The Project of Deliberative Democracy

with Nikita Petrov

When we “debate” people on the opposite side of an issue, what is it that we want to happen? In my roles as an academic economist, as a public intellectual, and as an advisor to various causes and organizations, I often find myself drawn into debates of one kind or another. They can be loose and friendly, or they can be more intense and adversarial, depending on who I’m talking to and what we’re talking about. But I seldom step back and ask what I actually want out of the exchange.

This was driven home to me by the behind-the-scenes debate at the Woodson Center that I posted recently. Everyone participating had the same big-picture goal: Improving the lives of disadvantaged black families. The debate wasn’t about “winning,” exactly. It was about trying to accomplish a collective goal. The debate was intense because the stakes are very real. But it was also less rancorous, less vituperative than it might have been. We had a goal we needed to accomplish, and we needed to work together to do it.

This question of what we want when we debate came up in another recent behind-the-scenes conversation, this time during a work call with TGS Creative Director Nikita Petrov. Nikita here proposes that we take a step back and think about the broader context of our engagements with each other. How are our debates embedded in larger democratic structures? How can we think of our interactions as contributions to encompassing processes of deliberation and change? I found Nikita’s way of thinking about these matters profound and provocative. I hope you will too. Comment below and let me know!

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GLENN LOURY: What did you think, did you have a chance to look at that excerpt from the meeting with the Woodson Center talking about the black family?

NIKITA PETROV: I saw the excerpt that was posted in the newsletter, but not the full thing. I really liked it.

This brings up a thing that I've been thinking about.

I'm not actually sure I understand the term “democratic deliberation” as you guys are using it—but maybe I do, and in any case, it ties with something that I've always been a fan of: a kind of a project feeling to a conversation, when the conversation feels like these two or three or however many people are here to try to solve a problem. So it's an interesting conversation to listen to, but it's not just an exchange of opinions. The idea is you're trying to come up with a solution to something or figure out how to do a thing. I love that feeling about any kind of exchange.

That's such an interesting point that you're making right now. I'd never thought of it quite that way, but you're right. The stakes are high and there's an immediacy and it's not abstract. And the motives of the people participating, you know, they're focused. There's an underlying unity, whatever the nature of the dispute might be.

That's right. And even if you disagree, even if you have to argue, there is a different feeling to that argument. It's not you just trying to defend your position or your image or attack that person. If that's what happened in the context of a project-style conversation, then this is a failure. You're not moving forward. You can come in from two completely opposite positions to a problem and argue about how to solve it, but you want there to be at least some sort of a compromise or moving forward at the end of that conversation, if you're actually trying to solve a thing.

The reaction of Woodson himself and of some of the staff at his center to seeing the post at the newsletter was extremely positive. Some of their donors saw the post and said, “Ah, we see what you are up to in a different light.” It's very positive. And Woodson himself commented that we could disagree, but we were disagreeing in the service of higher ground, somehow.

So I don't know what “democratic deliberation” will mean by a dictionary definition, but I think the idea is that the partisanship and social division in the US, where everything gets drawn into this Trump/anti-Trump kind of thing … Covid, it seems to me, is completely consumed with this, not just Trump. It's completely caught by this ... I don't even know how to describe it, exactly. Biden's vaccine speech last night, where he announced the mandating. It was very muscular. He says we have a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” He says, do the right thing. Every company in America with 100 or more employees will be required by the government either to mandate the vaccine for people who work there, or if they don't get the vaccine, they must be tested once each week.

Wow. That's a lot.

Every company in America with 100 or more employees will be required to do this.

Is there a clear understanding whether that's appropriate authority? Does the president have the power to mandate such things?

We're gonna find out. The angle that he's using is through a regulation called Occupational Safety and Health. There is a regulatory body, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which can require employers to do things to preserve the health of the employee. For example, to have the workplace be free of [any dangerous] agent or substance, safety protocols and things of this kind to ensure that quality of air that people are breathing, the risk of machinery malfunctioning. They can come in and they can require a coal mine or a smeltery, a steel plant or auto production facility to do certain things in their workplace to secure the safety of the worker.

