Political Communication and Deliberation


John Gastil

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  • Dedication

    Dedicated to Janet and Gordon Gastil.

    If all else fails, run for Congress.


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    This book simultaneously introduces two subjects—the larger field of political communication and the more specialized topic of public deliberation.1 When understood in broad terms, deliberation is the central concept underlying a range of empirical research topics and moral questions raised in political communication scholarship—from how media framing can constrain public discussion to how partisan pressures warp congressional debates. Deliberation provides a unifying conceptual and critical framework within which one can better organize and understand the large array of political communication topics.2

    New Topics in Political Communication

    I refer to this as a broad deliberative framework because I advance a more flexible yet precise definition of deliberation than scholars have used in the past.3 This book unfolds that definition in detail, but in shorthand terms, people deliberate when they carefully examine a problem and a range of solutions through an open, inclusive exchange that incorporates and respects diverse points of view.

    This definition is adaptive enough to encompass a wide range of activities. If, by contrast, deliberation is defined solely as a formal public process of face-to-face discussion, that would exclude more informal activities and mediated processes that do not necessarily entail interpersonal interaction.4 Working from a broader definition of deliberation, in each political communication context I specify a distinct and precise meaning that makes deliberation a more concrete concept. This specificity avoids the problem that arises when one uses only a generic meaning that encompasses both face-to-face discussion and mediated deliberation, such as “reasoning and discussion about the merits of public policy.”5

    Working within this flexible deliberative framework, it is easy to identify some topics that have been overlooked by conventional political communication handbooks, textbooks, and reviews. For instance, there exists a growing body of research on political conversation and discussion. These topics elude many observers of political communication, except insofar as talk among citizens serves as a conduit for media influence. Jury deliberation has been construed as a nonpolitical process, despite the fact that jury service is a uniquely valuable and political experience in public deliberation for many citizens. Public meetings are another important venue in which citizens step into the public sphere, and new research is helping us understand how those meetings unfold and what impact they have on larger political processes. Synthetic analyses of political discourse and communication systems spanning communities and nations often remain disconnected from other political communication research, yet such work can help us theorize public talk at the highest levels of abstraction. All of these subjects can fall outside conventional boundaries of the field of political communication, and this book integrates these overlooked subjects with more familiar ones, such as media messages, campaign behavior, and public opinion.

    Organization of the Book

    The first chapter of the book sets the stage for studying political communication across a range of contexts. Chapter 1 introduces the broader concept of deliberation by showing its central role in the democratic process. An overview shows how the meaning of deliberation effectively adapts to different contexts, from face-to-face conversations to macrolevel political systems.

    Conversations and discussions are the simplest and most familiar forms of deliberation. Accordingly, Chapter 2 introduces a more detailed conception of deliberation in this context, talking about deliberative experiences to which any reader can relate. A theme running through Chapter 2 is how deliberation shapes participants’ opinions, and Chapter 3 continues this thread by examining how the mass media shape public opinion. Chapter 4 moves from public opinion to voting choices in elections, and this chapter shows how conversations, public discussions, and media can combine to facilitate a large-scale deliberative electoral process. Chapter 5 then asks whether those who win public elections—along with those whom elected officials appoint—deliberate once they take office.

    Taken together, Chapters 2 through 5 describe the role of deliberation in a representative democracy—from opinion formation to elite decision making. Given the condition of modern society, the deliberative framework is more of a critical lens than it is an apt description of this process, but as a lens it shows how the various defects in existing practices and institutions add up to serious systemwide deficiencies. This is not to say that there are not deliberative features or moments in modern public life, but the deliberative project is more often about effective criticism of the status quo than it is about self-congratulation.

    Chapter 6 returns to the small-group level of analysis introduced in Chapter 2, this time focusing on the jury to consider how well citizens deliberate within this unique institution. The deliberative framework highlights the considerable value of jury service as an archetype of deliberation and a means of teaching everyday citizens the basic skills of deliberation. As it happens, the jury is also the model for some recent attempts to incorporate citizens more directly in public policy discussions. Chapter 7 introduces these ideas by reviewing the range of public meeting methods in use—from conventional public hearings, to deliberative polls, to innovative citizen juries.

