Citizen’s Initiative Review process: mediating emotions, promoting productive deliberation

fuji johnson-black-knoblochGenevieve Fuji Johnson, Laura Black and Katherine Knobloch

Emotion and reason are often framed as adversaries, with reason the victor. In this line of argument, emotion clouds reason and disrupts our ability to reach sound decisions.* Within the past several decades, however, scholars of decision making – and deliberation in particular – have begun to understand emotion’s more nuanced role in producing reasoned judgement.

In the context of deliberation, emotion can foster perspective taking and create bonds across difference, but it can also undermine deliberation by creating exclusionary identities and enhancing groupthink. In our recent article published in Policy & Politics entitled Citizen’s Initiative Review process: mediating emotions, promoting productive deliberation, we examine one highly structured deliberative process, the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), and asks how specific design features influence the role that emotion plays in fostering or hindering informed judgement.

The CIR is a novel political institution that aims to improve the quality of information available to voters asked to make decisions about complex policy issues. The process brings together 20-24 demographically stratified citizens for three to five days to carefully study a local or statewide ballot measure. During the review, citizen participants hear from proponents and opponents of the measure and engage in large and small group discussions to identify important information and arguments. At the end of the review, participants collectively write a brief statement containing key facts about the measure and arguments in support and opposition to it. This Citizens’ Statement is then distributed to the wider electorate, either through a government sponsored voters’ guide or through the media, so that everyday members of the electorate can use it when casting their own votes.

Since its inception, the CIR has become a permanent part of the Oregon electoral cycle and citizens and states across the U.S. have begun to explore its potential. Good governance organizations held reviews in Arizona and Colorado in 2014, and the Massachusetts state legislature approved a pilot project for the 2016 elections.

Our paper looks at the most emotionally charged CIR to date, conducted in Oregon in 2010. At that review, citizens analyzed a ballot measure that would increase mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat drunk drivers and felony sex offenders.  During the deliberations, advocates often used emotions as a foundation for their reasoning, relaying personal experience to help citizens understand the measure’s potential impacts. In contrast, citizens, often encouraged by the events’ facilitators, responded with questions of fact, asking for evidence and clarification in an effort to create specific and reliable information to pass on to voters.

The CIR’s design largely influenced these dynamics. While advocates must engage in debate in an attempt to convince participants of the validity and importance of their arguments, citizens are tasked with collaborative fact finding. Because of these structural imperatives, the process manages to integrate emotions and reason in a productive manner. In the context of small and large group facilitated discussions, emotional claims help participants to process information and identify the pertinent facts that voters should know when casting their ballots.

These findings contradict the typical political narrative in which experts provide reasoned judgement, advocates inundate the electorate with manipulative emotional appeals, and everyday citizens fall sway to the most powerful arguments regardless of their factual accuracy. The CIR offers an alternative model: advocates do provide emotional appeals, but these appeals can aid in decision making when they help citizens sift through and prioritize competing factual claims. Many public policies can and do affect us emotionally.  But, since they also have legal, social, economic, and environmental consequences, their incorporation into policy making necessitates a tethering to sound information. Deliberative events, such as the CIR, can help do just that.

*For protagonists of this position, see:

Habermas, J., 1984.  The theory of communicative action, Vol. I: Reason and the rationalization of society, trans. T. McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press

Habermas, J. 1995.  Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Cohen, J.  1996.  “Procedure and Substance in Deliberative Democracy.”  In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, edited by Seyla Benhabib, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 95–119.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like to read Citizenship in a financialised society: financial inclusion and the state before and after the crash by Craig Berry.


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