One of the key research questions within the EuComMeet project is how organized citizen deliberation can potentially alleviate polarisation on highly divisive topics and to what extent an automated moderator can facilitate the reaching of mutual understanding among citizens. The objective of deliverable D5.1 is to map out the research conducted so far in the field exploring the effect of deliberative settings on polarisation in a variety of contexts.
Polarisation has become one of the main concerns in a number of democracies with an increasing tendency of societies being divided into opposite camps. Our deliverable represents a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the research field of deliberation and polarisation. This literature review synthesizes a wide range of studies devoted to examining the effects of deliberation on polarization in various context – from the United States to Finland. Across the countries, the findings are very promising and show that deliberation can be employed as an effective method to reduce polarisation on contentious issues.
Deliberative mini-publics are democratic innovations that are seen as a remedy for several problematic tendencies in today’s democracies, including polarization and alienation from politics (Gutmann and Thompson 2004; Smith 2009). Deliberative practices can help reduce polarization through informed and moderated dialogue and even strengthen anti-populist attitudes (Fishkin, 2018; Grönlund et al., 2015; Strandberg et al., 2019). America in One Room – a recent national-wide field experiment with over 500 registered voters has shown that deliberation can dramatically reduce both substantive and affective polarisation even in such a deeply divided society (Fishkin et al. 2021).
One of the central findings in recent scholarship has been that deliberation can counteract polarization even when the discussion takes place in like-minded groups. This can be explained by the presence of deliberative norms – facilitator and rules (Grönlund, Herne, and Setälä 2015). In one mini-public on immigration, opinions de-polarized rather than polarized even in the like-minded groups. More importantly, people with anti-immigrant attitudes became more tolerant even when they deliberate among people with the same anti-migrant attitudes on the issue (Grönlund, Herne, and Setälä 2015). Subsequent experiments confirmed this observation, demonstrating that de-polarization tendencies occur to an equal degree in both online and offline environments, making them an attractive option in the digital age (Strandberg, Himmelroos, and Grönlund 2019).
It is noteworthy that deliberation represents a pleasant democratic experience for those who take part in it. As studies show, participants are satisfied with deliberation regardless of level of disagreement in a group (Grönlund et al. 2021). These findings represent good news from a democratic perspective – deliberative mini-publics create a safe environment where citizens can come together and deliberate on highly divisive political issues without generating negative connotations.
Nanuli Silagadze and Kimmo Grönlund (Åbo Akademi)