    Chapters 8 and 9 pull together the practices and institutions from Chapters 2 through 7 to consider what deliberation might look like in a larger system. Chapter 8 asks what it would mean to be a deliberative community. How can a town or city integrate ongoing public discussions, media, and public meetings to foster a deliberative spirit not just during elections but throughout its public decision-making processes? Chapter 9 considers the potential for deliberative practices that cross national borders. How deliberative are bodies such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, and can new institutions provide a common space in which the world might deliberate?

    Historical, Theoretical, and Empirical Questions

    Chapters 2 through 9 follow deliberation through distinct contexts, but in each case the same four kinds of questions are addressed. These questions give each chapter a parallel structure that helps students navigate across a variety of topics.

    First, each chapter briefly considers the historical context of a given practice or institution, such as the mass media or the jury system. For instance, where did the idea of a jury originate, and how have jury systems evolved over time? Answers to these questions give the reader a greater sense for how political communication practices and systems change over time.

    Second, broad theoretical questions frame the research reviewed in each chapter. As a starting point, each chapter poses a conceptual question: What does deliberation mean in this context, such as in the case of mediated deliberation? Each chapter then raises a moral philosophical question: When is deliberation appropriate in this setting? Answers to these questions give the reader a clear understanding of what deliberation would look like in this context and when one might hope to see it happen.

    Attention then turns to research on the modern practice of political communication. How often, for instance, do individual citizens actually participate in public meetings, and are those meetings typically deliberative? What are the consequences of this deliberation, or the lack thereof? Looking carefully at current practices shows the ways in which modern political communication is (or is not) deliberative and what that means for our society. This constitutes the main portion of each chapter, and the goal is not so much to provide comprehensive coverage of topics and studies as much as it is to incorporate the most significant, sustained political communication research programs, along with some of the most striking recent findings in the field.

    Each chapter also considers the potential for change toward ever more deliberative practices. Just as current practices grew out of previous ones, so will the future bring changes, for better or for worse. What forces promote or obstruct deliberation in the modern context? What reforms are most likely to improve the frequency and quality of deliberation? Answers to questions such as these help readers imagine more deliberative conversations, media, public meetings, and more.

    A Note for Instructors

    This book was written to be appropriate not only for general and academic readers but also for students in a course on political communication or deliberation. When used as a primary text, this book should help students learn in four ways. First, students should develop a critical theoretical framework through which they can appraise the deliberative democratic quality of media, meetings, and even conversations. Second, students should learn general facts about historical and contemporary political communication practices. Third, students should acquire the skills, habits, and motivation they need to be effective deliberators in public life. Finally, students should gain a better sense for what can be done to promote a more deliberative democratic system in their own communities and the world.

    Instructors using this book as a primary text should log on to this book's Web site, which describes activities students can do inside and outside of class to learn the concepts and skills of deliberation. From conducting media content analyses to participating in a jury deliberation exercise, students can see through their own work what deliberation looks like and what habits and practices stand in its way.

    Companion Web Site

    A dedicated Web site, http://www.ideliberate.org, will inventory anything else that might be useful for instructors using Political Communication and Deliberation in their courses. Syllabus suggestions will show how to use the book when teaching a semester- or quarter-long course, and there is a set of classroom exercises and larger projects that have been used in previous courses. Also, a wiki and a forum will let instructors exchange teaching ideas, links, and new content to supplement each chapter.


    Deliberation made this book possible. This book builds on fifteen years of lively exchanges with colleagues and students in classrooms, conferences, coffee houses, and cyberspace. At the same time, it draws on decades of conversations (and arguments) with family, friends, and neighbors about democracy and American politics. Perhaps most of all it incorporates insights codiscovered with undergraduates and graduate students in seminar rooms and lecture halls. Weaving all these threads together has been a delight, and were the following list complete, I would thank almost everyone I have known (and many persons I have never met off the printed page).

