Who Wants a Deliberative Public Sphere?1

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Democratic theorists and social scientists suggest that a deliberative public sphere would be good for democracy by maximizing emancipatory possibilities and providing broad legitimacy to political decision making. But do ordinary Americans actually want a deliberative public sphere? I examine this question in the context of four contentious “religion and science” debates. Through a multidimensional evaluation exercise with 62 ordinary respondents, I find that evaluation of public representatives in these debates tends to favor open-mindedness and ongoing debate. Further, respondents explicitly discount elected representatives who participate in public debate precisely because they are seen as violating deliberative norms through their affiliation with electoral politics. Respondents want a deliberative public sphere. However, this desire reflects an understanding of the public sphere and institutional politics as disconnected arenas with incompatible rules and objectives, raising multiple questions for democratic theory and for political sociology.

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