That's the regulation that they're invoking for this mandate. It will be challenged in the courts, and I don't know if it will hold up or not. And anyway, it's a long story that we needn't spend too much time on. I'm just saying, in the midst of this kind of division, the idea that people can communicate, disagree about something that's important, but still stay in conjunction with each other, still stay connected. I think that's what democratic deliberation should mean somehow. Not demonizing the other side, not trying to win at all costs. Really trying to push the ball further down the field, trying to advance the common interest. Something like that.

The way I understood it—because you also said that it's tied to your own kind of evolution in your own thinking, how you've changed opinions on certain issues over time… I guess I googled democratic deliberation and found some things, but I think they were using the term in a more narrow sense, as it’s used in political science or something, it seemed like going into the weeds.

But just from that little paragraph that you shared with me, the image or framework that came to my mind is you are developing your own thinking and trying to come to conclusions, trying to come to preliminary solutions to issues, and as you're doing that, there are a few things that are happening.

One, you're trying to be authentic in your own thought process, and some of that thought process is made public.

Then with The Glenn Show, some of this is done through conversation. So you're talking to John, and both of you are trying to be honest and careful in your thinking as it happens in live time with one another. And because the two of you are engaged in the thought process, now it's more than just your thinking. It's an exchange of ideas that is a thought process in itself.

And then the other part—maybe I'm reading into it, but maybe not—is that thought process of yours, that evolution of ideas of yours, is happening not in a vacuum but in some kind of interplay with how the society changes its views, how the society (or maybe the black community, a subset of the society) is evolving on certain issues.

So that's what I thought democratic deliberation meant. It's like, you are a part of the process of the society figuring out what it thinks should happen, what the answers to the questions posed in front of America are.

That's brilliant, Nikita. The juxtaposition, this setting alongside one another of, on the one hand, the internal deliberation. What do I really believe? The old Glenn and the new Glenn, the old Glenn from that early video I showed you. The new Glenn. Does he agree? Does he not agree? Harvard University Press is putting out, after 20 years, my essays, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. They're putting it back out again as a 20-year anniversary edition. I had to write a new preface, a new introduction to the book. And I said, I don't agree with that guy. Here's what he was saying, what I was saying, but I don't agree with him anymore about these things.

So there's the internal deliberation. Are you being inconsistent when you change your mind? I was going to call this book [I’m now working on] Changing My Mind. That was my first title. When you change your mind, are you being inconsistent or are you growing? Can you trust yourself to have the motives that you think are noble about changing your mind rather than having motives that are base? I mean, there's an internal problem of integrity. Am I just trying to play to the crowd? Is that why I'm changing my mind? Or am I caught up in some ego thing where I don't want to be in agreement with them because I'm smarter than everybody else?

Anyway, the internal. Contrasting that with the social deliberation, how people with different interests in different positions in society—black or white, conservative or liberal, or whatever—could exchange their views and come to some kind of consensus and to have some kind of social judgment. Those things are related to each other in interesting ways. And the role that I'm playing, the role that I could try to develop for myself, could be to put those two things in conversation with one another.

Because I have this confessional [thing]. I talk about my religion, I talk about my marriage, I talk about my issues, my son's sexuality, all of these different things. But there's also the public intellectual. There's the anti-woke crusade, there's what Glenn and John are trying to accomplish at The Glenn Show or what Glenn is trying to accomplish at Brown University when he criticizes the president but he has a class, that students love him and he loves them. Anyway, I'm rambling a little bit, but I'm very stimulated by your observation.

So then the interesting question is, how to turn that into a method or a project, or how to make it more explicit. This is what I'm thinking about when we think about this project-style approach. Here's an issue, let's try to figure out how to solve it.

Like a work meeting. Imagine the question that is posed is, I don't know, you're arguing about whether charter schools are a good thing or a bad thing, or whether the government should or shouldn't mandate vaccines or something. If you approach it in a style of debate where you want your side to be excited about how you deliver your arguments and you want to “destroy” the opposition in this public debate, you just want to win at the end of that conversation, that's one approach.

