Teledemocracy vs. Deliberative Democracy

By Scott London

This paper examines the differences between two models of public talk. The first, which I call "teledemocracy" (literally "democracy at a distance"), has been getting a lot of play in recent years thanks in part to a remarkable array of new communications technologies. Its advocates contend that innovative forms of electronic discourse can remedy many of the shortcomings of representative democracy in a contemporary mass society such as ours. The second model — deliberative democracy — is founded on the principles of reasoned dialogue and deliberation.

These two models, teledemocracy and deliberative democracy, both put a premium on public discourse. But, as I hope to show here, the guiding assumptions in each case are very different. The rationale for teledemocracy is consistent with an approach to political theory variously termed "rational choice," "negative liberalism," or "the logic of collective action" by scholars. It is founded on a marketplace conception of the political world in which interests conflict and compete. By contrast, deliberative democracy is rooted in the ideal of self-governance in which political truths emerge not from the clash of preestablished interests and preferences but from reasoned discussion about issues involving the common good. In the academic literature, this model falls under the rubric of "collective rationality," "unitary democracy," or simply "deliberative democracy."

The Value of Public Talk

The freedom to speak, to engage in political conversation, to discuss public issues, and to deliberate about the common good is the hallmark of a democracy. The energy of the democratic idea, as Lewis H. Lapham put it, "flows from the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant, from their willingness to defend their interest, argue their case, say what they mean."

Political thinkers dating back to ancient Athens have stressed the importance of public discourse and debate. In the fourth century b.c., the orator and statesman Pericles recognized discussion among the citizens of the polis as an "indispensable preliminary" to political action. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle articulated an extensive philosophical rationale for the importance of this process, noting that "the art of legislation" was impossible without reasoned dialogue and deliberation. Modern philosophers, too, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, have reflected on the importance of public discourse. Rousseau deemed it essential to the formation of a "general will." And in his seminal work On Liberty, Mill outlined a philosophical rationale for something he called "government by discussion."

The importance of public discourse was also written into the United States Constitution. The Founding Fathers believed that the only way the people could be sovereign while at the same time subject to the law was to organize government around a system of deliberative discussion. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed,

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. ... They believed that ... the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of American government.

The advent of new technologies such as the telephone, radio, and television, has radically changed the nature of public discourse in the twentieth century. Today political communication has mutated into something the framers of the Constitution could scarcely have foreseen. The voluntary associations, public spaces, local newspapers, and neighborhood assemblies of their day have given way to computer bulletin boards, satellite television, and radio call-in programs.

This transformation has been paralleled by a similar shift of emphasis about the underlying rationale for political discourse. Advocates of the new "teledemocracy" maintain that since it is impossible for millions of people to have the sort of participatory democracy available to members of small communities, such as the Greek polis and early New England towns, new electronic mechanisms need to be invented to connect citizens with each other and their leaders. The sort of political discourse they advocate aims not to foster public deliberation, as it was described by the framers of the Constitution or the classical philosophers, so much as to safeguard freedom of expression, provide alternative avenues for the expression of public opinion, and allow citizens to participate in the processes of government.


Although the notion of teledemocracy can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, it has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. This can be partly explained by the advent of technologies such as satellites, fiber optic cable, interactive television, and computer networks which has added a new dimension to political discourse. Some of the possibilities of these new media were demonstrated during the 1992 presidential campaigns when candidates reached out to the electorate using interactive satellite hook-ups, radio and television call-in programs, and live computer conferencing.

It seems, however, that the growing interest in teledemocracy has been driven less by technological advances than by a pervasive discontent with the current state of American politics. For instance, Duane Elgin, a proponent of televised town meetings, says that since "virtually all of today's problems are, at their core, communications problems," new and improved lines of communication are needed between citizens and their leaders. He maintains that the new technologies offer ways for citizens to enter into a dialogue with public officials in such a way that they "will feel engaged and responsible for society and its future."

Some proponents of the teledemocracy believe that citizens must reclaim their voice if government is to be accountable to the people. This sentiment was admirably summed up by Donella Meadows in an article in the Los Angeles Times. "Just by venting our opinions" in radio and television call-in programs, she noted, "you and I can scuttle a congressional pay raise, elevate a wise-cracking Texan to a presidential candidacy or bring down a potential attorney general because she hired an illegal alien."

