something to a view that a lot of people are voicing or just because it isn’t easy to speak your mind when you know you’re outnumbered.

All of this should serve as a reminder of the advantages of voting and especially of the secret ballot. Voting in a polling booth means our views will be counted equally with everybody’s else’s, even if we’d find it difficult, for whatever reason, to defend those views in public.

Of course, we might feel there are views rightly difficult to defend in public. But if democracy is about political equality, it makes sense for us to have systems that treat voters’ views neutrally, whatever they happen to be. At the moment, the span of views that might elicit public shaming seems quite broad, with some 62 percent of Americans saying they’re afraid to express some of their political opinions.

There’s no doubt that discussion and deliberation are important aspects of democracy. But they’re not the whole of it. Back in 2004, Bruce Ackermann and Jim Fishkin, two American political scientists, suggested a day-long festival of political conversation and debate each year that they styled Deliberation Day. In the wake of two hard-fought elections, first here in New Zealand, then in the US, few people would likely jump at the option.

In fact, it might be worth remembering there’s more to elections than an opportunity to argue with each other, as necessary as that is, especially if we consider the alternative. Whatever other purpose they may serve, elections give us a chance once every three years, in our case, to have our say on who should govern us – and maybe on a couple of other issues too – without our having to explain or justify our takes to anybody.

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