But what if you and your opponent were meeting in a conference room in an office and you were tasked with trying to figure out what are you actually going to do—like, if you were charged with decision-making for the country, “Are we mandating or are we not mandating the people to be vaccinated?”—then the conversation would evolve in a different way.

If you don't come to a conclusion, then you would feel, “Okay, we're stuck. Even though I'm obviously right, and I was so convincing I thought, and maybe even people at the same table that were observing our clash thought I was right—still, we didn't come to a conclusion, so we can't implement the decision.” That's not a success.

So that feeling is what I think is very important and can be very refreshing, and people will be really appreciative.

It has a reality television feel to it.

I suppose so.

It's like The Apprentice or something, or one of these things where people come in with their business plan about how they're going to become rich and they try to persuade the jury. Not quite, not quite.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess. I haven't seen a single episode of that, but I guess so.

I guess we're, for now, in this free association mode. When we published the conversation you and I had on The Glenn Show feed, I listened to the clips that we posted, and a memory came to mind that I want to share with you. It ties to that conversation about whether or not it's productive to look at the woke crowd as people stuck in an infantile way of thinking; and if that is how we're approaching it, then what is the right way to engage with them?

I switched schools from the seventh to the eighth grade. The eight grade was in a different school. And that year was the first time when a teacher—it was a particular teacher—treated us as if we were not children. And I remember the specific moment.

It would always be that during recess, we're sitting in class and it was always loud, and everybody's shouting, and everybody doing their own thing. Then the bell rings and we're supposed to stop doing that and be in class mode now. Usually it took a while, and the teacher had to calm the kids down somehow.

But everybody up to that point was treating us as children and was telling us, “Okay, settle down! It's time to do the class thing now,” et cetera. And then there was this one teacher, a history teacher… I think it was the first lesson, or one of the first ones, and we're causing this ruckus as the bell rings, and we're continuing with the loud noises, and she looks at us and goes like, “What is this? You're not supposed to behave like that.”

In Russian, there's the formal and informal way of talking to people. You used to have that in English, thou and you.

I'm with it. I studied German, too.

And so she was the first one to address children with the formal, respectful pronoun. I remember, everybody was stunned. The 30 kids in the class suddenly had to switch to a different mode of behavior just because they were now expected to be adults.

The purpose of both of these kinds of teachers was the same: “You need to calm down and start working.” But everybody before that woman was trying to force it on us. We're children, we need to listen to them telling us how to behave. And this person was treating us as fellow human beings, adults, and she expected us to behave like adults, but not forcing us to do so. Her facial expression was—she was surprised that we were behaving like little kids, even though we're 14 now. “What is this now?” And so she was the most successful, is what I'm saying, in calming us down.

I get it, I get it. No, that's very good. And you think, likewise with respect to those who are woke, what might be more effective is having higher expectations for them and showing that you're disappointed in them.

Right. If you think about, it's a cliché now, but all of these YouTube videos that are titled “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS woke activist”—that would not be okay, if a teacher “destroyed” a student. That's not the appropriate approach, right?

Yeah. I agree.

I'm throwing different things here, but what I'm trying to kind of map out is an attitude that could unite people for the time of a conversation, again, at least in that project of the conversation. So not to try to fight with the other side, but try to make the interaction productive. If there is an audience, to not lose that audience.

I often think of stand-up comedians as a metaphor for different kinds of engagements. And for a stand-up comedian, I think there's an implicit—or sometimes explicit—philosophy that a successful standup comedian holds, and it’s that you're supposed to be able to make different crowds laugh. If the only people who laugh at your jokes are people who agree with your opinions, then you're not really doing the art of stand-up. You're now sharing opinions, and people clap because they agree. The skill is to make the people who don't agree with your stuff to go along with you for the duration of your act, to turn them for those 30 minutes or however long you have them for.

And so that is another angle to think about here. Can you, for the time of the conversation you're having, get people to at least follow your train of thought, to not be in the mode of “I agree or I disagree, I hate this person or I'm in love with that person”—to instead do this “think along” thing.