Randomly constituting representative deliberative assemblies: Dewey and Fishkin on the microcosm concept

In several of John Dewey's works on education, including Democracy and Education and The School and Society, he models the ideal school after the ideal community, conceiving the former as a microcosm of the latter. More recently, James Fishkin in Democracy and Deliberation and The Voice of the People renders a deliberative poll design with an eye to making its randomly selected deliberators representative of much larger groups, and in this way microcosms of the population-at-large. Thus, the smaller group deliberates as if it were the much larger population assembled together to deliberate in mass-scale citizen assemblies. Although random selection is not widely accepted as a legitimate method for selecting political representatives (as, for instance, it was among the ancient Athenians), it has many desirable features, the most important of which is its ability to constitute bodies that resemble, and in this sense, represent larger populations. This last notion that smaller deliberative bodies can perform as if they are the larger populations represented-which I call the 'microcosm concept'-is not distinctly American, though many commentators trace it back to the musings of John Adams and some of the Anti-Federalists. In this paper, I argue that insights derived from Dewey's model of an educational microcosm can be appropriated and employed as resources to defend Fishkin's model of a deliberative microcosm against contemporary critics, such as Robert Goodin and Cass Sunstein. Besides defending Fishkin's deliberative poll design against its critics, I also argue that a Dewey-Fishkin partnership can help to improve actual deliberative institutions. I show how the Dewey-Fishkin microcosm concept operates in an actual deliberative event: the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, whereby a group of randomly-selected citizens were assembled and charged to deliver recommendations on whether to change the existing electoral system in the Canadian province of Ontario.
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