Saving Relational Politics

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* Article: Saving Relational Politics. By Peter Levine. Perspectives on Politics, vol. 14, Issue 02, June 2016, pp 468-473,



Peter Levine:

"This is a review essay about

  • Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry, by Caroline W. Lee, and
  • Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics, by Josh Lerner.

I argue that what's most valuable about activities like public deliberations, planning exercises, and Participatory Budgeting is not actually "deliberative democracy." Neither political equality (democracy) nor reasonable discussion about decisions (deliberation) are essential to these activities. Instead, they are forms of relational politics, in which people "make decisions or take actions knowing something about one another’s ideas, preferences, and interests." That makes them akin to practices like one-on-one interviews in community organizing--or Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed. Relational politics still occurs at small scales, but we need strategies for increasing its prevalence and impact against powerful opposition. Lee's book is a useful critique of typical strategies for expanding relational politics, which involve developing small models and trying to get powerful organizations to adopt them. Lerner contributes a strategy, which is to make processes more fun so that they are desirable to both citizens and institutions. I review both books positively but argue that they leave us without a persuasive strategy for saving relational politics. After considering some alternatives, I argue that relational politics is most likely to spread as a by-product of mass movements that have political agendas. However, we need some people to pay explicit attention to the quality of the participatory processes."