Advocates of teledemocracy point to numerous other advantages as well. The following is a list of the principal arguments in favor of electronically mediated political talk:

  • Interactive telecommunications can foster increased civic participation in the democratic process.
  • Telecommunications can link citizens together across the boundaries of time and space. It can also involve citizens who may ordinarily have no opportunity to participate.
  • A direct link between citizens and government ensures the accountability of representatives.
  • Electronic media can function as a mass feedback system, providing legislators with instant public opinion on issues.
  • Many new electronic media provide unmediated communication allowing citizens to be in touch with each other and their leaders without such traditional gatekeepers as newspaper editors, mail carriers, and television moderators.
  • The new media can facilitate direct public participation in governance through plebiscitary mechanisms or direct communication between citizens and policymakers.
  • New technologies can process vast amounts of information almost instantaneously.
  • Electronic communication can guarantee equal access to information to large numbers of citizens.
  • Electronic networks are excellent vehicles for political agenda setting and planning.
  • Teledemocracy enhances political competence by involving large numbers of people more directly in the process of public discussion.
  • New technologies provide innovative ways of informing and educating the electorate on key public issues.
  • Telecommunications can strengthen ties of communication among and between individuals and groups.
  • New technologies provide improved access to government information and services.

Critics of teledemocracy hasten to point out that these benefits must be carefully weighed against the potential risks of electronically mediated communication. Looking over the literature, I have identified a range of major criticisms of the idea of teledemocracy: 1) Plebiscitary devices, such as tele-voting, leave no room for reasoned dialogue and debate. 2) Teledemocracy fosters a compilation of opinions rather than a public voice — it creates "a din, not a democracy," as two observers put it. 3) Technology atomizes individuals. It "promises efficacy, promises to give us control over our own affairs," writes Ronald Beiner, "but its effect upon us, as social and political beings, is the very opposite." 4) The speed of new technologies is inimical to democratic deliberation. 5) Consulting the citizenry through direct feedback mechanisms is time-consuming and inefficient for representatives. 6) Voters neither feel compelled nor wish to be engaged in the specifics of public policy making. 7) Some public issues do not lend themselves to broad-based public discussions, either because they are too technical, too specific, or too regionalized. 8) Technology raises intractable issues of access, cost, and literacy. 9) Most experiments in teledemocracy have had very low rates of participation. 10) Teledemocratic mechanisms are highly vulnerable to agenda-setting factors. 11) Discussion about public issues removed from the capacity to act is impotent — it denies citizens a sense of ownership and initiative. 12) Public opinion is notoriously fickle and electronic discourse easily degenerates into chatty and opinionated monologues. 13) Since citizens cannot be expected to inform themselves on issues they tend to be highly susceptible to the news media and to advertising. 14) Citizens must be allowed to frame issues in their own terms. 15) Majoritarian solutions, such as tele-voting, are unsuitable in cases where there is no clear majority. 16) As James Squires and others have pointed out, electronic discourse is based on "survival of the wittiest." 17) Technologically mediated talk is often context free. As Neil Postman writes, the electronic milieu "is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose." 18) Finally, the costs of orchestrating technological experiments are often prohibitively high.

Deliberative Democracy

Following a usage that goes back to Aristotle, philosophic tradition generally takes deliberation to mean the process of the formation of the will, the particular moment that precedes choice, in which an individual or group ponders different solutions before settling for one of them. "We deliberate not about ends," Aristotle said, "but about the means to attain ends." Deliberation is necessary for what is uncertain, when there may be reasons for deciding on one course of action but equally compelling reasons for deciding on another. As German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer observed, "the knowledge that gives direction to action is essentially called for by concrete situations in which we are to choose the thing to be done; and no learned or mastered technique can spare us the task of deliberation and decision."

Deliberation has long been considered an essential component of genuine democracy. Government based on the consent of the governed must find ways to mobilize that consent and to "refine and enlarge the public views," as James Madison put it. This requires an ongoing discussion among citizens aimed at setting the agenda for public issues, proposing alternative solutions to the problems on the agenda, supporting those solutions with reasons, and concluding by settling on some alternative. This is, at bottom, a public process which requires the participation and reasoned judgment of the people.

Democratic discourse is at the center of what has become known in recent years as public realm theory. Political theorists such as Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas have devoted considerable attention to the importance of public discourse in latter-day democracies. They maintain that an institutional arena of public discourse and civic participation is essential to counterbalance the dual pressures of state and market. They conceive of the public sphere as both a process by which people can deliberate about their common affairs, and as an arena, or space, in which this can happen naturally. Their work is aimed at establishing a normative framework for a robust public sphere as well as preserving it from the erosive influences of modern society. Arendt believed that the in latter-day democracies the "rise of the social" has created a public realm increasingly dominated by non-political — and therefore non-public — elements. Habermas's primary concern is with the changing rationale for politics. He contends that the "structural transformation" of contemporary societies means that the discursive and interactive politics of the past are being increasingly replaced by technical and administrative politics devoid of genuine public judgment.

The concept of the public sphere as discussed by Habermas and others includes several requirements for authenticity. These include open access, voluntary participation outside institutional roles, the generation of public judgment through assemblies of citizens who engage in political deliberation, the freedom to express opinions, and the freedom to discuss matters of the state and to criticize the way state power is organized. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls delineates a number of other conditions as well: adequate information; a norm of political equality in which "the force of the argument" takes precedence over power and authority; an absence of strategic manipulation of information, perspective, processes, or outcomes in general; and a broad public orientation toward reaching right answers rather than serving narrow self-interest.