    For extensive comment on drafts of this manuscript, thanks go to Simone Chambers, Lew Friedland, Jamie Moshin, and David Ryfe, along with Todd Armstrong, Catherine Chilton, Katie Grim, Cheryl Duksta, and Sarah Quesenberry at SAGE. Among those colleagues I must thank by name for their thoughts and suggestions on deliberation, I count Ted Becker, Lance Bennett, Laura Black, Don Braman, Michael Briand, Stephanie Burkhalter, Martin Carcasson, John Dedrick, Perry Deess, Jim Fishkin, Sue John, Bill Keith, Jay Leighter, Peter Levine, Bob Luskin, Dan Kahan, Todd Kelshaw, Jay Leighter, Matt Leighninger, Stephen Littlejohn, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Patricia Moy, Gerry Phillipsen, Hank Jenkins-Smith, Jenny Mansbridge, David Mathews, Walter Parker, Pat Scully, Mark Smith, Phil Weiser, Mark West, and Mike Xenos. In addition, I heartily thank the reviewers of the proposal and draft manuscript for their thoughtful and helpful insights: Robert Asen (Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin–Madison), Simone Chambers (Department of Political Science, University of Toronto), Lew Friedland (School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison), Francesca Polletta (Sociology Department, Boston College), David Ryfe (Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism and Center for Advanced Media Studies, University of Nevada–Reno), and Katherine Cramer Walsh (Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Madison). Friends and family who have shared more insights than I dare credit in the endnotes include Ned Crosby, Bob Kraig, Ralph Shelton, Cindy Simmons, James Webb, Uncle Ray, and Todd Wynward.

    Finally, in lieu of the obligatory greatest thanks of all, let me note that Claude Bart has been with me always as I wrote this book, yet he offered no concrete assistance whatsoever. He has his reasons but—he would insist—no excuses. Apology accepted, Claude.


    1. For reviews of the theoretical and empirical literature on deliberation, see Chambers (2003); Delli Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs (2004); Mendelberg (2002), and Ryfe (2005). The field of political communication is too diffuse to be summarized in this way, but one gets a sense of the breadth of work in the field by perusing the journal Political Communication or Kaid (2004).

    2. Besley and McComas (2005) made a similar effort to frame much political communication research in relation to the concept of procedural justice. In effect, I am making the same argument but with greater specificity, arguing that the deliberative democratic procedure is the primary justice frame through which scholars carry out their research and both scholars and citizens evaluate their political communication system and practices.

    3. I count myself among those who have worked from more restrictive definitions of deliberation in previous work. A good example of my previous attempts to define the term are Gastil (1993), Gastil (2000), and Burkhalter, Gastil, and Kelshaw (2002). Dahlgren (2002) struggled with this problem of trying to reconcile abstract theoretical conceptions of deliberation with broader notions of political talk. Ultimately, he concluded that deliberation is a “specialised, formal mode of discourse, and thus we would do better, in the empirical world, to think about ‘discussion’ or ‘talk,’ which can encompass many different kinds of communicative interaction” (p. 10). Civic discussion, in this scheme, is one of the five dimensions of “civic culture,” yet he then added, “This dimension is in some way an overarching one, one that embodies the others. Yet, I think it will prove productive to see it as a distinct dimension, functioning in reciprocity with the other dimensions of the circuit, being both shaped by and impacting on the other five” (p. 18). An “overarching” yet “distinct” conception of deliberation (or “discussion”) is precisely what I aim for in presenting a general definition of deliberation that articulates itself differently in Chapters 2 through 9. In addition, staying with the word deliberation, rather than discussion, facilitates the creation of a critical (as well as conceptual) framework, as deliberation has more straightforward normative implications than do “discussion” or “talk.”

    4. Walsh (2004) made this observation when juxtaposing her work on informal, community-building conversations with more formal conceptions of deliberation. Definitions of deliberation that conceptualize deliberation as a small group activity include Mendelberg (2002) and Burkhalter et al. (2002).

    5. Page (1996, p. 2). Similarly, Kim, Wyatt, and Katz (1999, pp. 361–62) come close to defining deliberation in a way that would exclude non-interactive deliberative processes, such as mediated deliberation.

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    About the Author

    John Gastil is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making. Prior to joining the University of Washington, he worked for three years at the University of New Mexico Institute for Public Policy, where he conducted public opinion survey research and convened citizen conferences. He received his communication PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1994 and his BA in political science from Swarthmore College in 1989. Gastil is the coeditor, with Peter Levine, of The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century (2005). This book brings together the experiences of activists, nonprofit organization leaders, and scholars to understand how the most promising and innovative methods of citizen deliberation can fit into existing political cultures and institutions. In 2000, Gastil's By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy through Deliberative Elections was published. This book built on his previous work by showing how small-group discussions can be integrated into the electoral process and public institutions. In 1993, his book Democracy in Small Groups came out, clarifying what it means for a group to be democratic and describing the obstacles groups face when trying to make decisions democratically. Gastil's scholarly articles have appeared in Communication Theory, Harvard Law Review, Human Communication Research, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Politics, Policy Studies Journal, Political Communication, Small Group Research, and other journals.

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