The guiding assumptions underlying the ideal of deliberative democracy can be summarized as follows:

  • The deliberative process is necessary in order to define the right questions and the range of alternatives on a given public issue.
  • Deliberation is the most just system for handling differences of opinion since the strength of the argument takes precedence over the status of the arguers. In this view citizens are not only equal, but endowed with the capacity for reasoned judgment.
  • Deliberation is more likely to encourage altruistic behavior since it is focused on the common good rather than self-interest.
  • Most people modify or adjust their views after subjecting them to public scrutiny.
  • People may not be willing to commit to trade-offs unless they are assured that others will do so as well.
  • Deliberation brings out new information and perspectives which may be essential to the formation of sound public policy.
  • Public deliberation is an antidote to instrumental rationality in which all private interests are considered fixed and immutable.

The concept of deliberative democracy is not without critics. A whole school of theorists has emerged under the banner of postmodernism, for instance, which challenges the fundamental assumptions of public realm theory. Numerous theorists also maintain that the ideal of a deliberative citizenry is just that — an ideal. We need a far more practical and realistic approach to contemporary democratic ills, they argue.

Objections to the idea of deliberative democracy take several forms. I have encountered nine distinct points of contention in the literature on the subject: 1) The deliberative model fails to provide a secure foundation for fundamental liberties. 2) Deliberation is politically ineffective — just "talk." 3) "Cool and sedate reflection," as the framers would have it, is not always the best way to reach decisions since it neglects the value of "intuition" and "gut-feelings." 4) Group decisions are often based on conformity rather than genuine unanimity. 5) Groups often move in a closed direction, enforcing some monolithic set of collective values and shutting the door on alternative viewpoints or minority issues; (a case in point is the defense of segregation in the American South which was often justified on rational grounds after extensive deliberation). 6) Some theorists, such as Irving Janis, have found that groups of people who deliberate together "tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing." 7) Since genuine consensus is practically impossible to achieve among individuals who deliberate, some mechanism for aggregating group ideas may be needed; this ultimately defeats the purpose of deliberation. 8) The ideal of deliberative democracy requires broad public participation, yet many people do not wish nor feel compelled to participate in public discussions. 9) Deliberative democracy is unrealistic in contemporary mass societies.


The debate about the future of democracy in the new age of instant and global telecommunications has been chiefly focused on whether technology is compatible with the essential democratic arts. The verdict is not in yet on that question. Nevertheless, it seems clear that two fundamentally different understandings of democracy are at issue in the models of public discourse I have outlined here (see table 1).

Teledemocracy, for all its emphasis on new communications possibilities, is an outgrowth of an essentially liberal conception of democracy. In this view, the aim of democracy is to aggregate individual preferences into a collective choice in as fair and efficient a way as possible. The importance of public discourse in this system is to sustain a vibrant "marketplace of ideas." Legal philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., captured this view when he wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of truth to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." Jonathan Rauch elaborates on this notion in his book Kindly Inquisitors. Democracy is "a self-organizing swirl of disagreements," he says. It is successful as a political system because it is both a problem-finder and a problem-solver. "It puts millions of people to work on millions of problems," and "as we check and criticize and find common ground, as we propose ideas and they fall apart and we try again, our knowledge advances."

Proponents of deliberative democracy are skeptical of this view. Political truths emerge from public deliberation, they contend, not the competition of ideas. The underlying premise in each case is the same — political preferences will conflict — but the purpose of democratic deliberation is to resolve or even transcend the conflict, not aggregate a myriad of preestablished interests. It stresses the capacity of citizens to be swayed by rational arguments and to lay aside particular interests in deference to overall fairness and the collective welfare of the community.

The two models differ not only in their democratic orientation but also in their basic approach to political talk. Teledemocracy stresses the importance of informal political conversation — peer group discussions, talk-radio, neighborhood salons, and so on — in helping citizens to forge links between their private experiences and the highly abstract world of public events. Deliberative democracy is characterized by the pursuit of some specific truth or course of action. William Gamson, in his book Talking Politics, characterized this distinction as the difference between "sociable" and "serious" public discourse. The one is more immediate or spontaneous, uninformed, unreflective; the other is more deliberative, taking longer to develop and resting on a fuller consideration of information and arguments. In sum, talk about the common good is one thing, sincere efforts to advance it are another.

Table: Two Models of Public Talk

Preferred citation: Scott London. "Teledemocracy vs. Deliberative Democracy: A Comparative Look at Two Models of Public Talk." Journal of Interpersonal Computing and Technology, Vol 3, No 2 (April 1995), pp. 33-55.